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Things you need to know when visiting San Blas Islands in Panama

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

After spending a weekend on San Blas Islands, I have a lot to warn you about!

San Blas Islands, also known as the Guna Yala region, are a beautiful archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama. They are known for their stunning natural beauty, clear turquoise waters, and the rich cultural heritage of the indigenous Guna people who inhabit them but there are a few things you need to prepare yourself for to ensure you have the best time.

Here are the things you need to know when visiting San Blas Islands!

  1. Check the weather

  2. No proper infrastructure to do it yourself

  3. Go with a reputable tour agency

  4. Make sure you are aware of all the 'local' taxes and island entry fees

  5. Have cash with you

  6. Don't expect luxury

  7. Stay at least 2 days/1 night

  8. Make sure to check out the Natural Pool

Check the weather

Planning your visit during the dry season doesn't necessarily assure you of flawless weather conditions in the San Blas Islands. Even though this period helps you bypass the persistent rain and overcast skies common during the rainy season, it brings its own set of challenges - predominantly the strong winds.

The dry season, which typically spans from mid-December to late April, is marked by intensifying wind conditions. This might impact various activities like sailing, snorkeling, or even simply relaxing on the beach. Therefore, keeping an eye on the wind forecast becomes very important!

Before embarking on your trip to the San Blas Islands, make sure to assess the wind conditions. Use reliable weather forecasting resources to get accurate, real-time information, ensuring your activities align well with the weather.

During my 2-day stay it was very very windy all the time and although I still enjoyed my trip it did affect the activities and overall experience. I wish I researched more specifically;y the wind situation as it does affect you a lot!

Go with a reputable tour agency

Unfortunately, there is no infrastructure in place for tourists so this is a trip you can't really do on your own. Firstly, the territory is guarded by the local community and you need permits to enter. Secondly, the roads are horrible and you need 4x4 to get to the 'port'. Thirdly, the port is not really a port. It is a pier with 30 chaotic people walking around and 'organizing' the boats so people waiting can get on their islands. So unless you speak perfect Spanish, know locals from the local community in San Blas, and have a 4x4, you will need to go with an agency.

And here I warn you to be very careful. There will be loads of local guides advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms but please go with a reputable company that has good reviews on Tripadvisor. I always tend to go with locals but this is not the case. You need a guide that is organized and sticks with the plan!

Said this, one thing you need to check with an agency before you book is everything that is included and everything that is NOT included. Agencies tend to leave out all the local taxes and entry fees you will need to pay to enter the local community and specific islands. So ensure all that is included or that you are aware of how much extra you will need to pay once in the islands.

Have cash with you

Financial planning is crucial when visiting the San Blas Islands as you won't find any ATMs available on the islands. This means you'll need to bring sufficient cash with you to cover all your expenses during your stay.

Expenses you may need to account for extra include drinks and meals (the ones not covered by your tour), island taxes I mentioned before, tips, local crafts and souvenirs that you may want to purchase as mementos of your visit.

Keep in mind that all transactions on the islands are conducted in cash, as credit or debit card facilities are non-existent!

Therefore, prior to setting sail for the islands, make sure you visit an ATM in the mainland city where you are traveling from. It's better to withdraw more than you think you'll need to avoid any inconvenience or financial stress during your tropical getaway.

And, of course, always keep your money stored securely, ideally in a waterproof container to prevent any water damage during boat trips or beach activities. Because just getting to the island in the first place is a challenge. I was all soaked as well as my bag, so I wish I had a waterproof bag with me at the time.

Don't expect luxury

Setting realistic expectations for accommodations is key when planning a trip to the San Blas Islands. The lifestyle on these islands is rooted in simplicity and an intimate connection with nature. Luxury is not too common around the area.

Unless you're reserving your stay at one of the rare upscale resorts available on the islands, most accommodations here are in the form of rustic, modest lodges or cabins. These structures are often constructed using traditional methods and local materials, reflecting the authentic way of life of the indigenous Guna people.

Expect basic amenities such as beds, and sand floor. It's typical for the lodging to be equipped with cold-water showers - a feature that can actually be quite refreshing given the tropical heat. Also, you'll often find that bathrooms are located outside of the main lodging structure.

This absence of modern luxury is not a shortcoming but rather a deliberate choice to preserve the natural beauty of the islands and to maintain the sustainable, low-impact way of life of the Guna Yala community. Remember that a visit to the San Blas Islands is an opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern living and to embrace a slower, simpler rhythm of life. Embrace the chance to appreciate the natural beauty around you - the clear blue skies, the sparkling Caribbean waters, and the soft, sandy beaches.

Stay overnight on the islands

I highly encourage you to stay overnight on the islands. Firstly, because it will take you 5h just to get there from Panama City. Secondly, a lot of people come only for a day trip, so around 11am the islands start to get very busy, but if you stay overnight on the island it's yours all morning - Just a few people (those who also stay on the island), your morning coffee, and the Caribbean sea.

Those few quiet hours in the morning are priceless!

Make sure to check out the 'Natural Pool'

If there is one thing I want you to definitely make sure of is to check that the agency has included a visit to the Natural Pool in your itinerary! Probably one of the coolest parts of the area. Realistically, it is shallow but it gives you a feel as if you are submerged in a pool in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, a very unique experience. Also, make sure you have your snorkeling gear with you, as you can encounter starfishes there!

You can see all that in my San Blas video:


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