San Blas Islands, San Blas Islands Panama, San Blas Islands Guide, Panama, Guna, Kuna, Guna Yala, Guna-Yala, Kuna Yala, Kuna-Yala

San Blas Islands: A Guide to Panamanian Paradise

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The San Blas Islands Guide

I’m not as a big a fan of laying around going beach to beach as I used to be, but the San Blas Islands off the coast Panama and Colombia in the Caribbean Sea were a definite win on my short break to Central America between traveling Peru and Ecuador.

A little information:

The San Blas Islands consist of 360 islands in the Caribbean Sea just off the coasts of Panama and Colombia. While the islands are technically a part of Panama they are a semi-autonomous province governed by the Guna-Yala (sometimes spelled Kuna-Yala) people. Of those 360 islands only 49 of them are inhabited by the Guna people. The Caribbean southern coastal strip on the mainland of Panama is part of the Guna-Yala province as well.

One thing to note about coconuts when out in the San Blas Islands: Coconuts are still used as a form of currency on the islands by the Guna people. If you see one fallen from a tree don’t pick it up, move it or take it. You can easily purchase them off of locals if you want to eat/drink one for about $1. Expect to pay $2 for a Coco-Loco- that’s where they cut open the coconut and dump some dark rum in with the coconut milk.

Panama uses the US dollar as it’s currency. The Panamanian Balboa is also still in use but is pegged to the dollar.

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How to get to the San Blas Islands

You pretty much have 4 options on how to get to the San Blas Islands, they are:

  • Speedboat from Panama (returning to Panama)
  • Speedboat from Panama to Colombia (or vice-versa)
  • Sailboat
  • DIY

*In the past it was possible to fly from Panama City to El Porvenir Airport in the San Blas Islands with Air Panama but there are currently no flights. 

Speedboats from Panama

This was the option I chose and it’s one of the cheaper ways of planning the trip without going DIY on your adventure. Prices can vary depending on who you book with and how many days you plan to spend out there. I chose a 3 night/4 day trip. You can expect most 3 night/4 day tours to come in at $300-350 per person depending on what accommodations you’d like (ie: tent, shared cabana, or private cabana). The price usually includes 3 meals per day. The company I went with also included rum & coke and beers in the price each day as well, (however once they’re out, you’re on your own) but don’t expect this luxury on every trip. I booked with Panama Travel Unlimited, but Cacique Cruiser came recommended as well. It is also possible to visit the San Blas on a day tour if your are short on time, check out tours on Viator.

*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province.

One way speedboat from Panama to Colombia or vice versa

These trips will take you from Panama City, Panama to Capurgana, Colombia (or reverse) and will take 4 days/3 nights. You can expect these trips to come in at $400-500  per person. San Blas Adventures and Cacique Cruiser both run trips.

*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province, and typically exclude the cost of land transport between Capurgana and Cartagena. 

Sailboat

Sailboat trips can be arranged through tour agencies or through sailboat captains to the San Blas Islands. You can either travel from Panama City to Cartagena (or vice versa), as well as trips that leave and return to Panama. These trips usually are 5 days in length. The waters between The San Blas and Colombia can be rough at times.

*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province.

Doing it yourself

If you want to go through the (what may be) a hassle you can save some money and go about arranging the trip yourself. From what I learned talking to other travelers who arranged the trip on their own is that this option is best for people with a flexible schedule as some of the boat operators can be a little unreliable. 4×4 jeeps can be arranged to take you from Panama City to Guna Yala where you’ll be dropped at the beach where the boats will (hopefully) pick you up from for about $60 roundtrip. Typically a boat will cost $10 each way to and from the coast to the islands. Expect to pay about $25 per person per night for a cabana and 3 meals on the islands. Of course you’ll have to pay that $22 Guna Yala fee once you arrive in the province. It’s helpful to speak Spanish if you want to arrange the trip yourself. Otherwise hostels around Panama City can help you make arrangements- Mamallena Hostel in Pamana City is highly recommended.

What to do in the San Blas Islands?

The Sunken Island.

Most tours will take you island hopping throughout the day. Anywhere from lazing on the beach to snorkeling, tree swings, checking out Guna artwork, and more. My island hopping even included a concert from a Guna rock band that happened to be filming a music video that day. Another day we visited an island that had sunk- so literally you’re running around in the middle of the ocean in knee-deep water. Most days you’ll arrive back in the late afternoon to your “home island” if you’re not on a one way trip. We had a good group of people who most all stayed together the full 4 days I was in the San Blas. Tip: Capture the flag is a way more fun on a remote island, with a little rum and a fun group of people- Yes, I football tackled a girl into the ocean while wearing a dress in order to get the flag away from her.

