Located off Panama’s North Coast, the San Blas Islands are everything you imagine when you hear the words “paradise islands”. Chalky sand, turquoise water and swaying palms draw in travellers from across the world.
Officially known as Guna Yala (previously Kuna Yala) but referred to as the San Blas archipelago, this collection of islands make up a semi-autonomous region within Panama. They’re governed by the indigenous Guna people, who control the laws, commerce and tourism.
While getting to the islands isn’t hard, their political separation from the rest of Panama means visiting Guna Yala takes some pre-planning!
San Blas Islands Travel Guide
San Blas, Panama, Map & Resources
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- 🇵🇦 Country: Panama
- 🏝️ Nearby places: Capurgana | Carti | Sapzurro
- 🤿 Must-do activity: Snorkelling
A Brief History of Guna Yala
Prior to the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by European sailors, the Guna people lived on the mainland, in an area of modern-day Colombia. After the arrival of Europeans, the Guna moved northwards into what is now Panama, before abandoning the mainland and heading out to the San Blas Islands.
Over the preceding years, the San Blas Islands and their Guna inhabitants were harassed by colonial powers, pirates and private enterprises. Later, the abuses came at the hands of the Colombian and Panamanian authorities.
During the early 1900s, the Guna led a rebellion against their oppressors and retook the islands for themselves. They made a unilateral declaration of independence but after just a few days agreed to rejoin Panama, albeit as an autonomous region, in exchange for the development of a formal school system on the islands.
The symbol for the Guna rebellion is a red and yellow flag with a left-facing swastika in the middle – bear in mind it was designed before the Nazis rose to infamy. You’ll still see this flag proudly displayed on boats and flag poles across Guna Yala to symbolise the fierce independence of the region.
Now you know the history, don’t be concerned you’ve stepped into some ‘Man In The High Castle’ alternate reality the first time you spot a swastika flying!
Are the San Blas Islands Worth Visiting?
If tranquil, tropical escapes appeal to you, then the San Blas Islands are well worth a visit! While some of the 350 islands are populated, most have no one on them – and how you choose to visit Guna Yala will decide which islands you spend the most time on!
How to Get to San Blas
Visiting Guna Yala isn’t too complicated but requires a little pre-planning. The most common ways for backpackers to visit the islands are a San Blas day tour or a multi-day trip from Panama City – or while travelling between Panama and Colombia.
But these aren’t the only ways.
If you’d prefer to visit San Blas without an organised tour, you can either fly from Panama City or get a boat from Carti – which requires a lengthy 4×4 ride from Panama City to arrive at the port town.
A day trip to San Blas is a long and tiring experience. You’ll spend hours in a 4×4 and only get a chance to visit one or two islands – honestly, it’s not worth visiting for a day. Spend a bit of extra money and enjoy a few days travelling between the islands.
Most multi-day tours involve either sleeping on a sailing boat, or the islands themselves. Sailing tours take you to the more isolated corners of Guna Yala – some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful islands! Tours that use speed boats mean you’ll spend more time on the islands themselves but you’ll need to stay closer to inhabited islands, so you have a place to sleep each night.
Travelling Between Panama and Colombia
In our opinion, the best way to visit the San Blas Islands is while travelling between Panama and Colombia. It’s on of the only ways to travel between Central America and South America!
A few companies run these trips, with the most popular being San Blas Adventures and Blue Sailing. Hostel Mamallena used to be a favourite tour provider among backpackers but no longer arranges sailboats between the two countries. Instead, they recommend joining one operated by the aforementioned companies.
When travelling between Panama and Colombia, you can opt to sail or go on a speed boat. The speed boat gives you much more time on the islands but isn’t the most comfortable ride – think wooden benches on relatively small boats for hours at a time. The sailing boat requires much more time on the water and costs significantly more. It can also be uncomfortable during windy season when the sea gets choppy – if you suffer from seasickness, the speed boat is a better option but expect to struggle no matter which option you choose.
Whether you travel by sail or on a speed boat, potential seasickness is a price worth paying when you get to each island. Plus, motion sickness tablets are easy to acquire from any pharmacy in Panama or Colombia – if you don’t know what to ask for, “tabletas por *insert vomit noise here*” works wonderfully!
Flying to Guna Yala
Flying to the San Blas Islands isn’t the most economic or environmentally friendly way of visiting but if you’re short on time, the hour-long journey from Panama City is a viable option. It costs $50-$200USD one way. There are several airstrips in Guna Yala but they’re all tiny and only capable of handling very small aircraft.
4×4 and Boat
Taking a 4×4 and boat to Guna Yala is the only alternative to flying. It’s the journey included in any tour from Panama City. Trying to arrange this for yourself is difficult and can get expensive. The best option if you want to get to the islands independently is to book where you’re going to stay and ask your accommodation provider to arrange transport for you. They have all the contacts and will be able to arrange the best price.
What to Bring to the San Blas Islands
You don’t need much for a trip to San Blas. Even if you’re travelling between Colombia and Panama, the bulk of your luggage will be stowed away on a boat, leaving you with just a daypack to carry the gear you’ll need.
Bear in mind that aside from snorkelling, chilling on the beach and sharing a few beers with your travel companions, there’s not a lot to do in Guna Yala! You won’t need your best shoes or a fancy shirt!
