Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on a deserted island in the middle of the Caribbean, with only 20 other people to share it with? Then look no further than the San Blas Islands in Panama. An archipelago, the San Blas Islands, are just above the northern isthmus of Panama, facing the Caribbean Sea. And less than 50 of the 378 islands and cays are inhabited!
This is a guest post from Sarah, an avid traveler from Australia who loves exploring Central America. Sarah’s travels have included Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.
Meet the Local Kuna People
The native Kuna people (also known as Guna) own and control the islands, which were previously known as Kuna Yala (land of the Kuna). Life on the islands is very simple and traditional.
You’d think some place as beautiful as San Blas would be filled with tourists, however that’s not the case. The Kuna’s fully control the islands protecting their lands from mass tourism. Combined with the fact it’s not simple reach, the San Blas islands remain “undiscovered”.
Snorkeling, swimming and sailing are popular activities around the islands. In fact, many people sail from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands. However, this involves 4-5 days on the open seas, so a strong stomach and a flexible itinerary are required for the journey.
What to Expect Visiting the San Blas Islands
Accommodation varies from very basic to more upmarket options. It varies by island. My accommodation selection falls into the basic category providing a mix of private and shared dormitory-style rooms, basically small straw huts, about 5 meters from the ocean. The huts are very basic – a sand bottom floor, a bed with a couple of sheets, and a small table.
The shared bathroom facility provides only cold water. Power from a generator switches off at 10pm nightly, resuming about 6am. This dictates most guests’ sleeping patterns. Unless you have spent a lot of time napping in the hammock during the day!
Limited facilities exist on the islands – don’t expect Wi-Fi, air conditioning, or even fans. The ocean breeze in the evenings keeps you cool. If you are looking to relax, get away from it all and enjoy a digital detox this is the place!
You can relax and let someone else do all the cooking. The Kuna chef cooks three meals daily for guests. Simple food, it is incredibly fresh, seasonal and tasty. Breakfast is often eggs with vegetables, or if you’re lucky, pancakes with syrup, a delicious treat!
Lunch and dinner feature fresh caught fish, seafood or chicken served with a generous helping of rice and salad, or cooked vegetables. Life is so quiet and relaxing on the island you can stop looking at your phone and just rely on the bell for breakfast/lunch/dinner to know the time! Such is the gentle rhythm of the days in the San Blas Islands.
Activities in the San Blas Islands
If napping in a hammock, reading a book, or relaxing on the beach is not enough for you- joining an afternoon game of football or volleyball is an option. You can snorkel right off the beach or just enjoy a leisurely swim.
Optional afternoon snorkeling and sailing tours are available. Sailing to a couple of nearby islands you can explore the small mainland, or splash around in the clear, turquoise water. In some of the cays, where the water is shallow enough to stand, there is some great snorkeling. Look for the giant starfish!
Relaxed evenings often involve a bottle of the local rum and a few rounds of cards or dominoes accompanied by Caribbean music. A great way to finish the day. The company is good, a range of interesting people with lots of great travel tales.
It is very likely you will leave the San Blas Islands relaxed with wonderful memories of a truly unique place and some new friends. The hardest part is leaving. A digital detox in this relaxing island atmosphere makes you never want return to civilization.
How to Get to the San Blas Islands
Getting to the San Blas Islands is not a straightforward journey. The best and easiest way is to arrange a tour through your accommodation in Panama City.
Tour packages to the islands generally include hotel pick up and drop off, transport to and from the port, a boat ride to the island and back, and meals and accommodation for the duration of your stay on the island. All you need to do is specify how many nights and your accommodation choice, which determines the island you visit. There are a limited number of flights available to the San Blas Islands on Air Panama.
Departure from Panama City starts very early, around 5 or 6am in a 4×4 vehicle. Buckle up for a windy and exciting ride through the jungle to the port to meet your boat. With one main road to the port from Panama City, it is a smooth ride, despite the twists, turns and hills.
Stopping on the way to the port, you pass through immigration and pay a small fee to enter Kuna Yala. (Check if this fee is included in the tour cost.) Expect 2-3 hours total journey time to the port.
I recommend a brief stop at a supermarket to pick up snacks and water as the selection on the islands offers only a basic selection.
At the main port in the San Blas Islands, you transfer to a water taxi to complete the journey to the island where you’re staying. These small, motor-powered boats seat about 10 people. Luggage restrictions apply: usually about 12 kilos or 25 pounds per person. Arrange to leave some of your luggage at your accommodation in Panama City if needed.
Once on the boat, gear up for a wet and bumpy boat ride to the islands. Travel sickness pills are not necessarily needed, but chances are you will get wet. This is all part of the fun! Depending on which island is your destination, the boat ride takes 20-45 minutes. Upon arrival, the friendly and very polite Kuna people who own the island will be there to greet you.