How (NOT) to Visit San Blas, Panama

The San Blas Islands of Panama is an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands and cays, of which 49 are inhabited. They lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal. A part of the comarca Guna Yala along the Caribbean coast of Panama is home to the Kuna people. Their remote location and unique beauty made me want to visit San Blas, Panama.

I love a good adventure, so I knew that it would be an experience I would hate to miss out on. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of information out there about how to get there or what it is really like, so we were kind of left to guess on a lot of things (similar to Panama City).

I was able to find a little information and decided on an Airbnb that offered transport. This is where problems came in. I want to share what my experience was like and help you figure out the best way to plan a trip to San Blas and share what I would have done instead knowing what I know now.

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Table of Contents

Step 1: How Long and Where to Stay

You should NOT stay one night.

San Blas Island accommodations are really interesting. Most are backpacker style and include food/water while there. This is because the islands are typically a 45 min boat ride out. Bringing anything with you can be fairly difficult. Given all this, there are a few options. We decided to stay for one night and it was just not enough. Getting there is exhausting and a difficult process. One night meant we felt rushed the entire time and didn’t really get to soak it in. It was also cloudy the entire time we were there. I recommend two days, two nights.

1. Tour

Most tours are 3 days, 4 nights which honestly feels like a very long time to me. I searched high and low for shorter options but couldn’t find anything. There are week-long trips available as well which I feel would be really long!

Research a bunch if you go this route as some tours I saw had really horrible reviews or were essentially camping on the island. Just prepare for whatever the company says. This is also the least stressful way to visit the islands and if you have the days, I highly suggest just going with a tour!

There are day trips from Panama City as well but I can’t imagine spending so much time getting somewhere and back in one day (more on that later under step 2, getting there).

2. Hostel or Airbnb

This option works basically for anyone who wants to stay fewer nights or more nights than tour options. We went with staying at an Airbnb because I am more familiar with the platform, but it was a hostel posted through Airbnb. This is an option I’d do again but not for one night. It was exhausting taking a really long, bumpy ride all the way there just for one day. If you decide to do this, stay for two nights at least!

Step 2: Getting to the Dock

You should NOT book a transport without reading lots of reviews.

We booked a transport through our Airbnb, While the Airbnb had plenty of good reviews, there were none on their transport service. It ended up being awful. They were over an hour late to pick us up, then an hour late when they switched cars, then another hour late getting us to the boat so we were up at 5 am ready to go and didn’t make it to San Blas until 1 pm.

The rides were so awful my aunt got extremely sick and they were very unapologetic. I was really upset with the whole process because they charged us $60 per person plus $20 for the entrance fee (mandated by the tribe) and $20 for the boat ride each. We spent about $100 and were over 4 hours late and extremely sick. I don’t want to send any business to them knowing they scammed us like this.

Instead, rent a car and leave early from Panama City. Boats to the San Blas islands don’t have exact times but leave around 9 am. If you are there by then, you can make it to the island of your choice. Book accommodation in advance, and your host will also be able to help you with what time to be prepared for the boat. The drive is really hilly, but there are not steep cliffs or dangerous roads (besides the potholes), and driving yourself ensures you can be there when you want to be.

Step 3: Boat Rides

You should NOT leave electronics out.

When I heard about the boat dock, I immediately thought of other Caribbean ports I had been to. This one actually started on a part of a river off the ocean and reminded me of the boats we road in while in the Amazon. The boats were completely fine, but are very small. The boat ride will be rocky and you will get splashed with water. I left my phone out and ended up clutching it under my life jacket the entire 45 minute boat ride because I was terrified it would end up covered in water. By the end of the boat ride, I was soaked.

Step 4: On the Island

You should NOT expect luxury.

San Blas is an island paradise. It is all hosted by locals and has very basic amenities. The island we were on served meals for us, but you had to pay for bottled water. There was a bathroom with showers and toilets, but they were bucket toilets where you flush yourself. I have seen zero other bloggers talk about this, and think it needs to be mentioned.

Everything I read said “basic amenities” or “backpacker conditions,” but no one was explaining it. For the record, none of this bothered me, it was just unexpected. I love camping, being outside, and don’t need air conditioning to enjoy where I am. I do know some people care about these things and wanted to mention it.

The nature of San Blas being small islands in a remote area means you are left with few amenities (besides amazing beaches, see above!). Prepare for this with bug spray, sanitizer, toilet paper, your own pillow, flashlights, battery chargers for electronics you want, and items you don’t mind getting sandy. The hostel we stayed at had electricity from 7 – 10 pm nightly but other than that no electricity for us to use.

Step 5: Having Fun

There is no should not for this one! San Blas is about disconnecting, relaxing, and enjoying your time on the island of your choice. You are guaranteed to have fun!

Experience the untouched beauty of the San Blas Islands in Panama. Learn how to get there and what to expect on your adventure.
Experience the untouched beauty of the San Blas Islands in Panama. Learn how to get there and what to expect on your adventure.

Hopefully, this post can help you plan a trip to San Blas because the islands are beautiful and like no where else you’ll go. I’d highly suggest visiting Gatun Lake if you’d like a unique experience that is a lot easier to plan!

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