When Rachel and I first started planning our two weeks in Panama we pretty much only had two places on our itinerary: the Panama Canal and the San Blas Islands. The canal was easy to visit, but arranging a trip to San Blas proved a little more tricky.
Except the funny thing is, in the end getting to San Blas was such a breeze, and if only we could have found accurate and up to date information about planning a trip to San Blas we wouldn’t have had any problems. Note to self: don’t trust any San Blas guide written by someone who only took a day trip to San Blas and spent about two hours there.
So for everyone who wants to visit San Blas (and once you see how beautiful it is you will want to!), here’s what you need to know:
Panama City to San Blas is actually a really easy journey
Everything I read about how to get to San Blas from Panama City made the journey seem rough. People were saying the drive would take all day, we’d get soaked on the boat ride, and in general getting out there would be a bit of a nightmare. In fact I even began to wonder if it was really worth all the effort to get to San Blas. Sure everyone says San Blas is a real-life paradise but I mean, I’ve been to the beach before.
So when our driver stopped for a long coffee break just an hour outside of Panama City I groaned inwardly – if we had such a long journey ahead of us why were we already stopping?!
But then after about another hour on the road we were already pulling up to the port to get on our boat. Like, what? What about the unpaved roads that were meant to make us so carsick? And it wasn’t even 9 am yet!
And then they loaded us into a really nice, spacious speedboat where I didn’t feel even a drop of water from the waves. When they let us off twenty minutes later on a deserted island and rode away I did wonder if this was the tricky part Google had warned about, but then I spotted the captain of our catamaran coming out on a dingy to fetch us. And that was that!
Tl;dr: Getting to San Blas is surprisingly easy and you should reach your accommodation in time to enjoy a late breakfast.
You can book accommodation on Booking.com
There are a bunch of San Blas accommodation options on Booking.com, which as a non-Spanish speaker I found really helpful.
But sailing is so much better!
We were going to book three nights at this sea bungalow, but then we came across I Travel By Boat on Instagram and decided to take a sailing trip instead. And I’m so glad we did, because we got to see much more sailing from deserted island to deserted island, whereas I think we may have gotten a bit bored staying on just one island (though I do think they have options for planning day trips to other islands).
Trips on a sailing boat cost $190 per night per person, including all meals, but we opted to upgrade to a catamaran for $250 per night per person. We shortened our trip to two nights instead of the three we would have spent in the cabin so in the end we didn’t end up paying too much more for a much better experience.
You can also find tons of sailing options listed on Airbnb, so it could be worth browsing there as well to find the best deal. And they have some cheaper hut accommodation listed there too, which is great if you’re on a budget. You can check San Blas Airbnb options here.
Another popular option for backpackers is to take a 4-day sailing trip with San Blas Adventures from Panama to Colombia, though just be aware that you’ll be sleeping on hammocks on the beach so don’t expect anything fancy. I’ve also heard that the water gets quite rough as you get out towards Colombia. It would probably be a nice option for meeting some fun people if you don’t mind roughing it though!
But anyway, I definitely recommend sailing in San Blas if you can!
Our sailboat also had stand up paddle boards for us as well as snorkeling gear, so we definitely didn’t get bored while out on the water.
Our catamaran was owned by the sweetest young French couple, and seeing how much they clearly loved sailing around the Caribbean I was almost tempted to go fetch Dan and buy a boat.
Your accommodation/sailboat will arrange transport to the islands
One of my big questions when trying to plan this trip was how to get to San Blas from Panama City. San Blas is an autonomous region in Panama (also called Kuna Yala), and apparently it’s difficult to get there independently. But don’t worry, your accommodation will be able to arrange your transport to the islands.
We paid $70 for the transport to our catamaran – $30 for the minivan to the port, $20 for the boat ride, and $20 in Kuna fees.
You can also fly to San Blas
The Kuna Yala region has a bunch of airports which run flights to Panama City through Air Panama, usually for around $100, so flying to San Blas doesn’t need to break the bank.
They’re listed on Air Panama’s site as Achutupo (ACU), Corazón de Jesús (CZJ), El Porvenir (PVE), Malatupo (MPP), Playón Chico (PYC) and Puerto Obaldía (PUE). I would get in touch with I Travel By Boat, or whomever you’re sailing with, and asking them which airport you could fly back from, depending on how long you’ll be sailing for.
And if you want to be super fancy, you can even charter a plane and fly out of one of the smaller airstrips that only serve private planes. They run about $3,000 for an eight-seater plane.
