For anyone traveling to Panama on a vacation, the San Blas islands should be on top of their list. Scattered over 100 square miles on the Caribbean coast of Panama, the 365 tiny coconut islands of the San Blas archipelago make up one of Central America's most intriguing destinations and will guarantee a unique and once in a lifetime travel experience.
This is truly a paradise as anyone would imagine it, with colorful coral reefs, sunken shipwrecks and tropical palm dotted islets wherever one sets his gaze. Add a few wooden, thatched cabins and fine, powdery white sand, and you will have your perfect Robinson Crusoe paradise getaway.
The San Blas region is home to the Guna population, the first indigenous tribe in Latin America to achieve political autonomy. While embracing a few modern inventions, such as outboard motors and basic mobile phones, much about this amazing culture and its traditions has been preserved; compared to other, more commercialized destinations in the Caribbean, visiting the Comarca de Guna Yala will allow visitors to get a glimpse of the local customs.
Planning your vacation to San Blas might require a little more preparation, but luckily we have you covered with our useful guide and our friendly customer service team helping you navigate this fascinating area.
The ins and outs of island living
Most of the islands in San Blas are uninhabited aside from a few birds and palm trees on them. Only 49 out of the 365 islands are inhabited, consisting of community islands and outer islands. The community islands are located close to the mainland, with the main island called Acuadup, which is home to the tribe elders and leaders. Typically these islands are densely filled with bamboo huts, livestock and people; visitors to these islands will likely find budget lodgings, but the hustle and bustle and lack of beaches may not live up to your expectations of a secluded tropical paradise.
The outer islands are usually inhabited by a Guna family taking care of the coconut groves on a temporary, rotating 2-3 months basis. While these islands may invite for a perfect vacation setting, there may be very little opportunity to meet with the locals and learn about their interesting culture.
As you may imagine, the local cuisine in this undeveloped part of the world is very basic, consisting mostly of fresh seafood, while chicken and vegetarian options are usually also available. A typical meal consist of fried fish, salad and coconut rice, with lobster and octopus occasionally available for a few extra dollars. Since fresh fruit is imported from Panama, it may not be on the regular menu. While hygiene and cleanliness may vary depending on the standards of each island family, we are working closely with all the islands that we offer to our guests, ensuring food is cooked in clean kitchens with fresh ingredients. Guests are welcome to bring additional snacks and drinks, which can usually be bought in the morning on the drive to the port.
Learning about Guna traditions
Comprising one of the largest tribal groups in Panama, the Guna people work hard to protect their Comarca from unwanted westernization. Remember this as you travel through the region – be kind and respectful. We suggest to our guests to make an effort to learn about the Guna way of life through interacting with the locals, starting with the driver picking you up from your hotel. Knowing even a few basic words will most likely be rewarded with an openhearted smile (“nuedi” is thank you, “igi benuga” is How are you). The Guna are also known to throw a good party: amongst many festivities are the 4-day “Flowering” ceremonies held for each girl transcending into puberty, the Nogagope, a traditional dance celebration on Isla Tigre, or the February 25 party celebrating the Guna Revolution of 1925.
Despite centuries of struggle with larger cultures, the Guna have retained many of their ancient traditions, which also includes the art of Mola making, the creation of colorful quilted panels with tiny stitching on many layers of fabric. Molas are considered to be an integral part of the Guna culture and represent an important part of their identity. Molas have also become popular among travelers who purchase these elaborate art pieces and use them as decor, framed on walls or sewn onto throw pillows.
Noteworthy facts and suggestions: until the end of the 1990s, coconuts were used as the principal currency in San Blas. Even to this day, millions of coconuts are exported each year in exchange for food products, building materials and other goods. In San Blas taking a coconut is considered theft - we strongly advise our guests not to do it! Instead, we suggest you ask one of the Gunas on the island if there are coconuts for sale and have one parted swiftly by the stroke of a machete.
When it comes to taking photos or videos of the Guna, we suggest you first ask for permission. Many Guna, especially women in traditional dress do not like to be photographed, while others may put a price on each photo taken of them. It usually helps to be sensitive to the situation, spending time with the locals and developing a friendly relationship with them before asking to snap photos.
Furthermore, since recently, the usage of drones has been made illegal in the islands of San Blas. Heavy fines have been imposed on those who ignore the law. Please don’t do it!
Aside from their native tongue, Gunas also speak fluent Spanish. English is not widely spoken, but Gunas will make an effort to explain themselves using their hands and feet. We suggest you learn a few basic phrases in Spanish and bring a dictionary.
Making it happen
First and foremost, leave your mainland expectations behind - visiting San Blas and staying on an island is a unique and most likely unforgettable experience. Most accommodations are thatched huts with sand or wood floors. Some cabins have private bathrooms, while others may only have shared bathrooms. The decor is very basic and usually consists of beds, a desk, mosquito nets and fans. Some islands pump their ground water into tanks that divert fresh, unheated water to the bathrooms and showers. Other islands have to import fresh water in huge barrels on a daily basis. We kindly ask our guests to be conscious of their water usage and respect the time, cost and effort each island undertakes in order to provide sanitary comforts for our guests.
Package deals for visits to San Blas are the norm, with accommodations, meals (but not drinks) and one day tour included in the price. Prices range from US$70 - US$140 per day. Additionally, roundtrip transportation from Panama City in shared 4x4 cars, picking guests up at from their hotels between 5:00 - 5:50am, can be arranged for US$50 per person. Each car holds up to six passengers (not including the driver) - one up front, three in the middle row and two in the back row. For those guests who require extra space during the 2 1/2 hour journey, an extra seat can be booked and reserved. Please advise us ahead of time!
We offer a wide variety of accommodations on various beautiful islands, with each of them offering different charms and characteristics. For those seeking a romantic getaway in an over-the-water cabin we suggest Narasgandup island, for those who would like to get the best value in a beautiful wood bedroom-cabin, being able to rent paddle boards, lounge on unspoiled beaches and eat tasty meals we suggest Yansailadup island. We also love the newly built over-the-water cabins on Wailidup island, featuring a gorgeous beach on each side of the island, a clubhouse, which serves cocktails and a snorkel reef that is but a splash away from your balcony. One of our favorite secrets is Dummad islands. While the sand floor cabins are very basic, guests will be rewarded with breathtaking sunsets, pristine, uncrowded beaches and a crystal clear ocean.
Those who prefer to camp have various options available, as most islands offer campgrounds. Visitors can safe quite a bit when bringing their own camping gear - we suggest tents, hammocks, rain tarps and mosquito nets. Most camping areas can provide cots, cushions and sheets at a price which is similar to that of a cabin.
Carefully choosing your accommodations is important, since the remoteness of the island archipelago makes it difficult to change your mind. Before booking your trip, check to see if there is ample shade, privacy between cabins, and if the island gets busy (some islands receive day tours and get overly crowded). Also inquire about the included day trip, which might include a visit to a community island or the Natural Pools. Most cabins will include a tour that lasts from a few hours to a whole day, depending on each island package. Trips to the picturesque Holandese Cays can be arranged for an additional cost, since the boat ride to and from these islands takes one hour each way.
Tao Travel 365 is working with 12 different island chiefs offering our guests some of the most beautiful islands in San Blas. While each island has its unique attributes, we will gladly assist you in finding your perfect island paradise and help you customize your journey to San Blas.
We offer high quality snorkel gear to all of our guests who book a Day Tour with us. However, each island will manage their own snorkel equipment and usually provide it free of charge when taking guests on the included boat tour. During their stay on the island, guests can rent snorkel gear cheaply from the management. We suggest guests bring their own snorkel masks when making this once-in-a-lifetime trip to San Blas in order not to miss out on the colorful underwater world that awaits just feet away from the white sand beaches.
When booking, please keep in mind that internet access and reliable phone signal is not the norm in the archipelago. Booking with us will keep your peace of mind that your trip will be planned to perfection. Also, in case you have any queries during your stay we are always available to assist with any needs that may arise. We keep in close contact with the management team of each island and ensure that our guests are well tended to.
In recent years, the accumulation of trash has become a problem in San Blas. Currents bring trash from Colombia and other Caribbean islands to the beaches of the archipelago. Each morning and throughout the day the resident Guna family of each island tends to their beaches, raking up plastic debris. With no formal removal system or designated depository, the trash usually ends up occupying a discreet - and sometimes not so discreet - corner of the island. During the past few years Tao Travel 365 has actively been involved in educating the Guna population in trash separation and recycle programs. Most of the islands we work with now feature trash bins for different waste products. Paper-based trash is commonly burned in a blazing beach bonfire on a regular basis, while plastic waste, bottles and cans are shipped back to Panama and properly recycled. As visitors, the best we can do is to be conscious of generating as little trash as possible and help disposing our trash in properly designated trash bins. Before even traveling to the islands, it will help the Guna, if guests minimize the packaging of food items, batteries and toiletries.
Adventurous travelers longing to explore the Caribbean seas, you’ve found your chance: sail the island-dotted archipelago with your own customizable itinerary, explore remote anchorages with beaches and turquoise waters you have only seen on screen savers and escape to your own private island paradise, away from any crowds, all while being pampered with deliciously prepared meals and all inclusive amenities such as water toys, toiletries, alcoholic drinks, and snacks.
Sailboats usually require a three day minimum stay and are best suited for couples, families or small groups, given their high operating costs. Tao Travel 365 is working with a variety of sailboats, including monohulls and catamarans that specialize in both all inclusive private and shared charters ranging from US$180 to US$300 per person, per night.
Sailing throughout the islands of San Blas is the ultimate experience and will guarantee an unforgettable vacation unlike any other.
Taking your time
You can visit San Blas in a day, which is a great alternative for those who travel to Panama on a tight schedule, but why rush? Traveling to an island requires about four hours of round-trip travel from Panama City (2 1/2 hours by car with 1 hour over slow, windy roads and about 30 to 40 minutes by speed boat). Tao Travel 365 offer San Blas Day Tour packages for US$114, whereas overnight stays start at US$70. Unless you have limited time in Panama, give it a day or two - once you get a glimpse of this island paradise with its clear waters and palm-fringed beaches, you will thank us.
Paying your way
Almost every island in San Blas charges a non-negotiable fee for everyone arriving at the island (US$2-5). Visitors often balk at these nominal fees, but think of them as a beach tax which supports the Kuna family tending to the island and keeps the beaches clean. There is also a fee to enter the Comarca (US$20) which is paid when crossing the border from Panama to the Guna Yala territory (Please DO NOT forget to bring your passports!) and a port fee (US$2) which is paid in Carti. We include all island taxes in our prices. If using our transportation service, the driver will ask each passenger for the US$20 Comarca fee and the US$2 port fee and pay it on your behalf to the appropriate authorities.
Making unforgettable memories
Whether you decide to visit San Blas for the day with our San Blas Day tour, or stay in one of the beach cabins, or venture to the remote outer islands with a sailboat charter, we are excited to have you visit this beautiful and lesser known part of the world. Our friendly team at Tao Travel 365 will gladly assist you in making the right choices and plan your vacation based on your budget and preferences.
Read more about a first hand experience of one of our sailing charter guests in our blog section
and about San Blas impressions by one of our German guests