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The San Blas Islands Are Just Another Reason To Love Panama

Posted by Emily Henkel on 3/3/21 12:00 PM

Teach English in Central America

For the kind of people who love vacationing on a deserted island and overnight stays on catamarans. 

Panama is hiding more than you think. It's nestled just south of Costa Rica which seems to steal most of the attention (and for good reason, we do love it there!) but the more I look into Panama, the more I find.

Case in point? The San Blas Islands, a collection of nearly deserted islands that are mostly just a way for the country to brag about how pretty the beaches are. Think powdery white sand, bluer-then-blue water, and swaying palm trees all over the place ... hundreds of times over, on hundreds of islands. (More than a few visitors compare these islands to Fiji or Mauritius.) And the best part? Unlike those other island-getaways, these aren't really on the tourist radar quite yet. 


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There are some whispers that these islands are about to be the next "it" spot for tourists, so we think you should head to the San Blas paradise before everyone else does! It takes a little more effort to get here, but it's well worth it (especially when you have this post that'll walk you through the main checkpoints). 

Get To Know The Islands A Bit 

The San Blas Islands are a scattering of hundreds of islands off the coast just north of Panama City in the Caribbean Sea. These islands are the stuff island-dreams are made of, with gentle swaying palm trees interrupting the white sand beaches, that melt into turquoise water that boasts incredible snorkeling.

Most of the islands are uninhabited, but all have a deserted, remote feeling to them, complete with postcard-pretty beaches. The people who do live on these islands are known as the Kunas. The whole island area is an autonomous territory in Panama which allows the local people to protect their islands and control the tourism (and directly benefit from the money earned from visitors). The Kunas have been able to protect their native land against huge swells of tourists, allowing visitors to glimpse local life, experience nature, and the unique culture of the area. 

All of this means visiting some of the most untouched islands in the world, with pristine beaches and protected wildlife. When you visit, plan on a remote feeling kind of vacation, rather than one that's completely without all-inclusive resorts.

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Which Islands To Visit 

A Little Background 

The San Blas Islands are a scattering of over 365 different islands and cayes meaning there's one for you to visit every day of the year if you had the time. But no matter what island you visit, keep this in mind: these islands are dreamy and beautiful — that's the highlight. Apart from island hopping, snorkeling, swimming, and lounging in the sand, there isn't much to do on the islands. 

A little note about snorkeling? It's amazing. The water here is clear and beautiful, and surprisingly deep between the islands. The reef here is home to colorful starfish, schools of fish, spiny lobsters, bouquets of coral, and barracudas. 

A Few To Know 

We'll get to how to plan your trip in just a minute, but I'm guessing you'll want to do some island hopping. And unless you have the cash to rent a private sailboat or catamaran, you'll be going with a pre-planned itinerary. In case you're wanting to go island hopping on your own or want to ask if you can change the itinerary, here are a few islands to know about (though remember: there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds to choose from): 

El Porvenir Island (+ Other Larger Islands) 

This is where most people start their vacation — it's a central island with electricity and running water, and has good connections to other islands. It's not the most stunning or remote, but if you do have some time here, there are a few pretty beaches plus some Kuna villages if you want a taste of the local culture. 

Along with El Porvenir, most of the Kuna inhabit these additional islands: Aguja Island, Guanidup Island, Chichimei, and Yandup Island if that's helpful to know. 

Perro Chico 

This island is as pretty as so many others in San Blas but is a pull for snorkelers, thanks to the small shipwreck found right off of the beach. At low tide, a portion of the boat is partially exposed, so you can see the surf hitting the top. This island is also home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole region, which makes Isla Perro one of the most popular for snorkeling and relaxing. 

Cayos Chichime

The long stretches of beaches on this island are some of the most deserted that you can reach without sailing too far. This location is a popular backpacker's getaway (without electricity or running water) with white sand beaches and blue water rimming the island. You can stay here overnight, in cabins filled with hammocks. 

Isla Robeson

If you're skimming pictures of San Blas and are getting very "Robison Crusoe vibes", you're not alone. The stark beauty and remoteness of this place is a similar parallel many have made, leading to an island named after the popular book and movie. Not much to do here but lounge on the sand and go for a quick snorkel. 

Pelicano Island

A small little islet is home to a handful of Kuna families and hundreds of starfish that are springled on the ocean shore. The beach here has shallow, calm waters so you can get close to these colorful beauties.  

Banedub Island 

One blogger claimed this island as her favorite, thanks to the calm, warm waters. The island has a little jetty where you can spot lots of lionfish just off the shore. Another perk? This area has illuminating jellyfish you can spot which sounds pretty magical. 

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Day Trip + Overnight Stays 

Day Trip Here 

Since the islands are pretty straight forward to reach (see the instructions below), it's common to visit San Blas just for the day. If you go that route, I suggest visiting some of the more popular islands we talked about above just for the day. You'll find tour operators who will take you out snorkeling here for the day from Panama City.

Trips tend to be $100 for the day, which includes transport out to the islands, visiting 3-4 of them, lunch, and a return back to Panama City. It's a good option if you're on a time crunch or want to visit the islands but for less than it would cost to stay overnight. 

