The great thing about Panama is that city and country are never too far apart. Our drive from Panama City to the starting point of our San Blas islands adventure was only a two-hour car ride. That goes by pretty fast, making this an ideal day-trip or even a weekend getaway if you crave more quality time in the great outdoors.
What are the San Blas Islands?
Home to the native Guna Yala tribe, this archipelago is made up of small islands stretching towards Panama’s border with Colombia. We only visited one of these islands and as small as it appeared from shore, it was surprisingly large once we docked. Each island is set up like a mini city, with homes, schools and even a church all centrally located and easily explored on foot. Getting to and from the islands for the locals is as easy as a paddle boat ride. In total, there are 390 islands. This means that you could spend an entire year exploring an island a day and still not see them all. Don’t let that little factoid discourage you though. One is still better than none. Our group ultimately decided to visit the village called Carti Sugdup on Isla Cangrejo.
What to Expect
Many travelers head to San Blas to experience nature at its finest and for a glimpse into the life of the Kuna tribe. Life on the island is simple so don’t expect any luxuries. Electric power is limited by day and by night, the only light illuminating the sky is the moon and the stars. Many members of the tribe are used to tourists taking photos of them but they do generally expect a donation of about $1. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, it’s best to just take general shots of the scenery rather than the people. Like most islanders, the tribe primarily lives off the land, which means lots and lots of seafood. Lobsters are a particularly popular dish. You can even go snorkeling and see them underneath the surface before being caught and consumed.
Probably the biggest travel tip for San Blas is to trust the experts. Sure, you can book a trip to the islands last-minute or with a large tour group but if this is the highlight of your trip, it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Panama Vacations opted to leave early in the morning to beat the crowds and to also allow time for unexpected delays for boat transfers to and from the islands. Our leader also knew the islands well enough to decide which beach to visit for our afternoon picnic. As a result, we enjoyed a packed picnic mostly to ourselves, save for a few other tourists and a 360 degree view of the sand and surf. Our group did San Blas as a day trip but you can certainly spend an entire weekend here or longer, whether focusing on water sports or visiting villages.
What You’ll See
When visiting the villages, you’ll see a mix of Western clothes like t-shirts and jeans and more traditional garb. The women wear hand-stitched molas, scarves, and even beadwork worn on their arms and legs. Men tend to dress a little less traditionally, usually opting for polo shirts, baseball caps and the like. You’ll also see a bit of garbage strewn about but hopefully, with trash cans now dispersed throughout the islands, they will be put to good use. Nature-wise, the landscapes are just as diverse. Expect crystal, clear water, gentle waves (if any) and soft sand. Under the surface, you’ll see coral reefs of every size and color. In fact, coral reefs surround nearly every island here, so snorkeling is a must for any water-sport enthusiast. The beach island pictured here is Isla Agujas.
When to Go
For many people, when to go greatly depends on when you can get time off from work and that in and of itself, can be a challenge. That said, from December to March is the windy season so just be prepared for high waves and a likely rocky boat ride to the islands. The San Blas islands themselves are generally calm, as they are protected by the reef. I visited in late April and I will say that our boat ride to and from the different islands was pretty bumpy but not at all uncomfortable. I like roller coasters though, so I may not be the best judge! Other than the wine, I found April to be a great time to visit. The weather was picturesque with sunny skies, and the water temperature was not too warm and not too cold. In a nutshell? Perfection.
Have you ever island hopped? If so, where? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Panama Vacations / NAMU Travel Group. All opinions are my own.
Megan Eileen McDonough is writer, blogger and social media specialist based in New York City. She also runs Bohemian Trails, a lifestyle blog designed for the savvy and stylish traveler. Bohemian Trails aims to feature must-see places around the world, covering everything from revamped neighborhoods and vibrant street art to innovative tech hubs and everything in between. Her cultural escapades have taken her to Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Megan is also a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City. She contributes to various online and print publications in the travel and fashion industries and is an international correspondent for both Jetsetter and Northstar Travel Media.