Let me tell you now about my own experience of sailing the waters of San Blas in Panama. I’ve visited thew country with my good friend Filip, who you surely know by now (@glodnyswiata). We came to the idea of this trip quite spontaneously. Filip was in Jamaica, I was in Puerto Rico, so we decided to meet halfway. It was supposed to be a really chilled out trip but it ended up as usual, so we packed it full to bursting, wanting to see as much as possible. We left San Blas for the end, as a cherry on top. We had 2-3 days for this cruise, so the optimal time to feel the vibe but not spend the whole stay entirely on the sea.
We agreed that we want to check the full fancy experience – so a catamaran cruise, because neither he nor I ever set foot on a catamaran and as we were at the end of the world, we wanted to make it all unforgettable.
We found a company organizing catamaran cruises online, following splendid opinions they gathered. And I can confirm that I travel by boat was a great option!
Just a day before the cruise we returned to Panama City from trekking in Valle den Anton area, so we were in the ideal spot to start this trip. The company organized a ride by 4×4 jeep with driver right to a harbor in San Blas (we had to pay extra for this). At 6 AM the driver picked us up at the hotel in Panama City and for about 3 hours drove us on these winding roads, surrounded by jungle, with reggaeton bursting from the speakers (I was delighted, Filip not so much). At 9 AM he dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and scrammed off before we could even see it. On the right we had a wooden shed, which imitated a privy, on the left some kind of another shed and no one around to speak to. And that was it. No boat, no nothing. In the middle of nowhere there were also two absurd, plastic chairs, looking like they were taken out of a clinic. So we sat there nicely, like a pair of lost dimwits. As you can probably tell by now – there was no signal there, so our phones were useless. Theoretically, the catamaran we were to board was to appear in 15 minutes. 15 minutes passed. Then 30, then 45… After 1.5 hour and about a hundred of sand flies’ bites (seriously, the word “hate” is not enough to describe how I feel about them) something began to happen – motorboats with tourists returning from cruises began to slowly sail closer and closer. Not that anyone was in a hurry, let’s remember that we’re talking about Panama and infamous Latino attitude.
Another half an hour was spent on explaining, which boat we are to take, which was spiced by witnessing with a slight concern all the people getting off the boats, as they were soaked through, wrapped in garbage bags. Important clue: you should take a waterproof sack for your backpack and, for example, camera, if you’re gonna take one. What happens on these motorboats is beyond comprehension…
We didn’t know about that then but when we saw that all the backpacks are thrown like potato sacks into the hold, which was far from being watertight, we seriously lost all faith. I rebelled, begged one of the people getting off the boat to give me a garbage sack and I decided to hold my backpack on my lap. On one hand – I had expensive photographic equipment and a laptop but, on the other hand… who travels today without any electronic devices?
But to skip the boring part, I’ll cut it to the minimum – the ride to the catamaran lasted about an hour and a half, in a boat jumping on every possible wave, speeding so fast that I thought it will fall apart. We were sitting on the deck while waves splashed our faces every 30 seconds, as we swore vehemently under our breaths. You should have seen us then, because you would lose faith in our kind and smiling natures.
I’m writing about this to give you a head start, so that you could prepare for this both technically and mentally, because it would be easier to go through this phase. Well, we wanted an adventure and here we got a survival adventure on high sea.
We reached the catamaran soaked through, tired and furious… but then everything took a much smoother path. We were greeted by the captain and his right-hand man (both Columbians) who were marvelous, smiling and open.
All the boats and catamarans in I travel by boat are commanded by their owners, so you can truly see and taste the life of a true sailor nomad. It’s always chilled out and relaxed on the deck and you can always learn lots of sailor skills. From the very moment we set foot on the deck we felt like a part of family or a group of close friends. Contrary to what you might think, catamarans are the more luxurious option to cruise around San Blas. There are 4 double cabins, a bathroom with running water (kingston) and a galley. It’s really comfortable. But the deck is of course the best of it all – there was a table in the fresh air and lot of place to sunbathe or read books. We were really lucky, because we were the only travelers on the catamaran. It just happened so that no one booked it in the same time, so we felt like we had a private catamaran at our disposal.
