Are you heading to Panama soon? Do you daydream about spending your days sipping on coconuts on a white sandy beach somewhere in the beautiful San Blas Islands? So many people want to visit the the beautiful Panamanian Islands but decide against it after they start researching it. Quickly they discover that there are no big name hotels, hostels or resorts and it is hard to get to and costs a small fortune. While it is a little more complex than a trip to Hawaii, you can visit the San Blas Islands on a budget, and that little extra bit of effort will be forgotten once you are laying back on the beach with your coconut in hand.
The San Blas Islands are under the control of the indigenous Kuna people, and while the area is legally part of Panama, it has its own laws and operates as a separate territory. The Kuna people are fighting against big business so no foreign owned development is allowed on the islands. This is why you won’t find a Hilton there! In fact, to protect the Kuna way of life, if Kuna leaders find out that an island has foreign money coming in and being exchanged for improved facilities, these facilities can be confiscated or torn down. This may seem dramatic but when you are relaxing on a pristine white sandy beach with only the sound of the birds and the crashing waves you will be grateful that there are no big hotels full of whirring air conditioners, booming music or herds of noisy tourists.
As a result of the restrictions there are only two ways to visit the San Blas Islands: go stay in a hut on an island with a local family or go on a yacht on route to Colombia.
OPTION 1 – STAYING IN A BEACH HUT
Staying on the islands is the best way to live in paradise. Each island is owned by a Kuna family, some by several families, and you will be living on the island with them. During your time there you can relax on the sand and read a book, go for a swim in the crystal clear waters, play beach volleyball, go snorkelling to find starfish and manta rays or take a water taxi to visit other islands and do it all somewhere else.
WHAT TO BOOK
There are two ways to book a beach hut trip. The first is to do it all as part of an ‘organised’ tour like the one offered by Panama Travel Unlimited for $195-400 (depending on date, nights and accommodation choice). This isn’t such a bad deal for what is offered and it keeps it together, but if you aren’t after everything in the all-inclusive package then you will likely be over paying.
The second way is to book directly with an island and organise your own transport. This can be done for a minimum of around $130 depending on the island. This may sound high but the majority of the cost is from Kuna Taxes and 4×4 transport to the port which are unavoidable. The price breakdown is as follows:
|4×4 transport||$60 return/$30 one way|
|Kuna Taxes on Entry||$20|
|Kuna Taxes at Port||$2|
|Boat to Island||$20 return/$10 one way|
|Accommodation (incl. meals)||$26+ per night|
There are a few islands that you can choose from for your stay. Franklins is one of the more popular Island’s and Ina’s has increasingly good reviews too. Dorm beds start at $26 per night, private rooms for 2 people start at $60 per night and increase depending on the island. Be aware that the price does not necessarily indicate the quality of island as they all must follow the same Kuna restrictions and laws.
HOW TO BOOK
Once you have decided which island you wish to stay at you can book it through Mamallena’s Hostel in Panama City who will organise the transportation and the reservation on the island. They have detailed information on a few islands available to help you choose. They don’t take bookings over the internet for this so you will need to see them in person but the trip starts in Panama City so this should not be a problem. It is not required that you be staying with there to book with them, but it may make your life easier to stay there the night before, as the pick-up is from the hostel at 5:30am. Bookings can be done the day before but if you have a particular island in mind then it is recommended to book a few days ahead.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The San Blas islands all offer very similar living conditions but those described here are from Ina’s Island.
The huts are simple palm huts with sand floors but they offer comfortable mattresses with clean sheets and a mosquito net to keep the bugs away, not that there are many anyway. The island even has flushing toilets and fresh water showers (although the water is transported to the island by boat and hand poured into the tank so try to keep the showers short).
Meals generally consist of rice and fish with a vegetable side. Chicken is available as an alternative for those who don’t eat seafood, but if you are vegetarian, you are just going to be served extra rice and veggies. You can bring your own drinks and food, and some people even bring an esky full, but this is really not needed beyond a few snacks unless you have diet restrictions. Beer, rum, coke and coconuts are available on the island for purchase ($1-1.50, $15 for a whole bottle of rum). It is recommended that you bring enough water for the duration of your stay as it will be cheaper than buying it there.
WHAT TO BRING
Keep it small as it all needs to fit on the little boat heading out to the island and you won’t need much out there anyway. Try and keep it to a daypack or small duffel bag. Most hostels and hotels in Panama City will store your belongings while you are on the island.
- Your passport (This is essential! You may not be allowed to go to the islands or come back to Panama City without it)
- Swim suit
- Snorkelling gear if you want a good set (island ones get a lot of use)
- Change of clothes
- A few snacks
- Insect repellent
- A hat and sunglasses
- A good book
- Plenty of water
- Enough money to pay for your accommodation and taxes on route
- Money in small change for drinks and snacks on the island ($50 and $100 notes are forbidden)
- Lots and lots of patience
PACK YOUR PATIENCE
The most important thing to take with you is your patience. The Kuna style of management can at best be described as an organised chaos. Things may take a while, transportation connections may not line up which may leave you waiting at times, accommodation can be overbooked, boats may not be able to fit all the passengers. But don’t worry it will all work out in the end. Your boat will turn up eventually and if it is full then it will do as many trips as is necessary to get you to the island, if the island is overbooked then beds will be set up for you. So don’t worry, it will all come together eventually so just relax. You can either stress about it and get angry and feel grumpy your whole trip or you take it in your stride, go with the flow and spend the extra time making new friends with the others in the same situation.
OPTION 2 – TAKING A YACHT OR CATARMARAN
The yacht/catarmaran option can be cost effective if combined with your passage to Colombia as the flights are approximately the same price, and instead or a bumpy flight you get a 2-3 day trip in paradise followed by 2 days of open water sailing to Cartagena, Columbia. If you have good sea legs then this is the best way to go. If you are prone to motion sickness then seriously consider the other options. If you are interested in a sea sickness horror story read this post by This American Girl.
The boat can be booked through Mamallena Hostel either via email or in person on arrival. It is important to find out as much information as you can about the boat before you book. Each boat and each captain is different and they can significantly effect the quality of your trip.
Ask the hostel about their recommendations but also do your own research. Unfortunately there isn’t a tripadvisor site for boats so you may have to look at a few different blogs and review sites to get a solid idea. Don’t let the departure date control your choice as so many people make the mistake of picking the first boat that is leaving. It might be great, but it also might not, so do your research.
Once you have made your choice contact Mamallena hostel and they will do all the organisation for you and will let you know where you need to travel to for your boats departure. For booking details and information on the journey itself see the Mamallena page for Sailboats to Cartagena.
Whichever method you choose to visit the San Blas Islands you will be guaranteed an amazing experience. You will stand on the white sandy beach, stare out to the crisp blue ocean and drink in paradise……… along with a coconut or two!
ARE YOU GOING TO THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS? ARE YOU EXCITED OR NERVOUS ABOUT GETTING AWAY FROM TECHNOLOGY? TELL US ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW.