I first heard of the San Blas Islands of Panama in 2010, when during my first trip to Peru I met travelers who were on a long term trip across Central and South America. After looking at some photos, I decided that when the time came for me to travel long term around the continent too, I’d have to go to.
These islands off the Caribbean Coast of Panama are one of the most remote – and beautiful – parts of the country. Knowing this, you’d imagine that getting there is super difficult. On the contrary, the San Blas Islands are actually really easy to reach from Panama City – so you really should not miss an opportunity to go.
Curious to find out more? Great! In this post I will share everything you need to know before visiting the San Blas Islands, Panama.
Make sure to also read my post 15 Best Things To Do In Panama.
Where Are The San Blas Islands?
The San Blas Islands (also called Guna Yala Archipelago) are located in the Caribbean Sea, just off the northern coast of Panama and just to the east of the Panama Canal.
There are approximately 365 islets and cays that make up this archipelago, but only 49 of these are inhabited. These low-lying islands are threatened by rising sea levels, which could see the islands depopulated in the coming years.
Language and People in the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are inhabited by the indigenous Guna people. In the decades following the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 1600s, the Guna people were gradually pushed from their home in the Gulf of Uraba, just off the northern coast of Colombia. Further conflict with the Spanish saw the Gunas fleeing to river banks in the Darien region — today part of Panama, bordering with Colombia.
To further escape the mosquitoes and diseases of this jungle-clad area, the Guna people relocated to the islands just offshore. This island location connected to trade that ran up and down the coast here, and gave the Guna themselves access to coconuts, turtle shells and various other forest products.
After the Republic of Panama was formed in 1903, many of the islands fell under the newly made nation. Panamanian authorities and Guna people often clashed, eventually resulting in the Guna Revolution of 1925 — and the short-lived, fully independent República de Tule.
A peace treaty was established, with the Guna People rejoining Panama but maintaining sovereignty over their traditional homelands. This autonomy continues to this. It even extends to tourism, with most if not all of the money that tourists spend on these islands fully benefiting the local population — a rarity for indigenous people of Latin America. Money from tourism goes towards investments in agriculture and education.
The Guna people speak the Guna language, of which are approximately 61,000 native speakers (as of 2000). This is part of the Chibchan language family, which is spoken by indigenous groups across the Panama Isthmus and portions of northern Colombia. They have their own Constitution, and are a strongly matriarchic society.
Weather in the San Blas Islands
Panama’s Caribbean coast is notoriously wet, and receives a considerable amount of rain — especially when compared with the country’s Pacific coast. There’s barely a discernible dry season. This, of course, goes for the San Blas Islands, too.
Trade winds are at their strongest between December and mid-February, which is not a good time to visit the San Blas Islands due to rough seas this time of year. There’s also a lack of hurricanes in this area, too. Temperatures remain high all year round, never falling below 20°C (68°F), with an average daily high of 31°C (almost 88°F) and a peak average temperature of 34°C (little over 92°F) in April.
I traveled to the San Blas Islands at the end of February, by sail boat from Portobelo. It was really hot during the day; the sea was quite rough (and sea sickness was an unpleasant companion throughout my trip), and it rained a bit every day.
Are The San Blas Islands Worth Visiting?
Yes! Absolutely. The Guna Yala Archipelago is a bucolic coastal paradise. It’s just about as close to desert island bliss as you can get. Life here is a delicious mix of rustic villages, picture-perfect beaches and (usually) good food. If your idea of a perfect holiday means surrendering absolutely to a slow pace of life, and indulging in some beautiful natural scenery, then the San Blas Islands are for you.
Proof of the stunning scenery of these islands can be found in the fact that one of them appears as default wallpaper for Windows XP — it’s the one with a tiny sand islet, with three palm trees on it and a sailing boat next to it.
Good snorkeling can be had here, too, even if scuba diving is actually prohibited. But even if you don’t feel like doing much of anything, days can be spent here on the beach, reading a book or snoozing, often without anybody around (or if there are tourists, maybe only a dozen or so other people).
What To See And Do In The San Blas Islands
Isla Perro Beach
Meaning “Dog Island” in English, Isla Perro boasts crystalline waters and powdery sand beaches for the perfect day at the beach. The bonus is that there’s even a chilled-out beach bar and volleyball court located here.
It may be tempting to spend all day relaxing in a hammock on Isla Perro, but most visitors come here for snorkeling. Fifty meters out to sea is a shipwreck that’s overflowing with coral and an abundance of marine life, making this genuinely one of the best spots in the San Blas Islands for snorkeling.