Go Overnight 

This is my vote! Spending 3+ days here seems just about right, especially when where you sleep is a part of the vacation. It's pretty popular to stay overnight on a catamaran, meaning you'll get to sail underneath the stars and wake up to a new destination. 

There are also rooms that can be booked in a few spots on the larger islands, plus many spots will rent out a cabana, a hammock for sleeping underneath palm trees, or camping out on the beach. Plan on really basic accommodation, like huts on the beach, that are rustic (but expensive, around $150-$200 a night in some places). Most places have sparse electricity and it's even less common to run into running water. We're down to the basics on this vacation! Only the larger islands will have shops and established restaurants. Here's a good option for a swim-up, over the water cabin or this bungalow to help give you an idea on pricing/what the rooms look like in a more affordable range ($80 a night). 

For that reason, we're a fan of staying on a catamaran, since you get transportation, a place to stay, and an experience for around the same price. You can find quite a few sailboat + catamaran options on Airbnb.  Prices are around $150 - $250 a night. 

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A Few Things To Know 

Bring Cash 

There aren't any ATMs on the islands, so bring enough cash to cover your trip (and tips) from the mainland. You probably will be doing minimal spending once you do get to the island, but it'll be handy to have. Another thing to note? The local people tend to accept small bills (nothing larger than $20). 

It's Pretty Untouched 

Like we hinted at above, most of these islands are uninhabited, and the ones which are, aren't hit by mass tourism. It means you'll probably be off the grid for a portion of your trip with poor WiFi and spotty electricity in some cases.

I always keep a portable charger with me when I'm traveling (especially because the amount of photos I'm taking means my phone battery is depleted quicker), but I'd especially recommend it for a trip out to these islands. The Anker chargers are ones that a lot of our volunteers use and like (also based on the number of reviews I'd say they're not the only ones), but there's lots of options for portable chargers and you can't really go wrong. Just a head's up, our Amazon links are affiliate, but just know that we only share items that we feel would be really helpful for you!

Only the larger islands will have shops and more established restaurants, so you'll want to check to see what meals are included with your tour/accommodation (and probably will want to bring snacks for in-between times). Just a few things to know when it comes to planning, prepping, and packing for your trip. 

When To Visit 

It's pretty much paradise all year round, but it is "windy season" from December to March. Because San Blas is partially sheltered by a reef, the waves aren't too bad, but getting to and from the mainland can be a bit rough during these months. Panama has a rainy season from June to December (but it's still a nice visit in the rainy season — most showers last just an hour or two, and then it's just cloudy). Plus, some say the snorkeling is best in the rainy season. The average temp here is around 80° F, which is something to be pretty excited about. 

About The Seafood + Marine Life 

You'll be eating a lot of seafood on the islands or on your boat cruise, so if you're allergic or don't like lobster, plan on bringing your own meals. 

If you go snorkeling or spot some new ocean friends in the shallow water, remember to leave them be. Many of the islands are dotted with starfish right under the waves which can be a pretty tempting photo op, but it's harmful for these starfish to be handled by people. Even a few seconds out of the water can be damaging to their tissues, plus there are other concerns (like the sunscreen on your hands). 

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Getting To San Blas 

From Panama City, By 4x4 and Lancha 

Most visitors come via Panama City. It's most popular to drive, then take a boat out to the islands you're visiting. Just know that going by road is pretty bumpy and rough — it typically requires a 4x4 or all-wheel drive. Bring something for motion sickness if you're prone! Once you reach the port (Golfo de San Blas in Garti [sometimes called Carti]), you'll get to the islands via water taxi (lancha) which is operated by the local people. It's around 2.5-3 hours to get to the port, then another hour or so to make it to the first island. 

Note: If you're staying on a catamaran overnight, quite a few arrange the transportation to the islands which is handy. Also, your accommodation in Panama City may be able to help you arrange transportation to the port.

As far as price goes, plan on around $25-$35 for land transport to the port and $15-$25 to catch the boat to one of the islands. 

All arriving travelers will need to pay $10-$20 in Kuna fees for visiting this autonomous region. Some islands will require an additional visitor's fee (no more than $20). 

Get Here By Plane

You can also fly if you have a little more spending money. Air Panama has flights that run through Panama City to a handful of the islands, for around $150 for a one-way. If you want to go this route, the listed airports are Achutupo (‎ACU), Corazón de Jesús (‎CZJ)‎, El Porvenir (‎PVE)‎, Malatupo (‎MPP)‎, Playón Chico (‎PYC), and Puerto Obaldía (‎PUE). 

All arriving travelers will need to pay $10-$20 in Kuna fees for visiting this autonomous region. Some islands will require an additional visitor's fee (no more than $20). 

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Come to Central America with us! 

Hi, we're ILP! For years we've been sending college-aged volunteers to countries around the world for a semester of volunteering and traveling. You'll be set up with a group of peer-aged volunteers in countries around the world, with programs in Central America, where you can spend part of your time teaching, and weekends + vacation days for seeing places like the San Blas islands. 

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*Because of the worldwide pandemic, travel options are limited and frequently changing. You'll need to do additional research as resources + activities shared in this post may or may not be available at the time of your trip.

ILP volunteers — work closely with your Program Manager who can help you understand current country entrance requirements which will determine what countries you can visit during your semester. 


 

 

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