So you’re considering booking a San Blas Islands Tour.
Excellent! 10/10 would recommend!
Oh, you’re not? Well, then you need to check out this post!
These islands are actually something out of a dream. They’re what computer screensavers are made of.
I was fortunate enough to spend 3 marvelous nights and 4 glorious days on these illustrious islands and I honestly left a changed woman.
If you’re craving a getaway from it all, these islands are for you. Limited electricity, soft golden sands, and warm, crystal clear waters await you in Panama’s San Blas Islands.
I’ve created a guide covering everything you need to know about your San Blas Islands Tour and hopefully this information will inspire you to book!
I promise you’ll want to do this sooner rather than later because prices are only getting higher and this obscure paradise won’t remain hidden much longer.
The San Blas archipelago is off the Northwest coast of Panama stretching down towards Colombia.
The islands are miniscule and most you’ll be visiting can barely fit a single hut on them so you don’t need to worry about how to get around. You’ll be boating between these islands.
If you choose to go my way, that will be via speedboat but many others choose a sailboat or catamaran.
Most islands are so small you can walk them in their entirety in 5-20 minutes.
The location is a huge plus for many people in the Western Hemisphere because it is a perfect opportunity for us to experience crystal clear waters and deserted beaches with soft white sands without having to spend 18-24 hours in an airplane. If you live in North America, you won’t even experience jet lag here! Though, if you’re traveling from afar (IE: The European Union), I can assure you, this destination is entirely worth it!
The people are the Kuna Yala. The islands are an autonomous region of Panama and observe their own laws, traditions and culture, as well as some of Panama’s.
Each inhabited island has its own unique culture. The island pictured above has a patriarchal culture in which the women dress modestly, are married young, are not really allowed a voice… or even alcohol.
The other islands though… are a different story.
Our tour guide explained to us that on his island, the last several chiefs–or Caciques–have actually been women. Men and and women are equal in his village and they’re much more industrious than the one pictured above. His has a bank, school, cement buildings and even a highway.
His people are also the ones who led the revolution against the Catholics when they invaded. Pretty badass!
That depends. Widely.
Cost can vary but is undoubtedly rising each year. So book soon!
Just a few years ago, you could take a catamaran or sail the San Blas Islands for just a few hundred dollars. Now, expect to pay thousands.
Some of the most popular experiences are with San Blas Adventures’ trip from Panama to Colombia which costs $445 currently.
Another option is I Travel by Boat. Their San Blas experiences range from $347 for 1 night to $647 for 3 nights.
I chose to book with Cacique Cruiser for the cost of $382 for my 3 night/4 day stay (and 3 day trips) and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. You can read more about that in my ‘Where to Stay’ section below.
No matter who you book your San Blas Islands tour with, you cannot avoid the Guna Yala Territory entry fee which is $22 USD (cash only) for non Panamanian residents. You will also need your Passport to enter since it is an autonomous territory. You will be denied entry without your passport and the fee!
How To Get There
From Panama City, the drive is about 2 hours and much easier than anything I read on the internet prior to my arrival.
Everything I read made it sound like we’d basically be off-roading through the jungle to get there. I was so nervous!
Sure, the roads aren’t maintained well and the roads are windy. But seriously, I napped.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, however, you’ll want to take something before the car ride.
Once you’re finished with your car ride, you’ll arrive at the Kuna port and wait for your Captain to take you to your boat or island.
For us, it was a 45 minute boat ride to our island. Some islands are closer, some are further.
Sometimes the water is choppy, sometimes it isn’t. It’s the Caribbean, the weather and water can change here quickly.
Again, if you’re prone to motion sickness, you’ll want to take something prior to getting on the boat. This all depends on the weather but don’t believe the internet hype. It’s much easier to get here than you’d think. It just takes a while.
To make the trip as pleasant as possible, make sure to follow my San Blas Packing Guides.
