White sandy beaches, clear waters and coral reefs- some of my favorite things. So of course, I had to go to San Blas.
What is San Blas?
The San Blas islands are a a tropical archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama, within an autonomous region owned and operated entirely by the indigenous Kuna people.
San Blas came highly recommended by locals and backpackers alike. It’s beautiful, relatively affordable, and for such a drastic change in scenery from Panama City, travel is surprisingly convenient.
When planning our Panama trip, it looked like we wouldn’t have time to tour San Blas. However, once we got to our hostel, we were pleasantly surprised that it was totally possible to go to San Blas and return the following day. Because the area is so popular with backpackers, we booked our trip for the very next day through the hostel where we were staying, Hostel Mamallena.
Booking Your San Blas Islands Stay
Yes, there is a whole section about booking because there is a weird vibe about getting to and staying in San Blas. Because it’s located within an autonomous region, called Guna Yala, standard Panamanian laws and customs do not apply. The hostel staff stressed that you have your passport and enough money on you multiple times when booking. I suspect some backpackers might have been stranded at some point for failing to bring passports or enough money, or something because the air of caution when booking and discussing logistics is that tense.
If you will be staying at a backpacker hostel in Panama City, especially Luna’s Castle or Hostel Mamallena, you might want to wait to plan your San Blas trip until you check in and talk to the staff. They have exclusive booking rates and relationships with the different island home stays, so it’s best to let the hostel staff take care of it for you.
Our schedule only allowed us one day at the Islands, but multiple day stays are recommended to get your money’s worth. Interestingly, as restrictive booking your trip can seem, once you have your accommodation, you can basically stay for as long as you want without booking in advance and pay for your stay when you leave the island.
We booked our stay with Franklin, named after the patriarch who owns and runs the island. A booking with the hostel reserves your spot on the island, and pays for your transportation to and from the boat to the islands- you’ll pay your boat fare and accommodation once you get there.
Annoying, but that’s how they do it, so just go with it.
The Drive to San Blas
The departure for San Blas is at 5:30 AM. You can sleep through the first part of the drive, but once you get closer to the Caribbean Coast, the terrain becomes incredibly mountainous and the G-force from the drive will make it difficult to stay in your seat, let alone sleep.
After leaving the city and passing through some countryside, you will drive through densely forested mountains, with beautiful scenery.
The entire drive takes about 2 and half hours. You’ll pass into Guna Yala territory with a passport checkpoint, but other than that the trip is uneventful. Drivers servicing the hostel drove in 4X4s. But even though the road into San Blas was mountainous, it was well-paved and a regular van or SUV would have probably been fine.
The drive ends at a small dugout next to a bend in a river, where all the passengers transfer from their ground transportation to small boats that will take them to their island home stays. The boat ride to Franklin was an additional 30 minutes.
Once on the island, the logistical chaos melts away almost immediately. Franklin will have you sign a booklet before assigning you a hut number and sending you on your way.
The San Blas Islands are backpacker-friendly, which is code for sparse. You have a choice of a private hut or a dormitory style hut, but all huts are constructed of sticks and palm fronds, with sand floors. There are communal showers and Western style toilets available.
Meals are served in an open-air mess hall. Candy bars and fresh coconuts are available at extra cost, and I believe there are wine, beer and sodas available as well. Ask for a coconut and someone will chop it open for you and top it off with a straw.
Things to Do on the San Blas Islands
The water is warm and crystal clear. The sand is white and soft. Sloping palm trees line the island. It’s everything you expect from a tropical beach.
The San Blas waters provide the perfect conditions for coral reefs. Around Franklin’s island there is an expansive reef full of lots of coral and wildlife. A large barrier reef surrounds part of the island, home to lots of smaller reef fish and Christmas tree worms. Past the barrier there are large growths of brain coral with a decent variety, including the shy porcupine fish.
There were tons of juvenile parrot fish, literally swarming the reef and having a party. Despite this being cool to see, I wouldn’t be surprised if the abundance of small fish is an indication of overfishing. In our trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, also a marine reserve, the diversity of wildlife on the reef was amazing, with plenty of really big fish to boot. We saw no fish comparable in size on the San Blas reefs.
San Blas is a backpacker favorite, and most people we met were your typical backpacker. There’s plenty of time on the island to strike up a conversation and make some new friends while you chill out. We met a guy from Swaziland, who was not only surprised that I knew where it was, but perhaps also surprised that I was both American and knew where Swaziland was.
America: 1, everyone else: 0.
The Kuna People
From hearsay, the Kuna seemed to run San Blas tourism with a nickle and dime mentality, but we didn’t really find that to be the case. Mamallena provided thorough information on standard costs, and noted what extras we would have to pay for on the island. When on a backpacker’s budget, it can be annoying to have to add up ten different little costs (a total trip cost breakdown would make a great addition to the Mamallena information book *cough*), but double check your money and add a cushion of $20-50 and you should be fine.
The host family on Franklin was very hospitable, and left the guests to their own devices. Aside from a bout of burning some plastic trash on the beach outside of our hut, I really don’t have anything bad to say.
And don’t be creepy about it, but check out the ladies… Ok that sounds weird, but it’s really cool to see how much of their culture Kuna women especially have maintained. They still wear traditional clothing: highly colorful assortments of contrasting prints assembled almost like a kimono, with plenty of jewelry and beaded shin covers. Serious style.
- Bring your own snorkel gear if you have it. Mamallena staff gave conflicting reports on the availability of snorkel gear, but it’s there, it’s just… well worn. Renting a mask and snorkel only costs $1 per day, but you get what you pay for. We completed a thorough snorkeling tour of the island on our own for almost two hours, but made frequent stops to fiddle with masks. If you’ve ever snorkeled you know how annoying this can be.
- Bring snacks. Mamallena warned that Franklin had a reputation for not providing enough food. 3 meals a day are provided, but the portions are more suited to the average Kuna, who is much smaller than your typical Westerner. Head to a supermarket and stock up on snacks, some water and alcohol if you want it. There’s no bar- it’s not a hotel.
- Stay longer. If you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time, you can stay multiple days on Franklin, and probably can on the other home stays. There are also longer, organized tours available at additional costs that you can book from Mamallena Hostel as well. Things like primitive camping tours and even chartered boat rides through the islands to Columbia looked especially fun.
- Don’t overspend. While the experience is amazing and was a highlight of being in Panama, San Blas can be quite expensive for the average backpacking budget. Since we were on a tight schedule, we booked our trip through Mamallena Hostel out of convenience but heard in passing that there are cheaper ways to get to Guna Yala and San Blas, and I believe it. If you’ve got competent Spanish skills and you’re willing to put in a little more effort to save money, I’d recommend shopping around to find cheaper transportation. And while it’s way more affordable than your average visit to the tropics, if you’re craving the beach and might have the opportunity to find it elsewhere, especially in the popular beach town, Bocas Del Toro, think about conserving funds that way.