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12 Things to KNOW Before Booking a Trip to the San Blas Islands

12 Things to KNOW Before Booking a Trip to the San Blas Islands

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If you’re the kind of traveler who loves to dive deep into the local culture and go off the grid, then the San Blas Islands are perfect for you. 

Not only are the San Blas Islands a real-life slice of paradise, they offer you the chance to completely remove yourself from civilization. We’re talking about no internet, no cell service, and no credit card payments – nothing. If you’re looking for a real chance to unplug then this is totally it. 

Located off of the Caribbean coast of Panama, the San Blas Islands are one of the bucket list places to visit in Central America. This group of tiny islands makes a perfect island-hopping adventure!

The San Blas Islands are known for their unspoiled beauty. Crystal clear waters, pure white sands – you know, your typical image of paradise. And sure, you can find these kinds of scenes on islands all over the world but so many of them are overrun with tourism these days – but not San Blas. 

However, since you’ll struggle to access the internet once you reach San Blas, it’s important to do as much research as possible before you go. It’s a remote destination and so it’s essential that you’re prepared and know what to expect. 

That’s why we’ve put together this list of 12 essential things to know before you book a trip to the San Blas Islands so that you can enjoy these incredible islands to the fullest. 

1. About the San Blas Islands 

A small wooden fishing boat on a beach in the San Blas Islands, Panama
Palm tree and small hut on the San Blas Islands, Panama
Simplicity is what makes the islands so magical!

The San Blas Islands in Panama are part of the Guna Yala Indigenous territory, so technically, they’re kind of a country within a country. The archipelago consists of 365 islands and cays (one for every day of the year!) and of those, 49 are inhabited.  

The Guna people are famous for crafting molas, which are bright, patterned, hand-made textiles. On your visit to the San Blas Islands, you’ll see Guna people going about their daily lives and you’ll get to experience some of the amazing local culture here.

The islands are known for their delicious seafood, diverse marine life (especially starfish), jungles, and of course, gorgeous beaches.  

The San Blas Gulf is home to the third-largest coral reef in the world. It’s also one of the most untouched reefs in the world, which is really amazing to see.  

The most popular islands in the San Blas archipelago include El Porvenir, Isla Robeson, Chichimei, and Isla Perro.  

There are two main ways to experience the San Blas Islands. You can either stay in a beach bungalow on one of the islands or stay on a boat and sail around island hopping.

Also, unless you’ve got your own boat, you’ll need to enter the San Blas Islands on a tour. They’re too remote to reach by yourself. 

2. Where are the San Blas Islands? 

Bailey relaxes on a yacht in the San Blas Islands
Cruising the calm waters is magical on the yacht-based tours, but the islands are the highlight.

The San Blas Islands are located off the Caribbean coast of Eastern Panama, which means clear, warm seas!  

The archipelago is roughly 145 kilometers (90 miles) away from Panama City, which is where most people travel from.  

Getting to the San Blas Islands from Panama City is surprisingly easy – you’ll be picked up early in a 4×4 and head to Puerto de Carti. There, you board a boat that takes you straight to the islands. Easy peasy!  

The San Blas Islands are also relatively close to Cartagena, Colombia. There’s a 373-kilometer (231-mile) distance between the two, so it’s possible to visit from here. 

Related read: When making your travel itinerary, consider adding a couple of the top cities in Latin America to the list!

3. When is the best time to visit the San Blas Islands? 

A yacht sails past a small island in the San Blas Islands, Panama
This is paradise on Earth!

The San Blas Islands have a pretty long rainy season, which runs from May to December. The dry season, from January to April, is the ideal time to go, but this does give you a pretty narrow window. 

The good news is that the wet season doesn’t mean it’s going to rain all day every day – but it does mean you will probably experience at least a few pretty heavy downpours while you’re there. However, they don’t usually last more than an hour or two.

The islands are also quieter during the wet season, which some people find makes up for the rain.  

October and November are the wettest months, so maybe try to avoid these if you can. Obviously, the dry season is ideal, but if you’re visiting from May to September, your trip is unlikely to be spoiled by bad weather. 

4. Where is the best place to visit the San Blas Islands from? 

A lady relaxes on a beautiful beach in the San Blas Islands
If you need me, I’ll be here!

Either Panama City or Cartagena, Colombia.  

It’s a pretty easy journey from both cities and there are plenty of tours from Panama City and Cartagena that will handle everything for you.  

With that being said, most tour companies don’t offer a return trip from Cartagena, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve had your fill of that city and all the amazing tours in Cartagena before leaving. Typically tours to the San Blas Islands take you from Cartagena to the San Blas Islands and then continue on to Panama City, or vice versa.  

However, if Cartagena is not on your travel itinerary, then there are plenty of tours that offer a return trip from Panama City.  

Related read: Make sure to read our guide to crossing the border between Panama and Costa Rica if you’re headed in that direction.

5. Can you travel from Colombia to Panama and vice versa on a San Blas Islands tour? 

Bailet at the front of our boat in the San Blas Islands
I’m glad the waters were so calm on our trip!

You certainly can – in fact, it’s a really popular thing to do. 

The San Blas Islands are one of the most beautiful places in Panama, so they’re a great place to end your time in the country on a high note before continuing on to Colombia.

But equally, they’re an amazing introduction to Panama if you’re traveling in the opposite direction! 

I have more info below on the best tours that travel this route.

6. Is it better to stay on the islands or enjoy a sailing trip?  

White sand beach on the San Blas Islands in Panama
The islands are the highlight for me. So, I much preferred spending my nights on them rather than the small yachts!

That really depends on your preferences. We have done both and much preferred staying on the islands.

I get minor motion sickness, but after 2 days on the water it began to get worse and I was ready to get on dry land.

There are plenty of boat tours you can stay on, but the accommodation tends to be a bit cramped. On top of that, those who get motion sickness could really suffer from spending the majority of their time on the ocean.

However, staying on a boat is always a cool experience, and if you’re short on time, you’ll get to see more of the archipelago. 

The islands tend to have nicer and more spacious accommodations. Some islands even have awesome overwater bungalows, à la Maldives (although they don’t tend to be quite as luxurious as those).  

You’re bound to have an awesome time in the San Blas Islands regardless, so choose the option that suits you best! 

7. Do you need to book the San Blas Islands in advance? 

Daniel with some drinks on the San Blas Islands
Daniel suffered no motion sickness so he loved the liveaboard yacht more!

That depends on when you want to visit. If you’re visiting during the wet season (from May to December), things tend to be quieter and you don’t really need to book in advance. 

However, the dry season (from January to April) is a lot busier and so the islands book up quickly. If you’re visiting the San Blas Islands during the peak time, then definitely book in advance so that you don’t miss out! 

8. How many nights should you spend in the San Blas Islands?  

The San Blas Islands are one of those places that you never really want to leave!

We recommend staying for a minimum of two nights to ensure that you get time to explore and soak in the natural beauty of the archipelago properly.  

However, if you’re really pressed for time but don’t want to miss this incredible destination, there are day tours from Panama. But seriously, we recommend shifting around your itinerary to ensure that you get at least a couple of nights in San Blas. 

Related read: Wanting to turn your trip here into an extended adventure around Central America? Check out our tips on how to afford long-term travel!

9. What are the best tours to the San Blas Islands? 

A tiny island part of the San Blas Islands
It’s hard to believe places like this exist!

San Blas Tours From Panama 

3-Day/2-Night Tour in San Blas 

This awesome tour offers round-trip transport from Panama and includes all meals, as well as tours of Cayos Limones (the Lemon Keys Islands) which are known for their excellent snorkeling, and Cayos Holandeses, one of the most remote areas of the entire archipelago. 

You’ll stay in a cabin on Yansailadup, one of the archipelago’s most beautiful islands, located in the Lemon Keys area. The basic option is a private room, or you can upgrade to an oceanfront or overwater cabin if you’re feeling fancy. 

This tour is run by Tao Travel 365, a very reputable tour company that operates throughout South and Central America. They have amazing reviews and a strong focus on sustainable tourism, so this is a big bonus. 

Prices start at $365 USD per person and that includes everything except your drinks, gratuities, and the $22 USD Guna entrance fee which you’ll have to pay upon entry to the region. You can book this 3-day tour online here.

2 Day/1 Night San Blas Overwater Cabin  

If you’re a bit pressed for time, Tao Travel 365 also offers this shorter San Blas Island tour.

You’ll get to stay in an overwater cabin, which is an incredibly cool experience. Plus, you’ll take a boat tour around the islands.

Snorkel gear is included and you’ll get to snorkel at amazing places like Isla Perro with its sunken shipwreck and look for sea stars on the ocean floor.

All your transportation, meals, accommodation, and activities are included for the incredible $165 USD cost. You’ll still need to pay the entrance fee to the region and any drinks you buy, but this tour is a steal!

This 2-day San Blas Island is very popular, so you should book it online well in advance.

