Golden sandy islands surrounded by turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze. If this sounds like paradise to you, it sounds like San Blas to us. This spot is quickly becoming a popular tourist site and once you see the idyllic islands, you’ll understand why.
The San Blas Islands are just off the coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. They are in the province of Guna Yala which is the Guna people`s ancestral land. The Guna people rule this territory with minimal input from the Panamanian government. The islands are now officially named Guna Yala, but everyone still calls them San Blas, so that’s how we’ve referred to them.
The drive from Panama City crosses the isthmus of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast. In the middle we crossed a small mountain range that is surrounded by a cloud forest. The steamy clouds and green vegetation makes it a picturesque drive. Once at the port village of Carti on the Golfo de Guna Yala, water taxis are waiting. Our boat went through a shallow lagoon-style river until we reached the sea.
The boat ride to our island paradise passed three islands that house Guna Yala villages. These islands were depressing. Dilapidated shacks were crammed on to every square inch of these islands. Garbage was strewn along the shores and porches. It was a reminder that not everyone in Guna Yala lives in paradise.
Soon after passing these villages, gorgeous sandy islands started coming into view. There are over 350 islands and islets in San Blas. Most islands are very small, and many are uninhabited. At times on our boat trip we could see half a dozen islands in each direction. It was unbelievable to have so many sandy islands in a small area.
We stayed on the island of Yani. The island is encircled by golden sand and appeared to be held together by the 200 or so coconut trees spread across its interior. There’s not much to do on the island, but relax and enjoy the ocean view. The accommodations on most San Blas Islands are very basic, but the views more than make up for it.
Further east from Yani is the last group of islands before Colombia. Cayos Holandeses are a remote group of San Blas islands that are much less visited by tourists. We took a boat ride to visit these special islands and spent a few hours on the idyllic Tortuga Island. It has a lovely beach and crystal-clear water that is great for snorkeling. There are a few homes on the island owned by the family who lives on Tortuga. We went for a slow walk around the island, it took about 10 minutes.
As a part of our hotel package, we had an afternoon boat tour of the surrounding area. We snorkeled at a spot where starfish are known to live and found a group of 4 large colourful starfish. We also visited two other islands close to Yani that house busy resorts, Perro Chico and Chichime. They were nice, but there was a lot more garbage on them than on our little island. They also had more hotels and seemed less idyllic.
In the water in front of Perro Chico is a sunken ship covered in coral. There are quite a few colourful reef fish so its a great place to snorkel. After seeing these other islands we were very happy to return to our paradise on Yani.
Getting to San Blas Islands
Technically it is possible to get to San Blas on your own, but it would be very difficult. Between the various boat taxis leaving from different docks, and the number of hotels with varying levels of comfort, we found it was just as affordable and far easier to use a travel agency. We booked through San Blas Dreams and were very pleased with their service and the island accommodation they offered. They provide transportation including hotel pick up from Panama City, island recommendations and manage the reservation. Take your passport as the autonomous Guna Yala region requires passports to enter.
Accommodation on most San Blas islands is very basic. Most rooms are in small wooden huts with either sand or wood floors and cots for sleeping. There may be electricity at night and you may get cell reception, but not all of the islands are the same. There is no air-conditioning, but the sea breeze keeps you cool. All meals are included and we found them to be filling, but others complained that the meals weren`t large enough. Considering how basic accommodations are, it is very expensive. But it’s such a beautiful and unique place, we’re very glad we went.
Coming Next: The Beaches of Bocas del Toro
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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