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As we were preparing for our recent trip to the San Blas Islands, I was shocked at how little information there was about how to get there. Sure, plenty of people will encourage you to book a rushed day trip out there, but if you want to spend more than a day there, you’ll need to figure out how to actually get there and get back to Panama City.
We did SO MUCH research and talked to so many different people as we were planning our trip, that I absolutely HAD to share it. Hopefully our experience helps to make planning your San Blas Islands transportation easier and smoother.
About The San Blas Islands
Guna Yala, also known as the San Blas Islands, is an indigenous province located on the Caribbean coast of southern Panama. It is a unique and beautiful destination that boasts pristine beaches, clear waters, and a rich indigenous culture. It’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited!
The Guna people, who are the indigenous inhabitants of the region, have managed to preserve their culture and traditions even as the world around them evolves. They have their own language, Guna, which is still spoken by the majority of the population, and their traditional clothing is a significant part of their cultural identity and is regularly worn by the women. When you are in Guna Yala, they consider themselves their own autonomous region, separate from Panama.
The province consists of a chain of 379 islands with only 49 of them being inhabited.
Here, you’ll find very limited infrastructure, and even more limited access to technology (Tigo gets the best service here, FYI). In it’s place you’ll find some of the best coral reefs in the world (said as a complete Coral snob – not many reefs impress us, but the reefs here did).
To get to San Blas, you’ll take a vehicle to the port and the only way to get to the islands is by boat.
How To Get from Panama City to San Blas by Car
The drive from Panama City to San Blas takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes. It will take you a little over an hour to get to the Guna Territory and then 1 hour and 30 minutes to get to the Carti port from there.
When you get to Guna Territory, your passport will be checked and you’ll have to pay a $20 entrance fee. Make sure to save your receipt since you may need it when you get back to the port to prove you’ve already paid the entrance fee (some people arrive from Colombia so they regularly check for entrance payment).
Once you get to the Guna territory, the road gets rough. It’s actually a paved road, but it’s incredibly windy and has several sections that are super steep. The road is full of pot holes and drivers are swerving all over the road to avoid them. We were told that there are several rollover accidents every week because of the high speeds that drivers take the road at. We gave everyone Dramamine for motion sickness, and wore motion sickness bands, and several of the kids still felt very sick when we got there (thankfully no one threw up).
When you get to the port, you’ll have to pay an additional $2 entrance tax to get into the port.
Once you arrive at the port, the chaos ensues.
To get to San Blas Islands, you have to take a panga transport boat from the mainland to your designated island.
You would think that a region that gets hundreds of visitors a day would have some sort of organization, but there was none. We were told to sit on a bench and wait. After 45 minutes of waiting, we starting asking questions and bothering people to figure out what was happening.
It took 30 minutes of asking questions to everyone we could before someone finally assigned us to a boat. This is a place where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, since in over an hour there, we saw very few visitors being put into the transport boats. It was super chaotic and the boat captains seemed to have no interest in talking to us, which was very frustrating.
How to Get From San Blas Islands to Panama City
To get back to Panama City, our captain had arranged a panga boat to pick us up. We were picked up at 7am, and we were the last people on board the boat. Others got picked up as early as 6:15 on farther islands.
The boat ride back to Carti was as smooth as could be expected. Once we returned, the chaos was in the opposite direction.
Our transportation company was supposed to send us information the night before about who our return drivers were, but they didn’t and it was so early in the morning that they were not answering their phone. We waited for an hour before one of our drivers showd up (thankfully it was one of the same who dropped us off), and then 10 minutes later, the other car came.
Everyone at the port seemed to be in a similar situation and no one had information about when their drivers would be there, so this seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence.
We finally started back to Panama City and then got a call 15 minutes later that they had forgotten some other passengers, so we had to turn back. Given how disorganized things were, I was not surprised.
Can I Drive My Own Car To San Blas Islands?
Yes, you can drive your own car to San Blas Islands, but after our experience, I would not recommend it. We were hoping to save money by driving a rental car out to the islands and back again since we had a large group. In the end, it would have cost us even more.
First of all, you are required to have a 4×4 car to enter Guna Territory. We called all the rental car companies, and the only company that could guarantee a 4×4 car at an affordable price was Alamo (many other companies rent luxury 4×4 SUV’s but the price is over $125/day).
For our group, we would need 2 cars, and the price was $275 per car (without any extra taxes or random insurance they require you to buy).
After arranging our car rental, we set about looking for just the boat tranport. Obviously since there are all these transportation companies, they have to have contacts to help arrange just boat transport. Turns out, the cheapest we could get boat transport for was $70 per person, which felt CRAZY HIGH (especially since we were very familiar with the old boats they would be taking us on after all our time in the Caribbean Corn Islands). If we didn’t have to pay any extra fees, we would have broken even, so we decided to go with a transportation company.
After we got to the port, we know that there’s absolutely no way we would have all gotten on a boat where we needed to go, especially since we had to fight to even get on our prepaid and arranged boat.
If you are willing to take a gamble, there is parking at the port and the cost is just $4 per day. After our experience, the only way to get to on a boat to the San Blas Islands is with a transportation company or an inside contact with one of the boat captains.
How Much Does It Cost For Transportation to San Blas Islands?
Transportation to San Blas Islands is incredibly expensive. We contacted every company possible, and the cheapest we could get roundtrip transportation for was $130, and that was because we had a large group of 10. Truthfully, it felt like a major rip-off before we left, but after the chaos of the Carti Port, I doubt that we would have been able to get a boat to take us out to the islands, so it was worth it.
Factor this fixed cost into your budget, and know that the beauty is well worth the cost.
Best San Blas Transportation Companies
There are several transportation companies that can help you get to San Blas Islands. They all will arrange your transportation from Panama City to the island or boat of your choice and will also provide return transportation. The truth is that the best transportation company depends on where you are going. Some transport companies in Guna Yala work best with closer islands and other Guna Yala Transportation companies work better for traveling far. We traveled with LAM tours and it was fine, and sadly I’m not sure if any of the others are any better.
To determine the best transportation for your trip, contact where you are staying and ask them for their best recommendations.
What Are Roads Like to San Blas Panama?
The road from Panama City to Guna Territory is mostly fine. When you turn off, headed into the mountains the road gets more windy, but nothing too extreme. Once you get to Guna Territory, the road gets incredibly windy, and has some super steep sections (if you don’t have great brakes, you’ll be in trouble). While the road has sections that have been recently paved, it’s still a road where nearly everyone will get motion sick.
Even though some of the sections are paved, the pot holes are massive. In a country that gets 8 months of rain a year, large potholes are very common, so even when it’s repaved, it usually doesn’t stay great for long.
Getting to San Blas Panama by Plane
If you want to get straight to San Blas, you can charter a private plane to one of the islands. Costs are If you want to get straight to San Blas, you can charter a private plane to one of the larger islands. Costs are about $150 each way per person. Alternatively, Air Panama also has several daily flights to Kuna Yala Panama. The airports (really just landing strips) are at Achutupo (ACU), Corazon de Jesus (CZJ), EL Porvenir (PVE), Malatupo (MPP), Playón Chico (PYC) and Puerto Obaldía (PEU).
Do You Need to Book A Tour To San Blas Islands?
Yes, San Blas is not a DIY travel location. Only private cars or licensed drivers can enter the territory. At the port there were no tours being sold, so advance reservations are necessary.
Some islands have small hotels that include transportation in the nightly cost. If you book a hotel on an island, ask for their assistance with transportation, since there seems to not be much organization.
How Much is Transportation to San Blas Islands?
For roundtrip transportation from Panama City to an island in San Blas, plan on paying $140 per person, or $130 per person if you negotiate a discount. It gets incredibly expensive, especially with a large family like ours.
What Time Should I Leave Panama City to Get To San Blas Islands?
Timing for getting to San Blas is important to get to the port when the boats are leaving (or at least when they’re supposed to). Most booked transportation leaves Panama City at 5:00am, and every car we saw stopped at the gas station before Guna Territory to let guests use the bathroom and get something to eat. If you drive on your own, and don’t stop, you can probably leave Panama City around 5:30.
How To Get a Boat at Carti Colombia for San Blas
As I mentioned above, arranging your own boat transportation at Carti can be very difficult. We tried to get people to talk to us about it both on departure and arrival and struck out both times. We recommend hiring a company to arrange your transportation for you.
Tips For A Boat Ride to San Blas Islands
Some boats have open sides, and others have a cover and plastic “windows”. There’s no way to pick which one you get. The boats with “sides” stay drier, which is what we got lucky with both times. We saw others getting off of open boats who were completely SOAKED!
Tip: You’ll be wearing a swimming suit the whole time in San Blas, so put it on early so you’re prepared to get wet on the boat ride.
What Can I Take to San Blas?
Both the Panga boats and most 4×4 transportation has limited space. I recommend just taking a backpack and taking as little as possible. We arranged for our hotel in Panama City to keep our bags while we were gone and each of us just took a backpack with our things. We stayed at this Panama City hotel and it was excellent and a fantastic price.
Sailboat Charters to San Blas Islands
We chartered a sailboat for our trip to San Blas Islands and it was absolute perfection. We knew we wanted to visit San Blas on our trip to Panama and after doing insane amounts of research we chose a sailing trip. It was absolutely perfect for our family and a trip we’re eager to repeat. We booked our boat trip through VRBO and they have a great selection of affordable sailing trips to San Blas Islands.
Benefits of sailing San Blas Islands:
- Seeing several different islands on our trip
- Slowing the pace of our travel down
- Easy for visiting reefs for snorkeling
- Fantastic for fishing (we did a lot of trolling while we sailed)
- Private just for our family
- Flexible with the itinerary we wanted
The biggest downside of a San Blas sailing trip is that for nearly ALL OF THEM, you need to arrange your own transportation from Panama City to your boat. Every Zone of San Blas has different boats that serve them best, so contact your captain with which San Blas transfer service they recommend.