When I was researching about the San Blas Islands in Panama before this trip, I was so disappointed with the information I found – and after going, I can honestly say it’s so outdated or written by people who did a day trip and stayed for a couple of hours. It seemed like this very difficult place to get to and that taking a day trip to San Blas Islands (on a tour) was the only option. This is not the case and I want to share some more recent San Blas Island travel tips so you can be much more prepared than I was. Before the trip, Silvia and I were messaging each other questions and both were unable to find answers online – it made me nervous about booking to stay there since it seemed everyone just went for the day and left but I’m so glad we gave it a go anyway!
So how long should you stay? I stayed on the San Blas Islands for two nights and felt it was sufficient – it’s a beautiful place but it is roughing it a bit and I felt ready to leave the morning we headed out. I’m going to share some essential things I think you’ll want to know before you visit San Blas like budgeting, where to stay, if you should take a day tour, if you can bring your luggage, and what about food and electricity – and is it really just sleeping in the sand!? These were questions I had and I’m going to answer them all for you.
San Blas Island Travel Tips
Where is the San Blas and why is it so special?
The San Blas Islands are off of both Panama and Colombia on the Caribbean coast and stretch along down to the Colon region of Panama. The name is really Guna Yala, after a name change in 2011 but as most people search San Blas, I will call them that in this article.
The region is the territory of the Guna people, short for Guna Yala. These are the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia and they actually don’t have the same rules as the rest of Panama – they had a treaty years ago to where they can govern this land in their own way (in many ways but not all). When you arrive, you pay the fees when you come into their territory and stay at their hotels. You can alternatively sail, but from what I gather it’s not entirely legal.
San Blas is the most stunning place I’ve been to – no exaggeration. It’s just the most amazing turquoise water mixed with blue and the sand is perfectly soft and white. There are starfish by the dozens below and with the addition of the unique Guna people living on the islands like they did hundreds of years ago, fishing with line, and chopping down trees with their machetes, it’s just an adventure that you won’t want to miss. It brings people from all over the world – but it’s not mass tourism here. It’s still pretty and quiet and while we sailed around we barely saw another soul. This is mostly because people think it’s hard to reach and don’t add it into their Panama itinerary.
How to get to San Blas and leave
There are really only two ways to get there: by car or by flight. I’ll share some of your options so you can see what is best for you budget.
- Book a hotel and they arrange the transportation. This is the most common option. There aren’t many online since this is an obscure place and the ones online are more expensive than if you just show up but it gives people a peace of mind. We booked Cabanas Narasgandup after much research and were looking forward to our say but they had to cancel due to pipes breaking. Another popular one is Yandup. They will have you pay via PayPal at places online to secure your place. You will likely pay the transport, too. It’s around $70 this way: $30 for the car from your hotel in Panama City to the Port, $20 for the boat to the island, $20 to get into the Guna territory, $3 for port fees. You’ll be in a crowded car with other people most likely. The car ride to the port is talked about online like it’s treacherous. It’s not! It’s not really 4 hours; it was like 2.5 and totally okay.
- You can also take a tour for the day where they take you there and back. This means you pay them all together and worry about nothing but you also aren’t getting a true experience (more like a bucket list check off).
- You could also go to a travel agency and hire a driver to take you in a 4×4 to the port. The road to the port of San Blas does need a car with four-wheel drive although it’s a safe, paved road, it’s very windy and hilly. You could then hire a boat from the port yourself. I honestly think it’ll come out more expensive this way.
- Rent a car and drive yourself to the port. This is your cheapest option if you have a friend to split with. Rent a Jeep and go for it! The roads are totally fine and I would do this myself next time. As you enter the Guna territory, there will be a line of cars and you’ll pay a fee to them ($20) to go onward to the port. You can then catch a boat to wherever you’re going to stay. YES, you can just arrange a place to stay once you reach and many people were doing just that.
- Fly. There are two ways to fly. You can do an Air Panama flight from the smaller Albrook airport in the city (not Tocumen International) to El Porvenir or Playan Chico. These are 20-seaters and are around $100 one-way. This isn’t bad and you’ll then take a taxi to the port and then a boat out to wherever you’re staying. I flew Air Panama several times and they are great. The other option is a privately charted flight. These go from Albrook as well out to tiny landing strips on the islands so you can go straight to your sailboat. We’re talking $3,000 for an 8-seater. You can talk with the sailboat company that you book with to see if there are better prices. A flight was chartered in when we left, so we got a deal of $75 per person to go back to Panama City because it was going back empty. Jackpot!
- You could consider San Blas Adventures who do party style backpacker trips around San Blas starting or ending either in Colombia or Panama – but you’ll be sleeping on hammocks and apparently, the sailing is a lot (four days) and kind of rough rather than just lounging about. Great for younger people I think!
Can you take your luggage to San Blas?
Nope! You need to leave your luggage behind in Panama City an pack a day-bag for San Blas. If you are in these small planes, you cannot take a big bag, you can’t fit it into these packed tourist Jeeps, and you can’t take it on the small boats out to the islands. Both our original “hotel” (really just a bed over the sand) and our sailing company told us no luggage. You could get by with a backpack 48L or less I suppose. Definitely no rolling luggage! We left ours at our hotel in Panama City when we checked out. They are used to this.
