Discovering the San Blas Islands

Prepare yourself- there are a lot of beach photos in this post. And not just any old beach photos. San Blas beach photos.

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A beach in the San Blas Islands

 

It might make you want to book a holiday to Panama right away because these beaches are STUNNING.

We explored a number of different islands within the San Blas and every one was beautiful. It’s the kind of place where you have to keep reminding yourself that what you’re seeing is real- you haven’t added instagram filters to your eyes- the water really is that blue!

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Beach in the San Blas Islands

I went to the San Blas in February 2017 with my boyfriend, Josh, as part of a longer trip around Central America. Like the majority of tourists there, we used a tour operator to book our trip. We went with Panama Travel Unlimited.

We spent 2 nights on Isla Coco Blanco and we had 3 days of relaxing on our little island as well as short trips to surrounding islands. I think this is a great destination for solo travelers, couples or friends as there are various accommodation options – you can have a private cabin, a dorm style cabin or you can camp.

I found the whole process of researching and booking the San Blas a little confusing so I hope this blog helps those who are thinking of going but want an honest insight from somebody who has been.

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A beach in the San Blas Islands

First of all, lets cover the basics you should know before you go:

Where are the San Blas Islands?

The San Blas- also referred to as the Guna Yala- are a collection of 360 or so islands off Panama’s northern coast. The islands are home to the Kuna people who are famous for their brightly coloured jewelery and artwork.

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San Blas Islands Map

How to get to the San Blas Islands

You can travel to the San Blas from Panama City, although there is no really easy way to get there. The Kuna’s control all of the tourists coming in and out of the San Blas so you have to take one of their vehicles/drivers. You cannot drive there yourself.

By car/boat: You are collected from your hotel in Panama City at about 5am by one of the 4×4 vehicles run by the local Kuna people. You then drive through the jungle for approximately 4 hours to the northern coast. The roads are smooth but contain a lot of twists and turns- I urge you to take travel sickness tablets if you suffer from motion sickness! You then check in with another local at the port and tell them which island you’re heading to (it all needs to be pre booked). You hop on a small boat to your island- this can take 30min-1 hour but depends which island you are staying on.

By plane: You can fly with Air Panama to the San Blas. These are small, 20 seater planes so they could get booked up quickly. The flights costs $50-$150 and it’s definitley the more expensive option. Certain islands are only accessible by plane because they are further from the coast. We didn’t chose the flight option for cost reasons but we still saw some amazing islands so you don’t need to fly to see some stunning beaches.

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The 4×4 vehicle we took from Panama City to the port
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The port where you get the boat

Traveling to Colombia via the San Blas Islands

If you are heading to Colombia from Panama you only have two options- flight or boat. There are various boat options but I think most take about 4 days. Here is a site worth checking out but there are many other tour companies you can look into. You can also do it in reverse and travel by boat from Colombia to Panama via the San Blas.  I didn’t travel to Colombia (we were running out of money by Panama- it was the 8th country on our trip!). Since I did not do this journey myself I can’t share much more information about it, sorry!

Who are the local people of the San Blas Islands?

The native people living on the islands are called Kuna’s (or Guna’s-I have seen it spelt both ways). There are approximately 300,000 Kuna’s in total and 50,000 live on the islands. What is quite unique is that the Kuna’s still have full control of the islands instead of the Panamanian government. This means that they control the amount of tourists entering and money from this goes directly to the local people. Nobody other than a Kuna is allowed to run a business on the islands.

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One of the young Kuna ladies who lived on Coco Blanco Island

The San Blas tour companies you find in Panama City do employ non Kuna’s but they are simply a middle man to help you book. From the moment you are collected from your hotel to get to the San Blas, you’re in the hands of the Kuna’s. Very few indigenous groups have maintained this kind of control over their land. This makes the Kuna’s quite special!

