A roughly 2 hour drive and 30-45 minute boat ride Southeast of Panama City will bring you to the utterly delightful paradise that is the San Blas (or Guna Yala) archipelago. Consisting of 365 islands (one for each day of the year), these islands are pristine. Golden, pillowy sands with bathwater warm waters softly lapping on the shores of each tiny island.
This autonomous region is ideal for just about any sort of vacation you want, especially if it’s romance you desire. While you may read a lot of articles about them and fear they’re too touristy, I want to assure you otherwise.
Since there are so many islands and most are infinitesimal, it’s quite possible you will hardly run into other living soul. Furthermore, all companies operating are using boats of some kind–speed, sail or catamaran–and none carry many passengers at all. While booking with Cacique, our speed boat held 15 people, max.
To have an optimally blissful experience on these islands, you don’t need to pack much but there are certainly essentials to start with–which you can also find in my San Blas Minimalist Packing Guide.
For any of us, that don’t want to forget our appearances just because we’re on vacation, I’ve created this packing guide! We can call it a “Maximalist” Packing Guide for the San Blas!
Even for us “maximalists,” not much more is needed but there are a few more luxuries to add to our bag that I’ll outline below.
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When I say ‘essential,’ I truly mean it. These are the items that you will not be able to
A) Enter and stay in the Guna Yala territory or…
B) Be able to enjoy yourself whatsoever.
The Guna Yala is an autonomous region of Panama, meaning they have their own laws and a passport + a $22 fee is required to enter. There’s no getting around that.
Here are the things you’ll need/want to spend your money on:
- Entrance fee: $22
- Beer: $2/each
- Lobster: $20-$35/each (1 feeds 2 people)
So you’ll want to make sure you bring small bills–nothing larger than 5’s. Seriously, people will NOT have change.
Duh. I would also advise bringing a second pair in case you lose or break the first.
Your tour company will have fresh water. It is essential that you stay hydrated while here. Keep our oceans beautiful and bring a reusable bottle.
A 20L or larger should be able to carry all your items. You will need this because things will get wet on the boat ride to the islands and the weather can change at the drop of a hat.
Forget your terrycloth. It will literally never dry here. Seriously, whoever invented these quick-dry towels is a GENIUS.
ASOS Mid Square Sunnies
Marchway Waterproof Bag
Relefree Microfiber Towel
Not to toot my own horn, but this was the category, where I really nailed it. I was the belle of the ball when some of my group members found out I had these items. One of the repercussions of having been a teen with horrible skin, is that I am *religious* about my skincare now. That being said, you don’t need to bring your whole toiletry bag, but a few smart items will make your time here all the more enjoyable.
Whatever brand works for you, go for it. You’ll want to leave the face wash at home and opt for a trusted wipe. I love my Cetaphil wipes. They were gentle enough that it didn’t irritate mine or others sunburns but also got off all the grime, sand and sunscreen from the day.
Why more people didn’t think to bring this is beyond me. But seriously, everyone flipped when they saw me whip out my hand sanitizer. Being a city kid, I have a mini one in all my bags and am never without this. You’ll be glad to bring it, trust me.
I’m NEVER without these wipes. They help my face feel so clean after being covered in sunscreen and salt water all day. These wipes will slough off all the dead skin and grime and you’ll wake up with a bright and fresh face the next day!
After Sun Care
Even the most diligent of sunscreen wearers is likely to get burned here. You’re exposed to the sun, in the water for over 8 hours a day, and sometimes we miss spots! (I always forget my hands!) Make sure to bring this just in case.
Reef Safe Sunscreen
Please keep our oceans beautiful and wear reef safe sunscreen. This can be tricky to find in the US because apparently people are allowed to say “reef safe” on their packaging when it isn’t actually reef safe. ALSO: Don’t just Google “reef safe sunscreen” and buy the first thing that comes up because it likely isn’t. I’ll save you the hassle of all the research I had to put in but basically don’t buy anything with ingredients starting with oxy-. Look for a Zinc Oxide physical sunscreen. You won’t find these in sprays, either. I loved the brand I used in Panama. It smells great, feels great and works well for sensitive/acne-prone skin. Spring for the 50 or 70 SPF. I promise, you’ll still get a tan.
How much sunscreen should you bring? I used an entire 5oz bottle in 3 days. That should give you a good idea. Keep in mind, you are close to the Equator and in water most of the day. Pack more than you think you could possibly need because you may just end up using every drop.
Your skin can take a beating and become really dehydrated with the sun and salt out here so always pack a trusted moisturizer to use after your face wipes and peels! My favorites are Drunk Elephant and Herbivore. They’re rich but not heavy and will do the heavy lifting while you sleep so your poor face doesn’t become dry and dehydrated.
Personal to you…
If you wear contacts, definitely don’t forget those, as well as some extra solution and a back up pair. I also brought my glasses. Can you imagine anything worse than being in paradise and not being able to see it!?
Don’t forget any necessary medications, either!
Not Pictured: Nail File
I never travel without one. Being in the water so much will make your nails pretty brittle and prone to breakage. It takes up virtually no space but you might regret it if you don’t pack one.
Not Pictured: Toothbrush & Toothpaste
Herbivore Pink Cloud Rosewater Moisture Creme
Australian Gold Botanical Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 50
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleansing Cloths
Sun Bum Cool Down After Sun Aloe Gel
Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
San Blas is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been in my life. I mean seriously, you could be the worst photographer in the world and still come out with primo footage. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want some pictures of yourself in paradise, and you’ll want to look good as well! You won’t need much, but you’ll definitely want to pack more than I did!
Maxi or Midi Dresses
2 should be plenty. Make sure they aren’t polyester. I prefer Cotton, Linen or Rayon. Some of my favorite brands are Free People, Madewell and H&M for these pieces.
Again, 2 should be enough. Perhaps 1 black and 1 white so they go with anything else you pack.
I get all my beach pants from American Eagle Outfitters. I love them! They’re flowy and comfy and so cute! Pack 2 pairs and you’ll be golden.
One Piece Swimsuit
Being a curvy girl, I almost exclusively wear one piece swimsuits because they’re what I feel comfortable and beautiful in but after completing this trip, I wish I had only brought one and the other had been a high waist 2 piece simply because going to the bathroom in a wet one piece is such a pain! I love J. Crew and AEO for my swimsuits.
Two Piece Swimsuit
If you really don’t want to wear a two piece, just pack 2 one pieces. You don’t really need more than 2 swimsuits, you just want to have one that’s dry you can change in to the next day.
You’ll want to cover your bum or arms to protect yourself from the sun at times… or while you’re waiting for your sunscreen to set… or while you’re taking a break from snorkeling to eat lunch.
You only need one set. Something flowy, comfortable and breathable in a natural fabric (cotton, linen, rayon, etc). The islands don’t get terribly hot since you have the constant ocean breeze but the hut you sleep in will definitely be warmer since you’re shielded from the breeze and the airflow is more limited in there.
Long Sleeve Watershirt
You guys, I’m really not kidding, it is 100% essential that you bring this item. Do not make the same mistake I did! You might be saying “I’m really good about my sunscreen, I don’t miss spots.” Or, “I tan really well, I don’t really burn.” I said all those same things! But nobody is perfect. What if you DO get burned? You don’t want to miss the amazing snorkeling on your 2nd or 3rd day because you need to stay out of the sun. Just bring the shirt. If you end up not needing it, so what. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
I’ve always skipped packing this in the past because it takes up so much space but I got a really nice soft and packable sun hat from Calvin Klein earlier this year and you guys… My life has been changed. If you’re like me and love your face (and want to prevent premature aging and wrinkles) don’t forget one of these. You’ll look fabulous and protect that beautiful face simultaneously! It’s also great to hold up as a shield blocking the (sometimes excessive) sea spray on the speedboat.
Easy breezy. You only need one pair. You will want to make sure they’re a durable pair though. You won’t want to be without shoes when you’re on your way back to the city! Is there anything more annoying than when the strap breaks on your flip flops!?
Okay, you don’t need to bring this but personally, I have a few staple pieces that I almost never take off and I truly feel ‘off’ without my jewelry. Just make sure it’s nothing too nice in case you lose it and that it’s also waterproof.
J. Crew Wide Strap
Flojos Women’s Fiesta Flat
Shiraleah Out of Office Shopper
San Diego Hat’s Striped Floppy Brim Sun Hat
Baleaf Women’s Long Sleeve Rashguard
ASOS Mix & Match Pajamas
Free People Feeling Groovy Maxi Dress
ASOS Mixed Floral Print Maxi Dress
The San Blas is your Instagram paradise fantasy come to life. You’ll want to snap as many shots of these islands as possible and to get the best footage possible, there are a few key items you’ll want to bring.
The snorkeling in the pristine waters here is unbelievable. With Sea Stars in abundance, you’ll want to capture these cuties with a GoPro or other action camera. If you decide to go with the GoPro, the Hero 8 Black has the best image stabilization with the Hero 7 being a close runner up. (You’ll want the image stabilization in the water since the current will keep you constantly moving).
Ever wonder how people capture those stunning half under water pictures on Instagram? This gadget is how. After going without this and the GoPro in Panama, I’ve decided time is up and these are both MUST-HAVE’S now.
Bring this or a hard copy. Personally, I prefer paper books but I’m old school. Either way, you’ll want to have something to read. After a full day of sun and fun, it’s wonderful to relax in a hammock outside your hut with a good read, listening to the waves softly lapping on your shore.
Waterproof Phone Case
You may be thinking, “But Peyton, most phones are waterproof/resistant nowadays!” Guess what; That doesn’t apply to salt water! Seriously, read the details in your phone’s user manual. They are waterproof in fresh water only. Aside from the water, these cases will keep the sand out of all the tiny holes and cracks in your phone, too. If you’re on a really tight budget and can’t spring for the GoPro, the image stabilization on new phones is pretty decent and you can get some good footage with just your phone and a good case. Using the touch screen will get a bit tricky though. Make sure to spring for a case with a floating wrist strap in case you drop it in the water.
Bring a fully charged power bank to the island with you for your phone and Kindle. The Cacique island does have power at night but it never hurts to have one of these bad boys.
Not Pictured: Travel Lantern
I didn’t picture this because it’s not totally necessary but after bringing my own to the islands, I can’t recommend highly enough bringing your own portable lantern. I love this version because it’s small but illuminates 360 degrees. Like I said, the island has power but this will be useful in the event that the bulb in your room burns out or if you need to use the restroom at 2 AM. After bringing mine on this trip, I’m never traveling without it again!
Vont LED Camping Lantern
YOEMELY 6″ Dome Port for GoPro
GoPro HERO8 Black
Gnais iPhone XR Case
What NOT to Pack
Almost as important to your comfort and enjoyment as deciding what to pack, is deciding what to leave behind for a trip like this. There are a few things that you absolutely will not need and in fact, may only stress you out if you bring them.
Laptop or iPad
There’s no WiFi here. And if you’re anything like me, these are some of the most expensive items you own. Bringing them to an island with primitive accommodations and sand flooring is not the place for these.
Hey, if you really do want to bring it, by all means, I’m not going to shame you! But there are no mirrors on the island and with the awesome tan you’re going to get, and the joy you’ll be feeling, I promise your face will be glowing. It’s also just going to get washed away in the ocean anyway.
Cheesy? Maybe. But seriously, forget it all and let it go. If you can’t here, you might not be able to anywhere.
A Few Last Tidbits…
This also isn’t pictured, but I would highly recommend packing a reusable tote with your items. This will come in handy in case there are any sea shells you want to bring home and you’ve run out of room in your dry bag or for any groceries you want to snag on the way to the Guna Yala Territory.
Make sure to grab some snacks and drinks at a grocery store on your way out. Most tour companies will stop for you. There will likely be coolers for you. I would suggest some granola or protein bars in case they serve a meal you don’t like (you won’t be able to ask for something different), some fruit, and of course some booze. Many of the islands you visit will have rum or beer, it’s much more cost effective to bring your own.
I hope this stylish packing guide for the San Blas was as helpful to you as I aimed. After completing my own trip there, I realized this destination has rapidly changed in the last few years since any prominent travel blogs had covered it. I thought I’d only be allowed one backpack and things would be a lot rougher than they were. I had the most incredible time here and think if you follow my packing guide, you may have an even better time than I did! And maybe get some stunning pics of yourself while there!
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