When we were sipping wine with Filip, gawking at this paradisal landscape, our beloved captain prepared for us an incredible feast of the most fresh seafood I’ve ever had chance to taste. Literally, because half an hour before he proudly presented us a gigantic crab and a lobster we were supposed to eat later. Seafood is the basis of the diet for San Blas inhabitants and thanks to daily catching and selling seafood every day to visiting people they are able to make a contribution to the local society’s budget. It’s kind of a package deal – the tourists have full stomachs, while the natives make both ends meet. What can I say… the food was delicious and it was served in a beautiful manner. Pure delight.
The weather was quite cloudy (which, supposedly, almost never happens in San Blas but eventually it has to happen from time to time) but it didn’t keep the sun from breaking through the clouds to burn us like hellish flames (so we didn’t even feel that it was cloudy most of the time). I have to admit, it caused me to relax my vigilance and I burned my back like a rookie. Filip laughed at me so hard because of this for two days, almost falling off the deck.
What can you expect from San Blas cruise? Most of all, indulging yourself in pleasures – swimming in crystal-clear water, diving to search for starfish, sipping drinks while sunbathing on the deck, taking a nap under a palm tree, stuffing your mouth with seafood and feeling this unusual and nowadays very uncommon feeling that you don’t have to do anything and all that matters is “here and now”. There’s no wi-fi, no signal, no Netflix – only you in the end of the world, surrounded by what’s most beautiful in life.
If I was to sum up my stay on San Blas Islands, I would say that now I’m not surprised why people call them “French Polynesia of the Central America“. It’s so beautiful, so paradisal, so heavenly and so lazy… almost to the level of indecency. The longer you’ll stay there, the more various and different corners you’ll see and the bigger chances that you’d be able to watch fascinating Kuna people in their everyday life. But beware: trying this lifestyle might end up in leaving everything, buying a sailboat and living a truly free life, whenever and wherever you want. A lot of people I met there made such decision and I am now able to understand that sailing around the world and owning a sailboat, which in the same time is your home, might be the biggest freedom you can have in our modern era.
Did I convince you to visit San Blas? Keep calm and sail the paradise! :)
Where exactly are San Blas islands?
San Blas is an autonomous territory in Panama, officially known as Guna Yala. The San Blas Islands are situated in the north-western part of Panama, on the Caribbean Sea. The archipelago encompasses 378 islands, scattered throughout a 100 square miles area. Most of them are not inhabited but on bigger islands: Aguja, Guanidup, Chichime, Yandup and El Porvenir live natives of the Kuna tribe.
Kuna Yala - indigenous population of the San Blas islands
This virgin archipelago of coral reefs is part of an indigenous reserve of Kuna Yala. If you didn’t know so far that such a paradise really exists, don’t be too hard on yourself. The Kuna people tried to keep the islands out of the reach of the rest of the world through almost entire previous century but thanks to this, these islands are very well preserved and not tainted by mass tourism.
Kuna Yala consists of over 350 islands of San Blas archipelago, plus a 200 km long stretch of virgin rainforest along the coast. The Kuna Indians inhabit an autonomous territory since 1925. They are a small but proud society of about 300 000 people, who abide strictly to their local customs and traditions. About 50 000 Kuna tribesmen live in the main 49 islands of San Blas.
Tourists are allowed to visit only a few of them and on these islands only Kuna people provide food and shelter all year around. On one of the main islands, Chichime, Kuna tribe runs a hotel for tourists, in which you can sleep on hammocks for about 10 dollars (food included, drinks are not included in the price). These Amerindians live on the islands mostly in small cottages, made of straw and wood.
The Kuna belong to very few tribes, which won the struggle to retain and preserve their culture, which by definition is inaccessible for the outsiders. Recently it started to change rapidly but life goes on on these islands almost like time have had stopped there. The men spend whole days fishing, diving or cleaning, while women are mostly housewives and weavers of molas – a multilayered fabric, depicting sometimes abstract, sometimes very realistic visions or dreams of the Kuna women. Vivid colors of Kuna clothing blend in with the landscape colors, filling with admiration of symbiosis, which these beautiful inhabitants create with this heavenly place.
