The San Blas Islands are an unforgettable trip that I highly recommend, and you have your pick of many San Blas tours to go with. This pristine and beautiful area is so picturesque with sapphire and turquoise waters and white sand beaches. It’s a dream. You should go.
You may read about the San Blas Islands being overrated and that they aren’t worth going to. And you may also read that day trip San Blas tours aren’t worth it. While I think it would be amazing to do at least an overnight, I think they are still well worth visiting. Even if you can only do a day.
There are so many things to do when you visit Panama City and it can be really hard to prioritize. Of course, you’ll see the Panama Canal and I think that may be required before you leave. (Unless you want to be ridiculed)! I recommend you make sure the San Blas stay on your list. You won’t be sorry.
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San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago, or a grouping of islands, off the coast of Panama. Our guide said there are 392 islands and around 100 are inhabited, though I see Wikipedia has lower counts for both. Interestingly, it seems there are many numbers floating out there as I found another that shows 378. Let’s suffice it to say, there are a lot of islands.
To say this area is stunning is an understatement. It is the kind of place that is on a postcard. It is the place you dream about when you think of paradise.
Some of the islands have huts, cabins, and lodges where you can stay and only around 50 are inhabited. To reach the islands you must go by boat or water plane. Some offer camping space and others don’t allow people to stay overnight. You won’t find any large hotels on any of the islands.
The islands are known for ecotourism due to their pristine condition. The San Blas Islands are owned by the Guna Yala tribe, (also known as Guna), an indigenous group. You may see them referred to as San Blas or as the Kuna Yala.
The tribe tried to establish independence from Panama in 1925, but they remained part of Panama with the promise of their customs being honored. They do still have their own government structure that rules over some aspects.
San Blas Tours
There are many tour groups that offer San Blas Tours. You can get packages with transportation to the islands from Panama City, and also including accommodation if you wish to stay over.
Joe Brown Adventures Day Tour
I decided to book with Joe Brown Adventures due to their very positive reviews on Tripadvisor. They offer two options: a complete transportation package where they pick you up and drop you off at your hotel, and take you around the islands for the day. The other option does not include hotel pickup and you need to go to Niga Kantule Terminal located in Carti, San Blas.
I didn’t receive any information about the exact pickup time so I emailed them and they responded pretty quickly with a time slot. I’m not sure if they usually just notify the evening before or if you need to reach out.
Our pickup time was 5:15 a.m. and we were picked up about 15 minutes later in a van with 10 seats. We were dropped off at around 6:30 p.m. There was a person who served as a guide and translator during the trip to the islands, and both he and the driver were from the Guna Yala tribe.
The cost of the tour was $150 USD and that was comparable to other tours I saw. Joe Brown Adventures also offers a boat only tour (you drive to the port of Niga Kantule, Cartí) for $75 USD.
What is Included with the Tour
The following is what was included with the Joe Brown Adventures day tour that I took. It seemed comparable to what was offered with other tours, and the pricing was similar as well.
- Shared transfer by car from your hotel to San Blas (maximum of 6 people per car)
- Maritime transportation from San Blas dock to Islands
- Meal – the catch of the day. If you would like a different dish, please ask your guide (other dishes may be at customer’s expense)
- Island taxes
- Dock tax
- Hotel/port pickup and drop-off
- Use of Snorkelling equipment
- A Bottle of Water (we did not receive this)
- Entrance Fees: Panamanian and residents $5, Other: $20
- Meals other than the catch of the day
The Ride to the Islands
The ride took over 2.5 hours (almost 3 hours in total including hotel pickups and drop-offs. Around half of that time is driving through the tribal lands and it’s an impressive ride that might make some people a bit car sick. The narrow road winds and weaves with some really impressive dips. I think our driver might put Mario Andretti to shame! (Slight exaggeration). It took a little bit getting used to, but we got used to the winding road and didn’t mind it. I read about how terrible this road is and in truth, it’s really not that bad.
We did stop at a grocery store for a cooked breakfast and it was covered by the tour, which was a surprise. Yes, I apparently didn’t read the tour inclusions very well.
