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The best way to get between Panama and Colombia is by sea. Although the two countries connect by a small piece of land, passing through the Darién Gap is not a great idea as the chance of death through drug lords or spiders is real. So that leaves flying or taking a boat.
But why fly, when you can take a boat through some of the most beautiful, uninhabited islands on the planet?
Welcome to the San Blas Islands.
Sailboat vs. Speed Boat San Blas Island Tours
There are a number of San Blas tours from Panama city either via a sailing tour or a speed boat. There are pros and cons to both, and in the end I decided to do my San Blas tour via speed boat with San Blas Adventures.
The major advantage with the speed boat tour is that you get much more time on the islands. You are only on the boat 1-3 hours a day max, and the rest of the time is spent on the beautiful San Blas Island. With sailing, you will be on the boat 8 hours the first day, a couple of hours on day two and three, and then 48 hours at open sea for the last two days.
The other thing to consider when deciding between a speed boat vs. sailing San Blas Tour from Panama to Colombia is whether you get seasick. The ocean crossing can get rough, especially in the last two days at open sea. The speed boat ride is bumpy but it’s unlikely you will get seasick as the motion is much different and not nearly as nauseating. No one on my tour got sick from the speed boat.
Responsible Tourism with San Blas Adventures
The other main factor that influenced my decision to take the tour with San Blas Adventures via speed boat was because of the working relationship they have with the local Kuna community in the islands.
San Blas Adventures is known for its responsible tourism through varies initiatives. They work directly with the Kuna People, who you will get plenty of chances to interact with on the tour. Additionally, the majority of the fare from the tour goes back to the Kuna communities. This was a huge plus for me when deciding whether to take a speed boat or sail through the San Blas Islands.
Pre-trip departure for San Blas islands from Panama City
Prior to going on the trip with San Blas Adventures, you will have to read a lengthy FAQ about the trip and attend a pre-trip briefing in Panama city the day before. This is great because it gives you a chance to meet the other travelers going on the trip and ask any last-minute questions. During the briefing meeting, they make it clear that taking a speedboat through the open sea is not for the faint-hearted and you will get wet! This is not a drill, you will get wet.
For the trip you need to pack a daypack with all the items that you need to access during the 4 days. Your main big bag gets stored away in the boat, and should be put in plastic bags to avoid it getting wet. I’ve provided a packing list for San Blas Adventures at the end of this post.
Itinerary for the San Blas tour from Panama City with San Blas Adventures
The itinerary for the San Blas tour may change (i.e. what islands you will visit) depending on the time of year and the Kuna communities, but this is how my tour went with San Blas adventures to give you an idea of what to expect.
Day One of the San Blas Adventures Tour
The tour starts out in Panama City where San Blas Adventures will pick you up at your accommodation around 5 am for a 3-hour drive to Carti. This is a small port town where you meet the boat that will take you through the San Blas islands. On the way to Carti they stop at a Supermarket which gives you a chance to pick up any last minute items and grab a quick breakfast. I advise buying your supplies the night before as the stop in the supermarket is quick.
Once everything is brought onto the boat you take off and the adventure begins! On the boat ride to the first island we saw dolphins jumping in the water which was so amazing.
After about an hour and a half on the boat you arrive at the first island where we got our first taste of paradise. As we pulled up to the small island, I could hardly believe it was real.
We spent our time there snorkeling in the turquoise sea and relaxing in the sun, followed by a lunch of fresh caught fish. After a couple of hours you get back on the boat for a short ride to the second island where you spend the night. I felt sad to leave the first island because it was so lovely, but then when we got to the second one it was even better.
Day Two of the San Blas Adventures Tour
After a night of stargazing next to a bonfire we left the next morning at 9 am for a two-hour boat ride to the third island. There we spent the entire day hanging out in paradise laying at the beach, snorkeling, swimming to nearby islands, playing volleyball, eating delicious seafood, playing card games, and drinking.
Day Three of the San Blas Adventures Tour
On the third day you leave at 9 am and travel just one hour to the fourth island which was my favorite. There you can chill out, drink coconuts, and swim in the crystal clear water. Later in the afternoon around 3 pm, the Kuna community will bring over canoes to the island. From there we all had a canoe race to the nearby Kuna villiage where we spent the night. You will have the chance to walk through the village, meet the locals, play with the kids, eat at a local Kuna restaurant, and watch a cultural dance ceremony.
Day Four of the San Blas Adventures Tour
On the last day of the tour you take the speedboat two hours to a small village on the border of Panama/Colombia where you clear Panama immigration to depart the country (more info on that below). After immigration gives the go ahead to the group, you take another short boat ride to Sapzurro and are officially in Colombia.
