The splendour of the San Blas islands is on par with the best in the world, a true bucket list destination. The 365 islands are like crown jewels, although there are some rough diamonds amongst them. We highlight the beauty and share our disappointment.
Panama has four clusters of islands. The first group is located in the Gulf of Panama, south of Panama City. It includes day-trip favourite Taboga and the Pearl Islands further towards the southeast.
Going clockwise, the second group is to the west of the Azuero Peninsula. Here you will find the islands Cébaco, Coiba, Parida and Boca Brava, to mention just a few.
Moving north, across the isthmus to the Caribbean Sea, you will find the third group, the ever popular Bocas del Toro archipelago. The 10 islands, 50 cays and numerous tiny islets are scattered across the 250km² of the archipelago.
Finally, moving about 400km due east, you are in Guna Yala territory.
Guna Yala? You said we are going to the San Blas islands
San Blas is Guna Yala.
The word Guna refers to the Guna indians, who are the indigenous inhabitants of the area. Yala means land and the combination is loosely translated as “land of the Guna”. Originally known as San Blas, later as Kuna Yala, it is officially Guna Yala since 2011, to better reflect their native tongue, which lacks a “K” sound.
Somewhat comically, the Guna refer to themselves as Tule, not Guna.
It is an autonomous territory or comarca in Panama, stretching almost 400km along the Caribbean coast, from Colombia in the east to the Gulf of Guna Yala in the west. The capital is the island El Porvenir.
Getting to and from the San Blas islands
There are three ways to reach the San Blas islands.
The most idyllic way to reach the islands is by means of a private yacht. Yachts can be chartered from Bocas del Toro, the area around Colón or from Colombia. This is also the most expensive way to do it. A speedboat from Panama or Colombia is an option.
The quickest way to reach San Blas is flying to El Povernir from Panama City. From there you can explore the islands by water taxi, or reach a few remote islands by plane.
Most visitors do the road and water taxi combination. The first part is an excursion by road from Panama City to Puerto de Carti, which starts at around 5AM. After 65km on the Pan-American Highway, a turn-off to the north takes you over the San Blas mountain range. It is about 50km of rollercoaster, but the scenery handsomely compensates. Total drive time is just short of two and a half hours.
Upon arrival at Puerto de Carti, you are assigned to a specific water taxi that will take you to your destination. 4×4 vehicles arrive at regular intervals, each carrying four tourists, so you might have to wait a while for the remainder of your taxi’s passenger list.
If it’s a windy day, it’s a wet ride. However, the distances are relatively short and a large plastic bag or something similar will keep the essentials dry.
Although 49 of the San Blas islands are inhabited, only half a dozen or so are accessible to tourists. There are no luxury hotels or five-star lodges, neither any restaurants nor ATMs. I would not define the tourist islands as untouched, but they are certainly undeveloped and rustic. For us, this was part of the appeal.
Accommodation varies from camping to private en-suite cabins, and anything in between. Just to be clear, private cabin does not imply luxury, it only ensures you are not sharing with someone other than your partner.
The island on which you stay will provide you with meals, mostly consisting of traditional Guna cuisine. Basic, but sufficient. They also sell a limited variety of cold drinks and local beer. The dining hall will vary from a basic wood and thatch structure on the beach to a more formal setting that forms part of a dock.
The three S’s: sand, sea and snorkelling
This is the gift of the San Blas islands, it is cliché-picturesque and will not disappoint.
Apart from the clear water, two other features make the area attractive. First is a large number of small islands in plain sight. It keeps the eyes busy and the mind rationalising why you would spend your entire lotto winnings to have one.
The other feature is the sandbanks, some of which are quite large. The combination of soft sand and warm water is therapeutic, especially when you have starfish to look at. If you do decide to spend time on a sandbank, remember sun protection.
Whenever you are near a reef, rocky outcrop or shipwreck, the snorkelling is first class.
Beach parties, loud music and lot’s of rum
Some islands have very limited accommodation, as few as three or four cabins. However, do not relate this to privacy; you will have to share the beach with more people.
What the travel agency won’t tell you is that during the day, your island is shared with tourists from other islands as well as day-trippers.
We stayed at Cabañas Wailidup where we were eight people in total. On our second day, we visited Isla Niadup, a day trip that was part of the package. Several other water taxis arrived and eventually, there were around 30 people. The local chieftain was very generous with the rum and a large group of young adults showed their appreciation by promptly finishing it off.
The island is however large enough if you need some alone time. A leisurely stroll along the beach will land you a peaceful spot under the palm trees.
This particular day turned at very pleasant, but I can imagine that some people can get a little annoyed by the unexpected “crowds”.
The rough diamonds
Just 2,5km from Puerto de Carti, there are four small, inhabited islands, in close proximity. On our way to our destination, we stopped at one of them, Gardi Sugdub, to drop off a tourist. It was our first view of a San Blas island, and it was a let-down. The island is overbuilt and the lack of refuse management was obvious.
The real disappointment was the island where we spent two nights, Isla Wailidup. It has a beautiful and recently built dock, with adjoining dining hall and bar area. From there you walk about 200m along the beach to the over-the-water cabins. This stretch is clean and kept clean on a daily basis.
The moment you venture off this beaten track, that is, towards the middle or opposite end of the island, the picture is quite different. Garbage of all shapes and sizes were lying strewn along the beach. The back end of the island was equally dirty.
There are as many arguments to excuse it, as there are to condemn it. I am not debating either; I am simply expressing my disappointment that a jewel such as this island is not treated accordingly.
Value for money
San Blas islands are expensive to visit, and parts of it are understandable. It requires a qualified driver and expensive 4×4 to get to the coast. Then a high maintenance water taxi to reach your destination and do the day trips. And they feed you.
The real question is not the monetary cost, but rather the perceived value for money. Our visit was enjoyable and memorable, but in terms of value for money, I would score it six out of ten.
“Spend more time in places where you forget to check your phone” – Travel Hippi
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