Have you ever heard of the San Blas Islands in Panama? No? It seems like those little islands are still somewhat off the grid. It might have to do with the fact, that you need a boat to get there and it takes FOREVER (plus 2 days).
About the San Blas Islands / Guna Yala
The San Blas Islands were re-named Guna Yala a couple years ago, but are still mostly known as San Blas Islands: an archipelago off Panama’s eastern coast that contains more than 300 islands, 49 of which are inhabited by the indigenous Guna people. It is an autonomous indigenous territory.
I’ve stumbled upon the islands when trying to find a way to get to Panama from Colombia and didn’t want to fly. Eventhough it might seem it might be possible to cross borders over land between Colombia and Panama, you can’t. For one, there’s the Darién Gap. The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large patch of inpassable swampland. And then, there are armed conflicts and kidnappings happening in this area, which make the idea of trying to pass through over land a bad thought. This leaves you with two options when trying to travel from Panama to Colombia or vice versa: fly or take a boat. Spoiler alert: If you think you might suffer from travel or seasickness, take the plane. You will miss out on incredible islands and the Robinson Crusoe feeling, but you wont’ feel miserable for a very big part of your boat trip. I will give you alternatives for that missed-out island life and amazing beaches in a blog post about Panama, I promise. But, if you’re up for a true pirate adventure and you think you can handle a rocking boat for 5 days straight: go for it!
How to get there
If you are in Panama or Colombia, there are regular departures of boats sailing/driving to the San Blas islands from the port of Cartagena, Colombia or Portobelo, Panama. The easiest way to check the captain’s schedules is on the website from Blue Sailing. This site gives you an overview of the ships, the captains, and the updated boat schedules, as well as their start and finishing points in the respective countries. One thing you have to decide pretty early on is if you’d rather make the trip on a large or small boat. The large boats (usually Catamarans) are also known as Party boats and draw a crowd of younger people that want to party all day/night long for 5 days. With about 25 people, it can get pretty crammed on those boats as well (which is actually true on any boat). The smaller boats tend to speak to somewhat older (30ish) travelers and have space for about 12 people. We opted for a small wooden sailboat called Ave Maria. I’ll share our adventure later in this post. And what an adventure it was!
There are apparently also day trips you can organize from Panama City, but from what I read, it involves a lot of driving and little time on the islands. You can also hire a car or driver to the port from where the boats leave for the islands and take a boat to one of the main islands, where they have simple hotels and guesthouses. Part of why San Blas is so amazing, though, are its uninhabited islands, and you can’t really reach those while staying on a island with hotels. There are a number of blog posts out there from people who have done it this way, so I’ll limit myself to the sailing trip.
What to expect on the sailing trip
All the trips are around 5 nights in duration. Three days are spent island hopping around the San Blas Islands and two days on the open sea crossing. I have read this information but somehow didn’t process the fact that those 2 days on the open sea mean that this is up to 30 to 50 (or more, depending on the weather) hours. To break this down for you: This is a whole night, a whole day, another whole night and most of the next day as well. FOR ONE WAY! Even the strongest stomachs can give up sometime during those hours and if you opt for seasick meds like Dramamine, you will spend most of your time sleeping or feeling groggy. And if you don’t take the meds every 3-4 hours and forget a dose, you might end up puking at innocent, pretty fluorescent plancton. True story (I’m very sorry, plankton!)
I’ll break down our journey to give you a rough idea of what you can expect. We met our group of people one day before departure for a briefing and to hand over our passports to the captain for exit formalities. We then basically had the whole day to run around trying to buy everything we might need for the upcoming trip. This meant: buy what you fancy to drink for the next 5 days, get seasick meds, sort out your bag and re-pack a small bag for the days on board etc. We then had another full day in Cartagena, because our sailing trip wasn’t going to start until the evening. We headed to the port at around 5 p.m., ate dinner at the port and met the rest of our group. Because the exit formalities took longer than expected, we already had a delay. After we sat around for about 2 hours, our captain showed up and told us about a storm and that we probably wouldn’t leave the harbor before midnight. As I already took seasick meds because we didn’t know when we were going to head out and I better wanted to be safe than sorry, I almost fell asleep in my chair and felt super uncomfortable because they made me so groggy.
