How to have an amazing San Blas Islands trip

Do you know when you have such high expectations from something that you are bound to be disappointed? Well, this is not the case! We were expecting San Blas to be heaven on earth… It isn’t, but in many ways, it’s fairly close. San Blas won’t disappoint you, at least if you know what you are getting into. Spoiler alert: it’s good, very good!

So, we created this post with everything you need to know about the San Blas islands, tours, and days trips… Here you’ll find the things to do, what to take to San Blas, how many days to go, who lives on the islands, how to go to the islands…

Information about San Blas Islands
Beach of the Aroma Island San Blas

Where are the San Blas Islands?

The San Blas Islands in Panama are small islands located on the Caribbean coast of Panama. More than 300 islands form the archipelago, but less than 50 are populated. They lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal.

Click here to check the 50 things you need to know before going to Panama

Who lives in San Blas?

The islands are inhabited by the Kuna people, an indigenous people who run the islands. In fact, the islands are officially part of Panama, but the Kuna have a huge autonomy to govern their region – the Guna Yana Comarca. To enter the Guna Yala Comarca you even have to show your passport.

The capital of the Guna Yala is El Porvenir, but instead, you are likely to visit the very densely populated island/village Carti Sugtupu.

You should note that on the islands everything is done through the Guna people. No foreigners are allowed to run business in the Guna Yala comarca.

Where is San Blas
Guna Yala comarca

How are the San Blas islands?

The San Blas Islands, also known as the Guna Yala archipelago, are some of the most picturesque islands on the planet, yet that’s not their main attraction. What really makes the San Blas an amazing tourist attraction is the sea around them. The archipelago has the brightest, crystal clear water we have ever seen, with amazing snorkeling spots and endless picture opportunities.

In general, each island is tiny… and by tiny we mean, you can circle the island in less than 5 minutes! Some of them are a little bigger, and some have like 20 meters of diameter and less than one meter of altitude. Most (if not all) have coconut trees, but when it comes to vegetation, that’s about it.

How are the San Blas Islands
Beach of Chichime Island

Should I travel to the San Blas Islands?

The San Blas islands aren’t for everyone! Despite receiving many visitors, the islands aren’t prepared for mass tourism, and will never be. You’ll probably need to rough it up a bit, but that’s part of the adventure.

That being said, almost everyone will love these islands. If your taste in traveling is in any way similar to ours: YES, you should visit San Blas. It is worth every penny and time.

Even if I only have one day? YES! It will be a very very long day, you’ll only be in the islands for a few hours and the experience won’t be nearly as good, but in our opinion, it’s still worth it – that’s how good the islands are!

Best Islands of San Blas
Relaxing in Aroma Island, San Blas

How long does it take to go from Panama City to San Blas?

From Panama City to San Blas it should take about 4-5 hours if you are doing a San Blas tour. If you try to do it independently, it will surely take longer!

How is the San Blas tour from Panama city?

The tours start between 5 am to 6 am with the pick up from your hotel. The first leg of the trip is done on an SUV and the second on a small boat. It goes more or less like this:

  • During the first hour you leave Panama City and go through normal roads through Panama;
  • When you turn left to the mountains, and then to the Guna Yala Comarca is when things start to get fun as the road gets very steep and winding.
  • Halfway into this roller-coaster road through mountains, you have to stop on “border control” of the Guna Yala and show your passports.
  • Continue for another 30 minutes until you arrive at the port where you’ll meet your Guna guides and the SUV driver will return to Panama City.
  • Once in the Port, the guides sort out who goes where and will arrange the boats to take everyone to the islands. This may take some time…
  • The boat trip can be between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on where you are going. Aroma island is much closer than Chichime, for example.
  • The boat trips we did weren’t very bumpy, but the weather was very good and with little to no wind. nothing compared with what happened to us in the Perhentian islands!
  • All San Blas multi-day include a day trip to one (or 2) other islands. On this tour, you get to visit another island (the guide chooses it) and you have lunch there.
  • Before returning to Panama City, the San Blas tours also include a short trip to a traditional village.
  • This visit to the Kuna village is a 15 minutes walk through the village with the guide. He explains how the village works and answers your question. It’s interesting, but nothing extraordinary.
How to go to San Blas
Aroma Island San Blas

How to go to the San Blas Islands?

