The San Blas Islands in Panamá come closest to what most of us imagine as paradise: 365 tiny, coconut-covered islands with coral reefs, sunken shipwrecks and tropical beaches with powdery white sand. There’s little to do but negotiate the price of a coconut, sway in a hammock or snorkel turquoise water. The islands are part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala, a long strip of land on the Caribbean side of Panama all the way to Colombia and an independent indigenous territory.
Access to the islands is very difficult and only few islands are open for tourism. There is no public transport and only Kuna people are allowed to have a business or own land (or an island) in San Blas. As such, you won’t find large-scale tourism here which also means that getting to the San Blas Islands and finding verified information can be a bit tricky. But once there, you’ll have to agree that it is absolutely worth the hassle!
In this post, you’ll find:
- How to get to the San Blas Islands
- Why should you visit the San Blas Islands
- What to do in the San Blas Islands
- How long to stay in the San Blas Islands
- Where to stay on the San Blas Islands
- What’s the best time to visit the San Blas Islands
- What to pack for the San Blas Islands
- How to book a stay on the San Blas Islands
But let’s first clear up something important: The islands are part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala (also: Guna Yala), a long strip of land on the Caribbean side of Panama all the way to Colombia and an independent indigenous territory. In most guidebooks and across the internet you will find the old name “San Blas”, which is why the islands are most commonly referred to as “San Blas Islands”.
The native people call themselves Kuna and are most famously known for the intrinsic textile craft called Mola as well as often referred to as the most fiercely independent indigenous group in the world. Kuna Yala received political, social and cultural independence from Panama after the famous revolution in February 1925 and has been autonomous ever since. This success has contributed to the creation of a strong and proud culture that has until today been able to maintain most of its cultural traditions and lifestyle.
1. How to get to the San Blas Islands
Visiting the San Blas islands is like an escape to paradise. But, unlike most popular tourist spots, the San Blas islands are not easily accessible and you will have to let go of your usual travel habits to go there. Let us summarize the most important points that you should know before organizing your visit to the San Blas islands, Panama.
Getting to the San Blas Islands:
There are only three options to visit the San Blas Islands:
- By road + lancha: the only one road to San Blas is connecting the Western part of the Comarca (Cartí area) with Panama City. It is only accessible by car/small truck with 4W-drive and there is no public transport. The drive takes ca. 3-4h and is the most convenient option for people visiting from Panama City. Guests arriving on this road continue to the islands in small lanchas.
- By boat: coming from Colombia or from Colon (Panama), the San Blas Islands can also be reached via boat. Some sailing boats offer multi-day tours through the San Blas Islands with starting point in Colon or in Colombia (Cartagena) but to reach the San Blas islands, a large part of open sea has to be crossed – definitely not for the faint hearted! An alternative are multi-day, island-hopping tours in small lanchas that start (or end) just right off the border of Colombia in Sapzurro and provide a perfect alternative to flying. There is no ferry or public transport between the islands.
- By airplane: you can also fly to a number of small airports in San Blas (see map). In the past, Air Panama used to fly on a regular basis, however currently most of these airports can only be reached via charter flights.
Can you organize a San Blas visit by yourself?
Getting to the San Blas Islands by yourself is possible, but requires a lot of planning and flexibility. So we recommend to pre-book a package that includes transportation.
Your starting point should always be to first arrange a place to stay because once you are at any of the entrance points to San Blas (the dock or an airport), there is no infrastructure to help you find accommodation. Your accommodation (or the operator/agency), through which you make your reservation, usually offers a package that includes transport in a 4WDand the boat transport to the island. The local government permits a number of selected drivers to bring tourists in 4WD to San Blas or you can drive in your own car (necessary: 4WD) to the port of Cartí. Uber or Taxis are not allowed to enter.
COVID Update: currently, it is not possible to visit the San Blas Islands without having accommodation pre-booked.
2. Why should you visit the San Blas Islands
Visiting these Islands is most likely unlike any previous vacation. They are not as well-known as other destinations and not as easily accessible, while boasting beautiful beaches and a fascinating indigenous culture. Unlike many other places, tourism is fully in the hands of the locals and they welcome you with a warm smile and open hearts. The picture-perfect setting of white, powdery sand-beaches, tiny coconut islands and colorful coral-reefs are perfect to get away and truly relax. It’s a place unlike any other and shouldn’t be missing on your itinerary when in Panama.
3. What to do in the San Blas Islands
Of course, you can always come to San Blas and just enjoy doing literally nothing. You can easily spend the entire day lazily swinging in a hammock with a coconut or a cool drink in your hands but the islands offer so much more. Each island offers you perfect powdery white sand and crystal-clear water and most are close to some colorful reefs, where you can snorkel and explore tropical fish. With a tour, you can do some island hopping to see other islands as well or visit a Kuna village.
Scuba diving or windsurfing are prohibited but there is plenty of water activities to do: some islands offer stand-up paddling or kayaking (some even with a traditional dug-out canoe), others have a volleyball net or other ball games ready, others take you fishing or diving for delicious langosta and crabs.
If you are interested in the local culture, book a stay with a local Kuna family or a tour that brings you to a Kuna village to learn more about the traditional lifestyle. You’ll be amazed to learn about the Kuna’s traditional beliefs, dances and culture as well about how daily life in the villages is organized. The Kuna culture and lifestyle is still very much alive today and a visit will feel like entering a long-forgotten world.
4. How long to stay in the San Blas Islands
You can visit the San Blas Islands either for a day tour (“day trip”) or an overnight stay.