San Blas Island Day Tour  

If you’re REALLY pressed for time, then you can even take this day tour of the San Blas Islands from Panama City.

You’ll get to snorkel, visit 3-4 of the prettiest islands, kayak or paddle board, and enjoy a traditional lunch. One of the islands you’ll visit is Isla Perro, where you’ll get to participate in a game of volleyball with the locals. 

Everything is taken care of for you, so this is a super convenient way to visit the San Blas Islands if you don’t have a lot of time to spare. At $160 USD, it’s a similar price as the overnight tour, but this tour lasts 14 hours (with a 5 am pick up!) and returns you back to Panama City in the evening.

Colombia to Panama/Vice Versa  

Blue Sailing  

Blue Sailing is a tour company that specializes in the San Blas Islands, so you better believe they know what they’re doing!  

The trip is about 5 nights long with 3 days spent island-hopping around the San Blas Islands and then one travel day on either side of your trip for the open sea crossing.

You’ll stay on a sailboat the whole time and enjoy fresh, local food as you cruise around the archipelago. You’ll sleep in bunk accommodation and shower time is limited – this is a pretty rustic experience, but it’s also a lot of fun. 

You can take a tour from Panama City to the San Blas Islands and then on to Cartagena, or vice versa starting in Columbia. No matter where your trip starts from, you’ll sail around, glimpsing some of the archipelago’s most remote, uninhabited islands and there’s plenty of snorkeling, fishing, and beach time to enjoy. 

Expect to pay around $600-700 USD per person – it varies depending on the season you book and the boat you’re on.

Island tour  

San Blas Adventures also offers a boat tour from Colombia to Panama. You’ll travel on a fast boat rather than a sailboat, so there’s no 2-day ocean crossing.  

You’ll spend more time on the islands than you will on the boat, so you really get to experience the best of San Blas. In fact, you only spend a total of 8 hours on the boat over the course of 4 days!  

There’ll be lots of time to interact with the locals and learn more about the island communities that make the San Blas Islands so fascinating.  

This tour is $465 USD during the non-busy months, $495 USD during high season (Dec-March) and there’s a special Christmas/New Year’s trip for $595 USD.

Related read: Another amazing experience we loved was scuba diving in Bocas del Toro, Panama!

10. What should you pack on a San Blas Islands trip? 

A hotel on an island in the San Blas Islands
You don’t need much, just the essentials!

When you’re visiting the San Blas Islands, your philosophy should be: if you want it, you bring it.  

First things first, you’ll need to bring your passport, because you’ll need to present this as you enter the Guna Yala territory. No passport, no entry. 

You’ll also need to bring US dollars because there are no credit cards or ATMs on the San Blas Islands. Bring plenty of small denominations – you really can’t ask for change from a $100 bill out here.  

US dollars are widely used in Panama, so you won’t need to worry about exchanging money before you go. In fact, Panama actually doesn’t print its own currency (the balboa).  

Most tours include your food, but you’ll usually still need the $22 USD entry fee to the Guna Yala territory, as well as cash to buy coconuts from the locals, beautiful handmade molas, and drinks. If you want to take photos with the Guna people, they’ll usually charge a dollar per picture, too. 

You’ll spend a lot of your time on the San Blas Islands in the water, so make sure to bring swimwear and towels.  

Electricity is generally limited, so you’ll need a powerpack to charge your phone and some spare camera batteries. And if you have a GoPro, definitely bring that along.  

It’s also a good idea to bring bug repellent since the San Blas Islands have a tropical climate and that means one thing: mosquitoes! 

You also may want to bring a lightweight travel cocoon for sleeping if you’re worried about clean bedding. It’s pretty hot on the San Blas Islands, so a full-on sleeping bag is probably going to be too thick.  

Bring plenty of sun protection, too. Waterproof, reef-friendly sunscreen is a must, ideally with an SPF of 30 or above. You’ll also need sunglasses, a sun hat, and a light beach cover-up if you’re prone to sunburn. It’s not a bad idea to bring some aloe vera gel, either, in case you do burn. 

Make sure that you’ve got all of your necessary toiletries with you because getting hold of them once you’re there is going to be pretty darn difficult. You don’t want to get to San Blas and realize you forgot your saline solution or your toothbrush!  

Bring light clothing, such as shorts and cotton t-shirts. You should also pack a light rain jacket in case of a downpour and for wearing on boat trips as you may get splashed.  

Usually, group meals are served at a set time, so you might want to bring a few snacks with you to tide you over in between, like cereal bars, chips, or cookies.  