Interestingly, Kuna tribe is a matriarchal society, which means that everything on the island belongs to women. They also believe and practice participatory democracy. Every evening all the inhabitants of the island gather to discuss the events of the day or the emerged problems. Every couple of months the tribesmen of four or five islands gather to discuss bigger issues. Twice a year “regional” meetings are organized. Issues concerning the local region are being discussed, the participants also vote on the most suitable solution. Once a year an all-islands meeting is held, during which they talk over problems or challenges for the whole region.
In daily contact Kuna people are extremely nice and helpful. If you won’t stay on one of the islands, because you would be sailing or cruising, you will surely meet them selling fresh seafood and coconuts from their boats.
When it's best to visit San Blas?
Although in San Blas there is a division between dry and rainy season, the weather is generally quite consistent all year round. Between May and December it’s rainier but even then the rains won’t mess up your plans and travels, because despite everything the sun shines almost all the time. Between December and March strong winds blow over there, which could affect the comfort and ability to sail a motorboat between the islands. This windy part of the year makes it more difficult to travel, because the winds raise waves, so sailing or swimming might become a really wild experience. Still, this part of the year is considered summer in San Blas.
The San Blas Islands are of tropical climate, so the temperatures stay invariably high the whole year. The temperature doesn’t drop below 20° C (68° F) and the average daily temperature fluctuates around 27° C (80.6° F). The humidity level is usually quite high but thanks to the breeze it’s still a bit cooler than in the continental part of Panama.
It’s hard to control weather in such island climate. For instance, I was there during the dry season, in January and the sky was mostly clouded. It didn’t change the fact that the sun broke through the clouds easily and burned like hell. Even a +50 filter was not able to counter it. But it didn’t influence my San Blas sailing experience, which delighted me every day.
How to get to San Blas?
Contrary to what you might think, reaching San Blas islands is not a difficult task and you can do it in many ways. The islands are situated in the north-western part of Panama, near the border with Columbia in the East and Costa Rica in the West. You can choose from three main means of transportation – overland by a 4×4 jeep and then a water taxi, by plane or by a chartered sailboat. The cheapest option is, of course, a car, the fastest – a plane but the real adventure is to go there on deck of a sailboat.
Overland from Panama City
If you want to drive to San Blas from the continental part of Panama, the most often chosen solution is to rent a 4×4 jeep in Panama City to Carti Suitipo or Garti Tupile. You can book such a ride (with a driver) online or directly in the capital city of Panama in hotels, hostels and travel agencies. You are picked up at dawn at your hotel and taken to a harbor in Garti (Carti). The ride lasts about 3 hours through winding jungle roads. After reaching Garti (Carti) you’d need a water taxi (called “lancha” – a speed boat), which will take you to your destination in San Blas (a specific island or your boat). If you booked an overnight stay at Kuna tribe, ask them, which water taxi you should choose. If you booked a place on a boat, you should ask the captain, at which island the sailboat would be lying, so that you knew where to go to.
Below there are average prices of these rides, so that you knew how much you should plan in your budget.
- 4×4 jeep from Panama City to Garti (Carti), one way – 25-35 USD
- Water taxi (lancha) from Garti (Carti) to your destination, one way – 15–25 USD
- Kuna tourism Taxes – 15–25 USD
- Some islands also have an entrée fee – usually no more than 20 USD
Another option to reach San Blas is a boat. You can reach Golfo de San Blas from the Caribbean Sea. If the cruise doesn’t start on Panama side, you would have to go through customs before you would be allowed to sail to San Blas. The Panamanian customs clearance can be done on El Porvenir island. Sailing into Panama waters on a boat usually costs about 100 USD.
Crossing the Colombian border
Most of the people going to San Blas prefer to cross the Panama-Columbia border on the sea, because it’s much safer than the road through the border jungle, called Darien Gap. A cruise from Columbia to San Blas lasts about 48 hours non-stop and begins in Cartagena. The most usual case is booking a place on the boat along with other travelers. Then the cost fluctuates around 500-700 USD (including 100 USD border tax). The cruise to Panama lasts usually 5 days. You can also take a ferry from Panama to Columbia but it doesn’t stop on any of San Blas islands.
