San Blas Islands - Panamas Paradise

Oh yeah I have been to paradise and it was amazing! Visiting the San Blas islands is quite expensive but you are rewarded with lonely islands, white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water. It’s really easy to fall in love with this beautiful place.

The real name of San Blas is Guna Yala and home to the Guna indigenous group. After fighting against the Panamanian government, the Gunas maintained political autonomy from the mainland. The indigenous also control the tourism by themselves, which is an important income, beside the trade with eg. coconuts, fish and handcrafts.

We spent 3 days/ 2 nights on Chichime Island (Uchutupu Dummat), which is one of the more than 360 islands of the San Blas archipelago. I was so excited when we arrived and couldn’t stop staring at the white sand beach, colorful coral reefs, coconut trees, small wood cabins and water in different shades of blue, so clear that you could see until the ground. Before getting there I was a bit skeptical because I have already seen amazing islands in Asia, but this was something special. Even if you are on a budget, you have to visit this paradise!

There is not that much to do on the island, so it is the perfect place to relax and disconnect from the busy world. You can hang out on the beach, snorkel or read a book. Or you ask the Gunas to take you to other islands on their small boats.

It took us 20 minutes to walk around the island and there were only a few cabins for the locals and the tourists. We also saw a tiny bar where they played music in the evening. We arrived on a Thursday and we saw maybe 10 other tourists on the other side of the island… we really had the beach for ourselves. On Friday and especially Saturday Panamanian tourists arrived and it got a bit more crowded, but it was still very relaxed. Around the islands there are sailing boats floating in the ocean, the sailors swim and maybe come on the beach during the day but they sleep on their boats. So if it’s possible plan to go to San Blas during the week and you will have the island for yourself.

We slept in our own tent but you can also sleep in one of the wood/ cane cabins. They looked basic and fine but don’t expect any luxury. We passed other islands and saw that there are also more fancy bungalows, with crazy prices. There are basic toilets and showers that all visitors (campers and from the cabins) share. The Gunas have solar panels on the island, so there is electricity, but limited and they shut it down at around 10 pm.

At home, we already cut vegetables and prepared a salad and breakfast and brought it in a cooler to the island. In the evening we bought fresh fish from the fishermen and grilled it on the beach. It was not that easy with limited equipment and the sand everywhere but it was a lot of fun and we had a yummy meal 🙂 If you can’t bring your own food, you can buy fresh meals and drinks from the Gunas.

How to get to San Blas

No matter how you get to San Blas, it will cost you a bit, but it’s really worth it. Tour operators and hostels offer tours to the islands, which start around 200 USD. You can find a lot of them online.

I didn’t have the time, but one day I will come back and make a Sailing Trip from Panama to Colombia. The trips usually take 4 to 5 days and start at 500 USD. I know this sounds a lot, but if you want to visit the San Blas islands and you want to continue your trip to Colombia, then the Sailing trip costs the same as visiting San Blas and taking a flight to Colombia. I met a few people who made the trip and all of them said it was one of the best experiences. Depending on the boat, there are 10 to 20 people, you sleep on the boat and it stops at a few points in the archipelago of San Blas. If you want to get this for free you can try to get a job on the boat (eg. with workaway).

Going to San Blas by car: Because of my local friend, I was able to make the trip quite “cheap”. We drove from Panama City with the car to the port, which took 2 to 3 hours. After 1 hour driving we left the main road and followed a curvy, bumpy road through the highlands. This tropical forest was really beautiful; you are surrounded by stunning nature. There was a checkpoint before entering the Guna Yala province, where we had to show our passport and pay an entrance fee. They only let you enter with a 4×4 car. The gate is open from 6 am to 6 pm, before and after that you can’t enter or leave the province. At the port, we met our boat captain, who we contacted already in advance in Panama City. The small boat took 45 minutes to Chichime island.

Costs

Prices per person if not especially mentioned

  • Entrance fee Guna Yala province: 20 USD (5 USD for locals) and 5 USD for the car
  • Port: Parking for car 3 USD, tourist tax 2 USD
  • Camping with own tent: 10 USD
  • Basic houses made of wood/ cane: 50 USD
  • Boat from port to Chichime: 40 USD
  • Food: Lunch/ dinner (eg. fish with rice & salad): 8 USD. If you want to grill your own fish, you can buy one from the fishermen: 3 USD for 1 fish
  • Drinks: water, beer, can of soft drink: 1 USD
  • On the island we found out that middlemen make good money, so if you find a direct contact to the Gunas the prices are: boat 30 USD & camping 8 USD (find contact card below)

Packing List

  • Passport (you get controlled before entering the Guna Yala province)
  • Snorkeling gear
    Cash (there is no ATM)
  • Torch, camera & portable charger
  • Waterproof bag (at least for important belongings, it can get wet on the boat)
  • Basic beach equipment like sunscreen, hat, towel, swim wear
  • Long, light cloths (it gets a bit windy and chilly at night)

Let's keep this place a paradise!

Especially the port and the bigger, more populated islands are quite polluted. Even on our tiny island, we saw places where they just threw the trash anywhere and I’m not sure if and how they bring the trash to the mainland. The locals have been living for a long time only from agriculture and natural products. The growing tourism also caused a lot of trash and they don’t know how to handle it. So please already think in advance about what you bring to the islands or take your trash back to Panama City. Let’s try to keep this place a paradise.