Last but not least, bring some basic medication with you. Even if you’re not prone to seasickness, we recommend having it with you just in case – it never hurts to be prepared! There are several brands available but Dramamine is one of the most popular and effective. 

Other handy basics to have include painkillers, anti-diarrhea tablets, and antihistamines in case of bug bites. You’re no more likely to get sick in San Blas than you are anywhere else, but since there aren’t really any pharmacies around, it’s best to be prepared!  

11. What’s the food like on a San Blas Islands tour?  

A sailboat in the San Blas Islands
The sunsets on the water were magical!

Don’t expect 5-star dining in San Blas – although that’s not to say the food isn’t good. It’s all fresh, local cuisine, which means lots of seafood and rice. You’ll have plenty of chances to eat lobster!  

If you have special dietary requirements, then contact the tour company before booking to make sure that they can cater to these.  

You might be a little sick of seafood and rice by the end of your tour, depending on how long you go for, but we love experiencing the local cuisine when we travel. Eating a pizza in San Blas just wouldn’t feel right!

12. Are the San Blas Islands worth visiting?  

White sand beach, San Blas Islands, Panama
Come stay on an island, trust me, it’s the way to go! I mean, look at this place!?

Yes! 

The San Blas Islands are absolutely gorgeous – we’re talking, beach screensaver-worthy scenery. We’d go as far as to say that they’re among the most beautiful islands in the world.

Not only this, but they’re culturally rich and allow you to totally disconnect from the modern world. A trip to the San Blas Islands is an amazing adventure and a total must when visiting Panama. You won’t regret it!  

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey in San Blas Islands
Thanks for reading!

The San Blas Islands are one of those unforgettable destinations! I mean the natural beauty of the area is stunning and it’s so good to really unplug for a while on your vacation. I highly recommend visiting this little piece of paradise for a few days!

If you’re planning a trip soon, check out our travel advice blogs or look through our blogs on Central America. We have lots of tips to share so you can have an amazing vacation. If you have any questions about San Blas, leave us a comment below!

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Brian S

Friday 16th of February 2024

Do you need a negative COVID test to visit the islands? Viator says YES, the website for the islands says NO, but that masks are mandatory. But that website hasn't been updated since 2022. Viator says they won't finalize your tour booking without a negative COVID test.

It also says you're required to bring your passport. Do the natives check/stamp it once you enter the autonomous territory?

Destinationless Travel

Wednesday 21st of February 2024

Hey Brian,

No you do not. That information is very old. Just book and no one will ever ask especially on Viator. They don't check stamps but it's required to bring your passport.

Thanks Daniel

Anja

Friday 3rd of February 2023

Hello! Thank you for you nice summary of your trip. We are traveling to Panama in less than five days. It was a bit of an ad hoc decision and we will not make it with all the recommended vaccines. How did you deal with it? Did you have all the recommended vaccinations and malaria meds? Thank you in advance for your answer. (We will be traveling to Panama City, San Blas Island, Boquete and Bocas del Toro.)

destinationlesstravel

Friday 3rd of February 2023

Hey Anja,

What vaccinations are you talking about? The ones before covid are almost never asked for and you can certainly travel the country without them - it just carries a small risk. We had our yellow Fever but that's about it aside from Hep A and B which are given as children in Australia and Canada.

We never take malaria tablets unless we are in the deep jungle which based on your itinerary you are not. Of course, there is still a risk but it is small the medication is not nice to take.

If you don't have your rabies shots, do not handle wildlife and stay away from them.

I hope this helps Bailey

Lillie

Tuesday 31st of January 2023

We are going in March, and I have been looking for answers to a couple questions, so wondering if you might be able to answer. Apart from the money for the host and entry fees, etc, about how much cash do you think we should bring for a 2 night stay? If we bring some drinks with us, is there ice or some other way to have a cold drink? Any idea what kind of host gift might be appreciated most?

destinationlesstravel

Tuesday 31st of January 2023

Hey Lillie,

Great questions. It's hard to say about the money situation because everyone is different. We personally traveled with around $400 USD, but we did not spend it all (not even close). I would always bring $100 more than you think - you just never know.

The best way to have a cold drink is to buy them. I have no idea if they sell ice.

For your host, be sure to bring a smile and lots of thank yous. I felt as though they do not get enough praise from most travelers. On top of that, a small cash tip is best. Or, but them a beer while out there, etc. It's honestly the small things that help break down that traveler/ host barrier.

I hope this helps Daniel