If you don’t want to force your way through the jungle or high waters of the Caribbean Sea, the fastest and most comfortable mean of transportation would be a plane. Air Panama flies to El Porvenir or Playan Chico from a smaller airport – Albrook (not Tocumen International) in Panama City. These planes can take up to 20 passengers, so you should remember to book a seat in advance, because it might seem plenty but in fact the seats sell out quite quickly. One way flight costs about 100 USD. Then you can take a taxi from the airport to the harbor and then by a water taxi to your destination (an island or a chartered boat).
There is also another option – a private flight from Albrook airport, directly to the islands, on which there is a small airstrip. Then you only have to get to the boat you will be sailing later. It usually costs about 3000 USD for an 8-passenger flight.
Sailing options in San Blas
The whole experience of being in San Blas is focused on sailing around and through the archipelago. Of course, you might decide to visit only one island but they are really small and being in only one place there seems to me like a lost opportunity. Or a bit boring too. You come to San Blas to cruise or sail, surrounded by the biggest number of paradise islands imaginable, to experience the life on the sea, this unusual freedom of sailing and being home in a different place every day.
San Blas is truly an unusual and virgin place, therefore you have to spend a lot of time and energy to reach it. But when you finally do, it’s really such a waste of opportunity to leave it quickly without getting to know it better. Moreover, it’s straight out unprofitable when it comes to both time and money. There are different sailing options in San Blas:
One-day trip from Panama City
This is the most limited option, which would be more “ticking off” San Blas on your travel list but it’s still very popular. You can buy such trip in travel agencies or hotels in Panama City or online. How does it look in practice? At dawn you are gathered at the hotel by jeep to the harbor in San Blas, there you jump on board of a motorboat, which sails around the area and finally ends up on one of the closer situated islands, where you have lunch and in the evening return to the city in the same manner. It seems to me that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, because you’ll spend most of the day in a car or sailing around from one point to another. Generally, you wouldn’t have much time to enjoy your time on the archipelago.
Two days and one night
This, in my opinion, is the very minimum. The plan is similar to the one above but you’d catch one sunset and one sunrise. Moreover instead of only few hours, you’ll stay on the sea for a whole day. The advantage of this solution is that you’d experience a glimpse of how it feels like to live on a sailboat and you can, even for a short while, become a part of this adventure. But be warned that it stimulates the appetite for more, so it’s hard to leave if you already know the feeling, knowing how heavenly it would be if you stayed longer.
Four days and three nights
It’s one of the most popular options and in my opinion it’s the optimum. Almost whole 4 days (because you leave the boat after breakfast on the fourth day) let you taste the “high sea life” and see the diversity of the San Blas archipelago. During these four days you’ll surely find time for the coolest stuff you can do on a cruise – diving or snorkeling to search for starfish, swimming in crystal-clear azure waters, sunbathing on the deck with a cool drink in your hand and devouring the most fresh seafood you can imagine. Moreover, this type of cruise lets you visit various islands, get to know their diversity and meeting a unique Kuna tribe.
There are also companies offering 4, 6 or more nights but I have to admit, anything above a week would be too long for me and I would lack action and novelties. But of course, it’s your choice! Whatever floats your boat!
Adventure for the bravest – 5 day cruise from Panama to Columbia
There is also an option for the most adventure thirsty of you, who are not afraid of long hours spent on the boat and who value a backpacker vibe. A quite popular 5-day cruise from Panama to Columbia (or the other way round) is booked mostly by young people, who like to party.
This cruise takes the route along the most beautiful Panama and Columbia coast in the Caribbean Sea. It starts in a historical fort-city of Portobelo and then goes through San Blas islands, where you stay for 3 days. On the other two days you’ll sail the high sea to Cartagena or to Sapzurro city, in the vicinity of Darien jungle.