If you have the budget, you can also fly to the San Blas Islands from Panama City via Air Panama. The aircrafts are small (20 people max) and will take 1-2 hours. There are several airstrips and it seems very confusing. The cost is only about $100 but it doesn’t even save that much time. Just save your self the stress and take the shuttle on the roads. Even if you don’t book with Cacique and decide to sail the San Blas Islands, you can book a private or shared shuttle via TripAdvisor or Viator for a reasonable price.
How Long to Stay
4 days, 3 nights was perfect. You are roughing it a bit and fresh water is limited. By the end of my stay, I was ready for a hot shower.
No matter what, make sure book at least one night. If you book with Cacique, you can always add a night and day trip as you go. (Just let your tour guide know over dinner and you will need to pay cash). I promise you’ll be heartbroken if you only take a day trip.
What to Pack
I learned a lot from my time in the San Blas and I spent more time here than most others so these really are the ultimate packing guides.
When To Go
The long and short of it: Basically any time!
One of the greatest pro’s of the San Blas Islands is that they do not experience hurricanes.
The rainy season is May – December and dry season is January – April but there is a trade off to these seasons… While it may be dry, January through April, there will be strong trade winds.
I visited in December and can share my experience with you here:
While most of my San Blas Islands tour was blissful frolicking under clear skies, we did experience some morning showers and brief afternoon sprinkling.
However, on my third night we experienced the most insane tropical storm of my life. My tour mates and I each huddled in our tents convinced we may be experiencing the apocalypse and counted the seconds between the claps of lightning and thunder as they got shorter and shorter…
Until eventually the storm was right on top of us!
The thunder became so loud my teeth rattled. My eyes vibrated in their sockets.
At least I’ll die in paradise, I thought.
I could feel the mist of water coming in between the slats of my hut as I realized it was because it was raining sideways.
I couldn’t decide if it was exhilarating or terrifying.
And then I thought… About the sailboat I saw right off shore before we went to bed! I decided their situation was much more terrifying than mine!
This continued for an hour…. Two? Five? Long enough that it was no longer scary and just annoying. Sleep evaded me for far too long.
When I woke in the morning, I was grateful as ever for my hut and the people who built it. Seriously, who were these engineering geniuses!? That thing hadn’t rattled as much as my teeth did! I felt more secure in that hut than I did in my DC home during our East Coast thunderstorms.
My tour mates and I shared our harrowing experience over coffee and breakfast. Thankful to have survived, we playfully pointed out all the palms littering the beach that had blown in the wind from the storm.
And wouldn’t you know it… that sail boat was still there, bobbing in the breeze like nothing had happened! We’d hoped they would come ashore so we could chat with them about how they got on through the night but that never came to pass.
So while I would absolutely recommend visiting in December to get away from cold weather elsewhere, and to avoid the trade winds, I would highly recommend not taking a sailing trip if you visit this time of year! I was so grateful to have a sturdy residence to wait out that storm!
You will be eating mostly seafood here so if that’s not your jam, you will want to pack some snacks and food to bring. But if you book with Cacique, they did have chicken available on the lunch menu most days.
The seafood here is the freshest, most scrumptious, mouth watering you’ll have in your life. Your menu options may be limited but they are utterly delectable!
The whole fish Cacique provided for us still haunts my dreams. I tried almost every dish option (including Conch, Octopus and more) and it was by far my favorite.
If you are someone who likes to snack a lot though (guilty as charged) you’ll want to grab some things on the mainland before departing. Your tour will likely stop at a grocery store for this very purpose.
Some days you may not like the breakfast options and if you have dietary restrictions, I would advise bringing options.
Cacique was great but unfortunately they do not cater to even the smallest dietary restrictions like they say they do on their site. We had a member in our group who was a pescatarian and they kept serving him meat dishes for breakfast with no other options even though they said they would cater to his (perfectly reasonable) stipulations. This would be my ONLY negative thing to say about Cacique.
Where to Stay
I booked Cacique’s El Original San Blas Islands Tour and I could not have been happier with my choice.
To be completely clear, I have not in any way been paid or sponsored for this opinion. I found and booked them on my own and did not inform them I was a blogger.
After having such a great time with them, I feel confident in saying, this may be one of the best ways to experience the San Blas Islands.
