The Ultimate Guide to San Blas Islands in Panama

By Camila Perez on May 27, 2019

Part of a large archipelago, this amazing cluster of 378 islands cover an area of approximately 100 square miles. Most of the San Blas Islands are uninhabited; the ones that are inhabited are home to native Kuna people, who are also known as the Guna. The native people own these islands and protect them from damage that can accompany large-scale tourism. At the same time, they welcome visitors with friendly smiles and traditional food.

In this guide, we'll take a look at:

  • 1. The Journey: How to Get to San Blas Islands
  • 2. About San Blas Islands: What Makes these Panama Islands Unforgettable?
  • 3. Things to do in San Blas Panama & Nearby
  • 4. Where to Stay: San Blas Hotels & Accommodations
  • 5. Is it Safe to Travel to Panama?
  • 6. Best Time to Visit San Blas Islands: Weather and More
  • 7. Packing Tips for Your Trip to the San Blas Islands

The Journey: How to Get to San Blas Islands

Before we get started, let’s clear up an important issue: These beautiful islands are legally known as Guna Yala, and have been since 2011. Since most people look for “San Blas,” we’re using the old name to make it easy for you to find our travel tips. Now, on to the rest of the story!
Curious about how to get to San Blas Islands? As it turns out, there are a few different ways. You can take a sailboat charter or fly in, and you can also take a combination of 4×4 and water taxi (lancha) from Panama City to the islands.

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Flights from Panama City to the islands land at El Porvenir, which has a small airstrip. Some local flights go to Achutupu, Corazon, Garti/Carti, Playon Chico, Rio Sidra, and de Jesus, as well. If you do opt to fly in, be sure to book well in advance since seats are always in demand. Most flights to the San Blas Islands are offered via Aeroperlas and Air Panama.

It takes about an hour to fly to the islands from Panama City. If you make the trip via jeep / lancha, you’ll spend closer to four hours traveling to the islands.

If you are staying in Casco Viejo, Panama, you can easily grab a taxi to Carti and then hop on the ferry to the islands.

For travelers starting out in Cartagena, Columbia, the best way to get to the islands is to fly or book a sailing trip.

Peaceful Islands Seen from the Air.

About San Blas Islands: What Makes these Panama Islands Unforgettable?

These islands aren’t as well-known as many other destinations, and that’s what makes this place so special and so amazing. The kind, warm, smiles of the people you’ll meet, the brilliant turquoise water, and the soft, white sand make this place incredibly magical. This is a place for wandering, not worrying too much about what to wear, and simply relaxing. It’s the perfect place to get away from everything and simply be.

Of course there are plenty of fun tours to try, and the food is amazing! Expect to enjoy lots of seafood, delicious rice dishes, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies, as that’s what’s typically on the menu.

There are many different tour packages to try, including relaxing multi-day, multi-night tours to the islands, and shorter excursions that let you spend just one or two days relaxing in paradise.

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Things to do in San Blas Panama & Nearby

Most island adventures feature a fantastic focus on fun in the sun! From surfing to windsurfing and from sailing to scuba diving to snorkeling, there are lots of ways to enjoy the brilliant white sand beaches and the warm blue water. If you’re not into activities, you can always opt to relax in a comfy hammock and watch the world go by!

You can also take a short San Blas river tour. If you decide to enjoy this option, be sure that your camera is ready to capture birds and wildlife! Be sure to keep an eye out for turtles and don’t be alarmed if you encounter an alligator or two along the way.

If you’ll be in Panama for a while and you want to explore, you’ll find opportunities to tour historic sites such as San Lorenzo Fort, and you can also take guided excursions into the jungle or out to Monkey Island, which is located at Gatun Lake, about 45 minutes from Panama City. Besides curious, chatty Capuchin, howler, and tit monkeys, you’re likely to encounter a whole host of tropical birds, along with capybaras, crocodiles, iguanas, and other creatures.

The Panama Canal is not to be missed – you can watch the locks in action, or you can take a boat trip all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in just one day.

Watch for wildlife including turtles, monkeys, and more.

Travel Options: Overnights vs. Day Trips

While a multi-day San Blas islands tour will be most rewarding, it is possible to take a day tour from Panama City. You won’t get the full cultural experience this way but you will be able to take in the sun and sand, enjoy some incredible views, an perhaps even take a little bit of time out for snorkeling.