Uh, so Rachel and I weren’t being that fancy, but we ended up being really lucky as on the day we were leaving San Blas a family had chartered a plane out to San Blas and since the plane was going to return empty, they let us take the flight back for the same price as ground transport. So we got to fly in a private plane back to Panama City!
And oh my goodness, the views.
You don’t need to book in advance
Some people just drive a rental car out to the San Blas port and find accommodation when they get to the port. This is probably the cheapest option, as then you can probably find accommodation for as low as $20 – $30 a night, but of course there’s a bit of a risk involved if everything is booked. Though I imagine someone would rent you out a beach hammock if need be!
And like I said before, the road from Panama City to the port is paved the whole way so it should be a fairly easy drive. You’ll just have to stop at the border patrol to show your passport and pay the $20/person fee before you can continue on to the port.
Try to stay for at least two nights
So, how long do you need in San Blas?
You can actually organize day trips to San Blas if you want, but you’ll only get a few hours there and won’t have time to reach the more remote islands, so I imagine it would just feel like a bit of a tease. If you’re really pressed for time though, this San Blas day tour will take you from Panama City to San Blas for the day and it has really good reviews.
You could experience more with one night, but honestly I would really try to spend at least two nights in San Blas.
In fact Heloise and Florian, the couple running our catamaran said that they’re going to start only accepting guests for a minimum of three nights, and they really recommend trying to come out for four nights if you want the true San Blas experience.
The longer you sail, the more you’ll see
Okay, duh. But if you want you can start from where we did and then continue sailing to an island with an airport and fly back, so you won’t have to go in a circle and see the same thing twice. A lot of people also sail all the way to Colombia!
You’ll be “roughing it” a bit, but it’s worth it!
All of the accommodation on the islands is run by the local Kunas, and the sailboats also work closely with them, paying to visit each island. This means that you won’t find any big fancy resorts on San Blas – but I think that’s a good thing!
And while we did pay extra to stay on a catamaran, we were still sleeping and showering on a boat. So just be aware that San Blas might not be the most luxurious stop on your Panama trip – though it might well be the most beautiful!
who needs fancy restaurants when you can have lunch on a paddle board?
It’s still magical in rainy season
Coming to San Blas in the middle of rainy season, I expected a lot of afternoon showers but hoped for some moments of sunshine as well.
It rained one of the nights we were there, but during the days the skies were clear – too clear in fact, as Rachel and I both left San Blas with some brutal sunburns.
In fact we had sunshine almost everyday during our sixteen days in Panama in rainy season.
Bring your sunscreen
Speaking of sunshine, the San Blas sun is no joke! Luckily I’m one of those people that even wears sunscreen in the dead of winter, so I had enough sunscreen packed for both me and Rachel.
Bring your passport
Speaking of things to pack, remember to bring your passport to San Blas! You’ll have to go through a Kuna checkpoint where they check everyone’s passports.
Don’t bring all your luggage
The ground transport doesn’t have much room for luggage, nor does the boat, so you should just pack a small bag with everything you’ll need for San Blas and leave the rest of your stuff at your hotel in Panama City.
So many people travel to San Blas from Panama City that your hotel should be used to storing people’s luggage for a few days.
Bring a towel
I had read that you need to bring your own towel for the cabins, and while our catamaran had bath towels for us I brought a quick dry travel towel to bring with me to the beaches.
Don’t forget your GoPro
I say that because I forgot to bring my GoPro so missed out on all those snorkeling shots! Of course if you don’t have a waterproof camera don’t worry, the views above the sea are just as spectacular.
You’ll be eating a lot of lobster
In the evenings our captain would buy fresh lobster from Kuna fishermen and we would have a feast – and I mean feast. We also ate a lot of fresh fish, so if you don’t like seafood you should probably let your accommodation know beforehand! But I hope you like seafood, because there’s nothing quite like barbecuing a fresh catch on a deserted island.
The grilled bananas with rum were also pretty tasty.
Be careful with the starfish
I feel like most of the photos I’ve seen of people at the beach in Panama feature starfish, and it’s true, you’ll see a lot of big starfish in San Blas.
But I had also read that starfish can die from being picked up by people, so I was wary of touching them. Our captain explained that you should only touch a starfish that is floating in the water or sand, not one that is stuck to a rock, and as long as you only touch it gently and don’t try to lift it out of the water it will be totally fine.
Save San Blas for the end of your Panama trip
Literally every single Panamanian we spoke to about our itinerary responded with a nervous laugh when we told them we were heading to the Gulf of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro after San Blas.
And now I get it. All of the islands we visited in Panama were beautiful in their own right, but none could compare to San Blas. I mean, can anywhere in the world compare to San Blas?