Located northeast of Panama City, the San Blas Archipelago is an extraordinary compilation of over 400 islands spotting the turquoise waters off of Panama’s Caribbean coast with their white-sand beaches. Boasting breathtaking sunsets and a slower pace of life, the San Blas Islands are ideal for a relaxing vacation. These islands are home to the […]
Located northeast of Panama City, the San Blas Archipelago is an extraordinary compilation of over 400 islands spotting the turquoise waters off of Panama’s Caribbean coast with their white-sand beaches. Boasting breathtaking sunsets and a slower pace of life, the San Blas Islands are ideal for a relaxing vacation.
These islands are home to the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe (also known as Guna Yala). They have officially controlled the region since 1957, when it was declared the Kuna Yala Reserve to protect indigenous traditions and culture.
The Kuna accept visitors to specific islands only, and you must go with a registered guide to access the islands. Thanks to these regulations, the San Blas Islands remain pristine and off the beaten path for locals and travelers alike.
Although they take a bit more effort to reach than other Panama destinations, the San Blas Islands will blow you away with their natural beauty and rich indigenous heritage. Below, you’ll find more details about how to get to San Blas Islands plus the activities and traditions you can enjoy during your stay.
Get ready for paradise! The San Blas Islands have wonderful weather year-round. Average temperatures stay constant throughout the year at about 80°F (27°C) and almost never go below 68°F (20°C). Water temperatures are perfect for snorkeling, between 79-82°F (26-28°C).
Panama has a dry season from January to May and a rainy season from June to December, but don’t let the rain keep you away. Even during the rainy season, showers usually only last for about an hour. Plus, while the dry season has a lesser chance of rain, it also has higher winds, which can make the sea a bit rougher. The islands are outside the Caribbean hurricane zone, so no need to worry about that.
The best time to visit San Blas Islands depends on what you would like to do. Sailing will be best during the dry season, due to the strong winds. Snorkeling will be best during the rainy season, when the sea is calmer. Whenever you visit, make sure to spend at least a couple days to fully enjoy the island environment.
San Blas Tours
Due to the Kuna Yala regulations, the best and easiest way to experience the beauty of the San Blas Islands is with a tour starting from Panama City. An all-inclusive tour like this 5-day experience takes care of all the logistics so that you can relax and enjoy your island escape. In addition to staying on the islands, you’ll get to go snorkeling and sea kayaking.
If you book your San Blas accommodation in advance – which we recommend – your lodging contact will most likely be able to reserve transportation for you.
Getting to the San Blas Islands by car involves a 2.5-3-hour drive through the jungle to the port of Carti – crossing the border into the Kuna Yala Autonomous Region – and a water taxi ride. There is no public transportation to Carti.
If you would rather arrange all your transportation yourself, you can book a one-way 4×4 jeep ride to Carti for about $25-35 USD. Then, a one-way water taxi ride from the port to your destination costs $15-25 USD.
Renting an SUV is another option to reach the port of Carti on your own. This will cost around $70 USD per day in addition to a $5 USD fee for parking at the port of Carti. This option allows you to travel whenever you please, but also includes the difficulty of navigating unfamiliar roads. Plus, you’ll still have to find a water taxi once you get to Carti.
Getting to the San Blas islands on your own is possible, but definitely more difficult and with more risk than booking a tour. If you would like to manage all of your own logistics, you should have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish.
Important: Remember to bring your passport, as the San Blas Islands are an autonomous territory separate from Panama. You’ll pay a $20 USD fee to enter the Kuna Yala Autonomous Region. Some islands could also ask for an entrance fee of up to $20. Make sure to bring enough cash in small bills, as you won’t find ATMs anywhere.
In order to forgo the longer car trip, you can also fly into one of Panama’s coastal airports through Air Panama. Flights cost anywhere from $50-150 USD and take a little less than an hour. We recommend booking flights in advance as seats sell out quickly on the smaller planes. Coastal airports include Achutupo (ACU), Corazón de Jesús (CZJ), El Porvenir (PVE), Malatupo (MPP), Playón Chico (PYC) and Puerto Obaldía (PUE).
Most accommodations on the San Blas Islands are basic wooden cabins with few amenities. That’s part of the experience! Enjoy unplugging from your busy life and soak in the island environment.
We recommend booking your San Blas accommodation in advance and checking out the following properties for your island stay.
Traveler Tip: You won’t be able to bring all your luggage to the islands; it won’t fit on the boat! You won’t need much anyway. Just bring a backpack or small bag with the essentials. Store everything else in your hotel in Panama City. Even if you book an all-inclusive package, you might want to bring some extra snacks, too, as you won’t be able to buy any on the islands.
Go San Blas Island Hopping
You can reach the many islands of San Blas via boat. While many of the islands are inaccessible due to the protection of the Kuna Yala people, the ones open to visitors each portray the softest sand and clearest waters filled with marine life. Visiting only one would be a shame!
We recommend booking island tours that take you to multiple islands. If you have limited time, we recommend this day tour from Panama City that takes you to three islands.
Enjoy Water Sports
San Blas sailing is an amazing way to discover multiple islands and experience the scenic beauty around you. You can even sail during the day and stay on the boat at night! If you’d like an even more active, hands-on experience, try sea kayaking, windsurfing, and fishing.
Snorkeling the crystal-clear waters is also a must-do, as they are teeming with marine life. Most lodging will provide snorkeling tours in their neighboring waters, or will be available to provide you with information on how to do so. Some accommodations also have a beach volleyball court you can use.
Learn about Kuna Yala Culture
Make sure to learn about, meet, and interact with the local Kuna Yala people while you are visiting the San Blas Islands. This 2-day tour includes a visit to city hall (Onmaket Nega) in the Ukupseni Village where community members hold meetings, celebrate events, and sing together. You can also visit a ceremonial center, where the “chicha fuerte” traditional rites are performed. Handicrafts are also for sale, benefiting the local community.
The Kuna people are famously photogenic with their brightly colored, patterned clothing, but always ask before taking a photo and be willing to pay $1 USD per photo. Learn more about the indigenous people of Panama, including the Kuna Yala, in our other blog post.
All in all, the San Blas Islands are remarkable. Containing some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the islands are a highly recommended addition to any Panama trip.