Without a doubt San Blas was one of my top places I’ve been in Central America. (Not the top, but one of the top!) It’s truly stunning. Postcard perfect paradise islands scattered amongst the Caribbean that are the closest to “untouched” I’ve ever seen.
(whiter than white sand)
If you’re thinking “San Blas? What’s he on about!?”… then check out this post here all about travelling between Central and South America first and come back here once you realise you need to do your business on this tropical toilet… 😉
(possibly the most tranquil and rustic lavatory you’ll ever have the pleasure of bestowing your “work” upon. For those more proud gentlemen, watch your work fly out into the ocean along that white pipe you can see in the bottom right corner of the hut! TMI?)
In terms of actually seeing the San Blas, you’ve got 3 options:
1) Excursion from Panama City
Start: Panama City
End: Panama City
Summary: $150 (approx) / 2nights / 3meals per day / transport to & from Panama City
(Find yourself stuck in Panama? Pop over to the San Blas to spend a few hours on islands like these!)
I wasn’t actually aware of this at the time I visited heaven myself. But a friend I’ve made in Colombia told me he took this option. You can organise through most Hostels in Panama City a 2 or 3 day tour of the San Blas, all inclusive, returning to Panama City.
This works out cheaper if you look at it as just seeing San Blas, but consider you’ll need to then pay for a flight to South America – but it’s a great option for those who are only travelling Central America, or who are skipping Colombia and need to by-pass the country by plane which is much faster than getting through Colombia by bus.
Brian (the aforementioned frriiiieeennnddd) recommends “Hostel Villa Vento Surf, Panama City”.
In terms of the using a boat trip to get between the two parts of the continent, you’ve got options 2 & 3 which differ slightly:
2) Sailing Boat Trip
Start: Panama City/Cartagena
End: Cartagena/Panama City
Summary: $450-$600 / 5 or 6 nights / meals included / transport & accommodation
(typical inhabited island that you’ll sail past)
There are masses of companies/people/sailors offering these sorts of crossings. A great central website is BLUE SAILING. When I was in Panama City for my departure, the chaps who owned and sailed the boats were regularly visiting the hostel selling places on their trip; and for a more competitive price!
PROS: Arrive to/leave from Cartagena, which is arguably a better location in Colombia due to it’s accessibility to/from other parts of the country. Overall works out cheaper per day. You get to travel onboard a beautiful sailing boat from which you get plenty of opportunity to swim in the blue waters. You get to visit some the islands.
You don’t NEED to book in advance, as many boats will have room at short notice (more negotiable), though it’s probably advisable.
CONS: The sailing boat companies don’t have the same level of access to the islands; they visit a few, but don’t have permission to sleep on them. Exposure to the Kuna Yala tribe is much more restricted and this was clear to see; whilst our speedboat trip was chilling on the islands, we could see the sailing boat people sat on their sailing boat looking at the islands (in envy I can only imagine!)
You have to spend a lot of time on board a sailing vessel, in particular sleeping as well as two full days of travel to Cartagena after you leave the archipelago, just pure ocean. Sounds like a horror story to somebody who suffers sea sickness surely?
You also skip Capurgana which is a small village south of the border, inside Colombia and is home to some of the most striking coastline in the country (in my humble opinion).
(Capurgana – the sailing boat doesn’t go here)
3) Speedboat Trip
Start: Panama City/Sapzurro-Capurgana
End: Sapzurro-Capurgana/Panama City
Summary: From $400 / 4 days / 3 nights / 3 meals per day / immigration & entry to islands included
(this is one of our boats parked up for lunch on that there island)
Obviously by it’s very name and the fact this includes a speedboat, means that it’s faster! These trips also don’t go as far into Colombia, only as far as Capurgana, but from my own experience this way you’ll have more time on the islands and also live and breath the culture of the Kuna Yala people much more.
PROS: speedboats are smaller and so they don’t have sleeping quarters. Meaning you’ll have to sleep on these beautiful islands. Two nights in a hammock, one night in a real bed in one of the communities self-built towns. You also can’t really chill out on a speedboat, there’s not much room! All this means MORE TIME ON THE ISLANDS!
(looking us all having fun ON the island)
You’re only on the boat for around 2-2.5 hours per day and there are cool activities on the islands. The food is incredible and there’s easily enough to go around.
(our awesome group getting in line for the lunch buffet….first time I’ve ever not been at the front of a buffet)
Natives of the Kuna Yala tribe work on the speedboats, meaning you can get up close and personal with their people and culture; playing volleyball and hanging out with them each day. The trip includes a tour of an island town where you stay one night.
(get to know the locals – a village tour is included as part of the trip)
CONS: I’ll be honest…I’m 6ft4 and so, for me, sleeping in a hammock isn’t the exotic experience you might imagine, but I’m still alive and can’t say it destroyed my memories of the trip. Biggest CONS are that there are a few things that you’ll end up needing to pay for which are NOT included in this trip.
- Jeep travel between Panama City and the port where the boats leave from. +$30
- Boat travel to/from Sapzurro to Capurgana. +$5
- Sapzurro & Capurgana are incredibly beautiful places and I ended up staying in Capurgana for 4 days when my trip ended. But it’s timely and costly to get anywhere else in Colombia from here. Boat & Bus to Cartagena/Medellin +£70. Flight from Acandi to Medellin +$100
Another potential “CON” is that the group makes this trip; the speedboat trip is known more for being a “party trip”. Now whilst I got really lucky and landed a group of 20 awesome folk who had a great balance of taking stuff seriously/partying, I’ve heard some horror stories of people who ended up with a group of “Aussie lads”(sorry Australia) who disrespected the tribes customs, littered the islands, did drugs and got completely shitfaced. But this is rare and I suppose a trip is what you make it for yourself and this could happen with a sailing boat trip, or in fact it’s a general risk of leaving your own front room in fact.
(the sunset, the food, the palms, the volleyball)
I think it’s fairly clear what I’m going to say…. SPEEDBOAT!!! It was such a good experience, the additional time on the islands, being with the local people, the reduced time on open water and being effectively “forced” to see Capurgana (which I don’t think I’d have otherwise visited) all contribute to why I’d recommend this option, even after considering the additional costs.
There is only one company doing the speedboat version, and I couldn’t recommend them more: