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Warm tropical water. Hundreds of deserted islands. Palm tree covered shores. It’s a tropical paradise.
We just returned from a 5 day sailing trip to the San Blas Islands and I’m already dreaming about going back – it was absolutely AMAZING! After visiting 40 countries, I can honestly say these are some of the most beautiful islands on Earth. It’s an untouched paradise.
It was also one of the hardest trips to plan because everything is SUPER CONFUSING THERE.
We wanted our San Blas Islands Panama trip to be absolutely AMAZING, so we went a bit overboard on all of our research, but details about visiting San Blas were all very vague. Here we’ll share all of the best options, different types of trips, and how you can plan the perfect trip to San Blas Islands.
Why Should You Trust Us To Help You Plan A San Blas Trip?
I was shocked that most of the people who are writing about visiting the San Blas Islands have only been there on a day trip. With 3 hours of transportation each way, most have stayed there for a few hours.
We sailed through San Blas for 5 days and visited 9 different islands. Additionally, our curious kids picked every bit of information from our captain who was one of the most knowledgeable captains in San Blas that we could find.
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) witch are perfect for snorkeling weather you’re just learning how to snorkel, or are experienced like we are.
How Long To Stay In San Blas Islands?
The most important thing to decide when planning your trip is how long to visit San Blas Islands. If your trip is too short you won’t get the full San Blas experience, but a trip that’s too long may get too expensive. Note that because most transportation arrives and leaves early in the morning, you really don’t get full days. So a 3 day trip to San Blas would arrive at the island around 9am, and leave on the third day at 7am, making your trip just under 48 hours. While technically you’re there for 3 days, you only get 2 full days.
Day Trip To San Blas
Day trips from Panama City are widely sold, but we strongly discourage travelers from taking a day trip to San Blas. On a day trip, you’ll spend a minimum of 6 hours traveling and will be limited to a nearby island with many other visitors. While you technically will be in the San Blas Islands, you’ll miss out on so much of the experience.
3 Days in San Blas Islands
The minimum amount of time that you should send in San Blas is 3 days and 2 nights. That gives you enough time to get to a more remote island (more beautiful, and less crowded), and gives you time to relax and explore.
4 Days in San Blas Islands
4 days in San Blas gives you the perfect amount of time to explore and really get some serious island hopping in. With a 4 day San Blas Itinerary, you can do lots of snorkeling, fishing, or just a solid amount of relaxing.
5 Days in San Blas Islands
Our trip to San Blas was 5 days and it felt practically perfect. By the end of the trip, we all felt completely relaxed, had visited every nearby island that we wanted to, and had had plenty of time both on the beach and beyond.
Should I Stay In One Place on San Blas?
With 379 islands, it almost seems a shame to just see one of them. Especially since so many are very close. If you’re going to always stay in the same place, make sure that you have a way where you can get out and see other nearby islands, even just for a few hours. Once you start moving around the water in San Blas, you can really start to appreciate the beauty of this tropical paradise.
Where To Stay on San Blas Islands
There are two main places where you can stay on San Blas. On the beach or on a boat.
Staying on The Beach at San Blas Islands
The most affordable option for visiting San Blas is to stay on one island in a cabina (a small rustic beach shack). This gives you a place to stay and most places include all of your meals since there aren’t restaurants (though always double check). Outside of hanging out on the island and hoping that there’s good snorkeling nearby, there’s not a ton to do. If beach time is your thing, and you don’t need much to entertain you, this is a great option.
While staying on the beach in San Blas is more affordable than staying on the boat, it’s still pretty expensive. Some options do include round trip transportation (saving you about $140 total), so make sure to read all the fine print and contact the accommodation with questions before you book.
Here are some of the best beach accommodations in San Blas:
Staying on a Boat in San Blas
By far the best place to stay in San Blas is on a boat. You can hire a private sailboat trip or doe a shared group trip. You can also choose between a monohull boat or a catamaran. Monohull sailboats are generally smaller and more compact, and most catamarans in San Blas are newer and have more space. We chose a monohull boat, but when we return for our next trip to San Blas, we’ll get a catamaran for more space. Here are some excellent options for more affordable sailing trips you can book:
Combo Island Hopping and Beach Bungalow Trip
Many island hopping trips in San Blas will have you on a boat during the day, and you’ll stay on a different island each night. This gives you the perks of being on a boat during the day, but with the added work of moving all your things each night. If you don’t mind packing up all your things each day, this could be a fantastic option. Island hopping San Blas and staying in a beach bungalow is also a little more affordable than staying on a sail boat.
Best San Blas Island Hopping Trips
Best Areas To Visit In San Blas
San Blas is divided into 3 zones, or sections. Zone 1 is the closest to the port, Zone 2 is in the middle and Zone 3 is the farthest away.
If you visit somewhere in Zone 1, you’ll see more tourists as well as a lot more locals. A majority of the communities are in Zone 1. The communities are small towns on islands, and for the most part are crowded and disorganized. We were not very impressed by what we saw in zone 1 and were happy to quickly move on.
Zone 2 is the best place for snorkeling as well as the best place in San Blas to find deserted islands. A large majority of the islands in Zone 2 were uninhabited, or just had one family living on them. You don’t see as much of the locals, but what you do see is a more intimate experience. We felt that when we were in Zone 2, we were stepping back in time, and it felt completely MAGICAL!
As a visitor, you really can’t visit Zone 3. This area is the most traditional, but they are also the most closed off to tourism. They rarely allow boats to enter their zone, so most boat trips go around Zone 3, or just pass straight through.
How To Visit Multiple Islands In San Blas
The best way to visit multiple islands is through a tour. Remember the fiasco that I described of our launcha from the dock to the island? It was utter chaos. I would not rely on public transportation to get you to and from the islands since it’s fairly unpredictable and disorganized. Also, those boats typically only stop at bigger inhabited islands, not the deserted islands that make San Blas so wonderful.
Instead of relying on the public launcha, get in touch with your accommodation and see how they can help. If you’re staying on an island in a cabina, contact your accommodation to see what options they have for day trips to other islands. While not all have this option, several do. Unless you really want to just hang out on the beach, only book something with options for traveling to other islands.
Of course, if you book an island hopping tour, or stay on a boat, getting around to multiple islands is so easy, since you’ll already have that planned into your day.
Is Island Hopping San Blas Better On A Speedboat or Sailboat?
Both sailboats in San Blas and speedboats in San Blas are great options, but they do provide different things. Consider the pace of your trip and what you want to do to help you decide which is the best option for your San Blas Panama trip.
San Blas Island Hopping by Sailboat
Sailing the San Blas Islands is PERFECT if you really want to slow down. With a nearly constant breeze, the San Blas islands are amazing for sailing. Sail boats move at a slower pace, so moving from island to island is a slower task. Actually, it’s more of an experience than a task, since the sailing is such a big part of your day. If the thought of hanging out on the sailboat while your captain navigates you to the most beautiful islands, this is the trip for you.
San Blas Island Hopping by Speedboat
If you’d rather just get to an island and spend as little time on a boat as possible, then you’ll love a speedboat trip in San Blas. Speedboats are the fastest way to get around the Sand Blas islands, so instead of spending 1 hour sailing, you can often get to your destination in 20 minutes. Some speedboats are just basic launchas, while others are luxury boats, so make sure you know what you’re getting.
Is It Worth Traveling Between San Blas and Colombia by Boat?
Many through travelers are looking to get between Panama and Colombia. Since there are no roads through the dangerous Darian Gap, many people choose to travel by boat between San Blas Panama and Cartagena Colombia. Typical boat trips from Panama to Colombia take between 4-5 days and stop at several islands in San Blas. The boat trip is over 250 miles, so plan to spend a lot of time on a boat on a trip between Panama and Colombia.
What To Pack For A San Blas Islands Trip
When you travel to San Blas, plan on packing LIGHT! Our transportation company told us taht most boats say they have a limit of 28 pound of luggage per person. While I saw no scales, there is limited room on the boat, so if you have a lot of things, there may not be room for your luggage.
We opted to leave our suitcases with our hotel in Panama City and to only take our backpacks.
