Last Updated on March 30, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Welcome to the closest thing there is to paradise! Here’s a detailed guide on the San Blas Islands, Panama.
There’s no one around me, except for a star fish lying just a few feet away and my sail boat in the far distance. I sit on the fine sand, dipping my feet into the warm crystal water, enjoying the tiny island all to myself.
I am sailing in the San Blas Islands, Panama. And this is the closest place to paradise.
The 375 islands that make up San Blas Panama are pristine and well-protected — some of them are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people, but most are deserted. The islands are still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism. Getting here is not easy, but that’s exactly its appeal.
San Blas Islands, Panama
Why Travel San Blas Islands?
The answer is simple: San Blas Islands are some of the most pristine and untouched places in the world. I’ve been to many island nations like Mauritius, Maldives and Fiji, and San Blas is right up there on a list of world’s top islands.
But it’s not going to stay this way for long. Even though island life here is still relatively basic and primitive, technology is slowly being introduced to the islands. Things here will change soon enough.
San Blas Islands, Panama, are home to the indigenous Kuna people (sometimes spelled “Guna”), who has maintained political autonomy from the mainland since a revolution in 1925. They control tourism on their own terms and benefit directly from the money earned from tourism. But their agreement terms with the Panamanian government are constantly changing, so nobody really knows what the future is like for San Blas.
Current Panama Travel Restrictions
Panama is open to international travelers who are fully vaccinated. Non-vaccinated travelers will have to present a negative COVID-19 test for entry (only children under 17 are exempted. Check the Panama government website for up-to-date info.
It’s important to have travel insurance for travel during the pandemic. Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
Things to Know about the San Blas Islands
If you’re looking for all-inclusive resorts, jet skiing, and air conditioning, San Blas Panama is not for you. San Blas is a quiet, pristine area with empty castaway islands that usually have nothing more than a few huts and coconut trees.
The islands can get packed with day-trippers, but after they leave in the afternoon, you’ll often find that you have whole stretches of beaches to yourself. Apart from snorkeling, laying on the sand and napping on the hammocks, there’s not much to do.
Traveling Panama with kids is generally very easy, but at San Blas it can be abit trickier because of the lack of facilities (our daughter enjoyed it). Electricity and running water are rare on San Blas Islands. Places that have them use it sparingly at night, and try to keep electrical consumption to a minimum. You might find a restaurant and bar at the lodges, but don’t expect shops or WiFi anywhere.
People on San Blas Islands
Out of the 375 islands in San Blas, 49 of them are inhabited by different Kuna communities. There are around 300,000 Kunas in total. The Kuna mainly rely on tourism, fishing and harvesting coconuts for a living.
One of the most important islands in San Blas is Acuadup (translates to mean “Rock Island”) where the Kuna elders and leaders live. The leaders on this island make all the main decisions for the other island and they help in trades and marriages with other Kuna communities.
The Kuna are quite friendly to young kids and they are very protective. They definitely make sure that you have the best Panama family vacation possible and that your kids are well taken care of.
Language on San Blas Islands
As with the rest of Panama, the official language on San Blas Islands is Spanish. Since the islands are inhabited by indigenous Kuna people, they speak both Spanish and Kuna language.
Not much English is spoken here, so be sure to learn some Spanish words before you get here. My husband is Spanish and we lived in Spain for 8 years, so we had no problem communicating with locals.
How to Get to San Blas Islands
Getting to San Blas Islands is not cheap, because of how restrictive tourism here is (being controlled by the Kunas). It is easy enough and there are many options, read below to decide which is the best for you.
By Car & Boat
To get to San Blas Islands, you need to book a 4WD transfer that takes 2.5 hours to get to San Blas Port in Carti. From there, take a lancha (speed boat) to the islands. It takes at least an hour to the first of the San Blas Islands.
Our sailboat booked the transfers for us but you can find transfer company online too. The 4WD transfer cost us US$70/person return, and the speedboat also cost $70/person return.
Before our trip, we’d read that the car journey can be treacherous. But it’s not! A new paved road has been built in the last stretch, so it’s quite smooth sailing. Be prepared for a fully packed car though. They always make sure to fill up all 6 seats in the 4WD.
As of May 2019, foreigners are not allowed to drive to the San Blas Port, so you won’t be able to rent your own car and drive there. Before arriving at the port, you’ll have to stop at a Kuna checkpoint, where they will check your passport. Foreigners also need to pay an entrance fee of US$20 here.
By San Blas Islands Tour
The cheapest option to visit San Blas is a day tour from Panama City. You can choose to stay in huts on the islands, but they are all rustic and overpriced ($130-200/night).
The day trips tend to cost around US$100 and include 4WD transfers and lancha. You’ll get to visit three to four islands in one day and also have a local lunch included.
But one day is not enough to see the beautiful islands and I highly recommend staying overnight. GetYourGuide also has a 1-night San Blas Islands tour that include transfers, so you won’t need to worry about anything else.
