In need of a new screensaver filled with pristine white beaches, crystal clear waters and lush palm trees? Look no further than the San Blas Islands in Panama which will satisfy all your tropical fantasies and more. A great alternative to more mainstream islands in the region, the San Blas are known for their unspoiled beauty and the chance to remove yourself from civilisation by immersing yourself in the local culture. So, if you are an 'off the grid' kind of traveller looking for somewhere unique, the San Blas islands are worth adding to your bucket list.
Where are the San Blas Islands located?
Off the Caribbean coast of Eastern Panama lies the San Blas islands. The archipelago is made up of approximately 365 islands of which 49 of these islands are inhibited by the Guna people. Whilst the San Blas islands are part of Panama, they are an autonomous indigenous province where the Guna residents of the islands reside.
The San Blas gulf is home to the third-largest coral reef in the world with diverse marine life. With an abundance of islands, the most popular islands to visit are El Porvenir, Isla Robeson, Chichimei, and Isla Perro.
How to travel to the San Blas Islands
By land 🚎
Time to talk logistics. The Islands are accessible via several different ways. Firstly, if you are coming from Panama City you can reach the islands by car and sea. The mainland is recommended as the best place to start as you can find a range of tour operators that can take you to the Islands. You will be taken to Puerto de Carti, the main port of the San Blas islands using 4x4 jeeps. The drive will take you on a scenic route through the central mountain range of the country and will take around 2.5 hours. From Carti you can board a boat that takes roughly 20 minutes and drops you off at your desired island.
By sailboat ⛵️
Another popular option to get to the San Blas Islands is to take a sailboat from Colombia. The route starts at Cartagena and takes 5 days to get to the islands. To rent a ship shared with other travellers and a captain will cost roughly around 500-700 US dollars. It is important to note that if you did not start your journey from Panama you will need to go through customs on the Island of El Porvenir. It is also possible to take a speedboat from Capurgana which will take roughly 4 days but you will need to catch a bus to Turbo and then take a two hour ferry which will take you to your speedboat. If you are curious which option is best for your trip, this guide should help you decide which boat to take.
By plane ✈️
If you are planning to travel to the San Blas archipelago by plane, Air Panama is your best option with flights departing everyday around 5-6 am from Marcos Gelabert Airport (PAC) in Panama City. The flight takes 45 minutes, costing around 350 US dollars round trip. The airline also offers flights to the Kuna Yala reigon on the airfields of EL Porvenir (PVE), Achutupo (ACU), Puerto Obaldía (PEU), Playón Chico (PYC), Malatupo (MPP), and Corazon de Jesus (CZJ). Keep in mind not all flights will be running frequently so remember to plan in advance to avoid disappointment.
Becoming a responsible traveller
If you are an avid traveller, it is important to be a responsible one. If you are not familiar with the term responsible tourism, in a nutshell it is about making a conscious decision when travelling to respect the culture, community and environment of your destination, essentially minimizing any negative social, environmental and economic impacts.
With that being said, the San Blas Islands are a great alternative to more mainstream alternatives in the Caribbean which have a high turnover of tourists leading to overtourism. So if you are keen to be a responsible traveller, travelling to lesser known destinations such as this is a great start. It is also good to the note that because the San Blas Islands are owned and run by the Guna people, all the tourism to the islands directly benefits the local people and their economy.
Planning a trip to the San Blas Islands
Now you have a better understanding of where the San Blas Islands are and how to get there, you are probably wondering how to start planning a trip there and what other activities the Islands have to offer.
First let’s talk about where best to stay on the San Blas Islands. The unspoiled nature of the islands are its main charm so don’t expect any big resorts or hotels when visiting. There are several options you can choose depending on the kind of experience you are looking for. It is recommended to stay 1-2 days on the San Blas Islands as it is the perfect addition to your Panama itinerary. Below are a few options of where to stay and remember you can travel round the islands via sailboat or catamaran, you don’t have to stick to just one island.
Isla Diablo cabins: If you are a traveller looking for the full island experience on a budget, these cabins are the perfect option. Based on the island of El Porvenir, you will wake up on a private beach surrounded by nothing but ocean views and fresh sea air. These rustic cabins have a restaurant nearby and include all the basic amenities you will need.
Anemoi Sailing: If you are looking for a more luxury experience when visiting the islands then why not charter a sailboat, yacht, or catamaran. Anemoi sailing has an exclusive variety of boats which include breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as luxury cabins, a professional crew, water activites such as snorkeling and paddle boards. This is a great way to cover a few of the San Blas Islands and will fulfil those travellers who love to be on the water.
Now you are more clued up on accommodation, you may be wondering what there is to do on the islands. Depending on how many days you are visiting for there are a variety of tours and excursions that will take you around the islands.
If you are coming from Panama and planning to spend the day exploring the Islands, we recommend this tour which includes visiting 4 islands where there are plenty of opportunities for you to snorkel, swim and kayak. You will also enjoy a traditional lunch and welcome snacks from the various islands. There will be around 3 hours driving on this tour where you will be taken to a boat where you guide will take you around the islands. The tour costs around $159 per adult and is the perfect day out to explore the San Blas Islands.
3 Day Tour:
To get the most out of your San Blas Islands experience we recommend this 3-day boat tour which starts at Panama City. From here you will be taken around 5 islands in which you will stay 2 nights on 2 different islands. During this tour you will get the chance to snorkel in Ucubsi island and visit a natural swimming pool filled with sea cucumbers and starfish. This tour will allow you to immerse yourself in the local culture by visiting local communities and trying local cuisines. The tour costs roughly $399 per adult with pick up included.
Check list before visiting the San Blas Islands
- Bring Cash: There are no ATMs on the Islands, so it is important to prepare beforehand so you do not get caught out. The local currency is Panamanian Balboa but the US dollar is also widely accepted.
- Travel vaccines: It is recommended to have the following vaccinations: Yellow fever, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Typhoid and Covid-19.
- Setting expectations: Remember that the San Blas Islands are known for their rustic and authentic feel as they are still run by the local Guna people. You may come across no electricity, internet or hot water in many places but this is completely normal
- Other essentials: Sun cream, bug repellent, flashlight, power packs to charge items