Exploring The San Blas Islands Of Panama

You could fly to the San Blas Islands. You could take a helicopter. But both options are expensive and devoid of charm. The real adventure comes from sailing the open waters from Panama or Colombia.

Land amongst the vast coconut palms and there’s little but tropical paradise to keep you company.

There’s no ATM and virtually no electricity. But the vivacious locals welcome you from the boat and you’re immediately immersed in the rhythm of centuries past.

You could fly to the San Blas Islands. You could take a helicopter.

But both options are expensive and devoid of charm. The real adventure comes from sailing the open waters from Panama or Colombia.

How to Get to the San Blas Islands

itravelby boat

With wind power you rock over the Caribbean waters, lurching across a sea of turquoise on a three to five day journey to this untamed paradise.

Many travelers do both sail trips and use the San Blas Islands as a way of connecting Central and South America. You depart the Panaman coast, bump over to a few days of lounging on the San Blas Islands, then keep sailing to Sapruzzo or Cartagena in Colombia. Bring the sea sickness pills because it’s quite an adventure, nothing around you but the heart-stopping sapphire waters of the Caribbean.

The San Blas Island Locals

San Blas Locals, San Blas Island Locals, San Blas Island people
Photo: www.itravelbyboat.com

On every morning it’s the locals that leave the biggest impression. Indigenous people cover their vivid clothes in strange trinkets, reveling in color combinations that would look strange on anyone else. Their weather-beaten faces crack into smiles as they beckon you forward and invite you into palm-frond huts. Lobster? Red snapper? Some other fish that’s usually insanely expensive?

In these redolent local huts you can sit down to a meal of fresh ocean fish and rarely pay more than $4 – 5. A young boy arrives with a fresh coconut to wash it down and most travelers find themselves returning to the same family hut night after night.

Where to Stay on the San Blas Islands

San Blas Islands Huts
Photo Credit: Trolley Fucsia

After sailing across the open seas in a wooden boat you shouldn’t be expecting a lavish hotel. The San Blas Islands’ accommodation indelibly blends into the environment, nothing excessively concrete or glass-fronted interrupting the charm. It’s rustic and basic. But you’re staying on a secluded piece of sand with crystal waters and impossibly starry skies.

For a really local experience, head into the thick interior forest and one of the indigenous Kuna homestays. It’s not quite the Amazon, but the Kuna have their own rich mixture of traditions and culture. Plus, it’s far easier to access than the world’s biggest rainforest.

You’ll Love the San Blas Islands if You Love Relaxing

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Nothing. Yep, the San Blas Islands are mostly about relaxing, unplugging and getting away from it all. You could do something. But after sailing for a few days to get here, most people want to lounge in their slice of Caribbean utopia. Kick off the shoes, bring a book, slap on the sunscreen, and wonder why the rest of the world can’t be as laid-back.

You don’t even need a beach towel. The locals sell molas, thin blankets of extraordinarily stitched colors and kitschy patterns, Enhance the slumber with a few coconuts filled with chicha fuerte, a fruity alcoholic drink that gets you woozy on sugar more than anything. Even when you go out for a meal you’re still doing nothing. Sit down, order a huge fish, then one hour later the chef comes and ask you what you’d like to order.

What to Really do on the San Blas Islands

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Perhaps you didn’t come four days on a Colombus style sailboat to do nothing but relax. The San Blas Islands are also about exploring, about getting back in the boat and cruising to dozens of uninhabited islets that merge tropical greenery with beaches where you create the only footprints.

Even more fascinating is sailing to a small inhabited island, where tiny Kuna villages offer an immediate immersion in a lifestyle that’s unchanged for over a millennia. For snorkeling, head of to the Dog Islands and float around the shallow waters, waiting for the marine life to come to you.

Some Essential Advice for the San Blas Islands

The San Blas Islands really are an adventure from yesteryear. Back in Colombus times you needed nautical charts and a compass. Thankfully, sailboats from Panama or Colombia come with an experienced captain. What you absolutely do need is a stash of US$.

The majority of San Blas Island visitors run out and there’s no way of replenishing. And it sucks to miss out on a $5 lobster because you don’t have $5. Bring far more than you bargained for, then it’s easy to extend the trip for a few extra days.