It is also possible to fly from Albrook airport in Panama City (not Tocumen International) to El Porvenir or Playa Chico. Air Panama flies the route on small 20-seaters and the flight costs around US$100 each way.
From El Porvenir or Playa Chico, you’ll need to take a taxi to the San Blas port and then a lancha. That will probably cost another US$40 each way.
Another option is a privately charted flight. These go from Albrook to tiny landing strips on the islands so you can go straight to your sailboat. These are crazy expensive but if you’re lucky, you might find a chartered plane that’s going back empty and can fly you back for cheap.
When to Travel San Blas Islands
There are two main seasons on San Blas Islands: rainy season runs from June to December, and dry season from January to May.
During the rainy season, you might run into some rain but they’re usually showers and don’t last long. The dry season sees sunny days, but strong and constant winds. This is also the most popular time to visit.
We traveled San Blas Islands in April and had perfect weather the whole time we were there. No rain, cloudless skies and endless sunshine.
How Long to Travel San Blas Islands?
This depends on whether you’re planning to sail around the islands, sailing onwards to Colombia or just staying in a hut on the islands. I will cover more on those in my next point.
In general, three to four days would be enough to get a good feel of the San Blas Islands. We booked a two-night sailing trip and visited four islands, but still wished we had more time on the boat.
If you’re planning to sail from Panama to Colombia, those trips take at least five days, with two of them spent sailing in the open ocean. For those who plan to stay on the islands, you can easily hire lanchas to bring you island-hopping. If budget permits, I recommend booking at least three nights.
How to Sail around San Blas Islands Panama
Sailing around San Blas is of course the best way to see the islands, but it’s also the most expensive. We opted to sail around the islands as it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. It was definitely the best way to explore Panama with kids but families with babies will need to be careful and make sure the babies don’t fall overboard.
There are mainly two types of boats to choose from: mainly monohulls and catamarans. Catamarans are more spacious and comfortable, thus more expensive. The price for a shared boat on a monohull is around $130-200 per person per night and on a catamaran is $230 upwards per person per night.
After spending months researching, we went with Sail Boat Trips as the prices were the lowest. For a 2-night sailing trip, we paid $920 for my husband, daughter and myself. That included accommodation, all our meals and drinks (that included bbq lobsters), island hopping, and use of their gear. .
What It’s Like to Sail San Blas Islands
We sailed San Blas onboard Catamaran L’Eclectik, with a French family who was homeschooling their kids. Philippe and his family were welcoming and willing to share all their gear with us. The catamaran was in tiptop shape and very family-friendly. They have two girls aged 10 and 11, which means lots of fun equipment like a SUP and a floating trampoline that our daughter loved.
During our sailing trip, we would usually start the day sailing for just a few km and stopping at a new island. We would jump off the catamaran (my favorite part!) and start snorkeling around or swim up to the beach. It was so much fun for all of us: whether it was finding lion fish while snorkeling, or discovering an oddly shaped shell on the beach. Lunch would be served onboard, then it was time to relax on the hammock and nap before arriving at another island in the afternoon.
All our meals onboard were amazing, from delicious bbq lobsters right on the beach, to freshly cooked snapper fish, and tender beef steak. They also offered us lots of good wine and drinks. One of the perks of sailing with the French!
Sailing from Panama to Colombia via San Blas
My original plan was to sail from Panama to Colombia through San Blas, but most boats don’t take kids under 12 years old. The journey includes two full days of sailing in the open sea and waves can be choppy.
The Panama-Colombia sailing trips also tend to be catered towards young budget travelers backpacking Central America. Prices are around $550 per person for the entire trip, sharing cabins/salon with groups of 4 to 6 people. Also, boats do not leave on the date set unless they have reached their full passenger capacity and weather conditions are favorable.
If sailing out in the open sea doesn’t interest you, check out San Blas Adventures that do party-style island-hopping trips on lancha (speedboats). They start either in Panama or Colombia. Prices are very affordable, but be prepared to sleep on hammocks. We would have picked this back in those days!
Things to Do on San Blas Islands
El Porvenir island
For most people traveling to San Blas, El Porvenir island is usually your first stop because of its central position and its connections with other islands. While El Provenir isn’t the most beautiful island of San Blas, it does offer electricity and running water.
Scuba diving is sadly not allowed in San Blas, but this means it has one of the best-preserved coral reefs in the world. Snorkeling is allowed though, so be sure to bring your snorkeling gear.
Another popular stop is Perro Chico, which has a lodge with a big picnic area. What I like about the island is the sunken boat (small shipwreck) located just off the beach. You can snorkel easily around the boat, even our 4-year-old kid loved it.
Pelicano Island has been recently made famous by the Netflix series, “Money Heist” as it was filmed here. It’s a tiny islet with just one or two Kuna family living here. The shallow waters all around the island are home to hundreds, if not thousands, of starfish.