The lands are very lush and they are thick rainforest. You can see small huts every now and then and some even have solar panels on them. It didn’t look like most of them have electricity otherwise and I’m not sure if they have running water. Not far from the launching point to the islands, we went through a large gate where we had to show our passports and pay the fee of $20 to continue.
Once we got to the launching point, there were a half dozen or so other vans with tourists and a large number of the Guna Yala around. They do have bathrooms that you have to pay for there, where you can change if you need to.
Island 1: Aguja Island (Isla Aguja, or Icodub in Guna Yala)
The first island we stopped at is named Icodub Isla. It was around 15 minutes from the port and it is very small. It took only a few minutes to walk entirely around it. There is a gate you walk through when you arrive and there is a gathering place/dining area with a small open-air restaurant where we left our things. The restaurant offers very limited and basic meals and they can cut down a coconut for you for a drink and a snack for $2 USD.
There is accommodation on this island with 6 small cabins and a large dorm structure that signs said holds 13 people. Everything is very peaceful and rustic. There are palm trees everywhere and beaches all around the island. there is a coral reef not far out that you can swim to easily and they do offer snorkeling equipment if you request it.
We spent a relaxing couple of hours on this island walking around, swimming, snorkeling, and laying on the sand. There is also a tree swing that provides for some incredibly picturesque photos. The beach was very clean and the water is crystal blue and clear as well. It was very warm too and felt just a tad cooler than bathwater. Lucious!
There are also some hammocks if you feel like taking a relaxing nap. This island can be busy on the weekends and is a popular place for San Blas tours as it is so close to the port.
Island 2: Isla Perro (Dog Island or Wissidub Bibbi in Guna Yala)
Island 2 was Isla Perro. There is a wreck of an old ship off the shore that you can swim to, though it is a bit of a ways out. This island is a little bigger but not much, and it took maybe ten minutes to walk around. There are three native structures where locals live and there are two young kids among them.
There is another island very closeby with some larger live-aboard boats docked. I believe it may be Banedub, and it has several lodges where tourists can stay. On Isla Perro, there are very rustic bathrooms and a small building with a kitchen where they made our lunch.
We got fried fish, white rice, patacones (fried green plantain), and a small salad. They only offered soda and offered an alternative of chicken. They caught several lobsters and offered them for $10. You could also buy a coconut here and they cracked it for you after you drink the coconut water for a snack.
We stayed here for a couple of hours as well. The lunch was basic and good and very filling.
Last, we stopped at a natural pool, or sand bar. We went past a few of them on the way and you could tell as the color was much brighter and lighter than the surrounding areas. They threw the anchor out and we docked for 20 minutes. The water was very shallow and depending on how tall you are, it went to around your hips or waist.
What You Need to Bring to the San Blas Islands
It looked like there may be a small store at the launching point but there is very little opportunity to purchase things. You should plan to bring everything you will need. Here is a list of what I recommend:
- Bathing suit
- Bug spray
- Towel (a quick-dry microfiber towel is best as you will swim a number of times)
- Cash – there are no ATMs on the islands. You need at least $20 for the entrance fee and possibly more if you want to purchase a coconut or drinks
- Long-sleeved shirt/jacket
- Flip flops or water sandals
- Snacks, if desired
Breakfast was covered in the grocery, and you had a choice of a few things including egg dishes and pastries. Lunch is fresh-caught fish, with rice, plantain, and a small salad with soda. You have a choice of chicken as well. Lobster is also available for a charge if they catch them, and you can buy water or beer as well.
Overnight at San Blas
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to stay overnight, but I would absolutely do it. There are options including camping, cabins, and staying in a lodge. You can also stay aboard a ship (boats and catamarans). There is a lot of helpful information on accommodation options and where to book them in this post.
I recommend San Blas tours when visiting Panama and I’d recommend this one. It’s a very long day but well worth the time. The drive through Guna Yala territory to the dock is quite bumpy, so if you get car sick, you will want to bring something for that. Everything is quite modest on the islands, so don’t expect modern and fancy and you will enjoy it.
Take the day to enjoy disconnecting from the internet, traffic, and everything you’re used to in order to enjoy the beauty and quiet of a simpler time and a beautiful area. I didn’t have the opportunity to do an overnight, but if I go back, I will definitely do that. Enjoy! This place is truly paradise.
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