If you’re visiting San Blas soon, you’ve come to the right place. After reading this guide, you’ll know how to visit the San Blas Islands, what to pack and how long to stay on these idyllic islands in Panama.
What to expect from the San Blas Islands
You’ve probably already seen photos of the San Blas Islands without even knowing it. They’re so picturesque and close to paradise that they’re used as screensavers, prints, or maybe you’ve been imagining someplace similar.
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of islands just off the Caribbean coast of Panama. You might also hear them referred to as the Guna Yala, which became their official name in 2011, named after the local Guna (or Kuna) people that call the islands their home.
With so many islands and a number of ways to visit the San Blas Islands, we’ve created this guide to help you plan the perfect trip. Is a day trip ideal? Would you prefer to spend days sailing around the islands or sleeping under the stars? Heading to Colombia next? The San Blas Islands could be a great detour on the way.
Continue reading to discover all of the answers to your questions.
Best San Blas tours
- All day San Blas tour from Panama City for $159
- 3D/2N Island hopping adventure from Panama City for $375
Who are the Guna community?
The Guna community have made 49 of the 370 San Blas Islands their homes. It’s an autonomous indigenous territory that a lot of our countries could learn from. The culture and traditions of the Guna people are fascinating — the community champions and celebrates gender equality and gender fluidity.
There’s no hierarchy of the value of work within the Guna. Fishing and hunting is considered just as important as cooking and looking after children. You’ll also find a third gender, Omeggid, within the Guna, where men can become women and carry out the work of the women within the community.
Believed to have migrated to the San Blas Islands in the 16th century, the Guna are still a thriving community that’s largely supported by fishing, agriculture and clothing manufacturing.
They specialise in producing an item called ‘mola’ — an intricately woven cloth that adorns the front and back of the traditional dresses worn by the women.
Are the San Blas islands worth visiting?
Many people would argue that the San Blas Islands are Panama’s most precious gem and a must-visit! If an island retreat is what you’re looking for, then the San Blas Islands are as close as you can get.
They tick every box possible — shallow turquoise waters, palm trees swaying in the wind, fresh coconuts and unforgettable snorkelling.
Without a doubt, the San Blas Islands are worth visiting.
Top tip: There are no ATMs on the San Blas Islands, so you’ll need to bring enough cash for your entire stay. Try to bring small denominations otherwise the locals struggle with change.
You’ll need to bring enough to at least cover the $22 entry fee to the Guna Yala territory and whatever else isn’t included in your tour.
How long should you spend in the San Blas Islands?
The time that people spend on the San Blas Islands varies hugely. Some people only visit as a day trip from Panama City, whilst others spend 4-5 days sailing around the islands.
Some people make the islands their new temporary home and end up staying for weeks. They fall in love with the relaxed vibe and never want to leave. Would you want to leave paradise?
For those of us who don’t have unlimited time on our hands, four days is a good amount of time to spend exploring the San Blas islands — whether this is on a sailboat or staying on the islands themselves.
How to visit the San Blas Islands
Before you can spend your days relaxing on an idyllic island and thinking about nothing, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to visit the San Blas Islands. There are three main ways you can go about your tropical island retreat; a day trip, multi-day sailing trip and staying on the islands.
A day trip from Panama City
If you’re limited on time or on a budget, but are still desperate to visit the San Blas Islands, then you can do a day trip from Panama City.
It will be an early start so that you can make the most of your day exploring the islands. You’ll be picked up in a 4×4 that will take you to Puerto de Carti, around 2.5 hours away. The perfect amount of time to go back to sleep!
This is where your San Blas adventures begin. After 30 minutes on a boat, you’ll reach your first San Blas Island.
How to book a tour to the San Blas Islands
To arrange a day tour, you can speak to your accommodation in Panama City or scour the city for the best deal. If you prefer to have things booked in advance and to save time, then this is a great all-day tour to the San Blas Islands.
Throughout the day, you’ll visit a number of San Blas Islands including Island Perro Grande and Island Perro Chico where you can enjoy amazing snorkelling (the visibility is insane) and kayaking. At one of the spots there’s even a sunken boat that you can explore!
In between the adventure, the tour makes sure that you’re well-fed and that there are plenty of opportunities to sit back and relax on a sun lounger. And when you’re ready to burn off the food you’ve eaten, you can join in a game of volleyball with some locals.
There’s a high chance this might be one of your favourite days in Panama! You’ll return back to Panama City rejuvenated, satisfied, smiling and exhausted.
Why do a day trip to the San Blas Islands?
Doing a day trip allows you to get a taste of these paradise islands. In one day you get to visit a number of the islands, snorkel, kayak, enjoy some fresh food and swim as much as possible in the turquoise waters.
It’s a fun-packed day, but perfect if you don’t have enough time in Panama to spare multiple days exploring the islands. The biggest things that you’ll miss out on by only doing a day trip is getting to star gaze from the beach and reaching that level of zen that can only be achieved by days on a remote island.
Explore the San Blas Islands on a sailing trip
If you love having options, then here are some more for you. Even if you’ve decided that you want to do a multi-day boat trip, you’ll have to decide from where, what type of boat and for how long.
Sailing trip from Panama City and back
Option number one is to embark on a sailing trip that begins and ends in Panama City. The length of the sailing trips vary, so you’ll need to shop around online or in Panama City to find the perfect one for you.
