The San Blas Islands in Panama are a unique archipelago that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. They are one of the few places that remain largely untouched by humans. The San Blas Islands fall under the Kuna Yala area, which is controlled by the Kuna Indians. They have their own rules and laws that are separate from Panama’s legislation. That’s why you won’t find resorts or mass tourism on the San Blas Islands, and large boats are not permitted. You’ll only find a few simple wooden houses, and only 50 of the 357 islands are inhabited. Most of the San Blas Islands are tiny, full of palm trees, and surrounded by white sandy beaches and clear blue seas. All of this makes it a very special place to visit during your trip to Panama.
Who are the Kuna Indians?
The Kuna Indians are the original inhabitants of Panama and these indigenous tribes can only be found in a few places in Panama. After the Spanish colonized Panama, the Kuna remained in the San Blas area, where they still live today. In 1925, the Kuna Indians were granted the right to self-determination, which allowed them to protect their land and culture with their own rules and laws. The Kuna are best known for their molas; colorful layers of fabric with cut-out patterns that women sometimes work on by hand for months. These colorful works of art are incorporated into the traditional clothing of the tribe, but also into souvenirs such as cushions, bags, and children’s clothing.
Important: Some of the islands you visit are inhabited, so when you visit them, you are quite literally stepping into someone’s backyard. Conduct yourself as you would at home when visiting someone you don’t know. Dress appropriately and don’t take photos of people without asking for permission first.
How to visit the San Blas islands?
There are many different tours available from Panama City to the San Blas Islands, from overnight stays on an island to multi-day boat trips. Travelers’ experiences can vary widely because many tours are quite touristy and can be disappointing. This is often due to being on a small island with many people and poor accommodations. If you want to go where most tourists don’t and have some budget, book a stay on a boat or a multi-day sailing trip. It is not easy to book a sailing trip because there are hardly any boats that sail here year after year. Most boat owners stay here with their boat for one season and then continue their journey to another country or continent.
How I visited the San Blas islands?
I chose to stay on Captain Mike’s boat during my days at the San Blas Islands. Mike has been living at the San Blas Islands for years. You will stay on the catamaran and can take part in various activities from here. It feels like a lovely all-inclusive experience since your food and drinks are taken care of, and you can do what you want. There’s no fixed program during your stay at the San Blas Islands because many activities depend on factors like the weather or availability. However, there’s plenty to do, and you won’t get bored in this paradise. The catamaran has sleeping spots in the cabin, but you may also sleep in a hammock on the deck or in a tent on the deck. People often switch between them for different experiences, but you can’t specify your preference beforehand.
We spent our days relaxing in a hammock, swayed back and forth by the sea breeze. We snorkeled at beautiful coral reefs and occasionally paddled a kayak to visit a deserted island. A Kuna village offered us a guided tour, and in the evenings we ate freshly caught crab and lobster before gazing at the stunning starry sky from our hammocks.
On weekends, the catamaran is docked in a fixed location. When weather conditions are good on weekdays, you’ll go sailing to explore more beautiful places in the San Blas Islands. The details of this trip may vary from time to time, so be sure to ask about what is and isn’t possible at the time you plan to go.
Note: Visiting a Kuna village is not always possible. Sailing is weather dependent and only possible on weekdays. Mike is in Panama City on weekends. Of course, someone from the crew will be present to provide meals.
What are the costs for a visit to the San Blas islands?
Unfortunately, a visit to the San Blas islands is never cheap, and this is one of the most low-budget ways to do it. Prices vary depending on the season but start at $135 per person per day. It is recommended to allow for about two or three full days for your visit to the San Blas islands as it is quite a long journey to and from Panama City and may not be entirely worth it otherwise. In addition to these costs, you should also budget for transportation to and from the San Blas islands, which can only be done by 4×4 and is about a 5-hour drive, which can cost around $135 per person. Lastly, you should also budget for $25 per person to enter the Kuna region. Even though this may all add up to a lot of money, do not expect a luxurious stay but rather a unique experience. If this is above your budget, consider visiting other paradisiacal islands in Panama that are easier to reach, such as Bocas del Toro or Coiba National Park near Santa Catalina. Of course, this is not the same experience, but if you’re traveling on a smaller budget, these are great alternatives.
The best time to visit the San Blas islands
For the San Blas islands and Panama in general, there are two distinct seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. You might think that the rainy season means non-stop rain, but fortunately, that’s not the case. While there are more heavy showers during the rainy season, it can also be dry for several days. Additionally, during this season, the water is calmer for snorkeling because there’s less wind. In the dry season, there is less rain but more clouds and rougher seas due to the wind. Each season has its advantages and disadvantages. The rainy season is from May to November, while the dry season is from December to April. September and October are the wettest months, so they may not be ideal, but this applies to all of Panama. I visited the San Blas islands in mid-January and experienced a mix of short rain showers, blue skies, and occasional cloudy weather. As you can see in the photos, the weather was generally fantastic.
How to get to the San Blas islands?
Getting to the San Blas islands from Panama City usually starts with a 5 am pick-up time for a four to five-hour journey. There’s a stop halfway where you can grab breakfast and snacks and get some cash. The mountainous road that follows is only accessible with a 4×4, and it’s bumpy with many bumps and curves. A travel pill might be helpful here. At the Kuna border, your passport will be checked, and you’ll pay a $20 fee to enter.
The last hour of the journey is by motorboat, which can sometimes be rough due to the waves. Try to grab a spot at the back of the boat to avoid feeling the bumps caused by the waves. Once you arrive at the catamaran, it’s wonderful to relax in a hammock and enjoy the heavenly view.
Where can you book this trip to the San Blas islands?
Interested in visiting the idyllic San Blas islands in this unique way? Look no further than Mike, who has been sailing his entire life and left to travel almost 30 years ago, eventually settling in the San Blas area for the past decade. He knows the area like the back of his hand, is involved with the Kuna people, and respects their customs and way of life. It is this experience that he wants to share with other travelers. To get in touch with Mike, simply send an email to email@example.com. Keep in mind that it may take some time for him to respond since Mike spends a lot of time at sea, is not a big tour operator, and handles everything himself.
If you book a San Blas trip with him, you are guaranteed to spend a few days relaxing in paradise with all-inclusive accommodations. However, keep in mind that the specifics of your trip may vary. Depending on availability, you may sleep in a shared cabin on the catamaran or in a basic hut on an island. Food and drinks are provided daily, and you can use snorkeling gear, kayaks, and hammocks whenever you want. The number of people on the boat may also vary, so it’s best to ask Mike beforehand what to expect during your visit.