San Blas Islands, Panama
A Guide To Enjoying The San Blas Islands. Good Times & Tan Lines Await!
I spent the first four days of my Central American adventure on the San Blas Islands. This was one of the most magical places I visited in Central America, that when I overheard other travelers deciding if they should go, I would chime in with great enthusiasm that staying on the San Blas Islands would be a highlight of their travels.
A GUIDE TO THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS
What are the San Blas Islands?
The San Blas Islands are a group of 378 tiny islands that are scattered in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama. Some Islands literally host a single palm tree on a stretch of sand no greater than the size of a tennis court, while others are inhabited by the Kuna people, but still might only be the size of a cricket field. The Kuna are indigenous people of Panama and Columbia and approximately 50,000 make San Blas their home. They control the islands and still maintain their culture and beliefs that have been passed down through generations.
Why you should go to the San Blas Islands?
Why not go. There is no reason to even question this for a second!
- no electricity! no phone, no internet, no computer, no tablet, no TV, no nothing
- shower using fresh rainwater
- 3 delicious meals provided – rice, freshly caught fish and a veg – simple but filling – they accommodate no fish eaters (eggs or beans)
- sit with new friends in the calm ocean drinking beer
- read, sleep or gaze up at the palm trees in the hammocks as the sun’s rays warm your soul
- play a game of afternoon beach volleyball
- snorkel or swim around the islands to see starfish, crab and of course fish
- journal your adventures
- take a boat to Star Fish Island, snorkel through a shipwreck or head to Pelicano Island to swim and play
- DO NOTHING! This will be one of the few times in your life where doing nothing is excepted, expected and encouraged!
How long should I stay on the San Blas Islands?
Most travelers book two nights, but once you step off the boat, place your feet on the sand, put on your swim attire, grab a cold Cerveza and lay in the water, you will stay longer, like I did – 4 nights! At least do three nights, you won’t regret it.
Where do I sleep on the San Blas Islands?
Beach Cabanas of course! They are made from branches, leaves, palm trees – very traditional. Inside will either be dormitory style bunk beds or single beds. You can ask for a private Cabana with a queen size bed. I stayed at Ina Cabana where there were 9 Cabanas that surrounded the eating area, hammocks, and volleyball court. Every island is different and my island, Isla Naranjo Chico, had about 4 different housing accommodations that are run by different families. Where I stayed was the best!
What about food and drinks on the San Blas Islands?
I do not understand why some reviews say that the meal portions were small. None of us ever went hungry or talked about being hungry. I will not lie, most of your plate will be piled high with rice and only a small portion devoted to fish (crab or lobster anyone?) or veg, but it’s not like we are expelling any energy throughout the day. So it is the perfect meal. If you are concerned about the food, your driver from Panama City will take you to a supermarket for provisions. I got 2 gallons of water (which I drank) a bag of tortilla chips, granola bars, and peanuts, which I never ate. As for drinks? You can buy cold beer ($1.50), coke ($1.50), water ($5) and fresh coconut water ($1).
How do I get to the San Blas islands from Panama City?
I stayed at Hostel Villa Vento Surf and they organized everything. I booked at 7 pm the night before my 5 am pick up (early October which is the low season). It is super easy to do and requires very little effort or thought.
- Your driver in his 4x4 vehicle will pick you up at 5 am and will take everyone to a supermarket where you can buy snacks.
- The total drive time will be about 3 hours to Carti Suitipo where you will hop on a little fishing boat to the Island of your choosing.
- There will be someone at the dock that will tell you what boat to board. It is very well-organized, you won’t be left stranded!
- The ferry will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to get to your island. By 10 am you will be in your bathing suit!
- On the day you leave, you will boat back around 8 am. Your driver will be waiting for you at the dock.
- If you decide to stay longer, your host will call your driver (you will be wearing a wristband with his name) to pick you up on the new day of your choosing.
Will this cost a fortune?
When I first researched the San Blas Islands I kept seeing prices ranging from $300-400 for two nights. I was like, hell no! But when I inquired at my hostel they said that is for sailing trips around the islands (you sleep on the boat). But, you can book everything separately and sleep on an Island. The below is what I paid, but may differ depending on what level of accommodation and island you choose.
$60 – your 4x4 drive to and from the boat launch
$20 – entrance fee to the islands
$20 – ferry ride to and from the islands
$25 per night for accommodation (dorm style) and 3 meals per day. $60 per night for two people in your own room. ( I stayed at Ina Cabanas on Isla Naranjo Chico)
Where I stayed they included a free boat trip to Pelicano Island where we saw Pelicans and Starfish. You can ask at your accommodation if they can take you to the other islands. They will ask for a fee – around $5-10 a person depending on how many people want to go.
You wait patiently beside the river bed under the golden sun of the Caribbean sky. Your backpack lying next to your feet like a puppy waiting to be taken on its next outing. In the near distance, you notice a small fishing boat, chugging quietly along as it makes its way to the land’s edge. You are instructed to board, taking deliberate steps like a tightrope walker as there is no dock or plank to guide you on. You put on your tangerine colored life vest and huddle side by side with other passengers as the boat makes it way through the estuary out into the open sea. The murky waters of the river turn into a bright turquoise ocean that glistens like a diamond. The boat gains speed as it passes through tiny palm tree filled islands.
The thumping of the boat against the calm ocean brings a soothing calmness that matches the serenity of the scenery. As the boat veers to the left and begins to slow, an island no larger than the size of a football field comes into focus. As you inch closer, you notice people wading in the waters with a Cerveza in their hands, others playing volleyball between the rustic cabanas. As the boat glides onto the cream-colored sand you twist your body gracefully overboard, your feet plunging into the shallow warm water. With every step, the water splashes onto your legs. Excitement fills your eyes and a smile larger than its ever been quickly forms. You have arrived to a San Blas Island.