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.

San Blas Islands, PanamaThe 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.

Arial shot of San Blas islandsThere'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.

Share

Book Your Trip To Panama

Get your dream travel planned & booked by local travel experts

At Rough Guides, we understand that experienced travellers want to get truly off-the-beaten-track. That’s why we’ve partnered with local experts to help you plan and book tailor-made trips that are packed with personality and stimulating adventure - at all levels of comfort. If you love planning, but find arranging the logistics exhausting, you’re in the right place.

Learn Morechevron_right

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Explore places to visit in Panama

Your comprehensive guide to travel in Panama

Map of Panamachevron_right

Sign up for weekly travel inspiration

Sign up to our newsletter for weekly inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Mandatory - can not be deselected. Necessary cookies help make a website usable by enabling basic functions like page navigation and access to secure areas of the website. The website cannot function properly without these cookies.

PHPSESSID,aelia_cs_selected_currency,cookie_notice_accepted,RS,bp-message,bp-message-type,id,UIDR,w3tc_logged_out,__cfduid
__cfduid

Statistics

Statistic cookies help website owners to understand how visitors interact with websites by collecting and reporting information anonymously.

__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid,__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xt
__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid
__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xtc

Marketing

Marketing cookies are used to track visitors across websites. The intention is to display ads that are relevant and engaging for the individual user and thereby more valuable for publishers and third party advertisers.

__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID,__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll,c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs
__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID
__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll
c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs