Finally, my last piece from my American trip. I got to admit I was kind of hesitant with this trip right up to the time I was in Austin.
First, I had read mixed reviews of San Blas Islands – from lousy tour companies to dirty beaches. Secondly, the journey to Port of Carti that can be quite challenging but most importantly, weather forecast on the day of our trip don’t seem favourable. I had the option of free cancellation up to 24 hours before my trip and after much deliberation, I decided to stick with it (and I did not regret that decision).
San Blas is a group of islands at the Caribbean Sea inhabited by the indigenous Guna Yala people. As it is considered an autonomous region, foreigners are required to bring their passport along (where it will be checked before entering the Guna Yala region. Remember to prepare USD $20 per person for entry fee.
I did a fair bit of read up about San Blas Islands and the various tour groups that organises the trip. There are options for either day trips or multi day stays on the island. Multi day stays allow you to enjoy the slow pace of life on the island on the overwater chalets. However, don’t expect Maldivian style resorts. The chalets in San Blas are rudimentary, with natural ventilation and very basic toilet. For light sleeper, the noise from boats can be rather disturbing (from what I read). As time was short, I chose a day trip instead.
There are various ways in getting there. The cheapest being the car. One will require a 4×4 to get into Guna Yala – the more economical tour tend to squeeze 5 to 6 person into a car while the better one will house 4 (what I had).
For those with more moolah, one can fly there on a helicopter or plane (which allows you to bypass the windy roads).
Another more exotic way of getting into San Blas Islands would be on a Catamaran from Cartagena (Colombia).
The journey there on car takes about 2.5 to 3 hours. This can be very tiring for a few reasons. Firstly, you will need to wake up very early for the pick up between 520am to 540am! The duration can be quite challenging and of course the road itself. The first part of the journey is smooth as you will travel eastward along National Highway 1 (Transamerican Highway). The challenge starts once you turn into the road to Guna Yala. The road is extremely windy and it is indeed challenging to the vestibular system. For someone who doesn’t get carsickness easily, I had to close my eyes at times to avoid myself from feeling giddy and vomit.
Road to Guna Yala region
Once you reach Carti, you will disembark and directed to your own local boat tour organiser. Don’t expect a ferry / large boat – it is a small boat that seats approximately 10 people. When the sea is calm, the boat is quite steady. When the sea turns choppy, you will be left saying your prayers!
Panama San Blas Tour
When you look for a tour, it can be pretty confusing with so many different tour groups offering so many different combinations. I booked my tour via Viator (using a 15% discount). My trip includes:
– Drinks (including beer)
– Snorkelling gear
Breakfast was simple – comprising plantain (fried banana) with eggs. For lunch, most tour groups offer the option of chicken or fish with the option of top up to lobster. I decided to take the plunge and booked the lobster and I would strongly recommend this! One can opt to top up for lobster during the trip itself and it cost USD $30 for ½ lobster! You get a full lobster if you prebook it.
As the Guna Yala are very simple people, don’t expect a sumptuous cuisine. Despite that, the lobster was simple yet excellent and tasty.
Panama San Blas tour has been excellent from the word go – they were fairly responsive on WhatsApp, and reassuring on answering my queries.
The local guide they engaged were good and the food was better than expected. I would strongly recommend Panama San Blas Tour for those looking to go to San Blas Islands. Besides day trip, they do offer multi day stay overs too.
The highlight of the trip of course is San Blas Islands itself. There are many islands out there and one would probably have time to visit only 3 or 4 max depending on the weather. We visited Isla Aguja, Isla de Perro Grande and the Natural Swimming Pool. We were suppose to visit the Guna Yala community too but the weather was far from permitting.
The boat we traveled in also serves as a local transport for the locals to move from one island to another and also for food items to be transported from the mainland.
Connectivity is excellent as I could even get 4G signal in the middle of the sea (when I had only 3G in Panama City). You may not have any signal in the jungle area though.
We spent most of our time on Aguja Island – where we had our breakfast and lunch. The island was quite crowded but not excessive. The sea was stunningly clear and the sand soft. Although clear, the site wasn’t great for snorkelling. As I am not a good swimmer, I did not do much snorkelling. We spent almost 2 hours there.
We next moved on to the natural Swimming Pool. This is a shallow sand bank in the middle of the sea – making it look like a swimming pool. Here, one can occasionally chance upon starfish. By this time, the sky started to look dark from far.
The clear waters of Caribbean Sea
Our third stop was Perro Grande Island which is a small island with an even smaller café. This is another island for snorkelling or one can relax in one of the hammocks that were put up by the beach. By this time, we were spending time at the ‘café’ as it started to drizzle.
We decided to cut short the trip and skip the Guna Yala community as the rain was getting heavier and the sea more choppy.
The ride back was quite daunting as the boat’s engine shut off at least 4 to 5 times with the sea being more and more choppy. The only thing that was in my mind then was to get back to Carti ASAP!
Thankfully, we made it back (else there won’t be any review here).
Despite the scare coming back from the islands, I had no regret doing the San Blas trip. We were very lucky as 2/3 of our time there were sunny and beautiful!
This is the link for Panama San Blas Tours.
– Sleep early the night before, you have to wake up at 430 am on the day you travel there (for car)
– Try to avoid a heavy meal before the car trip or you may end up using your vomit bag
– Standby some vomit bags with you
– Medication (if you have) – I took a Betaserc (Betahistine) before my trip and I still felt dizzy
– Bring your passport along or you will be denied entry into the Guna Yala region
– Have the exact change of USD $20
– If your tour does not include drinks / food, bring your own – the food on Aguja Island restaurant is exorbitant!
– Bring a waterproof pouch for your phone
– Get the lobster!
– The car will make a toilet stop before entering the jungle road – make sure you clear your bladder!
– The toilets at Carti cost a quarter (Panama uses USD) and they may not have change. If you can hold your bladder, the toilets at Aguja Island is free and is much cleaner!
– You may want to consider bringing a toilet roll with you before the trip