Let’s clear one thing up straight away: getting to the San Blas islands is not easy, whichever way you’re coming from. And that’s quite deliberate.
The 360 or so tropical islands off Panama’s northern coast are home to the Kuna people, who since a revolution against the Panamanian government in 1925 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. Aside from fuel for their motorboats, much of it goes on education, health or permaculture.
But are these islands actually worth going to in the first place? 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 bathwater warm, coconut palms will provide welcome shade, the snorkelling will be excellent, and there probably won’t be more than fifteen of you there. The Kuna 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.
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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, normally for three days and two nights (expect to pay around US$270 per person inclusive). A 4x4 driver will collect you and any others from your accommodation in the capital, usually at around 5am, 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 Kuna community.
A recommended operator is Panama Travel Unlimited, which has English-speaking office staff, works closely with the Kuna on social and environmental projects, and is refreshingly honest about what the tours involve.
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. Prices start from around $530 for the crossing, though 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 solid boat and captain, this trip involves 30 hours or so on the open ocean; those who get very 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, and should be booked well in advance. Prices are in the $50–150 range; destinations include El Porvenir, from where you can get a water taxi to other islands.
What to take
It’s best to pack light for the San Blas Islands. 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 Kuna 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 Kuna 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 Kuna 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 San Blas 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.
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As the better tour operators will tell you, when you visit the San Blas islands you are doing so as a guest of the Kuna – 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 certainly worth reading this list of what to expect before you go.
But none of this should put you off. You’re going to the San Blas islands to get away from it all, and live for a while on an idyllic island with only a few local people and some pelicans for company. A few bumps along the journey will only make the feeling of being there, in a place you sometimes dreamed of, a little bit more special.