Shell yeah, beaches! Kick off your flip flops and dial your mindset to island time with a jaunt to the San Blas Islands archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama.
Absorb the warmth of the salty turquoise sea, camp on a beach beneath dazzling stars, and form meaningful friendships with laidback travelers as you hop along a few of the 365 islands that make up this rustic paradise.
Ditch your cell phone, modern conveniences, and expectations to fully appreciate your stay. Relax in the sweetness of doing absolutely nothing and plop your butt on a hammock, towel, or palm tree in between optional excursions!
San Blas Islands
The indigenous territory of Guna Yala consists of a small strip of land on the Caribbean coast and San Blas Islands. The native Guna people inhabit 49 of these islands and govern the area independently from Panama. They have their own unique laws, religion, and culture.
Upon first glance, the flag of Guna Yala with its black sauwastika is reminiscent of the Nazi Party. However, the symbol represents the pain and mistreatment of the people during the revolution to fight against the repressive Panamanian government in 1925. Gunas won the right to protect their harmonious way of life and 27 people died during the rebellion. The red and yellow colors represent spilled blood and prosperity, respectively.
The islands come in all different shapes and sizes, but the biggest are typically more developed with schools, residential areas, and community centers. Gunas protect their beautiful home from mass tourism by regulating the amount of visitors. In addition to tourism revenue, they sustain their way of life through fishing, coconut production, and handicraft sales.
Women wear traditional head scarves (muswe) and adorn their arms and legs with intricate beadwork (chakira). Patterned wrap skirts (saburet) and needlework blouse panels (molas) feature animals, floral motifs, and geometric designs.
Consider buying a colorful mola as a souvenir to support the locals. Keep in mind Gunas do not like their picture taken without permission. Try to build rapport with a friendly conversation or purchase before asking for a photograph. I opted for a few sneaky candid shots instead!
Gunas have their own language, but most also speak Spanish and a little bit of English. Learning a few key phrases and words will benefit your trip. More than likely there will be another traveler nearby to help if you get lost in translation!
Although the majority of our interactions were friendly, Brad and I felt our presence on Ina Island was an inconvenience. Bartenders and kids were easygoing, but tour guides and restaurant staff didn't seem to have any interest exchanging pleasantries. I'm sure it gets a bit old dealing with foreigners in your back yard every day.
San Blas Dreams
Initially we planned to visit the San Blas Islands via a sailing trip to Colombia, but shifted gears due to travel fatigue. After 13 months of backpacking, we decided to regroup in the United States after Panama before heading out on the road again.
Brad and I chose to book 3 nights/4 days with San Blas Dreams after surfing the web for reputable tour agencies, reading blog posts, and speaking to fellow travelers. Any less time and we would've felt rushed!
The total cost for two people was $720 USD with an additional $46 USD in port fees. The package included roundtrip transportation in Panama City, private accommodations, meals, and excursions.
We stayed at the trendy Nómada Container Hotel in Panama City before and after the San Blas Islands. The kind staff kept our unnecessary luggage safe and sound at no additional charge. I highly recommend staying at the hotel for its affordability, location, and hospitality!
A 4x4 picked us up from our hotel at approximately 5:30 AM. The cramped, hot, and bumpy ride lasted three hours and included one break at a convenience store with bathrooms. Before reaching the coast, we stopped at a passport checkpoint and paid the port tax ($23 USD per person). Try to have exact change to make it easier on the driver.
Organized chaos began once we arrived at the dock. Men scurried around on cell phones crosschecking passenger lists as boats pulled up to the piers. Wristbands were issued as we patiently waited to be told where to go. Brad and I just shrugged our shoulders and hoped we would be taken to the right place!
The journey was fast and wet, so I advise wrapping your luggage in a waterproof cover or plastic bag. Keep fragile items with you because the bow of the boat slams repeatedly against the waves. Fortunately, our camera didn't suffer any damage during the wild ride. Whew!
You'll board similar boats during your excursions and transfers to other islands. Lifejackets are provided and mandatory to wear. Try to sit in the middle of the boat if you want to avoid a big splash to the face!
Accommodations & Facilities
Brad and I paid extra for private spaces. We slept in a boarded room with a sand floor, beach tent (our favorite), and elevated bungalow. Dorms are common and more affordable. Prepare for humid nights and simplicity.
The mattresses were comfortable with flannel sheets, but the pillows weren't supportive. Luckily we brought along our own mini travel pillows in compressible sacks. I slept like a rock, but Brad felt overheated. Consider snoozing in a hammock if you need a cool breeze.
There wasn't any good way to secure our belongings (cash, GoPro, camera, and passports) during our stay. In order to have piece of mind, we kept our valuables with us most of the time. We never heard of any issues with theft, but better safe than sorry.
Our boarded room had a latch for a padlock, but we forgot to bring one. Instead, we found a lone wire twist tie in the sand to use as a makeshift deterrent. A small padlock would've been useful as well to secure the tent zippers.
Our bungalow didn't have any mechanism to close the door and I was a bit surprised when a Guna woman entered to deliver sheets without a knock. This would've been especially awkward if I was changing!
