There are about 350 of them. All so tiny you could walk around them in under 15 minutes. Only a few are inhabited, the others’ main purpose is serving as nesting grounds for turtles. All with marble-white beaches, wavy palm trees and lined by the azure-blue waters of the Carribean. Welcome to Panama. Welcome to the San Blas Islands.
– Practical Information –
When to go
The San Blas Islands experience two seasons: dry and rainy season. The dry season stretches from January – May. Days are long and sunny but almost every day there is a constant wind (called the trade-winds) which can make relaxing on the beach a bit annoying. The winds also cause the waters to be a tad less clear. Rainy season (June – December) has both sunny days and cloudy days with the occasional afternoon shower. The winds are calm which makes for better snorkeling and sun-bathing. Rainy season is low season, so prices are better. My advice? It really doesn’t matter that much when you go. Base your decision on Panama’s inland climates that vary a whole lot more.
In & Out
There are basically 3 ways to get to the islands. The first is by air. About 20 people are crammed into a mini propeller plane. Short and bumpy ride for about 100 USD. Book well ahead.
Second, is by land. From Panama City, it is a 4 hour-drive by 4WD to the port. From there you take a water-taxi that shippers you to your island of choice 20 minutes up to about 2 hours depending on which island you choose. Most tours from Panama City use this option and I recommend it as well. Take into account that the road is very bumpy and goes up and down like a rollercoaster. Quite a thrill! But take your motion-sickness tablets with you if you need them. I was quite hungover on my way back and had a very hard time to not throw up.
Lastly, you can take a 5-day sailing trip from Cartagena, Colombia (or the other way around). I, unfortunately, was not able to take this route but it is said to be awesome and probably the best way to see the whole archipelago. When we were in Panama, piracy-concerns made it impossible to explore this option. Inquire locally about the conditions and whether it is safe to take this route. Also, do not forget those motion-sickness tablets – the open seas can get quite rough on a small sailing-vessel.
2D/1N tours start from 150 USD incl. all taxes, meals, accommodation, and transportation to and from Panama City.
Sailing tours start from 500 USD incl. all taxes, meals, accommodation, and transportation.
Flights from Panama City to the port (where you take the water taxi to the actual islands) start from 100 USD.
Visiting the island independently is difficult but not entirely impossible. I met a traveling couple that managed to convince the islanders to let them stay on one of the islands in their own tent, eating their own sandwiches with peanut butter. They only had to pay for the boat to the island and whenever they wanted to join in on the meals provided by the islanders they were charged a small individual fee. This is not common, if you don’t speak Spanish well it might be hard to explain your plans.
– Visiting the islands –
About the islands
The first thing you must know about San Blas is how the islands are run. In a revolution in 1925 the Kuna tribe (indigenous people of Panama) obtained their (partial) independence from the Panamanian government and have been operating and controlling the islands independently ever since, enforcing their own laws and rules and following their own policies.
This means that the Kuna people have the full 100% control on tourism in the Archipelago. As a consequence, there are no hotels, no restaurants, and no luxury resorts. Visiting the San Blas Islands is a Robinson Crusoë experience. You’ll sleep in a bed or hammock in a small beach-hut with only some palm leaves as rain cover and (if you’re lucky) a flimsy mosquito net to keep the insects at bay in the night. At night the generators shut down and hence, so thus the power and the light. Don’t even dream of having reception on your cellphone here;).
Meals are all provided for by the local Kuna people that cater your particular island. This is almost certainly some rice with the catch of the day and some fried green mango. Don’t get me wrong: the meals are awesome. We had cuttlefish and lobster on our first night served only 2 hours after being caught. You won’t get that degree of fresh produce in a 3 Michelin star restaurant!
So with no facilities what is there to do? Basically: nothing much – and that is exactly the point. The San Blas islands are all about lazying out on a beach, reading, swimming, snorkeling (don’t forget to bring your gear!), optionally emptying a bottle of rum just after dinner and going to bed when the sun goes down. For a few days, this is awesome. The islands are all barely peeking out of the azure-blue sea (situated 30cm above sea level at most), the beaches are superbly white and there won’t be a sound around except for a gentle breeze that brushes the palm trees and the occasional bird chirping. You’ll feel like you landed in paradise. But after a few days – in my opinion – it gets a bit boring. So unless you really crave isolation, don’t book too many days (you can always add days while you’re there).
Booking a tour or going independent
The best option for visiting San Blas is by taking an organized tour. There is no way around booking your homestay + meals with the Kuna people, so going independently only really means using your own transport to the port and go on an ‘organized tour’ from there. Since there is no public transport (buses or trains) going to the port you’re left to finding a 4WD ride to take you – which will not be anything different than just booking an organized tour. Also if your Spanish is bad it might be hard to make clear to the water taxi which island you’re aiming for. And then you also have to hope that the island hasn’t been booked full (most island only have room for 4-10 guests).
The road to the islands
From Panama City, you’ll be picked up at your ho(s)tel at around 6 AM. You’ll drop by a big supermarket to stock up on supplies (cookies, drinks, and water). They do sell (cold) beverages and some light snacks at the islands but price-wise it might be smart to bring some yourself. After a ride of about 2 hours, you’ll hit the border patrol. From Panama to the islands this will only take about 2 minutes. The other way around however will take a lot longer. expect to be at the border for at least 30 minutes. If you’re unlucky, everybody in the jeep has to empty every single bag they carry. This is due to drug-control. A lot of Columbian cocaine enters Panama via the San Blas region hence the tight border-patrol.
After the patrol, the road turns into a true rollercoaster. Though reasonably well maintained its just hill after hill after hill. Carry motion-sickness tablets – you gonna need them. This road takes about 1.5 hours and then you hit the port. From here you’ll be shipped on a small boat that takes you to the island of your choice.
You’ll arrive at your final destination sometime around noon. If you booked a snorkeling tour or island-hopping tour they will pick you up after a few hours. The next day you’ll be picked up around 10 AM. You can decide in the morning whether you would like to extend your stay with another night. If you miss the boat you most probably are going to have to stay another night too.
– Recommendations –
There are many tour-operations running but the one I used (based on its good reviews and the value for money) was the tour-agency from El Machito Hostel. I stayed at the island called ‘Island Diablo’ which has a small shipwreck next to it which provides for perfect snorkeling (you can just swim there). I paid 140 USD for 2D/1N. This included an island hopping tour and snorkeling gear.