For those looking for completely deserted beaches, Chichimei Island delivers. It’s popular with backpackers who want to go off-grid. As such, don’t expect any modern luxuries like electricity or drinking water. Accommodation on Chichimei arrives in the form of hammocks and the most basic of facilities.
But what it lacks in modern amenities, this island makes up for in sheer paradisiacal beauty. Think endless white sandy beaches lined with palm trees and lapped by an almost transparent sea.
You can guess where the inspiration for this island’s name came from — it’s very much the sort of place you can imagine might have been home to a marooned or shipwrecked sailor of yesteryear. There’s not a lot going on here, so the order of the day is to simply sit back and chill out.
Also known by its native name Gaigirgordub, El Porvenir is the capital and main port of the San Blas Islands. It’s also home to a small airport, and is a customs point if you’re arriving from Colombia rather than Panama.
Because of this, El Porvenir is different from other islands in the Guna Yala Archipelago. There are actual buildings, for a start, as well as shops and a couple of restaurants. It makes for a good base to stay and stock up before heading off to stay on other, more remote islands.
This laid-back spot has a handful of lodges and beach cabins for visitors to stay in, and even a bar where you can kick back and have a few drinks in the evening. The main beach here, on the south of the island, is easily located as the entrance to it is marked by a cow’s skull.
The waters at this beach are calm and it’s protected from the current, making it good to splash around in. At night time, the sea here is illuminated by bioluminescent jellyfish and squid.
How long to stay in San Blas Islands
Most tours to the San Blas Islands from Panama City last for two days and three nights. Typically most people stay on the islands (or on a sailboat just off the islands) for a few nights at least, with day trips not as common as you’d expect (though they are possible) — it takes a long time to get to the islands from Panama City. I would say that at least two nights are needed to fully enjoy these amazing islands.
If you are tight on time, you can go on a day trip to San Blas departing from Panama City like this one that you can book via Get Your Guide. It’s a long day – you leave from the city at 5:00 am. It includes almost everything – including pick up from your hotel, and the price is actually very reasonable.
Longer tours are in the range of four days, some of them ending in Capurgana, Colombia. There even are tours that go all the way to Cartagena, but those involve a solid 36 hours on the boat in what are often very rough sea conditions.
The cost of visiting the San Blas Islands
The cost of a trip to the San Blas Islands will vary depending on what kind of traveler you are. Often, tourists will take package tours from Panama City that include transport, accommodation and even food in the archipelago.
First of all, you can break down the costs of the trip to San Blas Islands per type of transport you take.
The most common way to get there is by booking a 4×4 Jeep to Carti from your accommodation in Panama City; this costs around $25-35 USD. The water taxi (fast boat) from Carti to your destination in the San Blas Islands will then cost $15-25 USD.
Then there’s the cost of the Guna Tourism Tax, which is another $23 USD at the time of writing. Some of the islands in the archipelago charge an additional entrance fee, which is usually not more than $20 USD.
After you’ve factored in the cost of transport to your budget, it’s then time to consider the cost of accommodation in the San Blas Islands. It’s possible to get budget-friendly accommodation for around $30 USD per night, but there’s also camping available on some islands for as low as $8 USD; these costs do vary per island, however.
There’s also high-end accommodation in the form of beach cabins and villas, which is a much more expensive way to stay in the San Blas Islands.
On a guided multi-day trip
It’s actually way easier to get an organized multi-day trip to visit the San Blas Islands, as the operator will arrange everything for you – transportation from Panama City, boat crossing to the archipelago, accommodation (usually on the boat), and even meals and some drinks (usually non-alcoholic beverages).
Of course, visiting San Blas on a sailing trip is a little more expensive, and if you want to travel by catamaran – which is more stable and overall more comfortable than a sailboat, that’s even more expensive.
Depending on where you’re sailing from and your final destination (roundtrip from Panama, or a sailing trip from Panama ending in Capurgana, Colombia or viceversa) it can be anywhere in the region of $150-250 USD per day but that includes all food and drinks (though not alcohol).
These are some tours you can easily book online via a reputable third-party booking site:
4 day sailing trip – sold via GetYourGuide, this sailing experience is managed by Panama San Blas Tours and receives solid positive reviews throughout.
3 days San Blas Islands tour – a similar tour to the one above, it is also managed by Panama San Blas Tours. It’s shorter, hence a bit more budget friendly.
You can also opt for this 2-days one-night tour in San Blas, where you’ll actually sleep in a bungalow and travel by speed boat from Port Tupile. It’s a good option if you don’t have much time to spend on the islands and don’t like the idea of a sailing trip.