You can choose various types of boats for this cruise – yachts, sailboats, catamarans and even motorboats! Smaller boats are much calmer, because the bigger ones are famous of the parties that take place on the deck. In all cases, except for a motorboat, you sleep in one or two-man bunks. If you choose a motorboat, then you’ll sleep in hammocks or beds in cottages on various islands.
All the meals are included in the price (breakfast, lunch, supper). You can also take on board your own alcohol and any snacks you wish.
You should only remember this one thing: 2-days cruise in the open sea is not a picnic, the weather is changeable and you could encounter really high waves, which for amateurs it might turn out to be – putting it mildly – a serious challenge. I’ve talked with a befriended captain of these cruises and he sincerely told me that many of the passengers simply can’t bear it and they have to face the most hardcore seasickness. You can’t quit during such cruise and return to the land, so whatever would be happening, you have to endure it. Just sayin…
Can you take your own luggage to San Blas?
It doesn’t matter if you’re going on a 1, 3 or a 7-day long cruise, you can’t take your suitcase or even a large backpack. In small planes, jeeps, boats and water taxis there’s simply no room for that. All you can take is a small backpack. If you’re travelling with a larger luggage, there is a simple solution for that. You pack a small backpack to go to San Blas (you don’t need lots of stuff anyway) and you can leave your main luggage in a hotel or a hostel in Panama City while checking out. Lots of travelers do so and hotel staff is used to that, so in most cases, you wouldn’t have any problems with storing your stuff (I tested it myself). You can collect it after the cruise.
What you should take to San Blas?
If you’re planning to stay on one of the islands, you have to bring your own water. It’s recommended to have one gallon per person per day. On some islands you can buy water but it costs 5 USD for a small bottle, so it’s just an unnecessary waste in your budget. You should also have your own snacks, in case you got hungry between the served meals. There are no shops in San Blas. I recommend something that won’t go bad in high temperatures, like muesli bars or nuts. Same applies to all personal objects like medicine or any cleaning products – you should take care of these on your own as well.
This is my mini list of the cruise “must haves”, which will surely come in handy:
- pareo, which you can use as a cover or a shawl for the beach
- quick-drying towel
- if you’re planning to sleep in a hammock on an island, then you should grab a thin pillowcase or a sheet
- a repellent for mosquitos and sand flies with DETT (they sting like mad there)
- sunbathing lotion with at least 50 SPF filter (I haven’t experienced such a strong and burning sun like the in San Blas for a really long time)
- headwear – really a must have in this acute sunlight
- swimsuit or beach outfit (or even two, because you practically won’t wear anything else)
- 2 or 3 light shirts, dresses or shorts
- flip-flops (you walk barefoot on the boat’s deck anyway)
- a drug for seasickness (even if you think now that you don’t need it)
- all types of medicine you might need
- basic cosmetics (choose the miniature containers, because you have limited luggage)
- e-book reader or a real book – you’ll have plenty of time to indulge yourself with a good book
- cash – there are no ATMs in San Blas
San Blas trip cost
The San Blas Islands are an expensive destination but they are worth it. Traveling there costs quite a lot but this money goes directly to the indigenous Kuna tribesmen (who now rely mostly on tourism).
You should plan about 150-250 USD per night, regardless if you want to sail or stay on the islands. Reaching this place from Panama City overland (so the most popular way) is about 140 USD per person both way.
One-day trip from Panama City is about 100 USD.
I visited San Blas with I travel by boat and their price list for various types of cruises (boat or catamaran) is as follows:
San Blas 3 nights, from 750 USD per person
San Blas 4 nights, from 950 USD per person
San Blas 6 nights, from 1,290 USD per person on a monohull / $1650 on a catamaran
5-day Backpacker Trip – Panama – Colombia or Colombia – Panama, 399 USD per person speedboat/ 550 USD per person on a sailboat
In Panama you can pay with both US dollars and Panamanian Balboa currency, which have the same value. On the islands there are no ATMs, so be sure that you have enough cash on you. If you plan to book a cruise online, you usually have to pay a 10% deposit while booking and then the rest in cash, after your arrival.