My favorite place in Panama ended up being somewhere I almost didn’t see.
I had a few extra days to kill in Panama City and had read about the San Blas Islands online. The San Blas Islands are part of an autonomous area of Panama run by the indigenous Kuna. While there are Kuna throughout Panama, the largest concentration live in San Blas. Tourism is their main source of income and the families take turns running and caring for the islands and tourists.
Visiting San Blas is all about island life. Eating, drinking, swimming and sunning. You will probably not shower and spend the entire time in your swimsuit. There is no wifi and nothing to do except enjoy the exact place you are at that moment.
You can book a day trip, 1-night or multiple night stay through your hotel/hostel when you arrive or book online ahead of time. I booked my tour online through Cacique Cruiser.
It is quite a rollercoaster of a Jeep ride from Panama City to the dock where you will wait for your boat to the island you are staying on. Make sure you take some Dramamine with you! You will also be stopped on your way to have your passports checked so make sure you don’t leave Panama City without it.
Transport to/from Panama City: A Jeep will pick you up at your hotel/hostel around 5:30-6am (my group whatsapp messaged me the day of with a more specific time). On your way out of the city you will stop to pick up any water/beer/snacks you want to bring with you. You can buy water and beer on the island but it is more expensive.
English speaking guide: Most of the locals only speak their Kuna language and Spanish. The locals along with the guides will always make sure you are in the right place at the right time.
Accommodation: You are staying on an island with very basic accommodations. You will be sharing coed rooms which are hatched huts with basic beds.
Meals: This was usually a meat (fish/chicken), rice, salad, and fruit.
Drinks & Chips: They provide some alcoholic beverages and chips and salsa snacks in between meal times on the islands.
WHAT TO BRING
You don’t need to bring very much with you. Leave your suitcase at your hotel and just take a small tote/backpack. You’ll spend the entire time in your swimsuit.
If you register online they take a small $20 deposit but you must bring enough cash to pay your driver the full balance.
If you want to buy extra water or drinks (beer) bring some cash with you. On our trip they didn’t offer it but I heard a rumor some tours offer you an upgrade to lobster for some meals for an additional cost. You can also buy fresh coconuts and some of their local artisan goods while you are there.
STAYING AN EXTRA NIGHT
While you will probably book a certain amount of time ahead of time, you can decide while you are on the island in the mornings to stay an additional night. Just make sure you have enough cash.
WHAT YOU’LL DO
You will spend each morning and each afternoon on a different island. During the time I was there we were able to snorkel around a sunken ship, visit a pretty cool sandbar in the middle of the ocean, swim with starfish on the beach, see sea turtles, visit the main Kuna island to learn about their culture and of course get lots and lots of sun. Depending on the days you are there the itinerary will change.
I visited during rainy season and lucked out, my first day it was gorgeous but the second day it rained in the morning. It’s always a risk during rainy season so I would book more than one day or visit during the dry season.
OTHER WAYS TO VISIT THE ISLANDS
Another alternative I read about extensively online are the San Blas Island sailing trips. They are much pricier and there are different options. Some just sail around the islands and there are others that take a several day trip to Cartagena, Colombia after visiting the islands.
There were a few islands with a little bit nicer accommodation and I read online that you can also fly to San Blas but I would book with a tour company. I am not sure of the logistics of going on your own.
The islands did not disappoint and were the perfect end to my Panama visit. The accommodation is very basic so I would recommend when you come back booking a night at a hotel/hostal so you can have a proper shower instead of going straight to the airport (which they give you the option to do).
I have never been to an island quite like San Blas. It’s a great trip from Panama City and is a perfect escape whether you are traveling by yourself or with friends. The San Blas Islands definitely force you (in a non pushy way) to enjoy the moment away from the rest of the world.