Ever wanted to live like Robinson Crusoe and have a night on your own Island?
Yes? Then the San Blas Islands should be on the top of your list!
One of the best things about work and travel is the freedom that it gives you. We can get off the well-beaten tourist track to explore the most beautiful places that the world has to offer. One trip I’ve been looking forward to for ages is the multi-day boat trip from Colombia to Panama, which sails right through the breath-taking San Blas Islands.
In February I finally had the chance to go on the trip, and it was definitely one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in all my years of traveling. Surprisingly the trip was pretty hard to research, so I thought I’d create this post to save y’all the trouble of sifting through the whole internet and make this unbelievable trip easy for you.
Why go to San Blas?
The San Blas Islands are magical. With their pristine white sands and clear blue seas many people compare them to the Fiji Islands. I’ve met lots of very experienced travellers, who’ve been all around the world, who say that this multi-day adventure is one of their best travelling highlights.
With 390 unique Islands you could visit an island each day of the year and you’ll still have some left over! Most of them are so small that you even have trouble finding them on Google Maps. What’s better is that travelling to this unspoiled natural wonder is actually very affordable. In this article I’d like to tell you the most important things you need to know to experience this amazing place as well!
Go before everyone else does!
San Blas is one of those places that will get a lot more attention in the future, it just has to! Especially once more and more backpackers start to explore South and Central America. So, to keep it short, to experience San Blas you should come here sooner rather than later.
Avoid land crossing
To get to San Blas you’ve got four options. You can fly from Panama straight into the San Blas Islands, take a sailing boat from Cartagena, take a speedboat from Capurganá, or take the bus from Panama City. Most backpackers travelling between Colombia and Panama choose one of these options. For a good reason: Travelling over the land border, known as the ‘Darien Gap’, can be very dangerous . This is a popular drug trafficking route out of Colombia to Panama and is not safe (plus it’s just untamed jungle the whole way!).
What to expect on your San Blas Adventures
Visiting San Blas is mainly about enjoying the beauty of nature and spending your time relaxing on these incredible islands, think of it as a way to get away from it all. I find that it’s the small things that you can do on these multi-day, getaways that make them unique. Here are a few highlights of the speedboat trip I did with San Blas Adventures from Colombia to San Blas.
Tour operators offer different kinds of adventures (more info below) so be sure to choose wisely.
Stay on your own island – Robinson Crusoe Style
]Have you ever wanted to spend a day and a night on your own beautiful island? An island paradise smack-bang in the middle of gorgeous clear blue seas where there’s no one else around?A place where all you have to do is jump in the water when it gets too hot? Well, the island you see in the image above is one of those. We stayed there on our second night.
Well that’s San Blas. It gets even better. We had a Kuna Native visit us. An hour after he left he dropped off some ice cold beers we could enjoy around the fire on our own island. I guess Robinson Crusoe wouldn’t have minded that service!
Experience the Kuna Culture
The Kuna people are the indigenous tribe that inhabit some of the islands. We had the chance to be able to stay on one of their islands for 2 out of the three nights we were there. On the second night we had the chance to play football with the kids and hang out at the local bar in the evening. They’re very welcoming people, and it was definitely a great experience to see the way that the Kuna people live.
San Blas is lobster heaven. If you go snorkelling the chances are high that you will see them hiding in their little shelters.If not you can buy one from the Kunas and have it cooked to perfection by a local for $6. Not $60 like you’ll have to pay in a fancy restaurant in Europe. $6 in San Blas.
Meeting great people from all around the world
The people in your group will make it what it is. That’s a fact that you can’t change.But the chances are that most of the people you will meet on these types of trips are open minded, interesting and willing to get to know you. So don’t worry about that too much and just look forward to meeting them. Below you can see the image of our group – representing 7 nationalities: English, German, Chilean, Dutch, Canadian, French and the US.
When to go?
The San Blas trip is possible all year round. But you need to know one important thing:
It’s windy season from December to March. This means there will be high waves, not necessarily around San Blas since it’s sheltered by a reef, but the journey over open seas can get rough (read more about the routes below). If you get seasick easily the sailing trip might not be for you. If you are adventurous and like the idea of sailing, then yes it’s for you!
How to get there
Most people who choose this option are travelling between the city of Cartagena in Colombia and Panama. I’ve heard that there are now over 50 sailing boats operating on this route. Most trips last 5 days, out of which you will spend 2 full days sailing the open ocean. Be warned, the last two days on the open ocean can be extremely rough when it’s windy. This option also means that you will spend less time on the islands and more travelling in between them.
Most 5 day trips cost $550 (including food). Recently Panama introduced an extra tax fee of around $100. This additional charge is included in the price of some boats.
Many people don’t know about the option to take a speedboat from the small town of Capurganá, Colombia. Some people recommended this option to me (and I preferred to spend more time on the islands and less on the boat) so I booked my trip with ‘San Blas Adventures’ to see what it’s like. Very good as it turned out! Capurganá is not as easy to travel to and from as Cartagena. The best option is to take an overnight bus from Medellin or Cartagena to Turbo and then take the two-hour ferry in the morning.
Cost: 350 Dollars for a 4 day three nights trip (including all food but no drinks and coconuts)
How to book:
The best place to book the trip is in the many hostels in Cartagena and Panama City. Many even have departure boards which let you know exactly when and where each boat is leaving. Also remember that each boat does about 3 round trips per month, so when you’re talking to other travellers make sure that you have a few other options in mind.
The most common way to get to San Blas is the short 2 day trip from Panama City by bus and then a boat around the islands. Many different options exist (I saw many offers in Panama’s hostels.) You’ll be able to find the best current info if you ask around a few hostels or travellers who’ve recently visited.
Some trips offer the option to drop you on one small resort island where you can extend you trip for as long as you want and return whenever you feel like it.
Cost: Around 200 dollars (20-40 dollars for each extra night on the islands.)
For those who don’t fancy spending time on the waves or want to get to San Blas quickly and comfortably, there’s the option to fly. You will need to stay in one of two lodges: Sapibenega or Yandup Lodge. Most travellers don’t make this choice because it’s pricey and you’ll miss out on the once in a lifetime opportunity to travel in the Caribbean Sea by boat! The flight leaves from Panama City (with AirPanama) to various landing spots around the San Blas Islands. Be sure to book the flight at least a week in advance as only one plane leaves a day at 6am and returns at 7am.)
Cost: Air Panama around 155 dollars return (Prices may vary) plus cost of lodge.
A few things you should know BEFORE booking your trip!
- Get advice from other travellers. Ask the how the seas are and how the food is etc! Don’t make uninformed decisions…
- Some boats are party boats, some are smaller more personal boats– there’ll be one that suits you…
- Make sure you book a few days in advance, especially in peak seasons it might be hard to get on the popular boats
- Make sure you bring enough cash with you. There are no ATMs.Drinks are not included on most of the trips so you will need an extra 100 dollars or so + 40 dollars for the transfer to/from Panama City.
- Internet in San Blas sucks. If you need to work I wouldn’t even advise that you try to do it. Prepare yourself and your clients to be offline for a couple of days and you’ll have an amazing time.