Panama is an incredible place to visit in Central America. You can experience everything from the bustling downtown of Panama City, the jungle and wildlife at Gatun Lake, to the beautiful French-inspired historic buildings in Casco Viejo. For those looking to experience the Caribbean side of Panama without spending an entire day of traveling, you should plan a day trip to the San Blas Islands. Weekends are much busier, so I’d recommend going during a weekday for a more relaxing experience.
Located off the north coast of Panama are over 365 islands and cays referred to as the San Blas Islands. Some of these islands are inhabited by the Guna Yala indigenous tribe, and all of them are surrounded by crystal blue clear warm water.
Before heading off to the islands, here is a quick packing list to make sure that you have the best experience:
Getting there is easiest by booking with a tour group. During my trip, a local suggested Guana Yala Explorer. Most of these groups provide transportation to and from the islands. To enjoy the entire day, these groups provide an early morning pick up at 5 AM. Navigating the mountains through Panama can be stressful, so if you are prone to motion sickness, it is highly recommended that you take some anti-nausea medication prior to the commute. The drive is not for the faint of heart. Once you are picked up, you will travel three hours to the boat drop off stop. Halfway through the commute, you will stop at a local grocery store for a quick 15 minutes.
Be sure to stock up on snacks, medication, and drinks at the store. You will not have another opportunity before you reach the island for any of these items. You can bring a cooler with ice, which can also be purchased at the grocery store. Since you will be farther out from the popular tourist areas, most people in this area do not speak English. If you need to ask for something specific, make sure to use a translation app for assistance.
After the grocery store stop, you have another 1.5-hour commute to the islands. Make sure to bring your passport! This will be checked before you enter the Guna Yala village. Your driver will park and join you in the boat. The boat ride is about 30 minutes to the first island.
The first island you visit is the best island for swimming. This is also the bigger island of the two. There are some Guna Yala members who live on the island. You can purchase drinks and traditional Panamanian Mola art here but be aware that they only accept cash. While this island is the bigger of the two, you can still walk the entire perimeter of the island in ten minutes. We stayed on this island for about 1.5 hours.
The second island is where you will find the Instagram-worthy hammocks and a volleyball court. This island has a small restaurant where you select your lunch prior to getting to the island. We had the option of fish or chicken with rice as a side and drinks are included. This island was a bit rockier than the first one, making it harder to swim without swim shoes. Both islands have outhouses.
The final stop is a crowd favorite, and only a five-minute boat ride from the second island. It is a sand bar with a depth of approximately 3 feet. Be sure to bring your snorkel gear! We saw many different types of wildlife ranging from starfish, stingrays, sea turtles, and many colorful fish. Since you are in the middle of the ocean, there isn’t much shade other than the boat. Lather up your sunscreen before jumping in.
After the San Blas Natural Pool, it’s time for your return to your hotel. You may have additional people in your van for the trek home, but the good news is that everyone fell fast asleep during our ride back. What an incredible day! Our commute home took another three hours and we returned by 6 PM.
I definitely recommend this trip. Pack your bags, book your trip, and make the trek to the San Blas islands.
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