With sufficient time at your hand, we always recommend to stay for at least 2-3 days to fully take in the island life and get the full relaxation. But no worries, if you don’t have that much time, you can still visit the islands just for day and get in the great views, the waters, sun and the sand!
Day tours leave in the early morning (5-5:30am) and return around 7pm at night. Make sure to look for full packages that include the pick-up and drop-off at your hotel as well as the boat ride and lunch options. The car ride to San Blas takes ca. 3-4h so expect to be on the islands from ca. 9:30am to 3pm. During this time you might either stay on one island or do some sort of island hopping – either way, this leaves plenty of time to get a fairly good impression of the islands!
Overnight stays are a bit more relaxed than a day trip and are highly recommended if you have more time and don’t mind rustic conditions. You will have more time to enjoy the beaches and waters, especially once the day tour people have left. Plus, you’ll be experiencing an unforgettable sunset and sunrises and fall asleep with the sound of the waves just a few meters away from your bed. We recommend to look for a deal that includes the transportation from your island to ensure that everything will run smoothly. Arrival times are in the early morning (with pick-up between 5-5:30am) and returns to Panama City are either in the morning after breakfast or in the afternoon with the day tour crowd.
5. Where to stay on the San Blas Islands – San Blas Islands accommodation, hotels and hostels
When visiting the San Blas Islands, you can decide to either stay on the islands, in a village or stay on a sailing boat.
Sleeping options on the islands are all run by local Kuna families since foreigners or Panamanians (that do not belong to the Kuna tribe) are not allowed to own islands or conduct business in San Blas. Most sleeping options are built from natural materials and you can find a variety of different styles. Increasingly popular are wooden cabins over the water or on the land but you can also find palm-thatched cabins with sand floor or even options for camping.
You can also stay in a Kuna village. Most villages have a dorm available for guests or private hostels. Those stays are perfect for guests that really want to experience the Kuna lifestyle and culture but keep in mind that villages do not have any beach – you might need to negotiate with someone to bring you to a nearby island. Covid-Update: currently village stays are not possible.
Sailing boats are usually run by foreigners and offer longer stays (mostly 4-7 days). When booking please make sure to book with an accredited sailing boat since only a very limited number got permission to receive tourists by the local Kuna government.
6. What’s the best time to visit the San Blas Islands
Visiting the San Blas Islands is possible year-round and there is no such thing as a best time to visit the islands.
The San Blas islands are under a tropical maritime climate with temperatures almost the entire year at around 27-29 degrees Celsius (or 81–84-degree Fahrenheit) and night temperatures at around 23 degrees Celsius (or 73-degree Fahrenheit). There are only two main seasons – dry season and rainy season – and each has its own characteristics.
The dry season (December to March) is usually the busier season – it is characterized by strong trade winds but also no clouds, no rain and pure sunshine for almost the entire season. Many people feel that this is the best time to visit Panama and the islands.
But rainy season (April to November) also has its perks! Indeed, there are much higher chances to encounter rainy days or thunderstorms during rainy season, but those happen mostly during the night and as quickly as they show up, as quickly it is usually followed by sunshine. The rainy season also has its advantages: less people, rather calm seas and impressive thunderstorms on the mainland at night.
Also, no need to worry about hurricanes in San Blas – the islands are located outside the hurricane belt so the risk to encounter a hurricane is very low.
7. What to pack for the San Blas Islands
Most importantly, pack light for your stay! You will not need much and there is limited space in the cars and boat.
Two things are mandatory for your visit:
- Original passport – your passport will be checked upon entering the Comarca of Kuna Yala
- Cash – San Blas runs on cash only so make sure to bring sufficient and in small bills ($1 and $5 bills recommended) since change is very sparse
Of course, don’t forget your beachwear – bathing suit, a towel, sunglasses, sun protection and some casual beachwear. You will be jumping in and out of a boat and possibly also get a bit wet while doing so, so it might not be the best time to put on your finest clothes. If you stay overnight, of course don’t forget to bring something to sleep in or through over (nights can get chilly). And we also recommend to bring water-proof covers or plastic bags to wrap your sensible items and protect them from water and plenty of water to stay hydrated. In some months, the boat rides can get quite wet.
Most accommodations don’t provide towels or soap/shampoo so bring those along as well (the more environmentally friendly, the better) and we always advise all visitors to take their trash back to Panama City with them. Unfortunately, there is no functioning recycling system in San Blas and locals struggle with an eco-friendly way of dealing with trash brought in from tourism.
8. How to book a stay on the San Blas Islands
There are several ways to book a stay on the islands with options increasing if you speak Spanish.
The cheapest, and most direct way, is to book directly with an island. This way you can communicate directly with the cabin owners and they usually organize the transport for you. However, it is generally difficult to get in touch with them and most speak only Spanish or might not be very responsive.
A great alternative is to book via an agency – some have websites which permit direct booking (usually they get back to you shortly after having confirmed with the islands), others conduct booking via email, phone or WhatsApp only. Make sure to understand who you are booking with – some of them are local Kuna people but many are foreign or Panamanian agencies or operators that are not in San Blas themselves but either in Panama City or abroad.
Booking platforms such as AirBnB or similar are very comfortable and often offer guarantees but most likely you are booking via a (foreign) middleman and pay a significant premium.
Finally, you can make a booking directly through your hotel or hostel – those generally work directly with an agency or island and assist in organizing the trip. In this case, you can mostly not choose which island you’d like to visit.
Feel ready for your San Blas Island Adventure? We hope we could help a bit in preparing your trip and of course to see you soon there!