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Female Kuna Leg Jewellery

The women are very distinctive because they still wear traditional decorative clothing that they make themselves called Molas. They also wear these fantastic beads around their legs – some of the designs I saw were absolutely beautiful. You might notice that Kuna women keep their hair short and often have a septum piercing. Sometimes you will see Kuna’s in mainland Panama too. They’re not completely cut off- I even noticed a few with smart phones.

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A Kuna man spear fishing

The Kuna men have dropped the traditional clothes and wear western style clothing now instead. I heard that this is because men are the ones that go out to trade goods therefore, they were introduced to other forms of clothing which they now find more practical.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Kuna people and the San Blas Islands then this site is very informative.

Our San Blas Tour

As I mentioned above, we opted for a 2 night / 3 day round trip tour to the San Blas from Panama City. All meals, round trip transport and day tours were included in the price we paid. The island we stayed on was called Coco Blanco. As you can see from the photo’s below it’s a little bit of paradise.

Coco Blanco Island

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Coco Blanco Island – The San Blas
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Coco Blanco Island
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Coco Blanco Island
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Coco Blanco Island
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Coco Blanco Island
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Coco Blanco Island

I think it’s important to mention that although you definitely can get some bits of beach to yourself- you certainly wont have a ‘stranded on a desert island experience’. You will still have to share beaches and islands with other tourists (boooo).

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Sunset on Coco Blanco Island

We weren’t expecting to be completely secluded but we were hoping that there’d be no more than about 6 tourists staying on our island. We picked Coco Blanco because it had only 3 private cabins. However, what Panama Travel Unlimited’s website doesn’t state is that those who are on day trips or camping trips will join you for meals and excursions. This meant you felt more like you were in a big group tour at times. I imagine it works the same no matter which island you stay on. If you opt for one of the islands further out that you have to reach by flight it may be different.

That being said most beaches we visited were big enough for everyone to spread out and certainly weren’t crowded. After lunch we had time to chill out on Coco Blanco island and I would always have a section of the island to myself.

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Sunset on Coco Blanco Island

A Kuna family live on Coco Blanco island and they were very friendly although sometimes a little shy. It so important that you ask permission before taking any photos of the Kuna’s. The younger woman was very kind and let me take a couple of pictures but I didn’t want to intrude too much and ask the whole family!

Tourism makes up a huge percentage of most Kuna’s income. They seemed happy to host us and they still had a large section of the island to themselves so they could keep their privacy too.

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Sunset on Coco Blanco Island

Day Trip 1

Day one we went to a beach with great snorkelling and a small shipwreck just off the beach that you could swim around. This was the busiest of all of the day trip beaches but even so, there was plenty of beach space.

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San Blas Islands Beach
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San Blas Islands Beach – you can just see the shipwreck
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San Blas Islands Beach

Day Trip 2

This was my favourite beach ! You can’t get bluer water than this!

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San Blas Islands Beach
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San Blas Islands Beach

On route back to Coco Blanco island we stopped at a sand bank. This is an area of raised sand but not a beach- just a large shallow patch of water. We spotted lots of Starfish in the water.

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Our boat on the sand bank
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Sand Bank
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Sand Bank

Day Trip 3

This was our last excursion before heading back to Panama City. This one was also a beautiful beach but there were a few more little rocks in the shallows so it wasn’t my favourite of all of them (still gorgeous though!).

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San Blas Beach
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San Blas Beach
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San Blas Beach

Food in the San Blas Islands

Breakfast, lunch and dinner was served on Coco Blanco island. It was mostly fish, plantain, patacones, beans, rice and sometimes chicken. Breakfast was fruit, pancakes, eggs and beans. It did vary each day and you can tell them in advance if you have any dietry requirements.

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The dinner table

Our Cabin

Our cabin was really basic. There were 3 beds to accommodate larger groups or families but we just used the one. The toilet was a bucket flush system and the shower was just a running tap. There was some electricity but this goes off around 9 or 10pm to save energy. This is NOT a luxury holiday destination. It’s a luxury setting with rustic accommodation but that was all part of the experience. If you do need a comfier cabin then I believe there are some nicer options listed on Panama Travel Unlimited’s wesbite but they are not on Coco Blanco island (and they will, of course, be lots more expensive).

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Our Cabin
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Josh in the hammock outside our cabin
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Our cabin
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Our cabin toilet

San Blas Island’s Souvenirs

Most islands, including Coco Blanco, had locals selling Mola’s that they have made. You could also buy jewellery and traditional belts. Prices ranged from $5 for something small to $50 for larger Molas.

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San Blas Souvenirs
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San Blas Souvenirs
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San Blas Souvenirs
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San Blas Souvenirs

How much is a San Blas Islands tour?

The short answer is: a lot.

It’s certainly not a budget friendly tour even if you go for the most budget option. Just a 1 day tour can set you back about $150 and a 1 night/2 day tour will cost at least $200. Be sure to research all your options – camping will obviously be cheaper than a private cabin with ensuite bathroom. You can pay a little more to return in the afternoon rather than morning meaning you get one extra day trip to an island on the last day. The prices usually include all food and day trip transportation and a drink with every meal. Extra drinks and snacks cost extra. In my opinion, just a day tour isn’t really worth it and you will be exhausted from around 8 hours of travel!

For a private cabin on Coco Blanco Island for 2 nights / 3 days with a late pick up on the last day and round trip transport by boat and car we paid = Approx. $350 each.

So is it worth the cost? In my opinion it’s a little pricey for what you get but if you are a beach lover then it is worth it. It is so nice to go somehwhere run by locals without any big resorts and chain restaurants. I hope the Kuna’s keep control of the islands and are not pushed to allow outsider businesses in.

Discovering the San Blas Islands in Panama. How to get there, what tour company to use, what to do there and photos of the beaches and locals. Click through to read more...

 

 


Are you heading to the San Blas Islands soon? Have you found my blog helpful? Let me know in the comments ! 

Jess Harling

Creator of Jess Travels

20 thoughts on “Discovering the San Blas Islands”

  1. The water looks indeed crystal clear… me and my husband are definitely in love with white sand beaches, probably because we don’t have these in our part of Italy! I also enjoyed reading about the Kuna, it was an interesting piece about a culture I didn’t know!

  2. Those Mola’s are spectacular. I am originally from Colombia and I have seen them there. The workmanship in the layering for the fabrics and the patterns is amazing. You are tempting me to go to Panama now. I had no idea the beaches were so beautiful.

  3. WOW, I have never heard of the San Blas so super great to read this post. Such stunning photos! It definitely sounds really pricey for such a short side trip from mainland, is the boat charter the main expense I wonder? Regardless, seems like money well spent 🙂

    1. I hadn’t either until I started researching my trip to Central America. The fuel for the boats and cars that take you to the islands are probably a main expense but I do think they just charge more because they know people will pay it for such a beautiful place. Plus Panama in general is kinda pricey for activities.

  4. This gave me HUGE wanderlust envy!! I was in Panama in November and I badly wanted to travel on to the San Blas but because of other things, I ended up having to go home instead!!! Seeing your pictures and reading about your experience, even though it is pricey, still made me want to go back and see them in person!! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Ahh sorry Justyn ! Maybe one day you can go back ! It is expensive and there are other places in the world with beaches just as nice for less but I really liked that there were so many islands for day trips and that it was run by the locals.

  5. EVERYTHING LOOKS PERFECT. We’re looking for a lovely beach to visit so we will look into this. The water looks amazing, so clear and pristine! Also, the cabins look really cute and homely! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. The beaches were soo perfect! The cabins on my island (Coco Blanco) were cute but very very basic but I guess that’s part of the vibe of staying on a tiny island !

  6. GORGEOUS!!! Anything in Central America is tops of my list right now. Bookmarking this one for when I finally convince the husband to head south 🙂

  7. I have wanted to travel to Panama for such a long time! These islands look gorgeous! Wow, that crystal-clear, turquoise water… You’ve convinced me to travel there ha ha. Your photos are so beautiful!

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