If you are traveling between Panama and Colombia there are really only two options: by plane or by sea. Although their is land between the two, passing through the Darién Gap is highly not recommended as the chance of death through drug lords or spiders is legitimately real. Since I am trying to fly as little as possible, that left going by sea. There are a lot of sailboats going this route which was my first thought, but after more consideration I decided to book with San Blas adventures where you travel by speedboat. The benefit being that you get much more time on the San Blas Islands and less time at sea. I also like this company because they work very closely with the Kuna (the native people who own the islands) on all aspects of the trip and the majority of the fare for the tour goes directly back to the Kuna communities. Yay social responsibility!
The tour starts in Panama City where they pick you up at the hostel bright and early for a 3 hour drive to Carti which is where the boats leave to go to the San Blas islands. Prior to going on the trip, you are required to read a lengthy FAQ and attend a pre-trip briefing in Panama city where they make it quite clear that taking a speedboat through the open sea is not for the faint hearted and you must be prepared for a very wet adventure. Honestly, the first boat ride wasn’t that bad but we must have just gotten lucky with the weather as it became apparent on the second day what they meant. On the first day we even saw dolphins on the way there and all got very excited (video below).
After about an hour and a half on the boat you arrive at the first island which is absolutely gorgeous. You know those cartoon island pictures you see with nothing but a sandbar and palm tree? That is what the San Blas Islands actually look like.
There we had lunch which was fresh fish caught by the Kuna, and swam/sunbathed which gave us the chance to get to know each other a little bit more. My group was made up of 22 people and we all got on really well. The group was composed of an oddly huge number of English people, a couple Canadians, Americans and a few Germans. You start the trip as strangers but by the end of the trip it feels like you are with your good friends. In fact, 9 of us have pretty much been travelling together since. Our guide, Pedro, was also great! Even though the islands are very small there’s enough space to have your own private piece of paradise if you want some alone time. This trip is well suited to both solo travellers, friends and couples.
On the first island we had some free time after lunch to go snorkelling which was incredible. Their are coral reefs just off the islands and on our first snorkel we saw tons of colourful fish, string rays, and a huge manta ray! So cool!
After a couple of hours you get back on the boat for a short trip to the second island where you spend the night. This island is a bit bigger but equally as gorgeous.
Each night supper is served around 8 and all the meals were really tasty; it was usually some form of fresh seafood caught that day. Every night after supper they’d light a bonfire by the beach for us to enjoy and star gaze by.
The first two nights we all slept in a room filled with hammocks which I actually found really comfy! It does get a little cold at night so I’d recommend bringing a blanket/sweater.
The next morning we left around 8 to get to the third island. This was definitely the roughest boat ride of them all and afterwards I completely understood why they mentioned this so many times in the pre-trip information. Prepare to get absolutely soaked, no matter where you are sitting on the boat (although back right is the best of the worst). You are basically riding 2m waves praying the boat won’t capsize. At first I was horrified but honestly after a while you just get used to it, and by the end of the trip I wasn’t bothered at all by the boat rides. It kind of became fun like a rollercoaster where we would all scream when we hit a big wave.
The third island was probably my least favorite but of course it is still gorgeous. We spent our days on the island snorkelling, sunbathing, swimming, playing beach volleyball, or playing cards inside when we were all too sunburnt to be out any longer. And of course, drinking. You can bring whatever alcohol you want to the island but the Kuna also have a cooler on each island where you can buy beer, coke, water and coconuts for $2 each (Pro tip: Coconut+ rum = delicious).
We left again at 8am to travel to the fourth island which was the longest boat ride, mainly because our motor wasn’t working very well. Sitting in a rocking speedboat in the middle of the ocean with no motor power is not an ideal situation, but its all part of the adventure and in the end we made it back to dry land. The fourth island was one of my favorites, it really felt like you were in your own piece of paradise. After a couple hours of snorkelling and chilling there, we all had a Canoe race to a nearby Kuna village where we spent the night. In the village they have a little hostel set up where you sleep in actual beds; there are several dorm rooms and plenty of room for everyone including private rooms for the couples.
Once we got to the village, Pedro walked us around and gave us some more information about the Kuna culture. They even performed a traditional dance for us which was really neat to see.
I really enjoyed getting to spend some time on these islands and learning about the Kuna culture. Each Kuna family owns an island and none of them have been sold to hotels or anything so it really is an untouched paradise. No shops, no cell service, nothing. Just what you bring and what the Kuna provide. They are all really welcoming and what I really enjoyed is that the experience felt authentic. I’ve visited some places similar to this before and it felt really sad because the local people were just begging you to buy whatever they had. This wasn’t the case at all in the San Blas. No one was pushing anything down your throat, in fact it was hard to buy anything! They are just living their normal lives on the island and are happy to have some tourists come to the islands which helps their economy. Aside from tourism, the economy is mainly based on fish and coconuts (amazing)! I appreciate how close San Blas Adventures works with the Kuna communities and I hope in the future tourism to these islands doesn’t negatively effect this wonderful culture.
On the last day of the tour you take the speedboat two hours to a very small village on the border of Panama/Colombia where you clear Panama immigration to depart the country, which takes about an hour. After that you take another short boat ride to Sapzurro and are officially in Colombia, but there’s no immigration port so it’s kind of like no mans land. We spent a few hours there having lunch on the beach and swimming in the beautiful water, celebrating that we had finished our journey to Colombia!
Technically Sapzurro is where the tour officially ends but the guides are more then happy to help organize the rest of your transport. From Sapzurro you have to take another boat 20 minutes to Capurganá where you can officially enter Colombia. Capurganá is a really small but beautiful town in Colombia. You have to spend at least one night there because in order to get onwards transport to Medellin/Cartagena you need to get the morning boat to Necocli, which is where the busses depart. Although Capurganá is lovely there’s not a lot to do there so most of our group opted to leave the next day towards Cartagena.
If you are travelling between Panama and Colombia I’d highly recommend San Blas Adventures. It was an awesome four days away from the world and a chance to experience another way of life, but It is definitely for the adventurous. Aside from the islands themselves there is nothing really luxurious about this trip; you can expect bucket showers and toilets that go straight to the ocean. If you can get over that and a wavy boat, it’s an amazing experience.
Below is a short video I compiled of the different islands we visited. Have you been to the San Blas Islands? What was your experience like?