How to get to the San Blas Islands
There are three main options for getting to the San Blas Islands.
By car and speed boat from Panama City via Carti
First of all, there’s the 4×4 drive to Carti (or Gardi), after which all you do is catch a quick boat to the islands themselves. Drivers will pick customers up from their accommodation in Panama City at around 5:00 am.
The drive to Carti takes around three hours. Once there, you catch the regular water taxi to wherever you’re staying. Usually water taxis stop at one of the Gardi islands, around 10 minutes from the port.
It’s actually possible to fly to the San Blas Islands from Panama City. The flights are operated by Air Panama, which run small 20-seater aircraft to and from the islands and the mainland. There’s limited capacity, so booking in advance is advised (and please triple-check if flights are available!). The airstrip is on Isla Porvenir, from where you take a water taxi to your final destination.
By sailboat from Portobelo
Finally, you can travel to San Blas by boat from Portobelo. Please note, however, that this journey is done via sailboat and can be quite rough — not exactly ideal if you’re prone to seasickness. It’s what I did and it took us a total of 12 hours (of tremendous suffering, if I may add) to get to Porvenir, the first island of the archipelago.
Should you be sailing San Blas Islands?
Sailing is an incredible way of experiencing the pristine beauty of San Blas archipelago. If you have sailed before and know that you won’t be affected by sea sickness, definitely opt for this way of visiting.
However, if this is your first time sailing, you may want to give it some very careful thought.
In fact, don’t book a sailing trip to the San Blas Islands if it will be your first time on a sailboat and there is even just a remote possibility that you may get sea-sick. I was really convinced I’d not be affected, as I am from Sardinia and I am used to going around by boat – zodiac and speedboat – during the summer.
But a sailboat is different! The rocking is constant, and the waves in the Atlantic Ocean can be large (they were above 2 meters when I traveled), meaning you are almost certainly guaranteed sea sickness, and there is no way of getting off the boat for the first 24 hours.
Dramamine and motion sickness tablets will provide some relief – but different people react differently. I was solidly sick for 24 hours, and nothing I could take would help.
How to pick a good sailboat
There are many companies that offer sailing and catamaran trips to the San Blas Islands, and not all of them are good.
My tip is to read reviews very carefully before you book a spot. Only travel with a very reputable company that has a strong online presence – San Blas Adventures and Blue Sailing are among the most reputable ones. Just don’t go for the cheapest option you find!
You will want to make a mental note of how long the boat is, and how many people it can actually fit. Sailboats can feel very small, especially if you’ve never been on one before.
To give you an example, the boat I traveled on was 12 meters, and there were 10 of us on the boat including the crew, which I really felt was four too many. The boat felt impossibly crowded, with no room to move around.
As we sailed and we were all out, there was no room for all of us on the deck – which meant some of us had to sit at the back, which made motion sickness even worse. I ended up having to get off as soon as we got to Isla Porvenir – that’s how I got to stay at the local (basic) lodge and try food at the only local restaurant (more about this below).
Below are a couple of sailing trips that I recommend:
4 day sailing trip – this sailing experience is one of the most recommended ones on third-party booking sites.
3 days San Blas Islands tour – a similar tour to the one above, it’s shorter and hence cheaper.
Sailing from Panama to Colombia via San Blas
It’s also possible to charter a sailboat from Panama City to Capurgana and even Cartagena, Colombia (or the other way around). This journey takes four to five days, and includes a 2-3 day stop-off in the San Blas Islands. Again, this is a sailboat and involves a final (or initial) stretch of 36 hours of sailing in open water, and not great if you get seasick.
Once again, make sure to shop around for a good company, and carefully read reviews before you book your trip. The average price of a Panama to Colombia crossing (or viceversa) is in the range of $600 USD – but that varies a lot with the season, and depends on what is included.
Where to stay in the San Blas Islands
Unless you’re on a sailing tour, in which your accommodation will either be on the boat itself or included in the cost of the trip, you’ll need to secure somewhere to stay during your San Blas Islands trip. There’s a range of accommodation – whatever you pick, just make sure to book well in advance as availability is limited.
San Blas Wild
Located on the island of Mamartupo, San Blas Wild boasts simple cottages on stilts set out over the sea itself. Here you can wake up to the sound of the Caribbean sea lapping beneath your bed, spend days chilling out on the beach, and making friends at the hotel bar. It’s basic, but super relaxing and great if you want to disconnect from the modern world.