Above we talked about the typical way to go to San Blas, but there are other, more expensive alternatives. These are your options to go San Blas:

  • 4×4 + taxi boat – this is the above referred typical way, the most affordable and how most people go to San Blas;
  • Plane + taxi boat – You can fly from Panama to San Blas, specifically to El Porvenir. From El Porvenir, you need to catch a taxi boat to your destination island. This is faster but way more expensive.
  • Helicopter – There are helicopter tours to San Blas, but these are very very expensive. Expect more than 500USD per person, for 1 hour of flight. It’s probably incredible though.
  • by boat – if you aren’t coming from Panama you can reach San Blas by boat, usually a sailboat. Many people (mostly backpackers) traveling between Colombia and Panama, choose this option.
  • Do it yourself – You can rent a car and drive yourself to Carti. you can park the car there and then catch a taxi boat to an island. Remember that you’ll have to pay for the rental car while on the island. It’s hardly a better deal than simply taking a tour.
How to go to the San Blas Islands
Boat from the port to Aroma Island

Is the trip from Panama City to San Blas hard?

Not really, despite what some people say, the Panama City to San Blas trip is fairly easy… As we said above you do have to get up very, very early, and it takes 4 to 5 hours to arrive at the islands, but it isn’t that hard or even dangerous. The boat ride is rather pleasant and the 4×4 leg of the trip is more fun than anything else really.

Is it possible to start the trip to San Blas other than in Panama City?

All the tours start in Panama City. There aren’t boats from Colon or any other Caribbean town to San Blas. However, if you are in Colombia you can go from Cartagena to San Blas.

Trip to San Blas
Guna Yala Boats

How many days should I go to San Blas?

This is a difficult one… I believe that the ideal is spending 3 days in San Blas. This means spending two nights on the islands. You have time to see the islands, do a full day trip, have a kind of Robinson Crusoe experience, and even have time to relax and do absolutely nothing…

If you don’t have enough time, 2 days will do the trick but you won’t have as much free time as in the suggested 3 days. You may be wondering, why not more days?

Is a day trip to San Blas worth it?

We have never done a one-day trip, but it will be a very rushed experience. You’ll spend about 7 hours traveling and little time on the islands. Yet, if you don’t have any other option it’s better than nothing and still worth it. This is a very very rare time when we say that doing 7 hours of traveling on a day trip is still worth it. That’s how crazy gorgeous San Blas is…

However, we need to reinforce that doing a day trip to San Blas should be a last resort option! Two or three days in San Blas are a much better option.

day trip to San Blas
Crystal clear water of Aroma Island, San Blas

Which are the best San Blas islands?

We haven’t been to all the islands, obviously… but we can give you our insight into the ones we know.

  • Chichime island is the biggest island we have visited and the furthest from Carti. It probably has the most impressive water and some nice snorkeling spots. The beach is bigger than in the other islands and there’s a beautiful lagoon close. This island seems to be able to accommodate any kind of traveler, families, couples and solo travelers.
best San Blas islands
Chichime Island
  • Diablo island is about 25 minutes from the Port and right in front of Perro Chico and close to some other small islands. This island has some impressive views and snorkeling spots, particularly close to the sunken boat. We felt that Diablo island had a younger crowd and a little of a party vibe. Unfortunately, some parts of the island weren’t that clean…
best San Blas islands
Diablo Island
  • Perro Chico is a small island next to Diablo island and the Shipwreck offering great snorkeling. A big advantage of this island is that if you want to have a change you can easily go to Diablo.
best San Blas islands
Perro Chico Island
  • Aroma (or Ansuelo) Island is the closest, the smallest and the cleanest of islands on this list. You can circle the island in about 2 or 3 minutes, it doesn’t have more than 100 meters of diameter. The water is fabulous and with some nice snorkeling spots right on the beach. This is where we actually slept and we really enjoyed our private, very rustic, cabin by the sea;
best San Blas islands
Aroma Island

How are the accommodations in San Blas?

You should know that the San Blas islands aren’t Resort-islands. If you are looking for 5-star services, don’t go to San Blas, they don’t have it. Moreover, tourism is somewhat new to the Guna and they are still learning the best way to provide good services and develop the infrastructures.

There are amazing beaches all around the world, but going to San Blas is more than that, it’s having an adventure (yet relaxing) on picture-perfect islands with amazing beaches.

On the islands there are usually 3 options of accommodation:

  • a small, private hut for 2 or 3 people.
  • a big shared hut for several travelers. It can be as big as 10 or 12 people;
  • a tent – Some islands allow you to camp on them, others don’t.

Whichever accommodation you choose, there isn’t electricity or WIFI on it. The floor is probably sand and the bathroom is shared with other huts. The bathrooms are really rustic, without warm water, but usually clean. As we said earlier, you don’t go to San Blas for the hotel service, you go for the adventure.

accommodations in San Blas
Accommodation in San Blas

Which are the best San Blas tours?

The tours are very similar and include more or less the same things. SUV transport to Carti, Boat to the island, one day trip to another island, one tour to an indigenous village, all the meals are included and the rooms are all similar. What really makes the difference is the island you choose and how much time you stay.

You should be aware that sometimes tour operators don’t include mandatory taxes. Please read always what’s included or not in each price before comparing.

We did our tour with San Blas dreams and our tour Kuna Guides were Germain and Ebanz. They were pretty cool guys and both spoke Spanish and English.

You can book this tour (it’s the Aroma island tour) in El Machico hostel in Panama City! They will obviously pick you in any hostel in town, but we suggest you spend the night at this hostel. It’ll make your life easier – you may even leave your main backpack there while doing the tour to San Blas.

You can book El Machico hostel here!

Which are the mandatory taxes?

As we said above, to enter San Blas we have to pay a few taxes to the Guna people, these include (value per person):

  • Port tax: 2 USD paid in the Port;
  • Kuna tax: 21 USD – paid when you enter the Guna Yala comarca;
  • I’ve read that Some islands ask an extra entree fee of 0-20 USD, but we were never asked this…
 best San Blas tours
Guna Yala village

What to take to the San Blas islands?

This is an important topic. There aren’t supermarkets on the islands, neither fondas, or restaurants apart from the official one. So, anything you might need, you have to take it with you. This is our list of things to bring to San Blas:

  • Passport – You won’t even enter the Guna Yala without it.
  • Snacks – In your San Blas tour, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included, but if you want anything else you have to take it. Try to bring light things like cereal bars, chips, cookies, maybe even fruits! In most islands, they will sell coconuts that literally fall from the trees, but that’s about it.
  • Your own drinks – Bring water, lots of water with you. If you want sodas, beers, rum, or whatever, you should also bring them yourself. Although some restaurants sell them, it’s not guaranteed and they are obviously more expensive.
  • Light daypack – We strongly advise you to have a small, light backpack to use on this kind of trip. You can leave your main pack in Panama City and only take this with you!
  • Towel – You’ll need a towel (or maybe 2) to use in the bath and on the beach!
  • Snorkeling gear – San Blas has some serious snorkeling spots and most of the time they are just off the beach. If you take your gear you won’t need to rent every time you want to snorkel. We did this and we paid off the gear with the money spent only in San Blas… Also, sometimes the tours don’t supply them at all!
  • Sunscreen, Hat, and Sunglasses because the sun can be really strong here.
  • Bug repellent – As you would expect in any tropical land with diverse wildlife, bugs are everywhere. They are also the most dangerous thing you’ll encounter. Don’t go without a repellent. Though we have to note that we saw much fewer mosquitos than we anticipated.
  • Fully charged camera and phone – You can charge the phone in the restaurant of the islands, but then again everyone will be doing the same.
  • Good Power bank – For the same reasons above a power bank will help you make sure you always have your phone and camera working.
  • Waterproof phone cover – In San Blas you are always close to water, either you are in the water, on water, over water or very close to the water – anyway, additional protection to your phone might be a good idea.
  • Waterproof dry bag – For the exact same reasons above… Tip: if you get a bigger one, you may even use it as a day pack on some occasions.
  • Cash – there aren’t ATM’s in San Blas, so be sure to bring enough cash for all the trip! However, it must be in small bills, 50 and 100 USD bills can’t be used in San Blas.
  • Lightweight Rain Jacket for the boat transfers or if you get unlucky with the weather in islands! Woman Lightweight Rain Jacket.
How to go to San Blas
Lagoon in the middle of the sea

What NOT to take to the San Blas islands?