Everyone covers sailing the San Blas Islands and I’m not really keen on living on a boat, even if only for a few days.
So when I found Cacique and saw that hotel pick up and drop off is included in their price, I was excited to book.
Honestly, I didn’t expect much for the price...
Seriously, when everyone else is charging 3x this for a night, I was half expecting when I got there that they would nickel and dime me, or the customer service would be awful.
And there is some print you need to read before booking….
Cacique has shared dorms, huts with private or shared bathrooms and tents for camping. I chose a private hut with a shared bathroom.
Your first day has a day trip included, you can book additional nights for $50 but this does not include a day trip. Day trips are an additional $25.
This can get a little confusing but if you have any questions, they’re customer service is quick to respond to emails, very helpful, and polite.
I chose to have 3 day trips, leaving my last day to spend relaxing on our “home” island and got to snorkel around even spotting a giant Stingray!
The home island is so beautiful you almost feel bad leaving it on each day trip but then you’re smacked in the face with the dumbfounding beauty of each new island you jet off to.
It’s indescribable to be able to return to this island each evening and wake up to it every morning. I much prefer it over a boating experience of these islands, but that’s all personal taste.
Let’s be honest, the beds aren’t luxurious. If you want luxury, you’re going to be hard pressed to find in San Blas.
Your luxury are the pristine beaches.
The luxury is the lip smacking fresh Lobster tossed on your plate after a day of snorkeling in the Caribbean.
The trickiest part of it all is keeping the sand out of your bed so keep water in your room to wash your feet off before getting in because the huts have sand floors.
You will have a mosquito net but you won’t need it. You can see pictures of the beds on Cacique’s website and they are a very accurate depiction of what to expect.
While the bed wasn’t luxurious, it was plenty comfortable and listening to the soft ocean waves literally outside my front door, granted me some of the best nights sleep I’ve ever had.
If you decide to book with Cacique (and again, I hope you do) your room will have electricity at night. The outlet is 110 volt, same as in the United States.
While you will have a light in there, I would recommend bringing a travel lantern as I suggest in my Stylish San Blas Packing Guide. I found it utterly indispensable–especially when I needed to use the restroom at 2 in the morning!
I chose a hut with a shared restroom so I can’t speak to a private but I assume it’s a similar situation.
The toilets here don’t flush like they do in developed countries and it took us all a longggg time to figure it out.
So let me help you avoid an embarrassing scenario…
There will be buckets with water outside the restrooms. Fill them with water and pour the water into the toilet bowl. (Not the top part. This is what your toilet does at home anyway.) You don’t need to pour slowly either.
Amaze all your tour mates when you’re the only one who knows how to flush as soon as you get there!
Also: There won’t be mirrors but you won’t need one.
The showers are basic spigots and there is no hot water. (Speaking only for my Cacique experience, not speaking for a boat experience, of course).
Make sure any toiletries you bring are natural and are safe to run off into the ocean because they will. You can literally see the shower run off go directly in to the ocean.
Everyone wants to sail the San Blas Islands so they can see the famous Sea Stars!
You’ve seen the pictures! Beautiful women on Instagram holding cute orange Starfish against a backdrop of the most stunning turquoise waters…
Yeah, don’t do that.
Sea Stars are really delicate and the oils in your hands can damage these little creatures. Certainly DO NOT lift them out of the water as this could actually kill them.
As with all wildlife, it’s best to observe with respect and reverence. Look but don’t touch. If you must touch, certainly do not move or remove from their position or environment.
We want our friends of the sea to hang around and unfortunately due to irresponsible tourism, they are dying and/or migrating to other places (to get away from us). So if you want a picture like the one I took or the snorkeling footage I was able to snag on my Instagram, be respectful and admire from a distance.
Okay, rant over.
Aside, from Sea Stars (and really, you’ll see dozens here) you’ll see Dolphins depending on the time of year… We were lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins swimming by in the distance while we were at Perro Chico.
There are dozens of types of fish, Conch, Rays and even Sharks here! We weren’t lucky enough to see any Sharks though.
The San Blas Islands really are a snorkeler’s dream. I kick myself everyday for not having an action camera to share with you the photos from my snorkeling but I guess you’ll just have to jaunt over to my Instagram stories to see the highlights! I’ve got it all on video there.
Addressing Concerns / FAQ
Should I be worried about cleanliness? Is it like a third-world country?
You won’t find luxury resorts here and that’s the beauty of it! You’re coming here to get away from it all. The accommodations here are pretty simple and there is a charm in that but it is clean and kept up pretty well.
Your tour company will provide you will fresh water, of course, but like with any developing nation, do not trust the tap water. Toilet paper is provided, so you won’t need to pack that.
The people have a pride in what they do and love sharing their beautiful land with visitors… and as long as you follow my packing guides, cleanliness won’t be an issue.
Is it too touristy? I see it advertised a lot on Panamanian forums.
True. San Blas Island Tours are heavily advertised and for obvious reasons. They are a crown jewel of this country. One of the people in my dorm in Panama City mentioned he had no interest in going for this reason. SUCKS FOR HIM! He seemed like a party pooper anyway.
While I strive to experience hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path experiences, just because something is “touristy” doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t worth visiting. Maybe there’s a reason so many people want to see/experience it!
The great thing about the San Blas Islands is that there are 365 of them! And all of them are teeny-tiny!
On top of that, San Blas Island Tours are on boats that typically can accommodate only up to 15 people, max.
Furthermore, tour companies are very well organized. So you can actually go days without running in to anybody. The most populated island we went to was Shipwreck Island and there were maybe a few dozen people. Almost all others were entirely empty.
Rest assured, over-tourism is not an issue here, YET but the word is getting out so book your San Blas Islands tour soon!
What about modesty? Is nudity allowed?
This is a question I’ve received A LOT, surprisingly! No, nudity is not allowed in the Guna Yala region and is actually illegal. As tempting as it is, since these islands are basically in the middle of nowhere… You will need to keep your britches on. Aside from that, there are no laws or expectations about modesty, so feel free to pack that Brazillian bikini if you like!
What is the language? Do I need to speak Spanish?
The Kuna people actually speak their own language (Kuna) but your tour guides will speak English. On your trips to the villages, your tour guide will give you a brief lesson in Kuna, as well as a lesson in local customs. (Remember what I mentioned in the ‘People’ section that each island & village has their own).
While I would advise you brush up on your Spanish before visiting Panama (since not many people here outside the city speak English), you will not need Spanish on the Islands.
What if I get food poisoning or need medical attention?
A traveler’s worst fear! I fear this more than I do getting robbed, to be honest!
Here is the response I received directly from Cacique Cruiser:
The severity of the medical situation would determine the action taken. We have a first aid kit and our lead guides have basic first aid training. Also there is a medical clinic on the island of Carti Sugdub that we can take guests. The clinic has nurses and health professionals as well as medication and supplies for the most common injuries and illnesses in the islands. If there is a bad emergency there is the option of an ambulance that the Guna government has at the port to drive guests to the hospital in Panama City, or in the worst case scenario guests would have airlifted to the hospital in Panama City.Cacique Cruiser
While I thankfully did not need serious medical attention, I did utilize their first aid kit after slicing open my toe on a rock at a beach my last day. Of course, this would be a nightmare of a scenario, it’s good to know they have plans in place.
If they do, so should you–make sure you have travel insurance!!
So Book Today!
I so enjoyed my San Blas Islands tour and after my experience, I’ve realized much of the other information online is still slightly out of date.
I can’t recommend visiting these immaculate islands highly enough. Whether you’re looking for a solo getaway from it all to ‘reboot,’ or you desire a perfectly romantic vacation with your partner, this archipelago has what you’re looking for.
You don’t need to spend 2 days traveling all the way to The Maldives to experience the bliss of deserted islands.
And you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars flying to Fiji or Tahiti for world class beaches.
Some of the best beaches in the world are much closer than you think!
To book Cacique’s El Original tour, click here.
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