This accommodation may not be the height of luxury, but what you do get here is a rustic cabin surrounded by an idyllic island paradise. Located on Isla Naranjo Chico, the accommodation comes with its own restaurant and bar, where you can sit in the evenings and socialize. You can fall asleep to the sound of the sea and enjoy breakfast on the beach — it doesn’t get much better than this!
This simple lodging on the island of Uggubseni (also called Playón Chico) allows the pristine island surroundings to take center stage. The perfect place to relax with hardly anyone else around, Discovery Gunayar doesn’t have many amenities but what do you really need when you’re staying on your very own paradise beach?
Health and safety in San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are very basic. Electricity is provided by generators, which can often cut out. The islands are run by the Guna people themselves, so it’s not really a polished, government-backed operation.
There’s a new healthcare facility located at the port of Gardi, so the islands aren’t too far away from help if you need medical attention.
There’s no potable water on the islands themselves, so you may have to rely on bottled water. I’d recommend buying it on the mainland before you go over to the islands (it’s way more expensive in the archipelago), but you’ll need it because it’s so hot there!
Food in San Blas Islands
If you’re sailing, you may be treated to a higher-end service (lobster, for example), but this will also cost more. Otherwise, food will be basic and likely the same thing you’ve been having over and over on the mainland.
If you are lucky, you may enjoy some rice and fish, with accompanying vegetables like potatoes or – more often – fried plantain, for example. In some cases fish is not even an option (yes, even though you are on a Caribbean island) and your meal will be chicken and fried plantains. Just don’t go in with high expectations.
If you are traveling independently, your guesthouse will likely provide meals, with some better accommodation options boasting more of a restaurant-style set-up. Breakfasts consist of eggs, a tortilla and a coffee.
The best restaurant on the islands is said to be at Waily Lodge on El Porvenir, where you can eat out on a covered terrace hanging out over the sea. Let me tell you though – I ate there and found it basic. I went in during the morning, asking the staff if they could get hold of some lobster that I could have for dinner. They said yes – there was no misunderstanding, I speak Spanish fluently. But when I actually sat for dinner, hours later, the only thing available was the usual “pollo y patacones” (chicken and plantains).
What to pack
There are a few essential items you need to pack for your San Blas adventure.
Sunblock — Make sure to bring plenty of high-factor sunscreen on your trip to the San Blas Islands. Opt for reef-safe sunblock to protect not only yourself but also the environment.
Insect repellent — The islands aren’t completely overrun with mosquitoes, but they can still be a problem on still evenings.
Clothing — Bring along 4-5 days’ worth of clothing, including beach kaftans and loose-fitting shirts or trousers for the evening, and maybe a dress or two.
Beach stuff — You’ll basically be living on the beach the whole time you’re in the San Blas Islands, so I’d recommend bringing swimwear (a couple of options) and a towel, ideally a quick-drying one. You’ll also need a hat.
Soap and shampoo — Choose nature-friendly bathroom products that don’t contain any chemicals which will damage the environment.
Torch or head lamp — There’s not always going to be electricity or lighting where you’re staying, so having your own flashlight, ideally a head torch, will come in very useful.
Book(s) — You won’t have a lot to do on the San Blas Islands, especially without electricity, so I’d recommend bringing along a book or two to keep you company. Sitting around on the beach with a book is a great way to pass the time, after all!
Footwear — Beach sandals will be your main footwear in San Blas Islands, but you may want a pair of sneakers, especially when you’re traveling to and from different islands.
Snacks — Extra food for yourself is a good idea, as there’s not exactly a convenience store on every corner. Stock up on the mainland before heading over.
Snorkel gear — If you have your own snorkel set, then you should bring it along (or purchase one in Panama City). That means you won’t have to rent one on the islands, which can be pricey (if available at all), and you won’t want to miss out on the amazing marine life here.
Cash — There are no ATMs on any of the islands, and there’s no option to pay with your phone or with your credit or debit card as there is no reliable internet either. Make sure to bring enough cash for the duration of your trip and, if you can, make sure it’s in small denominations.
Power bank — If you haven’t got access to electricity, you’ll still be able to charge your phone and any other electricals you have with you.
Camera (and charger) — It’s a great place to take pictures, so don’t forget to bring along your camera and any equipment you need. Note that it’s the norm here to pay USD $1 to people if you want to take their picture.
If you are planning a trip to Panama, these other posts will be useful:
- A Guide To Portobelo, Panama
- A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama: 12 Best Things To Do
- Latin America Border Crossing: What You Need To Know