Stunning San Blas Islands in Panama: Travel Guide and What to Expect

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On my recent trip to Panama City, Panama, we spent a lot of our time exploring the city. But, we made it a point to see some of the other unique parts of Panama. Visiting the San Blas Islands in Panama was one of those unique excursions. If you get the chance to visit San Blas Panamá, you won’t be disappointed. All photos in this post were shot by Daniel Benjamin Photo

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I’ve been to the Caribbean before, but getting to experience the Guna culture was so much more special. Plus, the entire trip from Panama City to San Blas was a story in and of itself. Before I tell you the very dramatic story of our trip to San Blas, here’s everything you need to know about it. 

What are the San Blas Islands?

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The Panama San Blas Islands are an archipelago, which is a group of many islands. There are approximately 365 islands and cays, including 49 that are inhabited. The Guna people who inhabit San Blas call it Guna Yala. San Blas is known for its beauty, clear waters, and lack of hurricanes. It is a popular sailing and ecotourism destination.

Where are the San Blas Islands Located?

San Blas is located off the northern coast of Panama, just east of the Panama Canal. The country of Panama is surrounded by water on its northern and southern borders. To the north, is the Caribbean Sea and to the south, it’s the Pacific Ocean. Panama City is in the south of the country and the Panama San Blas islands are in the north, right in the Caribbean. 

Traveling from Panama City to San Blas

The only way to get to San Blas is to hire a tour guide from the indigenous community of the Guna people. 

San Blas Panama Hotels

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There are not a lot of hotel options in San Blas. I wouldn’t even call them hotels. Several of the islands offer little cabins and bungalows. Unfortunately, I can’t provide any suggestions on lodging because we didn’t stay on the islands overnight. If you’re trying to decide between a day trip or a night trip, it really depends on what type of traveler you are. If you’re comfortable with camping-style accommodations, staying overnight might be a great choice for you.

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We chose to make it a day trip. Now that I’ve been on a day excursion, I would like the chance to do an overnight trip. I think one-two nights would be ideal. As long as you’re prepared for the simple lodging, I think it is a very nice little weekend away. The islands are so beautiful, I personally would have liked one more day to just lounge on the beach in the crystal blue water.

San Blas Tours

There are a lot of different tour options. We booked ours through Viator. I can’t speak to any other options, and there are a lot of different websites and tours available. I would suggest you read the reviews but also take them with a grain of salt. 

What to Bring

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If you’re planning to do a day trip to San Blas, I would recommend you bring bottled water, sunscreen, a sun hat, a swimsuit, a towel, bug spray, a fresh change of clothes, and some snacks. Our tour provided lunch, so we didn’t need much in terms of food and drink. But it’s always nice to have a little with you. I wish I had taken two towels with me, as it ended up being quite a rainy day for us. Otherwise, I think I was amply prepared with the items I brought. I also brought an empty plastic bag, which was helpful after we swam. I put my wet clothes and towel in that bag once I changed into my clean and dry clothes.

My Experience in San Blas Islands Panama

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Our trip to San Blas started at 4 am. We had to be ready for pick up between 5:20 and 6 am. Why so early? The drive from Panama City to San Blas takes 2-3 hours, depending on your stops and driver. The drive itself is a big part of the adventure. The road is severely damaged, which makes for a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. It was, by far, the hardest ride I’ve experienced in a car. The only time similar was when I was in South Africa and we went off-roading to see Sea Turtles in the middle of the night.

I don’t want to sugar coat it. The ride was tough. There were many times during the ride there that I really wished I hadn’t gone on the trip. I felt extremely carsick, even with taking Dramamine. It was bad. I also was in the last row of an SUV. On the ride home, I sat in the middle row, and it wasn’t nearly as bad of a ride. 

The Drive to San Blas

The drive itself was quite beautiful. We literally drove through the jungle and there were low-hanging clouds that were really gorgeous. Once we arrived, we almost immediately boarded a small, maybe 15-passenger boat, and took a 40-minute boat ride to some of the small islands and cays. The excursion we selected was supposed to visit 4 islands and the sand bar. 

The stop at the first island went very fast. I don’t think we were there a whole hour, at least it didn’t feel like it. I put on my suit, shot a few photos with Daniel, looked at the cool indigenous malas and we pretty much had to board the boat again for another island. The first island was so small! It had nothing more than a few small buildings and palm trees. It is really hard for me to imagine anyone can live on that island based on its tiny size, which made it all more interesting to see how the Guna people live.

The Rainstorm

The second island would have been my favorite if it weren’t for a massive storm that passed right over us. The moment we landed, I threw on a new coverup and rushed to shoot some photos with Daniel before the storm hit. Some of my very favorite photos from the trip we captured right before (and during) the storm. The two photos of me on the white sand beach, one walking, and one swinging, we captured literally in less than 5 minutes before the rain started to pour down.

My other favorite photo, probably my favorite from the trip, was the one Daniel captured with my Panama hat over my head while I was trying to stay warm and wait out the storm. I didn’t know he took that photo, but it’s one of my favorites. I just love the way I look so peaceful, even in the midst of massive chaos that was going on around us. 

The rain didn’t let up for over an hour. It was definitely a tough time sitting under a tiny thatched hut, but it was almost comical at some points. We made it into a joke and made the best of it. The guide came over and told us that we could either stay there and wait for the rain to stop, or we could move on to our next stop, the sand bar. This is the photo of me swimming in the water, in the rain. Although I was freezing right before this, I decided to jump into the really warm ocean water and soak up the absolute beauty of the turquoise water all around us.

Sunken Ship in San Blas

Our final stop was the largest of the islands we visited. That’s when they served us a fresh fish lunch and we were finally able to enjoy the beauty, as the rain had stopped. We ate lunch and then lounged at the beach. This island also had a sunken ship (yes, really!), so I went snorkeling and really enjoyed seeing all the fish swimming around and the coral on the boat. 

Although there were definitely moments during this trip that I wasn’t sure I would ever do it again, now that I’ve had time to process the entire journey and experience, I would highly recommend visiting San Blas. I literally experienced every emotion on that trip, but that’s what made it so special. If you do get a chance to visit Panama, definitely add San Blas to your itinerary.

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Other Islands Near of Panama City

If you do visit Panama City Panama, you could also visit other nearby islands. Closest, you can visit Pearl Island. Because we visited during the rainy season, we decided not to visit. This would be a great option. Taboga Island is another great option that’s very close to Panama City. A bit further, you could venture to Isla Grande, which is rich in Afro-Caribbean culture.

As you can probably tell from my stories, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Panama. The best part about traveling with low to no expectations is that so many wonderful and unexpected things can happen. It’s a lot easier to go with the flow and not get upset if plans don’t work out quite like you thought they would. Even though our San Blas trip had a lot of bumps (literally), I would not change it. The entire experience was beyond unforgettable, and if it had been too easy, it probably wouldn’t have hit the same. I am so grateful for the amazing experience, and photos Daniel captured. It’s definitely a trip I’ll never forget.

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