There are a few things that will only make your life harder in San Blas… these include:

  • Laptop – There’s barely any electricity, no internet and there are so many better things to do with your time in San Blas… Also, it’s weight and risky… You are better of leaving it in Panama City.
  • Main Backpack and suitcase – You don’t need to bring all your stuff with you! San Blas is for minimalist traveling, enjoy it! Again, it’s a useless weight to carry around.
  • Credit card – Ok, you should still bring it, but you won’t be able to use them. 🙂
  • Anything heavy, valuable, and that you don’t want to risk damaging with water and transporting.
All the information you need to do a San Blas Islands trip
Relaxing in Aroma Island, San Blas

Is it possible to go independently to San Blas?

Yes, it’s possible and not that difficult. We usually prefer doing things independently; it’s more fun and less expensive. Yet, in San Blas, we simply don’t see the point. The experience will be basically the same, and there are very few savings possible.

As we said above, you can rent a car and drive to Carti yourself, it shouldn’t be that hard, but then you’ll have to leave the car there for 2 or 3 days… It just won’t pay off. You may also hire a shuttle service, but it’s going to be very expensive if it’s private. If it’s not private, it’s the exact same thing as a tour.

As for the boat trip, you’ll have to hire and negotiate one yourself with the Kuna, but in the end, you’ll end up on one of the tour boats like everyone else.

On the islands, you can freely choose accommodation, but the experience will be very similar to the tour one, as there aren’t really restaurants apart from the resort and all the meals are included on the night.

How to travel to San Blas
Huts in San Blas Island

What to eat in San Blas?

There aren’t many options here. All your meals are included in the tours’ packages, and there isn’t much to choose from.

It’s fried chicken or fish of the day for lunch and dinner, with some veggies, coconut rice, and beans (lentils sometimes). The meals we had weren’t bad, but we can’t really say they were delicious. I would really prefer if they griller the fresh fish, but that’s just me 🙂

We have read that sometimes it’s possible to ask for lobster, but we never did it, and nor saw anyone having lobster… It’s obviously an extra.

As for breakfast, it’s eggs, bread, and coffee. Breakfasts were fairly good; I think it was our favorite meal in San Blas.

And that’s about it… there are no other alternatives if you want anything else you need to bring it yourself.

food in San Blas
Fish of the day, with some veggies, coconut rice, and lentils

Is it safe to travel to the San Blas?

San Blas is perfectly safe. It’s very hard to believe that there should be any risk of theft or any other crime on these tiny islands.

On the boat trips, we were really impressed that they always make sure everyone had their safety jackets on, and they always used them too.

Check here the 50 things you need to know before traveling to Panama

Best things to do in San Blas

The San Blas islands aren’t an activity-fueled tourist destination, it’s not about a resort with 24-hour entertainment available. Going to San Blas is more about enjoying an exotic destination with staggering beauty. Though, there are a few things to do in San Blas:

  • Snorkeling is probably the main thing to do in San Blas. Almost all the islands will have snorkeling spots. Those range from astonishing to pretty good.
  • Kayaking in San Blas is possible in some islands. We didn’t do this, but it does sound fun;
  • Relaxing and doing nothing is one of the main reasons to go to the islands. There’s something very soothing about San Blas, so why not embrace it and unwind?
  • Reading a book laying down in one of the hammocks is certainly an awesome way of spending time in San Blas.
  • Swimming and sunbathing are two of the main reasons people go to San Blas.
  • Take lots of pictures and make everyone who hasn’t been there very very jealous 🙂
  • Most islands have volleyball nets, so if you can find people to play beach volley, it’s a fun way of meeting people.
things you need to know about San Blas
Snorkeling in Chichime Island San Blas

What NOT to do in San Blas?

While visiting San Blas island please keep in mind that there are a few things you shouldn’t do:

  • Do not touch starfishes and other animals – Wildlife is not there to be touched. Our presence really affects them. This is especially valid for starfishes. They are very sensible, and while it may be very tempting to touch them, please note that if you do it, you are hurting them. It doesn’t matter how careful you are.
  • Do not make trash – some islands are perfectly clean, some not that much. Please contribute positively to this problem during your San Blas trip.
Information about San Blas
Starfish in Chichime Island, San Blas

I think it’s fair to say that we absolutely loved our San Blas trip and we strongly advise you to go to San Blas. The San Blas islands are one of the most beautiful places on earth and you should visit them, on a day trip, a 2 or 3 days San Blas tour or even independently!

everything you need to know about San Blas
Snorkeling in Chichime Island, San Blas