Make sure to get up early each day to catch the sunrise and get a good nap in in the afternoon because you’ll likely stay up late playing games with other travelers and locals on the islands and going stargazing.

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Stargazing in the San Blas Islands.

What you need to know before visiting the San Blas

  • Bring your passport! With the Guna-Yala province being Semi Autonomous you will need to bring it even if your on a trip that starts and returns to Panama City. Of course if your traveling between Panama and Colombia you will too. There was a girl with dual citizenship in the same jeep I was in leaving Panama City and the genius left the passport with her Panamanian stamp locked in her bag in the hostel in the city and brought her other passport with her. She consciously decided to do this (I’m guessing because we did discover later on that day that she was in fact a complete dumbass), but she had zero logic behind why she decided to do it. Long story short: It held us up at the Guna border, where luckily one of the men on duty was nice enough to let her use his phone that even more luckily was a smart phone in which she was able to call the hostel, give them her combination code to open the lock to her pack to take a photo of her passport info page and Panamanian stamp and texted it back to us. By the time we made it to the coast the boat almost had left without all of us.
  • There is no electricity. Inhabited islands, especially those that cater to tourists will usually have a generator that is ran certain times of day for cooking and in the evening to provide light in a common area. You can usually charge phones and camera as well when they are running it, however I wouldn’t come here with that expectation. It would be a good idea to pack a solar charger or an external battery pack with you.
  • There are no ATMs. Bring enough cash with you.
  • It ain’t luxurious. Living conditions are basic, there is no electricity, running water, air conditioning, wifi, etc. out here. You will most likely be sleeping in simple cabanas made of sticks with the natural Earth (ie: sand) for a floor. Some islands don’t have showers and some do, but are basic and water tanks typically need to be filled or collect rain water. If you can’t handle nature or getting dirty then this is not the place for you.
  • There aren’t a lot of food options. If you are vegetarian/vegan do let whomever is arranging your trip know and they will prepare meals to you dietary needs. You will be eating foods that are typically eaten out here by the locals. Most meals consist of rice, coconut and fresh caught fish- which pairs well with a coco-loco.
  • There is a mandatory $22 fee for foreigners entering the Guna-Yala Province. In case you missed where I mentioned it above.

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What to pack

  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Towel
  • Sarong
  • Swimsuit
  • Rainjacket
  • Clothing
  • Sandals
  • Water
  • Flashlight/Headlamp
  • Dry Bag
  • Bug Spray
  • Drinking Water- some tours include it, others do not. It’s cheaper to purchase on the mainland
  • Passport
  • All medications, Rx or OTC that you may need
  • Sea/motion sickness medication
  • Not a bad idea to bring a bedsheet as some islands don’t include it.
  • Also not a bad idea to bring your own snorkeling mask and flippers, as some of the ones provided have seen much much better days.

When to go

Being in the tropics there isn’t really a ‘best time’ to visit. You can expect rain and sun pretty much any time of year. The dry season usually lasts from January to May and the wet season from June to December. When I visited in June 2016 we got a bit of everything. It ranged from cold for the tropics with lightening storms with wind and pissing rain (that’s why I recommend the rain jacket), to cool but humid and cloudy, to scorching hot and blazing sun. Given the proximity to the equator you can expect rain and sun whenever you choose to visit.

Communicate

The language of the Guna is called Tulekaya, although Spanish is commonly spoken out here.

There is some mobile phone coverage out here but may vary depending on network and where you happen to be at.

Safety

In general for most tourists the San Blas Islands are safe. I found the Guna to be pretty friendly and welcoming. There is some drug trafficking that does go on in the area but usually steers far and away from populated areas where the tourists are- in fact they typically choose the Darian Gap over crossing by sea. Overall the San Blas are a safe destination.

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Now get out there and go!

The San Blas have been one of my favorite island escapes. And it’s a good idea to get out there sooner than later- it may be under water in the next 100 years!

Got questions? Ask in the comments below.

San Blas Islands, San Blas Islands Panama, San Blas Islands Guide, Panama, Guna, Kuna, Guna Yala, Guna-Yala, Kuna Yala, Kuna-Yala

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