Shower and bathroom facilities are extremely basic with no hot or fresh water. We packed our Grayl filtered water bottle, but soon realized we couldn't use it on any of the islands because of the saline. Prepare for clogged toilets, lack of soap to wash your hands, and poor lighting. I had one makeshift plastic PVC pipe shower come apart and hit me on the head!
Food & Beverages
Coffee and tea were served at breakfast and bottled water was provided during lunch and dinner. I brought a few single-serve cartons of milk to have with my coffee so I could start each day with a tiny creature comfort!
Meals were pretty straightforward depending on the available ingredients and prepared fresh every day on the islands. The fried fish and curry chicken were exceptional. Vegetarian selections have fruit in place of meat. White rice, lentils, beans, coleslaw, salad, and fried potatoes were popular sides. Our plates were practically licked clean!
Breakfast was unremarkable and consisted of fried dough with processed American cheese singles and fried eggs. Some guests dipped their fried dough in Hershey’s chocolate syrup and sugar to make it more edible. I skipped breakfast altogether and gladly shared my portion with anyone who needed a few extra bites.
Some islands have items available for purchase such as candy bars, cookies, beer, chips, coconuts, water, and juice. Cocktails were reasonably priced and strong. Our group enjoyed a round of coco locos (fresh coconut water with rum inside of a coconut) while relaxing on the beach.
Brad and I packed two large bags of chips, squeezable fruit pouches, granola bars, electrolyte drinks, spiced rum, and trail mix. My only regret was not bringing along a few apples and oranges. A jar of peanut butter would've been another healthy snack option.
Consider making room in your luggage for marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers! Assembling a round of s'mores would be the perfect icebreaker and a fun addition to any beach bonfire. Nothing brings people together like yummy desserts!
Activities & Excursions
I firmly believe your number #1 priority should be relaxing! Channel your inner beach bum with a good book, refreshing swim, or nap in a swaying hammock. Feel the sun and sand on your skin as you listen to rustling palms and crashing waves.
Take a moment to look out at the horizon and count the lush islands in the distance. Rejuvenate your mind and breathe in the salty air. You're in paradise!
There are plenty of activities if you need to mix it up. Play a round of volleyball, snorkel to discover wildlife, cruise around on a stand up paddle board, or share travel stories beneath the stars.
Each island has its own unique vibe and atmosphere. Brad and I fell in love with Anmardub Island (second night) where we camped on the beach and bonded with our new friends. We had the island all to ourselves and felt the most at ease.
Guanidup Island (first night) and Ina Island (third night) felt a bit overdeveloped, but nonetheless beautiful. It's clear to see the secret has long been out regarding the San Blas Islands!
The Day 1 excursion to uninhabited Ucubsui Island was a fun spot for pictures and seashells, but the quick stop at the waist-deep Natural Pool left us a little perplexed. After the hectic morning, Brad and I took the opportunity to appreciate the translucent water rather than snorkel around the sand bar for 20 minutes.
On Day 2 we spent a sunny afternoon on Pelicano Island hanging out with drinks, eating Snickers candy bars, and soaking in the tranquil ocean. Sharing the San Blas Islands with these amazing people from all over of the world really made the trip fantastic!
After three rushed and early mornings shuffling around to different islands, Brad and I opted to skip the Day 3 excursions to the Guna Village and Saiba Waterfall. Alternatively, we sunbathed on the beach, sipped a couple of fruit juices, and walked around the island.
Less is more in the San Blas Islands! Brad and I each brought a 15L backpack to hold our clothes, electronics, and hygiene supplies. We stuffed all of our snacks and beverages into a 20L duffle bag.
Prioritize swimsuits and athletic clothing to stay comfortable in the sticky climate. Leave the makeup and fancy outfits behind. A hat and pair of sunglasses are a must! I packed the following items:
Most importantly, remember to bring your passport, cell phone, cash, and go-with-the-flow attitude! There are no ATMs on the San Blas Islands and network coverage is limited. Consider adding these things to your packing list:
Ultimately, we didn't use our GoPro and felt too much responsibility taking care of our electronics. Sometimes the camera felt like an annoying ball and chain. Decide for yourself if high resolution photographs are necessary. The group picture alone was worth the effort and a treasured keepsake we shared with everyone.
Please do your part to help keep the environment clean. Properly dispose of trash, decline plastic straws, and limit food waste. It was heartbreaking to see cigarette butts poking out of the sand and garbage along the seafloor as I was snorkeling. Our planet and wildlife deserve better. Strive to leave only footprints!
The San Blas Islands definitely shook up my idea of an island getaway. I tossed my OCD personality traits out the window in Panama City and unplugged. Go in with zero expectations regarding the weather, excursions, facilities, people, and islands. You'll definitely have more fun with a laid-back approach!
Our playful tribe bonded by sharing meals, laughs, and lazy afternoons. Foraging for firewood on Anmardub Island in order to keep our bonfire lit was a highlight. All of us giggling as if we were kids again in a romanticized take on Lord of the Flies is a cherished moment I will never forget.
Embrace going back to basics, being unreachable from the outside world, and feeling the wonder of paradise found!