My favorite is probably Banedub Island. The beach lies to the south and is out of the current so the water is shallow and calm. We saw lots of lion fish while snorkeling around the jetty. And at night, we also saw illuminating jellyfish swimming around and it was magical!
Where to Stay in San Blas Islands
There are very few options for lodging on the islands, and they tend to be extremely overpriced. You’re looking at $130-200/night for a little hut with sandy floor and a thin mattress covered by a mosquito net.
Cabañas Narasgandup — This rustic, simple lodge has wooden overwater bungalows that stand over the clear waters. Possibly the best lodge in San Blas. Expect rudimentary accommodation, but a stunning setting and pristine beaches. Check the rates here.
Cabañas Wailidup — With small overwater huts, this lodge is another good option for budget travelers. The huts are built over crystal clear waters surrounding Carti Yantupo island. Check the rates here.
Enjoy San Blas — Located in El Porvenir, this lodge has wooden standalone huts that provide some privacy. It has a great atmosphere, perfect for young backpackers. Check the rates here.
Hotel El Porvenir — With basic huts and simple facilities, this lodge is located on the beachfront in Playón Chico. Rooms are simple but not very private. Check the rates here.
Safety on San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are largely safe, with the tightly-knit Kuna communities looking out for each other. The Kuna people are very protective people, and they’re always making sure that tourists are well taken care of. We felt very safe here, and never once did we have any dodgy encounter. The only danger that travelers face is perhaps theft or unsanitary food.
Health in San Blas Islands
You don’t need specific vaccinations to travel San Blas Islands, Panama. However, as in most tropical countries, there is a risk of getting infected by mosquito-borne diseases in Panama.
Malaria is only present in the Darien Gap near the border with Colombia. The Darien province is famous for its dense jungles and as a dangerous road/gap between Panama and Colombia.
There’s nothing to worry if you’re just sailing around San Blas Islands. But I still recommend bringing mosquito repellent and wearing long sleeves at night to avoid getting bitten.
Food and Water in San Blas
It’s generally safe to drink tap water in Panama, but not in the San Blas islands. If you’re sailing on a sail boat, free water is usually provided. For those staying on the islands, I recommend buying big barrels of water (3L) as water that locals drink might not sit well with your stomach.
As for food, the Kuna people eat mostly seafood that’s freshly caught from the sea. We had amazing grilled lobsters, fresh snapper and shrimps on the sailboat everyday. I absolutely loved the food here!
You’ll notice lots of Kuna people rowing their wooden canoes around to different sailboats, selling fresh seafood they’d caught. Note that foreigners are not allowed to catch fish yourself or collect coconuts from the islands.
Cost of Travel in San Blas Islands
The San Blas islands are an expensive destination but they are SO worth it. A trip here comes with a hefty price tag but all the money go directly to the indigenous Kuna people (who rely mainly on tourism now).
Prepare to spend around US$150-250/person/night whether you are sailing or staying on the islands. Getting there costs around US$140/person for the return trip. However, there are ways to see San Blas Islands on a budget: you can come on a day trip from Panama City (round $100) or on a party backpacking tour (around $500).
Panama uses both the US dollars and the Panamanian Balboa, which are of the same value. Also there are no ATMs on the islands, so make sure to have enough cash with you. If you’re planning to book a sailing trip, you will pay a 10% deposit when booking and the rest in cash upon arrival.
What to Pack for San Blas Islands
Note that it’s NOT allowed to bring suitcases on all sailing boats and lanchas (speed boats) that operate around San Blas Islands. We were told that the 4WD transfers won’t take you if you bring a suitcase. Make sure to just bring a daypack or a light backpack if you’re sailing to Colombia. You won’t need much on the islands anyway.
I recommend bringing sun-proof swim shirt that can protect your skin while snorkeling (bikini/shorts are not enough!). KEEN footwear or normal sandals might be useful to walk on beaches strewn with seashells or corals.
Snorkel mask and fins are usually provided by sailboats or tours, so there’s no need to bring your own unless you want to. We brought our full-face snorkel masks and found them pretty comfortable and useful.
Packing List for San Blas Islands
Practical Tips for Traveling San Blas Islands
- Pack a light day pack for San Blas Islands — suitcases are not allowed on sailboats or lancha.
- Bring cash in USD as there are no ATMs on the islands.
- Bring a book or e-reader to keep yourself entertained.
- Stock up on snacks or anything you need in Panama City before the trip as you most probably won’t find it on the islands.
- If you’re allergic to seafood, be sure to let your sailboat operator know.
- Be prepared to go completely off the grid when sailing or staying on the islands as there won’t be WiFi.
- Please do not touch the star fish or any marine animals that you see. Also make sure you don’t kick or touch the corals when snorkeling. Do NOT even think of bringing home a starfish or anything you find on the islands.
- The water conditions when sailing from Panama to Colombia can be rough, remember to bring motion sickness medication! Even if you don’t usually get seasick, it’s best to be prepared for the rough conditions.
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