A Guide to Panama’s San Blas Islands
A Guide to Panama’s San Blas Islands
After being immersed in the urban jungle of Panama City, Kon and I were ready to move at a slower pace and get some sand between our toes.
Rising before the sun, we departed our hostel in an old Ford Bronco headed for the wild and isolated Caribbean coast of Panama. Destination: the San Blas Islands.
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago made up of almost 400 (!!) islands. Technically, the islands are Panamanian but the local tribe controls the tourism and pockets the visitor’s cash. The Guna/Kuna people are fairly isolated from the Panama mainlanders, so their culture has remained fairly intact. The Kuna people speak both Spanish and their indigenous language. Many of the locals have a distinct genetic appearance and wear traditional clothing.
Only 49 of the islands are inhabitable and a few of the islands are designated to house tourists. Ina Island is the most common island for overnight tours. Ina is small, there are just a few dozen huts for locals and tourists- you can walk the perimeter of the island in 10 minutes!
Due to the calm, crystal blue waters, the archipelago is a hot spot for sailing and island hopping. You can find your own island with a few palm trees, white sand, and calm, azure water. Bring your own rum and play stranded pirate for the day!
Because of the remote location and rustic nature of the islands, I would advise against traveling to the islands independently. You would run the risk of being ripped off, not finding transportation, and lack of accommodations.
Option 1: Book a tour through your hotel/hostel. Our hostel charged $127 per person for a night. Each additional night is $25-30. This includes:
-Ride from the hostel to the port (Approximately 2.5 hours on winding, jungle roads)
-$20 tax to enter the region
-$1-2 Island tax
-Accommodations in a hut or tent
Option 2: Book a trip on a sailboat. For around $500, you can spend 4-5 days sailing from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia. (Read our guide to Cartagena here) This includes a few days exploring the different islands, followed by a few days on the open water.
Option 3: It is possible to fly to the Caribbean coast from Panama City. This website has more information.
*Food- with the tour, you will get 3 meals per day. The food was a bit bland but we were satisfied. Think chicken, rice, and plantain for lunch. Dinner is usually grilled fish or lobster with fried plantain. (If you are vegetarian, tell the staff upon arrival)
*Locals- The Kuna people live with an “island” mindset. Meaning that you have to ask for everything; at least twice. Were you promised a tour of the other islands with your booking? Make sure they follow through.
*CASH– in small bills
*PASSPORT– mandatory to enter the region
*LUGGAGE LOCKS– lock your bags and valuables when you leave your hut.
*Dramamine– the ride the port is crazy- better to be prepared with motion sickness medication.
*change of clothes
*camera– the islands are a postcard. Just remember to tip the locals if you snap a picture of them.
*water, beer, snacks– The locals sell water and beer but its over priced and limited.
*optional: snorkel gear (You can get snorkel gear from the locals for $2 a day but it took a LOT of asking and bargaining)
*optional: spices- the food can be bland. It was nice to have some salt and curry.
Despite the rainy weather, critters in the night, and dog-sized mosquitos- San Blas was a memorable experience. Sometimes you have to rough it to get back in touch with why you started the journey in the first place.
What has been your favorite rustic traveling experience?