Let’s clear one thing up straight away: getting to the San Blas Islands is not easy, wherever you’re coming from. And that’s quite deliberate.
Introduction to the San Blas Islands Panama
The 360 or so tropical islands off Panama’s northern coast are home to the Guna people. Since a revolution against the Panamanian government in 1925 they have maintained political autonomy from the mainland. As such, they control tourism on their own terms – a very rare thing for an indigenous group. They know how many visitors are coming to their islands on a given day, where they will be staying, and they benefit directly from most of the tourist dollars spent. Much of it goes on education, health or permaculture.
Is a San Blas islands trip worth it?
Are these remote islands actually worth going to? Well, picture this: the place you’ll stay on will genuinely look like a Robinson Crusoe hideaway. The sand will be white and fine, the sea will be warm, coconut palms will provide welcome shade, the snorkelling will be excellent, and there probably won’t be more than fifteen other people there. The Guna will feed you and take you to other islands, but otherwise, they will just let you be. It is, genuinely, a little piece of paradise.
The San Blas Islands are genuinely unspoiled by tourism © Ste Lane/Shutterstock
How to get to the San Blas islands
There are three main options for getting to the islands. The first is to arrange a tour from Panama City to the San Blas Islands, normally for three days and two nights. A 4x4 driver will collect you from your accommodation in the capital, usually at around 5 am, and will drive you for around four hours to a port, where a water taxi will take you to the island where you’re staying. Accommodation is in tents or cabañas. Typically you will stop en route at one of the four Carti islands, around ten minutes from the port, where there is a sizeable Guna community.
Rough Guides works with reputable local travel experts in Panama to organise trips to the San Blas Islands. If you're thinking of visiting, get in touch!
For those coming from or going to Colombia and who have plenty of time to spare, you can charter a sailboat that will travel for 4–5 days between Panama City and Cartagena (or vice versa), with a 2-3 day layover in the San Blas Islands. If you're considering this option you really need to do your research to make sure you have a seaworthy boat and a dependable captain. Hostel Mamallena operates in both Panama City and Cartagena, and has the best information on sailboats. Be warned: even with a good boat and captain, this trip involves 30 hours or so on the open ocean; those who get seasick might want to look elsewhere.
The third option is to fly to the islands from Panama City with Air Panama. These flights are in very small aircraft, typically with a capacity of 20 passengers, so should be booked well in advance. Destinations include El Porvenir, from where you can get a water taxi to other islands.
There's little infrastructure in the San Blas Islands, which means miles of unspoiled ocean © Cris Young/Shutterstock
What to pack for the San Blas Islands
It’s best to pack light for the trip here. Consider leaving your main backpack or suitcase behind in Panama City and taking just a small bag, as you won’t need much. The essentials are:
- Your passport (the Guna may insist on seeing it when you enter their territory)
- A waterproof jacket for boat rides
- Towel and swimming gear
- Cash in small notes
- Camera (bear in mind the Guna normally expect payment of $1 if you take photos of them)
- A change of clothes
And it’s also a good idea to take:
- A torch
- Water (though the Guna sell snacks and drinks, should you run out)
- Snorkelling gear
- Sleeping bags or silk sheets
- Insect repellent
- Antibacterial hand gel
What to expect when you’re there
There’s not a great deal to do on the islands – in a way, that’s the point. Much of the time you’ll be swimming, snorkelling or reading on the beach. Normally there will be day-trip or two, to a nearby island that offers something different; that could be a shipwreck to explore, or an area full of starfish. Meals will usually be rice and fish. Once the generator cuts out in the evenings, it’s time to bed down.
As the better tour operators will tell you, when you visit the San Blas islands you are doing so as a guest of the Guna – and they are an indigenous group, not a tourist operation. So the jeep that picks you up from Panama City might be late or might make unscheduled stops. The water taxi at the port might take a while to turn up. The toilets will be very basic. And so on. It’s all part of the experience.