The San Blas Islands Guide
Updated April 2020, The San Blas Islands Guide was originally written in January 2018
I’m not as big a fan of laying around going beach to beach as I used to be, but the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama and Colombia in the Caribbean Sea were a definite win on my short break to Central America between traveling Peru and Ecuador. With that said, you’ll read ‘guides’ to the San Blas Islands making it sound difficult to reach– it’s actually quite easy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About The San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands consist of 360 islands in the Caribbean Sea just off the coasts of Panama and Colombia. While the islands are technically a part of Panama they are a semi-autonomous province governed by the Guna-Yala (sometimes spelled Kuna-Yala) people.
Of those 360 islands, only 49 of them are inhabited by the Guna people. The Caribbean southern coastal strip on the mainland of Panama is part of the Guna-Yala province as well.
One thing to note about coconuts when out in the San Blas Islands: Coconuts are still used as a form of currency on the islands by the Guna people. If you see one fallen from a tree don’t pick it up, move it or take it.
You can easily purchase them off of locals if you want to eat/drink one for about $1. Expect to pay $2 for a Coco-Loco- that’s where they cut open the coconut and dump some dark rum in with the coconut milk.
Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The Panamanian Balboa is also still in use but is pegged to the dollar.
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What You Need To Know Before Visiting The San Blas
- Bring your passport: With the Guna-Yala province being Semi-Autonomous you will need to bring it even if your on a trip that starts and returns to Panama City. Of course if your traveling between Panama and Colombia you will too. There was a girl with dual citizenship in the same jeep I was in leaving Panama City and she left the passport with her Panamanian stamp locked in her bag in the hostel in the city and brought her other passport with her (she had decided that she should bring the one without the stamp, who knows why, so it wasn’t an accidental mix-up on her part). She consciously decided to do this (Not sure the logic, but we did discover later on that day that she was, in fact, a complete dumbass). Long story short: It held us up at the Guna border, where luckily one of the men on duty was nice enough to let her use his phone that even more luckily was a smartphone in which she was able to call the hostel, give them her combination code to open the lock to her pack to take a photo of her passport info page and Panamanian stamp and texted it back to us. By the time we made it to the coast the boat almost had left without all of us.
- There is no electricity: Inhabited islands, especially those that cater to tourists will usually have a generator that runs certain times of day for cooking and in the evening to provide light in a common area. You can usually charge phones and cameras as well when they are running it, however, I wouldn’t come here with that expectation. It would be a good idea to pack a solar charger or an external battery pack with you.
- There are no ATMs: Bring enough cash with you.
- It ain’t luxurious: Living conditions are basic, there isn’t constant electricity, running water, air conditioning, wifi, etc. out there. You will most likely be sleeping in simple cabanas made of sticks with the natural Earth (ie: sand) for a floor. Some islands don’t have showers and some do but are basic and water tanks typically need to be filled or collect rainwater. If you can’t handle nature or getting dirty then this is not the place for you.
- There aren’t a lot of food options: If you are vegetarian/vegan do let whoever is arranging your trip know and they will prepare meals for your dietary needs. You will be eating foods that are typically eaten out here by the locals. Most meals consist of rice, coconut, and fresh-caught fish- which pairs well with a coco-loco.
- There is a mandatory $22 fee for foreigners entering the Guna-Yala Province. In case you missed where I mentioned it above.
- The language of the Guna is called Tulekaya. Getting by in English is easy enough as most all the tours and accommodations will have multilingual staff. Spanish, of course, is widely understood.
- Mobile coverage is limited: There is some mobile phone coverage out here but may vary depending on your network and where you happen to be at.
How To Get To The San Blas Islands
You have a few options on how to get to the San Blas Islands, they are:
- Speedboat from Panama (returning to Panama)
- Speedboat from Panama to Colombia (or vice-versa)
- Arranging your trip with your accommodation
4×4 To The Guna Yala Province & Speedboat To The San Blas
Before you hop on your speedboat or sailboat to the islands, you’ll need to take a 4×4 to get to the Guna Yala coast from which the boats will pick you up. In my frantic research when I, on a whim decided to go to the San Blas Islands, read about the horrifying 4×4 jeep trip to get to the coast.
Now, I’m from Alaska and have spent a lot of time in places the government tells you not to visit and therefore have seen some truly terrifying roads… this is not one of them.
Maybe it was scary in the past and has been updated since those reports, but in all honesty, it wasn’t bad. It took about 2.5 hours to reach the boats, rather than the 4 hour journeys I read about online.
The option I chose was to book a 4 day trip to the islands and it’s one of the cheaper ways of planning the trip without going totally DIY on your adventure. Prices can vary depending on who you book with and how many days you plan to spend out there.
I chose a 3 night/4 day trip. You can expect most 3 night/4 day tours to come in at $300-350 per person depending on what accommodations you’d like (ie: tent, shared cabana, or private cabana). The price usually includes 3 meals per day. The company I went with also included rum & coke and beers in the price each day as well, (however once they’re out, you’re on your own) but don’t expect this luxury on every trip.
*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province.
