They claim there are 365 San Blas Islands: 1 for every day of the year, and only 35 of them are inhabited. After a few minutes on the launch from the tiny harbour at Carti to our yacht we understand why many cruisers strand here, indefinitely. Kuna Yala, as the islands are locally known, is the epitome of tropical paradise. Still under control by the indigenous Kuna, they are an autonomous comarca and to get into the reserve you actually need to show your passport at the border.
Mind you, the San Blas are very undeveloped and protected: there is no running water or electricity and the Kuna live in basic thatched homes. This feeling of remoteness, at only a 3-hour drive from Panama City, is part of their attractiveness. And with coconut palms, white sand beaches and clear blue waters one doesn’t really need much more.
There are a few (basic) accommodation options and some Kuna families provide space to pitch a tent on their island against a fee. But truly the best way to experience the San Blas is aboard one of the yachts available for charter so that you can hop through the islands. They range from exclusive catamarans to more basic sailing boats. While they are a splurge, sharing with other passengers will bring the costs down.
Once you’ve made your choice it’s time to set sail and start enjoying all the beauty that Kuna Yala has to offer! The captain will chart a route depending on the length of your stay (I would say 3-4 nights) and weather conditions. There are various popular archipelagos such as the Lemon Cays, Hollandese Cays and Coco Banderos. Many boats carry snorkelling gear and canoes in case you want to do some exploring on your own. Alternatively, you can stop at one of the islands for a walk on the beach and a freshly cut coconut or shop a pretty embroidered mola.
At night the various boats come together at the more protected anchorages. If you’re lucky a friendly cruiser may invite you on board for a night of music, unless of course your captain already has a guitar of his own. Or a BBQ may be organized on one of the islands to celebrate a sailor’s birthday. And some of the Kuna have set-up small bars where you can stop for a sundowner and watch the beautiful sunset.
I can only encourage you to simply dedicate every minute of your time taking in the unique scenery of the San Blas. This magical place is something you will want to imprint in your memory forever.
Unfortunately, svKokomo, which we chartered through Yacht Latina, has moved on to new waters. But here is a list of other boats, with prices ranging from $150 to $300+ p/p/d (all-inclusive), that can be contacted directly:
Remember to look up reviews, ask for sailing itineraries, amenities and what is included in the ‘all-inclusive’ package. Even if you do book through a third-party the boats seem to be pretty independent on how they run things so it is worth doing a bit of your own vetting. Boats also come and go so if you have had a good experience with a particular charter and crew then please suggest them in the comments!
San Blas Sailing
There are daily flights with Air Panama but they have been known to be unreliable (if you do fly with them leave enough contingency for any onward flights). We opted for the road option by 4×4 and were happy we did. The road has been recently paved but there are a few very steep hills, which probably couldn’t be crossed with a compact rental car. Yacht Latina arranged for the transfers with two reliable brothers and everything went smoothly. Do be aware that the road is windy so you may end-up feeling a bit queasy, but the scenery is beautiful and the remote trip ads to the charm of the San Blas.
There is little to no trash processing so whatever you bring with you, you should also take back out. To protect the lobsters and other shellfish – please don’t eat them during mating season, even though they may still be offered for sale during this time.
While most boats have water purification systems it is advisable to bring back-up drinking water. Take cash with you, preferably in smaller bills, as there are no ATMs. Make sure your electronics are fully charged. Don’t leave your passport behind in Panama City for safekeeping because without it they will turn you away at the border!