As tropical islands go, the San Blas Islands are up there with the most beautiful islands in the world. The 365 islands are situated off the eastern coast of Panama and are home to the Kuna people, an indigenous tribe that occupy 49 of the islands while the rest are uninhabited. As a tourist destination, they remain almost totally untouched and a trip here can be done in a number of ways. The most common means of getting here are by sailing, with lots of different companies offering expeditions from Panama City to Cartagena in Colombia and vice versa. As the Dariengap in north Colombia is impassable (you can try it if you like but it’s not recommended!!), the only means to travel from North to South America is via plane or boat – plane may be cheaper andquicker, but by boat, you can take your time, experience the islands, snorkel, sunbathe, kayak and meet lots of new people.
The trip itself takes about four days, I’ll run through my experience from start to finish so it should hopefully give a good insight into what to expect.
Firstly, booking the trip – I booked mine through my hostel, Lunas Castle in Panama City. It’s possible to make bookings through lots of other hostels, although a large chunk of those on my particular trip came from either Lunas Castle or Hostel Mamallena. I would also recommend not booking your boat until you arrive in Panama – the best prices can be gotten when you arrive while there are lots of options so it’s very unlikely all of the boats will be booked up and most importantly, you could meet people in your hostel that are good fun so you might want to book together! The price generally fluctuated depending on the company, with $500/550 seeming to be the average. Some trips were on larger boats, some smaller. Some lasted two days, some lasted five. Overall, it’s about picking the trip that suits your plans and your budget best. Personally, I went with a company called Colombia Panama sailing. I had researched a few of the companies that were available for my dates and they had good reviews and the dates and prices were good so I booked along with two Danish friends I had made in the hostel. Another way to choose who to sail with is to ask your hostel – they most likely have different experiences with different companies and might even be able to get you a discount.
To begin with, we had to make our way from Panama City to Porvenir, a small town on the east coast of Panama. We got here by public transport and luckily enough I had two good Spanish speakers with me as I wouldn’t have had a hope of finding my way otherwise! As far as I know now however, lots of the sailing companies organise transport from Panama City – some are included in the sailing price, some are extra so it’s worth looking into this beforehand. When we arrived, the accommodation for the first night was sorted out for us already so we checked in and met the rest of the group we would be sailing with. That night we all got some food together, had a few drinks and then had an early night as we had to rise at 7 the next morning
The trip itself
Once we got on the boat, the first day was spent getting acquainted with each other, we were shown our beds, we got some breakfast and we set sail. There is lots to do on the boat over the course of the three days we island hopped throughout the San Blas – swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, sunbathing and most importantly exploring the islands as we went along. The water itself is shallow, warm and crystal clear and the islands are covered in lovely white sand – it is exactly how you would imagine a tropical paradise. Snorkelling is the best way to explore under water – there are lots of different coral reefs with all types of life swimming around. Even from the boat you can see crabs and other creatures scuttling along the sea bed. Another added surprise to see when we were sailing was flying fish, fish that when scared swim up to the top of the water and shoot up in the air. With their fins, they glide along the ocean surface quite expertly to escape predators. Pretty impressive!
One island we visited had a family of six locals living on it – pretty crazy to think that they are the sole inhabitants of their very own tropical island. Another more central island had a few locals sitting around drinking beer and listening to music (there is no electricity on the islands so they used a generator to power the speakers!) Mainly however, the islands we visited were devoid of any human presence so we had it to ourselves to roam around and check it out. At night time, the boat parked up and everyone ate the evening meal together and afterwards, had a few drinks until the early hours before hitting the hay. After the third day, we left the islands for Cartagena. In all we sailed for about 30 hours – travelling overnight on the third night and most of the fourth day before arriving in Cartagena. Once we touched down, all fourteen of us from the boat checked into a hostel and spent a few more days in Colombia together.
Food and water is something I’m sure most of you are wondering about – on the boat food was all inclusive in the price. There are no shops or restaurants on the islands so everyone eats on the boat. The food itself was a good mixture of meat, fish, vegetables, breads, rice and there was a vegetarian option available too (and I’ve heard good things from others who got separate trips too). Food was in plentiful supply too and there was always enough to go around, although in the heat, hunger wasn’t much of an issue! One of the days a few locals came up to us on a boat and sold lobster and crab they had caught. In total it came to about $30 for enough crab and lobster for all fourteen of us on the bought. Pretty decent for freshly caught lobster. Water was also included in the price and there was a plenty of it to go around. Other snacks like chocolate, biscuits, soft drinks or alcohol – you need to bring these yourself. The boat had a fridge to cool drinks although to conserve battery power, it wasn’t always turned on so warm drinks/melted chocolate is likely!
What to bring
What to bring depends largely on the individual but there are a few essential items I would advise. Apart from the obvious items like sun cream and sea sickness tablets, other recommended items include a book or two, an external battery pack for charging your phone or MP3 player for music, some drinks and food, a flashlight and cash.
Aside from the four day trip, there are day trips also available online and from different hostels, and can be gotten from Panama City. Some people take a day trip from Panama City, others visit the islands and camp out for a night or two before returning to Panama. This is your best choice if you are not making your way towards South America although from personal experience, the four day sailing experience is one not to be missed.
So that’s my story from the trip to the wonderful islands. If you have any questions about any of it please feel free to ask below. And remember, sharing is caring!