The Speed Boat
With a San Blas Adventures tour you will take a speed boat. Our group was large so we took two. The speed boats always stay in sight of each other as a safety precaution. San Blas adventures warns you prior to the trip about how bumpy the ride will be. We must have been lucky on the first day as it wasnt that bad, but it became apparent on the second day why they gave us so much warning.
Prepare to get drenched on the boat rides, no matter where you sit on the boat. Although we did conlcude that the back right is the best of the worst, so try and steal that spot. The boat cuts through massive waves so the water constantly splashes into the boat. At first this horrified me, but after a while you just get used to it. By the end of the trip I wasn’t bothered by it at all. It became like a fun rollercoaster where we would all scream when we hit a big wave.
The islands are like a desktop screen saver come to life. You know those cartoon island pictures with just a sandbar and palm tree? That is what the San Blas Islands actually look like.
Each Kuna family owns an island and none of them have been sold to developers so it really is an untouched paradise. However because these islands have barely been developed don’t expect any luxury, the accomodations are basic. The islands are small enough to walk around, but there’s enough space to have your own private piece of paradise if you want some alone time.
The accomodations are basic. Part of the charm of the islands is that they haven’t been developed for tourism, so don’t expect anything fancy. There are basic huts that the Kuna have built on the islands, and on the first and second night you sleep in hammocks inside a hut. I found this comfy and slept well every night. The huts are right next to the ocean so you fall asleep and wake up to the sound of the ocean.
On the third night in the Kuna villiage they have a ‘hostel’ set up with beds. There are several several dorm rooms and plenty of room for everyone including private rooms for the couples.
As for showers, it’s just a bucket shower system with cold water, which feels refreshing after being in the sun all day. As for the toilets, I’ll just leave you with this picture.
One of my favorite parts about the San Blas tour was learning about the Kuna culture on the islands. The locals are all welcoming and the experience felt authentic. I’ve visited places similar to this before and it felt sad because the locals would beg you to buy whatever they had, but this wasn’t the case at all in the San Blas islands.
They locals 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 based on fish and coconuts. I love how San Blas Adventures works with the Kuna communities, it’s a great example of responsible tourism.
You spend the last night at a Kuna Villiage. During this time, you will get the chance to walk around the villiage and meet the locals, play with the adorable kids, and watch a traditional cultural dance.
The quality of food that San Blas Adventures was able to produce was impressive, considering we were on remote islands. Breakfast in the mornings is at 8am, which always included a ton of delicious fresh fruit. Lunch is served around 1pm and supper about 6pm. Both were some form of fresh caught seafood that day, along with an incredible buffet of salads. We even had lobster one night! On the last night, you will eat a local Kuna restaurant which was also delicious.
They can accomodate meals for vegetarians and other dietary restrictions, just let them know in advance so they bring the right supplies.
We spent the days on the island snorkeling, sunbathing, swimming to nearby islands, playing beach volleyball, or playing cards inside when we were all too sunburnt to be out any longer. And of course, drinking. You are allowed to bring whatever alcohol you want to the island but the Kuna also sell beer, coconut, water, and coca cola on the islands for $2 USD each.
You have to carry what you want to bring on the islands with you, but it’s also much cheaper to buy alcohol in advance, so the best option to do is buy rum which is portable but powerful 😛 (Pro tip: Coconut+ rum = delicious). Each night after supper you have a bonfire on the beach underneath the sky full of stars.
San Blas Snorkeling
You can snorkel off all the islands and the water is crystal clear and full of marine life. There are coral reefs just off the islands and during our snorkels we saw tons of colourful fish, sting rays, and a huge manta ray. The San Blas Island snorkeling is one of the best parts of the experience.
The group size for a San Blas Adventures tour is between 15-25 people. My group was made up of 22 people from all around the world and we all got on well. You start the trip as strangers but by the end of the trip it feels like you are with your good friends. I traveled with part of my group for a while through Colombia after the San Blas tour, and this is a common experience. This trip is well suited to both solo travellers, friends and couples.
On the tour you have a main guide, and someone else helping them. Our guide, Pedro, was awesome. On each island there will be a couple of locals as well.
Border Crossing from Panama to Colombia
On the last day of the tour you take the speedboat two hours to a small village on the border of Panama/Colombia where you clear Panama immigration to depart the country. San Blas Adventures takes cares of all the immigration fees which are built into the price of the ticket. They warn this process can take 1-4 hours depending on how immigraiton is that day. We must have been lucky, because they cleared us in just an hour.
After immigration gives you the go ahead 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 finished our journey to Colombia!
Sapzurro is where the tour ends but the guides are happy to help organize the rest of your transport. From Sapzurro you have to take another 20-minute boat to Capurganá where you can legally enter Colombia.
Capurganá is a 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. Capurgana is a small town, but there are some nice hostels and hotels to stay in. Look on booking.com for the best rates on accomodation in Capurgana.
How to book The San Blas Tour
Visit their website (sanblasadventures.com) and click the book now button at the top. