San Blas Islands

How to get there, what to do, and what to pack.

The San Blas Islands in Panama are a group of 378 islands off of the Northern coast, east of the canal. They’re located in an autonomous province of Panama (Kuna Yala), and the Kuna’s have their own rules, laws, language, and culture differing greatly from the Panamanians.

Directions from the city to the port of Carti, one of the docks for the San Blas Islands

Ok, you know that I like to be direct and to the point… but I have to tell you the story of our first trip to the San Blas Islands because it was a disaster. We had a rental car (this was before we moved there, and before we spoke any Spanish), and one of Adam’s co workers in Panama told us to “just drive there and experience it.” Well, that was a bad suggestion. We took our rental car and started on our drive to Carti where we planned on then hopping on a lancha and going to an island. We got to the checkpoint at the Kuna Yala border, and the Policia asked for our passports, our $20/pp fee, and then told us to pull over. They wouldn’t let us continue, and we had no idea what they were saying. Thankfully, another tourist behind us ended up coming over and translating: we weren’t allowed to pass in a car. We had to be driving an SUV, truck, van, etc. Oh, sh*t. We had two choices: turn around and drive the 2 hours back to the city; or leave our car at the checkpoint, hop in someone else’s vehicle, and hope that our rental car was still there when we came back in a couple of days. So, we did what any rational, inexperienced tourists would do- we left the car at the checkpoint and got into a random person’s van. Cool, so we got to the dock at Carti with a print out of our confirmation from for the little hut on an island whose name we couldn’t even pronounce. The lancha captain agreed to take us there and come back for us in a couple of days. Well, after a few stops to other islands to drop off other passengers, we got to our island. The captain waved good bye and we picked up our backpacks and started asking people where our little bungalow was, and how we could “check-in.” Let’s save a few minutes here- the listing did not exist. So there we were, literally stranded on a deserted island. Thankfully, there was a poorly constructed hut nearby that had a vacancy for us so we could at least be out of the rain. Whew. So fast forward to our return trip- we get picked up in the early afternoon and head back to the dock, where we were promised a ride back to the checkpoint with a truck driver… we waited for hours while they unloaded a truck bed full of rebar, and re-loaded it with garbage and plastics to take out of the province. It was almost dark by the time we began our hour drive to our car (oh, and if you didn’t know, the checkpoint CLOSES AT DARK every day!), so we were freaking out, sitting on the bench seat in the cab with the Panamanian driver in silence. Needless to say, we made it back… and I didn’t try to go back for almost 2 years.

How to Get to the San Blas Islands, and Where to Stay

There are a few ways to get to the San Blas Islands. There are two docks that have lancha service to the islands, so if you have made accommodations, make sure you know which dock to go to!

Driving– You can drive yourself but you must be in a “4×4” truck, SUV, van, etc. It’s not exactly a requirement; however, they won’t let you pass the checkpoint in a car. Look up directions to Carti, which is the main dock and parking area. Basically just take the 1 east out of the city, and take a left on “Carretera Hacia San Blas.” There are a few signs on the highway, too! You’ll be able to park your vehicle near the docks for the duration of your stay.
Transport Services– There are many places throughout the city that offer shuttle services to and from San Blas. If you’re in a hotel or hostel, ask for a recommendation there! If you have made accommodations in San Blas, they may offer transportation or have a recommendation for you too.
By Boat– You can do this two ways: coming into the San Blas Islands from Colombia (a popular route among adventurous travelers!) or coming in from Portobelo, Panama. I have personally done a sailing trip from Portobelo- it would have been awesome, but I had no idea that I was so prone to seasickness and ended up vomiting off of the back of the sailboat for the entire 15 hour trip (and that was my second attempt at a trip to San Blas).
By Air– There are a few small airports on the islands, and the routes seem to be always changing. Usually you can grab a flight from the Albrook airport (PAC) or from the Panama Pacifico airport (BLB).

Lodging– You won’t find any hotels on the islands, and most of the islands don’t even have running water. Finding a decent place to stay can sometimes be a little difficult… or maybe I don’t know where to look. Either way, I recommend staying on a sailboat! There are tons of sailboats in the area, and you can find people who rent a room (or a hammock!) on Airbnb. It’s honestly the best because you’re able to explore more of islands and the sailing community works closely with the Kuna Yala people, so you also get to learn about their culture!

Here’s another blogger who wrote about these topics, but in more detail.

What to Do

If you made it to San Blas, you should be relaxing in paradise. Play some sand volleyball, do yoga at sunset, or have a campfire on the beach. If you took my (and countless other’s) advice and are staying on a sailboat, most will have equipment for you to go paddleboarding and snorkeling.
Snorkeling– Isla Perro is the most common spot for people to snorkel, and most tour operators out of the city will even do day trips here! Again, I recommend staying on a sailboat and your captain will have plenty of other, better spots for you to snorkel! Unfortunately, Isla Perro has had a lot of traffic in recent years, and you’ll mainly find juvenile fish. So, why not be on your own private reef off of a different island and enjoy the same (if not better) sealife?
Another bonus: local boats will approach daily with fresh lobster and fish! What’s better than fresh ceviche and grilled lobster?? (Assuming you’re not allergic).

What to Bring to San Blas

  • Swimsuit
  • Towel
  • Sunscreen and Aloe
  • Sunglasses
  • Clothing: a light sweater for the evenings, pajamas, a swimsuit cover/dress. Note: Don’t bring all of your luggage! Most hotels and transportation services will offer to hold the rest of your bags while you visit the islands.
  • Passport (you need this to get through the checkpoint)
  • Money in small denominations ($20/pp for the checkpoint, your lancha ride to the island or sailboat if it isn’t included, parking fees by the docks, entry to each island, extra seafood or lunches, tips, etc.)
  • Snorkeling gear (optional, but highly recommended)
  • Frisbee, deck of cards, other games
  • Camera/GoPro

Find the official San Blas website here.