What you DO need to take to San Blas / Packing List
If you’re doing a budget stay on an island, you need to take your own water. They recommend one gallon per person per day. You can buy water on some islands but it’s $5 for a small bottle and they do run out. Best to bring your own. You can also bring snacks because it’s an all-inclusive situation here and seafood and rice isn’t always that filling. We took granola bars and other filling snacks.
Other than food, here are some things that you’ll want to bring to San Blas in your day-pack, keep in mind you’ll basically live in your swimsuit:
- sarong for the beach
- towel for showers
- maybe a light sheet if you are at a place with only hammocks
- mosquito spray
- sunscreen (SERIOUSLY)
- baby wipes
- flip flops
- light linen button-up
- loose, light PJ’s
- a light dress or two
Day trip or overnight? San Blas Island Tours in Panama for the day are an option…
If you stay on the islands, you can either book online (but there are very few options) Cabanas Narasgandup and Yandup. You’re looking at $200/night for a little hut. If you show up and find a place you can get rates as low as $50 according to those online but I honestly don’t know how you go about negotiating it that low since they know you want a place and there are so few places available.
If you are short on time or cannot afford the huts, you can do a day tour. I really don’t think it’s enough time since you’ll be 4 hours each way and just a few hours actually in San Blas. It’s SO SO SO amazing you should stay longer! But, you’ll find agencies selling day tours in and out of Panama City. You can also book them online through private websites or a booking site like Viator and read reviews. This one is $150 and has the best reviews by far.
How to sail the San Blas Islands in Panama
After our huts canceled on us, I looked into itravelbyboat.com which someone had recommended to me on Instagram. They had options to sail for $200 per person per night on a sailboat or $250 per person per night on a catamaran. We decided to splurge out on the catamaran for two nights. It was PURE BLISS.
You are of course going to find different prices and types of boats for sailing the San Blas from budget to luxury and some will let you charter a boat for say $300 a night but you can split that with the friends you travel with – so look into it and compare prices on Airbnb. Yep, that’s right – if you Airbnb San Blas it’s all sailboats! How amazing/cool is that!? I loved itravelbyboat.com though and can highly recommend them. They set you up with one of the many boats they work with and they put us with a young French couple Flo and Elo who have been sailing out here for years. They were younger than me, super chill, and made the time there even better. This is their Facebook page. All of the images in this post are from sailing with them!
I could end on that sweet note, or could tell you about the boa constrictor that came onto our boat! lol – so do not scroll more if you don’t want to see a snake. He came up on the dingy attached to the catamaran and then eventually onto the boat. It’s the topical jungle! What do you expect, haha! JK – it’s really quite a rarity this would happen so don’t worry.
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I had no idea the airbnbs are all boats there. That is such an insanely cool way to spend the night!
Look at that gorgeous boa! Amazing. This is my perfect type of spot for 2-3 days. Roughing it a bit so anything more would be too much for me. Been there done that.
Thanks for the advice and tips! Helpful since we are thinking about just driving there ourselves with a 4×4 but like you say: it seems impossible to do that when you go online and try to search for tips.
Just one little note from my side: you are not supposed to touch starfish. It damages them and they die from it. Just so you know next time ….
Iris, actually I did a lot of research before and you can touch them, they don’t die from a human touch if that’s what you’re saying – you just can’t pull them off a rock or something which could hurt them.
Love your site… I’m heading down early March ’19 from the States. Planning to stay for 4-5 weeks and your site is awesome for insight on Panama!! Great Work
What time of year did you go?
Late summer / early fall – i think it was august!?
Hi:) we are thinking of spending two nights in San Blas. I don’t really want to also spend money for those two nights in Panama City. Do you know if the tour groups have a spot where you can leave your luggage?
I would think so – just email them ahead of time and ask. You won’t be the only person in that situation!
What equipment/editors do you use to capture your photographs? Not sure if it’s just the scenery being that beautiful but they look amazing! I’m travelling to Mexico in September and tossing up between a camera and a go-pro, do you have any suggestions in what would be the best way to go?
Hi Daria, check my travel resource page I link my camera and lenses!
Amazing blog! Can I ask more details about the boat with Flo and Elo? I’m thinking about inquiring with them. Was it just you and whoever you were travelling with that were guests on the boat? Or were there other guests also staying on the boat as well? It was approx. $250/per person per night? Did that include food, drinks, the use of the paddle boards, snorkel gear, etc?
Hi Rachel, thank you for the article.Very informative. Can you please let me know if I rent a jeep and drive to San Blas for a day trip, can I leave my jeep at the port? Are there boats that will take us to the island without prior reservations? Is it easy to catch a boat back in the evening to the port? Can I find boats to take me from one island to another? Thank you for any insight you can provide.
Hi we are going for just 1 day (on a cruise ship) do you think we could do a 1 day tour and still get back to the ship in time. Are there private tours from the cruise port?
Thank you for sharing your travel stories. Your photos look amazing. Do you recall the name of the catamaran that you were on?
Really enjoyed this, Rachel! My partner and I have been wanting to go, but it seemed so complicated that, reluctantly, we decided to put the idea on the back burner. Your clear, useful article rekindled our plans. Hopefully we’ll be there next month! Thanks and keep up the great work, already following you online!
It is a very beautiful place in the world. Almost a thousands of varieties of animals and birds are present in this place .
And if you are animals and birds lover then this is the place to go.
Wow! I really enjoyed reading your post. Very informative… Thank you.