If you would prefer to book in advance, then this three day/two night sailing trip from Panama City is a great option.
During your once-in-a-lifetime adventure, you’ll get to visit a number of the San Blas Islands including Isla Eneida, Isla Perro and Yansailadup. Your days will be filled with swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, lounging in a hammock and enjoying fresh meals throughout.
From the moment the tour starts, you won’t have to think about a thing. Everything is taken care of, which is great news as organising trips to the San Blas Islands isn’t the easiest of tasks. Booking online is difficult and communication with host families can be hard.
Sailing trip from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa)
After Panama, a lot of people continue their travels to Colombia. Instead of paying for a flight between countries, many turn the journey into an experience.
There are two ways to make this crossing — by speedboat or sailboat.
Crossing from Panama to Colombia takes four days/three nights. It’s faster than the sailboat, and you spend less time actually at sea — 8 hours over the four days.
There’s not a lot of room on the speedboat, so you’ll spend your nights sleeping on the San Blas Islands. Accommodation is basic, but it’s still a fun experience getting to sleep under the stars, in a hammock or inside a wooden thatched hut.
Another benefit of the speedboat is that the majority of your time is spent actually enjoying the islands — snorkelling, swimming, playing volleyball or taking part in a game of manhunt if you fancy.
And if you get seasick, the speedboat is probably your best option. The speedboat cuts through the water much quicker, so although it’s pretty bumpy, it’s not normally the motion that makes people feel sick.
The biggest downside is that the speedboats start/finish in Capurgana in Colombia which is a bit of a pain to get to. You’ll need to take a bus to Turbo and then a 2-hour ferry to get there. Cartagena, where the sailboats start/finish, is a much more accessible city.
San Blas Adventures is one of the most popular companies running the speedboats between Panama and Colombia.
Travelling by sailboat from Panama to Colombia takes five nights. Three days are spent island-hopping around the San Blas Islands and two days (30-50 hours) on the open sea crossing. If you get seasick easily, this option might be better to avoid.
From Panama, boats depart from El Porvenir in the morning of the first day and end in Cartagena on the fifth day. It’s the opposite way round if you’re travelling from Colombia to Panama.
Unlike the speedboat, you’ll live and stay on the sailboat. There’s plenty of time during the day to explore the San Blas Islands, and you’ll return to the boat to eat and sleep.
Blue Sailing has one of the best reputations for sailboat experiences from Panama to Colombia (vice versa).
Sailing Panama to Colombia: speedboat or sailboat?
If you’re set on crossing from Panama to Colombia by sea, naturally the big question is: sailboat or speedboat? They each have pros and cons that we’ve summed up for you in this handy table.
|8 hours at sea
|30-50 hours at sea
|Sleep on the San Blas Islands
|Sleep on the boat
|Panama City to Capurgana (vice versa)
|Panama City to Cartagena (vice versa)
|Better if you get seasick
|Bigger risk of seasickness
Stay on a San Blas Island
If you’re not a fan of tours, then you can organise your own trip to the San Blas Islands and arrange your own accommodation. A warning in advance, a lot of the accommodation isn’t advertised on the normal booking sites, so you’ll have to do a bit more research to find the one for you.
A number of tour agencies, hotels and hostels in Panama City, such as Mamallena, can help you to book accommodation and transport to the San Blas Islands.
Our favourite accommodation available to book online is Discovery Gunayar. The huts are rustic, situated on a paradise island hosted by the friendliest family. They can also arrange all of the logistics to the island for you and will make sure that you’re well-fed with three delicious meals a day.
What to pack for a trip to the San Blas Islands
When packing for a multi-day trip, it’s often hard to know where to start. Most of us probably haven’t spent time on tropical islands before, so what do you need to bring?
Important note: for the majority of options we mentioned above, you’ll only be able to bring, or have access to, a small bag. For the boat trips between Panama and Colombia, your big bag will be stored away. Some boat companies offering tours from Panama City only accept small bags onboard too, so make sure to check beforehand with the company.
Here’s our packing list for the San Blas Islands:
- Light clothes
- Beach cover ups
- Suncream (preferably reef-safe)
- Bug spray
- Sandals/flip flops
- Towel and toiletries
- Seasickness tablets (optional)
- Playing cards
- Water (check with your tour company/accommodation whether water is provided)
- Dollars to pay for the Guna Yala entry fee, snacks and souvenirs
What is the food like on the San Blas Islands?
The food that you’ll be eating during your San Blas trip depends on how you’re visiting them.
If you’re taking a boat from Panama between Colombia then all of your meals will be included in your tour. One of the popular tour companies, San Blas Adventures, describes their food as ‘traditional Caribbean cooking with a gringo touch’. Expect things like fresh seafood, vegetables, fruits, rice and sandwiches.
You’ll find a similar type of food for the day trips from Panama City to the San Blas Islands and if you’re staying on one of the San Blas Islands. Just make sure to check whether it’s included in your tour/accommodation price.
A popular food to try in the San Blas Islands is fresh lobster (available between July and February). It’s caught there and can be bought for $10-15!
Now that you’ve finished reading this guide, you should be ready for your adventure in the San Blas Islands. Want to continue your trip in Panama? Anton Valley is a great destination to visit after the San Blas Islands.
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.