One Way Speedboat From Panama To Colombia Or Vice-Versa
These trips will take you from Panama City, Panama to Capurgana, Colombia (or reverse) and will take 4 days/3 nights. You can expect these trips to come in at $400-500 per person. San Blas Adventures and Cacique Cruiser both run trips.
*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province and typically exclude the cost of land transport between Capurgana and Cartagena.
Sailboat trips can be arranged through tour agencies or through sailboat captains to the San Blas Islands. You can either travel from Panama City to Cartagena (or vice-versa), as well as trips that leave and return to Panama.
These trips usually are 5 days in length. The waters between San Blas and Colombia can be rough at times.
*Prices exclude the $22 mandatory Guna-Yala province tax that you will pay on arrival to the province.
It is possible to fly to the San Blas as well as the Guna Yala Province from Panama City. Air Panama offers up direct flights, in which you can expect to pay $50-150 for a one-way ticket. You can also charter a private plane out here for about $3,000.
Arranging Through Accommodation
Many hotels and hostels in the San Blas Islands, as well as Panama City will arrange transport for you for a fee. Shop San Blas accommodations, and enquire about prices for arranging travel from Panama City (or your location in Panama). Many backpackers I met raved about Mamallena Hostel in Panama City who will arrange transport for you for about $70.
Doing It Yourself
If you want to go through the (what may be) a little more hassle you can save some money and go about arranging the trip yourself. From what I learned talking to other travelers who arranged the trip on their own is that this option is best for people with a flexible schedule as some of the boat operators can be a little unreliable.
4×4 jeeps can be arranged to take you from Panama City to Guna Yala where you’ll be dropped at the beach at the location the boats will (hopefully) pick you up from for about $60 roundtrip. You can also opt to rent a car and drive yourself.
Typically a boat will cost $10 each way to and from the coast to the islands. Expect to pay about $25 per person per night for a cabana and 3 meals on the islands. Of course, you’ll have to pay that $22 Guna Yala fee when you arrive in the province before you arrive at the coast.
It’s helpful to speak Spanish if you want to arrange the trip yourself. Otherwise, hostels around Panama City can help you make arrangements- Mamallena Hostel in Pamana City is highly recommended.
Accommodations In The San Blas
Most islands only offer up very basic huts and tents to sleep on. Not to worry if you don’t like roughing it Robinson Crusoe style like me, there are a few beach cabanas and overwater bungalows that have popped up in the last couple of years. Search different accommodations in the San Blas here.
When To Go
Being in the tropics there isn’t really a ‘best time’ to visit. You can expect rain and sun at any time of year.
The dry season usually lasts from January to May and the wet season from June to December. But it’s worth noting that the wet season can be hot sunny and the dry season you can expect some rain. The nice thing about the rain out here is that it typically doesn’t stick around long.
When I visited in June 2016 we got a bit of everything. It ranged from cold for the tropics with lightning storms, accompanied by wind and rain. I also experienced scorching hot sun, and even some cool, humid times. Given the proximity to the equator, you can expect rain and sun whenever you choose to visit.
How Long To Stay
While you can visit the San Blas Islands as a day trip from Panama City, I thoroughly recommend staying at least two nights in the islands. The longer you stay in the San Blas, the more you’ll see– there are 360 islands after all!
I opted for 3 nights and 4 days, as my time was a bit limited, but I met people who had been in the San Blas for two weeks and were planning to stay longer. I think 4 days is a good minimum amount of time to visit to let you see a decent bit, but honestly next time I think I’d opt for a week or more to explore the San Blas more extensively.
What To Do In The San Blas Islands
Most tours will take you island hopping throughout the day. Anywhere from lazing on the beach to snorkeling, tree swings, checking out Guna artwork, and more.
My island hopping even included a concert from a Guna rock band that happened to be filming a music video that day. Another day we visited an island that had sunk- so literally you’re running around in the middle of the ocean in knee-deep water.
Most days you’ll arrive back in the late afternoon to your “home island” if you’re not on a one-way trip. We had a good group of people who most all stayed together the full 4 days I was in the San Blas. Tip: Capture the flag is way more fun on a remote island, with a little rum and a fun group of people- Yes, I football tackled a girl into the ocean while wearing a dress in order to get the flag away from her.
Make sure to get up early each day to catch the sunrise and get a good nap in the afternoon because you’ll likely stay up late playing games with other travelers and locals on the islands and going stargazing.
What to pack For The San Blas Islands
- Rain jacket
- Solar Charger
- Battery Bank
- Dry Bag
- Bug Spray
- Drinking Water- some tours include it, others do not. It’s cheaper to purchase on the mainland
- All medications, Rx or OTC that you may need
- Sea/motion sickness medication
- Not a bad idea to bring a bedsheet as some islands don’t include it.
- Also not a bad idea to bring your own snorkeling mask and flippers, as some of the ones provided have seen much much better days.
Safety In The San Blas Islands
In general, for most tourists, the San Blas Islands are safe. I found the Guna to be pretty friendly and welcoming.
There is some drug trafficking that does go on in the area but usually steers far and away from populated areas where the tourists are- in fact, they typically choose the Darian Gap over crossing by sea. Overall the San Blas Islands are a safe destination.
Have Any Questions About Travelling To The San Blas Islands?
Ask your San Blas travel questions in the comments sections below.