If you opt for a multi-night tour to the islands, you’ll find that lots of things are included beyond simple round-trip transportation. For example, your trip is likely to come complete with comfortable lodging in a private cabin, plus meals. Some of the most popular tours include trips to Perico Island, wonderful opportunities to relax in a natural pool, snorkel equipment for exploring the underwater environment, and more. You might even be able to borrow a hammock for napping between adventures. The best all-inclusive island tours come with transportation from your hotel to the boat’s port, plus the entrance tax that the Kuna Yala tribe charges to island visitors as a way to help with upkeep.

A shorter overnight tour might offer more relaxation than a single-day visit as well. Look for one that includes roundtrip transportation, meals, and entrance tax, plus private/shared lodging. You’ll get to enjoy some incredibly beautiful views plus you can probably find time to relax in a hammock and use snorkeling equipment provided by the tour provider.

If you only have time for a day trip, don’t despair! You’ll still have fun and you will get the opportunity to experience a friendly welcome as well as a shorter tour. You might even have time to snorkel in the crystal-clear, aquamarine-colored water. Like other tours, look for one that’s all-inclusive with tax, transportation, and lunch as part of the package. This way, you’ll save money plus you’ll be able to make the most of the time available.

Where to Stay: San Blas Hotels & Accommodations

Those who wish to stay here will find that there are a few San Blas islands hotels available, along with more rustic options including cabins and tents. Most hotels are simple yet comfortable, although more luxurious rooms are available at some properties.

When you book your accommodations, it’s very important to double-check to make sure that you’re booking a property in San Blas Panama instead of similarly named destinations in Florida or Mexico! This is a common mistake that leaves some travelers scrambling to find a place to stay once they’ve arrived in Panama.

Local Flavors: Dining in the San Blas Islands and Beyond

Food plays an important role in local culture and you’re guaranteed to enjoy amazing meals at every local restaurant you try – as well as at other restaurants in Panama!

Panamanian cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients, with warm, wonderful spices that offer a distinctive afro-antilean influence. You’ll find lots of dishes that contain fish, shrimp, and lobster, along with wonderful tropical fruits, coconut, and satisfying root vegetables. Cool, refreshing desserts like Duro and Raspado round off many meals.

Smoothies called batidos are very popular, as are natural fruit juices, hot chocolate, and of course coffee, often locally grown in Boquete, Panama. You can sample local beer, gin, and rum, as well.

Last, but not least, if someone offers you an Agua de Pipa, be sure to accept! This is natural coconut water, often served fresh. Nothing compares!

Is it Safe to Travel to Panama?

Panama is a safe travel destination, with many beautiful natural features and plenty of great dining, art, and more. Just like at other destinations, it’s important to take normal safety precautions when you are visiting larger cities.

Best Time to Visit San Blas Islands: Weather and More

With its tropical maritime climate, Panama is typically hot, humid, and rainy between May and December. Many people feel that the dry season between January and May is the best time to go to Panama and visit the San Blas Islands. The truth is that the climate here is amazing all year round, though your chances of encountering precipitation are higher during the rainy season. Even on wet days though, the sun usually makes an appearance!

In case you’re worried about hurricanes, you can put hose fears to rest. This part of Panama is located outside the hurricane belt, so there’s a far lower hurricane risk than you’ll find at other Caribbean destinations.

Packing Tips for Your Trip to the San Blas Islands

Pack light, because unless you’re staying on a sailboat, you’ll be very limited in your ability to carry much along. Even then, you don’t want to have too much stuff to worry about!

The good news is that you need very little while you’re here – a bathing suit, a towel, a sarong, a couple of cool, comfortable outfits, a hat, sunscreen, and something to sleep in are essentials if you’ll be staying overnight. If you’ll be staying just for the day, you’ll want to bring the basics – swimsuit, towel, sarong, hat, and sunscreen.

Either way, remember your sunglasses, water to stay hydrated on your journey, a few snacks, and some bug spray.
Ready for lots of relaxation and perhaps a bit of adventure along the way? You’ll find it here in these amazing Panama Islands, where people are friendly, warm sun beams down, and the blue ocean is just a short distance from your hotel’s door! Read on to learn more about San Blas and nearby locales. Whether you’re looking for a tour to the islands from Panama City or if you’re considering excursions to other destinations like Isla Colon, Pedasi, or Playa Venao, you’ll find that fun and relaxation is just waiting to be discovered.

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