Essentials to Bring to Guna Yala:
- Passport – you’ll need this to get through the Guna checkpoints
- Suncream – coral reef-safe suncream is important
- Sun hat
- Insect repellent – save this for the evenings, not while you’re in and out of the water
- Swimming clothes – at least a couple of sets if you’re travelling around the islands for a few days
- A warmer outfit – the evenings can get relatively chilly, especially in the windy season
- Your camera
- A power bank
- A book or E-reader
- Spare cash (you can only use cash on the islands) – plan to get stuck in case the weather changes, carrying a few hundred extra dollars is always a good idea
Best Time to Visit the San Blas Islands
There is no bad time to visit the San Blas Islands! The area has a tropical climate and only sees two distinct seasons:
- Dry Season – January to May
- Rainy Season – June to December
At first glance, dry season might appear to be the best time to travel around Guna Yala – but hold your proverbial seahorses for a moment – dry season brings with it strong winds, making the water murkier and the sea rougher. It’s also worth noting that the high winds can make the sea too rough for speed boats. Occasionally, San Blas tours are interrupted because boats can’t leave the islands. If you’re in the swing of island life, getting stuck out there for a few days can be a real treat!
Snorkelling is better during the rainy season and the boat journeys are less vomit-inducing However, if you’re on a sailboat, the winds mean it’s possible to travel under sail all day. It’s also worth noting that rain can still appear during the dry season – which is becoming more common thanks to climate change.
Rainy season offers calmer waters and contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t pelt it down all day, every day. Most days will see an hour or two of heavy rain before the sun reappears. The calmer seas and distinct drop in tourism make rainy season the ideal time to visit Guna Yala!
Unlike other islands in the Caribbean Sea, there is no real hurricane season in Guna Yala. Hurricanes tend not to form below 10 degrees of latitude, which keeps much of Panama’s and Colombia’s Caribbean coasts safe. However, as global weather patterns change, this is likely to change too. Always check directly with local tour agencies or boat captains for the most up-to-date information about weather in the San Blas Islands!
Where to Stay in the San Blas Islands
Of the 350+ islands that make up the San Blas archipelago, only a few islands are open to tourists. All hotels, guesthouses and bungalows on the islands are owned and run by the local Guna population. They are 100% responsible for all tourism to the islands and all the money you spend stays within the community.
San Blas accommodation ranges from classy AF to bare-bones rustic. Unless you’re willing to spend the big bucks – think at least $150USD per person, per night – you’ll get fewer luxuries than you’re used to. Sand floors, basic huts and shared bathrooms are all the norm for budget accommodation in San Blas. You may even find yourself using a traditional toilet over the water on some islands which is an interesting experience!
There are options for beachfront cabañas and rustic stays on Guna Yala. You can even book sailing experiences on yachts! It’s hard to know which accommodation to choose when booking online, so if you’re already in Panama City, we recommend heading over to Hostel Mamallena – they can help you organise budget accommodation in San Blas, as well as transport to and from the islands, through their network of contacts!
How Long Should You Stay in San Blas?
Staying any less than two nights in San Blas is doing yourself a disservice. The journey from Panama City is at least 4-5 hours and it takes a day or two to get into the swing of laid-back island life.
If you can cope with rustic accommodations and higher-than-average prices, we recommend spending more than two nights. But if you’re short on time, money or just want a hot shower to remove the sand and salt, two nights is enough.
Things to Do on the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are all about slowing down, chilling out and enjoying your surroundings. You’ll soon find yourself forgetting your to-do list as you lounge in hammocks and snorkel with tropical fish all day.
Depending on your tour provider or accommodation, you may spend time travelling between smaller, uninhabited islands. These offer a chance to snorkel in different locations, or just chill on a new beach!
Treat your time in the San Blas Islands as a real holiday and don’t stress if your days feel unproductive – that’s the point! Sip on a coconut and slow down.
A Note on Coconuts:
Food and Drink in San Blas
Food and drink are almost always provided by your accommodation or tour. It’s basic, often consisting of rice, fish and beans. You’ll frequently be served chicken, tiny salads and some form of starch too – potatoes, yucca, etc. On some islands, lobster or king crab is common but don’t expect to get it at budget accommodation or on tours unless you’re willing to pay extra.
Getting Around the San Blas Islands
There are only two ways to get between the San Blas Islands; by boat or plane. If you’ve got the cash to splash, chartering a plane between the larger islands is possible but gets expensive – and limits you to just a handful of islands.
Travelling by boat is the most efficient way to move between the islands. Usually, your accommodation or tour provider will tell you where you can go each day.
Is a Visit to the San Blas Islands Ethical?
There’s always a question of ethics when it comes to visiting the homes of indigenous populations but with Guna Yala, there’s little to worry about. As tourists, we’re not allowed to go where they don’t want us. The Guna people are in charge of all the tourism to their islands. Any boat that lands needs to do so with permission and everyone visiting must pay an entry fee. This money is funnelled directly back into improving infrastructure for the local communities.
If you’re concerned about the ethics of visiting, ensure you follow their rules and don’t make a tit of yourself. No one wants a bunch of drunken tourists on a party cruise to ruin the laid-back island vibes. A few beers and the odd coco loco are fine – a few bottles of rum are not recommended!
Where to Go Next?
Panama City: The easiest major destination to get to after San Blas is Panama City. This thriving metropolis offers towering modern skyscrapers, ancient ruins and everything in between. If you’re not fed up with seafood after your trip to San Blas, check out the seafood market in Casco Viejo for well-priced, fresh ceviche!
Capurgana: If you’re travelling by speed boat through the San Blas Islands on your way from Panama to Colombia, you’ll finish your trip in Capurgana. This laid-back beach town is popular with locals and has everything you could want after a few days away from modern luxuries – except an ATM, cars or consistent power…
Cartagena: For those sailing between Panama and Colombia, the trip ends in the coastal city of Cartagena. Spend a few days soaking up some more Caribbean sun in this fabulously colourful city but be prepared for crowds – Cartagena is well and truly on the tourist trail these days