Anyway, we were able to board the boat at around 9 p.m., put our stuff away, have a safety briefing (most important info we got: «Don’t vomit against the wind!», which I found hilarious) and got our sleeping space allocated by our captain. I immediately went to sleep because the seasick meds knocked me out pretty efficiently. By around midnight, I heard the boat departing and by the next day, we were on the open sea. And this also pretty much sums up the next 40 hours or so. The waves were pretty high (reaching up to 3-4 meters at times), making getting from one point to another on the ship a challenge. The hours passed, we were either able to lie on our beds or on the upper deck up front (when the waves weren’t too high), sit around the back deck, and the only distraction we had were the meals and occasionally a dolphin who swam with the boat. The meals were prepared on a swinging stove and it was pretty amazing what the captain’s wife was able to whip up during such high waves. While the meals were really good, I was somehow expecting to be eating a lot of fresh fish, and was a bit disappointed when it was mainly (cheaper) meat we got served.
As mentioned before, I didn’t really process the fact of how long we’d be on the boat until we reached the first island. And somehow I was under the impression that we’d reach the first island by the end of the next day and temporarily stopped taking the seasick meds – my decision was bad. It got worse and worse and the only position I could handle was lying flat on my bed. I couldn’t move around, I couldn’t sit up, I coulnd’t walk around. I was just lying there mastering my mental ability to take my mind off the fact that my stomach wanted to give back everything I gave it the previous hours. It ended how it inevitably had to end: At some point I just had to sprint on deck and the only thing I could think was «Don’t vomit against the wind, don’t vomit against the wind!» Guess what? This is a pretty vague concept on a boat. In the wind. During a storm! With a little help from the captain, I reached the safe side and fed the plankton – Hallelujah!
Just when I was about to lose all hope to ever set foot on solid ground again, we finally reached the first island by the end of not the first, but the second day at sea. After 40ish hours on the open sea, everyone was VERY happy to get off the boat, finally jump into that crystal blue water, move our bodies again, and spread out across the small island our captain has chosen as our first stop. Some locals immediately pulled up with a boat and started asking for booze or money, which was a bit awkward. They eventually took off after someone in our group gave them a couple of beers, and left us in peace for the rest of our stay there.
The next day, we set sail to reach another island. We cast anchor next to two small, uninhabited islands approximately an hour’s drive (sail?) from the last island and set up camp there. We basically had the whole day to snorkel, swim around, lay in the hammocks, chill, and enjoy life – and let me tell you: this was one of the most perfect days on earth! Being able to sit in the warm sand around a bonfire at night, with a million stars over our heads, a cup of wine in our hands…it was pure bliss and probably nothing I will ever get to do again. Would I go on a ship again for 40 hours to relive this day? Absolutely!
The next day was already our last day around the islands. We sailed to yet some other, this time inhabited islands, where we would take care of the immigration formalities into Panama. And let me tell you, this was one of the most spectacular border crossings of my life! We cast anchor in front of the island with the immigration office and swam to the island. We showed up in front of the immigration officer, dripping wet in our swimwear and tried to keep a straight face for the immigration officer. We collected the visa on arrival and jumped right back into the water to swim back to the boat. That was it! I mean, have you ever crossed a border in your bikini? I wish all border crossings were as easy and laid back! We then said goodbye to this little piece of paradise and started to sail back to the mainland, which was fortunately only about 10 hours at now calmer seas. We got woken up by howler monkeys at the bay of some former pirate’s nest called Portobelo, from where we would have to take a chicken bus to Colón and from there to Panama City.
If you were to ask me if I would do this trip again, I couldn’t give you a clear answer. To me, and other travelers on board the ship, the passage didn’t seem too safe. There are stories that some captains are constantly drunk and/or on drugs and it might just be a question of time until something serious happens. We were lucky to have a captain, who didn’t drink a drop of alcohol. The fact that a single person is steering a ship through 2 nights straight with little sleep during the day, is a bit questionable as well.
The days around the uninhabited islands were magical, though and probably a once in a lifetime experience for me. I can’t speak for the inhabited islands, but from what I’ve read I wouldn’t have wanted to stay in one of the hotels/guesthouses there. What few people talk about is also the waste problem on the islands. As unfortunetly everywhere in the world, plastic garbage is also a topic on the San Blas Islands. And with every remote island, there isn’t a functioning garbage or waste system. Toilets are usually huts on a deck with unfiltered, direct access to the sea. Something you don’t want to think about when swimming and diving there.
If you’re looking for secluded beaches and turquoise water, you can find them in Panama as well. Don’t miss my next blog post about Bocas del Toro to find out where 🙂