Living in Panamá presents opportunities to experience once-in-a-lifetime weekend vacations. In Panama’s backyard lies untouched beauty. Some of which still belongs to the Natives that once roamed Central America. One of those groups is the Kuna people, the rich inhabitants of the San Blas Islands. Though the islands are a part of Panama, they’re administered as a “country within a country”. Thus, granting full control of the islands to the Kuna people. As a result, the rich cultural traditions of their ancestors are alive and well. Fortunately for expats, you can experience their way of living in the form of a Caribbean getaway.
Before you go it’s important to know that the islands have their own customs, laws, and legislation. They maintain a balance between western influences and their traditional culture. Eco-tourism is still fairly new to the Kuna but they are definitely tourist-friendly. Without a doubt the experience will be unforgettable. With that, here are some helpful tips to prepare for your San Blas adventure.
About the San Blas Islands
San Blas is an archipelago of about 365 islands, 49 of which are inhabited by different Kuna groups. There are many different tour agencies and experiences you can have on the islands. Each Kuna group has its own unique island, accommodation, and experience. It depends on what you are looking for. Trying to book without a tour agency would be difficult and is not recommended. Especially if you do not speak Spanish. The tour agencies have established partnerships with the Kuna people and it will be as organized as possible. With that being said, it can still feel disorganized at times.
Your tour guide will be communicating with different members of the Kuna to make sure you head to the right island. It’s recommended to book a tour that will also transport you to the islands. They usually pick you up at your desired location and drop you off there as well. This is the best form of transport as they have off-road vehicles and are experienced in communicating with foreigners and the Kuna.
What do you need to get there?
It’s a 2-3 hour drive from Panama City to the northern coast, with half of the time split between a highway and secondary road. Be advised that the secondary road is quite bumpy and about an hour in length. It winds through the dense Panamanian jungle with some incredible views of the mountains and terrain. There’s a Texaco gas station just before this road so make sure you grab any extra snacks or sunscreen and go to the bathroom. Also, make sure to bring your physical passport (not a copy) and extra cash.
There will be a checkpoint on the off-road with the Panamanian police. This is to ensure that no one has an expired tourist visa or comes into Panama illegally. You are also required to pay a $20 fee to enter the island at the checkpoint. Some tour agencies will explain that all fees are paid for, but there is still a chance that you’ll have to pay fees. Simply bring extra cash just in case.
After that, you’ll arrive at a small Kuna town acting as the docking point to the islands. Once you arrive at the docking point, it’s a boat ride ranging from 30 to 90 minutes depending on where you stay. Your driver will find your correct Kuna tour guide and hand you off. From here, your vacation starts! Reminder, the islands only use cash.
So what is a San Blas visit really like?
Relaxing, rejuvenating, and refreshing. With no cell service on most of the islands, you are fully in the present moment of a Caribbean tropical paradise. As far as accommodation, you have everything you need and nothing you don’t. Showers, toilets, and beds. Many of the islands have activities for tourists such as kayaks, snorkel gear, and paddleboards.
If you’d like, you can pay for meals in advance with your specific Kuna group. The meals consist of a lot of fish, beans, rice, salad, and sometimes even crab, lobster, or octopus. What’s amazing is that your food is caught the same day in the waters of your surrounding island. The Islands are full of coconut trees and don’t be surprised if they offer you a fresh coconut to drink with your lunch. Fresh fruits are also abundant in every meal.
Depending on your Kuna group, you’ll also do day activities. Make sure you check with your tour agency to know what to expect. Some guests bring large coolers full of beer, food, and whatever they would like. The Kuna people have no problem with you bringing your own coolers. Even though they usually have a bar connected to the kitchen with beer, wine, and cocktails.
Electricity exists on the islands and your rooms will have charging ports as well. Remember, you are sharing the Island with other tourists, Panamanians, and Kuna members, creating a very cool dynamic. Be friendly and have fun! There are also options for a more private stay if you would like. Make sure to read reviews of your tour agency to know what to expect.
Be advised that there are no nearby hospitals. Some of the village islands throughout San Blas have clinics with doctors trained in western medicine. Most issues can be dealt with at these clinics. In worse cases, the individual would have to be driven to Panama City. With that being said, let’s go over some final “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for your trip.
- DO – Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
- DON’T – Expect world-class amenities or accommodation. The Kuna keep things simple.
- DO – Bring snacks, a nice book, and multiple bathing suits.
- DON’T – Forget your passport and cash.
- DO – Check out multiple tour agencies as they all offer different trips.
- DON’T – Forget that English is hardly spoken. Be prepared to test your Spanish!
Lastly, the Kuna people are a tremendously hospitable bunch. You’ll be met with the feeling of warmth and be taken great care of. Their land is breathtaking and the fact they’re willing to share it is truly remarkable. Without a doubt, you will have a fantastic time in the San Blas Islands.