If you’ve not already heard of it, San Blas is an archipelago of about 365 islands off the southeast coast of Panama. Few places in Latin America can match it in terms of the quantity and quality of deserted beaches.
The archipelago forms part of an autonomous region administered by the Kuna indigenous group, which has resisted large-scale external investments in tourism and has thus maintained the pristine environment of the island chain. With perhaps one or two exceptions, the San Blas islands are essentially undeveloped and are inhabited by, at most, one family from the Kuna community.
As a result, these islands offer only rudimentary accommodation, which is often limited to basic wooden shacks or hammocks hung up between palm trees on the beach. However, the limited tourist infrastructure also means that it is remarkably easy to find a deserted island to call your very own (for the duration of your stay, at least).
It is remarkably easy to find a deserted island to call your very own
One of the major attractions of San Blas is being able to spend the night on one such island, wake up and then hitch a ride with a passing fisherman to the next equally idyllic spot. Quite simply, the San Blas islands are a joy to visit.
How to Get to San Blas:
The relative remoteness of the location and the limited tourist infrastructure together mean that the San Blas islands are not the easiest place in the world to reach. Boats between mainland Panama and the islands do not leave that frequently, and the port is located on the other side of hilly terrain along mud track roads, which require a 4x4 vehicle to navigate them.
In spite of these small challenges, the islands remain entirely possible to access. For those wise enough to go and explore the island chain, there are three main options available:
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1. Organised Tours from Panama City
This may be the simplest option for solo travelers and those coming from Panama City. A number of hostels and tour operators in the capital offer packages which include a space in the 4x4 from the city; a boat trip from the port around some of the nearer islands; food and an overnight stay.
On an organised tour you will experience only a small fraction of what San Blas has to offer
This is certainly the most convenient way to see San Blas and will give you a great taste of what the place is about. The down side is that on an organised tour of this sort, you will experience only a small fraction of what San Blas has to offer. You will only see a handful of the several hundred islands on such outings, with your visit restricted to the sites selected by the particular tour company. This deprives you of the opportunity to explore independently and to hop from island to island which is, after all, one of the great pleasures of the place.
2. Visit Independently
If travelling together with a couple of friends, independently visiting San Blas becomes more feasible. Getting to the boat departure point to the islands is night on impossible by public transport so you’ll need to hire a 4x4 vehicle in Panama City and then make the drive over. The capital has a range of car rental business, with the densest concentration of these at the city’s international airport.
If travelling together with a couple of friends, independently visiting San Blas becomes more feasible
The drive from Panama City to Kuna territory takes about a couple of hours and, except for the last section, is pretty straight forward (note: you have to pay a small entrance fee at a toll both in order to access the Kuna territory). You can leave your car at the spot where the boats depart, and continue your adventure from there.
Travelling this way will allow you to decide exactly which islands you want to stay on, and to move around and between them with much greater freedom. The cost of the hire car might be prohibitive for solo travelers, but if there’s a few of you, it can even work out cheaper than the combined cost of several places on the organised tours.
3. Navigate by Yacht
A final option is to take the 5-day yacht trip from Panama to the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, stopping to explore the San Blas islands along the way. Not everybody will have the time or flexibility to be able to take up this option, but if you do you will certainly not be disappointed.
Though billed as a yacht trip, most of the customers on these trips are backpacker and low-mid budget travellers. The five-day tour costs in the region of USD350, with everything included i.e. small sleeping quarters on the boat, food, drink etc. Most trips sail for about 2 days around the islands and stop at various different spots for you to swim or to explore. This gives a real in-depth impression of what the islands are all about and allows you to soak up plenty of sun along the way.
Given that the land border into Colombia from Panama is essentially non-navigable (it lies in the midst of dense jungle terrain where security is a real concern), the yacht trip is undoubtedly the most pleasant way to cross from Panama into Colombia. If you do decide to opt for this option, make sure to do some research into your boat and captain before travelling; while prices between the various boats do not vary widely, the service offered certainly does. If you select well, this is an excellent way to see the San Blas islands in all their glory.