Here is what we packed for our trip to the San Blas Islands with kids:
Wetsuit (The water is generally warm but can be nice to have)
Sun shirts/rash guards for everyone to protect against the sun
Compact microfiber towel (we love these ones)
1 set of casual clothes
Compact Rain Jacket
GoPro – this one has almost he same features as the newest model at a much better price
Best Time of Year To Visit the San Blas Islands
In Panama there are really only 2 seasons – wet and dry. The dry season is from December-April. This is when the weather is the most predictable and warmest. Temperatures are usually warm and most days have a good amount of sun. The dry season is also high season in San Blas for tourism, so you’ll find more crowds and slightly higher prices.
The wet season is from May-November. While it doesn’t ALWAYS rain, it’s not uncommon to have rain for 3 straight days. While the rain is warm, if you’re looking for a tropical holiday, the wet season could make your dreams of sunshine a bit harder. Of course, you could always get sunny days and excellent weather while visiting in the wet season, but it’s a bit more of a gamble.
What Is The Water Like In San Blas Islands?
The water in San Blas is unbelievably blue and clear. In shallow waters and over reefs, you’ll see several different shades of blue, and as the light shifts throughout the day, the water color appears to change.
The water is warmest in shallow water and cooler when you’re in deeper water or in a moving channel. Overall, the water was about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally it felt warm, but for our younger kids, they could only stay in for about 30-45 minutes before they started to get cold, witch is why you might want to consider bringing some wetsuits. There were a few times that our youngest wore a wetsuit, but the average person will be fine.
If you tend to get cold easily and have a hard time staying warm in the water, consider getting a thermal rash guard to help keep you warmer.
How to Get to San Blas Islands
The trek from Panama City to San Blas should be easy and straightforward, but I’ve never seen a more disorganized system. Half of the road is in Guna Territory, requiring a 4×4 car (their regulation), and a $20 entrance fee. The road is steep and incredibly windy in places. The most difficult part is not the drive, but figuring out getting from the port to your island in San Blas. Everything there is so disorganized and none of the boat captains cared to help much or listen. Even WITH organized transportation, we felt like it was a miracle that we actually got onto a boat. If we hadn’t organized our transportation in advance, I think we’d still be sitting at the port.
The whole process is mind boggling.
The short story is that you absolutely need to have your transportation arranged BEFORE you leave.
Tips For San Blas With Kids
San Blas was absolute paradise for the kids. Our kids love to swim, snorkel, and have tons of energy, so a week on a boat was so fantastic for them. Our kids have done some other boat trips before so we had a few tricks up our sleeve so that everyone didn’t go crazy in the smaller space. We also have done LOTS of water activities in developing countries (thankfully), so we knew what gear we needed to bring and which we could expect to find there.
- Bring your own kids snorkel gear. It’s nearly impossible to find kids sized gear for snorkeling while traveling, so always bring your own. If you’re limited on space, just bring the snorkel and mask.
- Check to see if your accommodation and transportation have kids sized life jackets. We travel with life jackets for all of our kids under 90 pounds, since most of the life jackets we’ve seen in other places are poor quality and not certified. These inexpensive life jackets for kids are actually pretty good quality, lightweight, and dry super fast.
- Reapply sunscreen OFTEN! We love this sunscreen since it stays on great in the water and lasts long, so we always put it on first thing in the morning. For reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, we love this spray since it goes on easily even when kids are a little bit damp, and it’s reef safe.
- Bring things to occupy kids while on the boat. We had each kid pack a book (2 for our biggest book worm), and we brought several travel games with us to keep the kids occupied. You can see our favorite travel games that are perfect for the boat here, here, here, here, and of course this one.
What To Eat On San Blas
If you’re planning a trip to the San Blas, plan on eating lots of FISH. Fish is the most common meal in San Blas, but where you stay will determine what else goes with it. If you’re closer to shore, you’ll likely have lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, but if you’re farther away, fresh produce is harder to come by.
Breakfast typically is bread and eggs with fruit.
Lunch and dinner in San Blas are typically cooked meat with rice and some vegetables.
Grocery stores are almost unheard of on the tourist islands, so if you have any dietary needs or are looking for food, plan to bring that with you from Panama City.
Can You Get to San Blas from Colombia?
Yes, you can leave Cartagena and travel through boat through the San Blas Islands to reach Panama. The journey is about 250 miles so plan on it taking several days. The boats are not usually very big (unless you charter a sailboat or catamaran, which takes a LONG TIME), so bring plenty of food and water for the journey. Be sure to hire a reputable captain and do your research on the route you will take and any stops along the way.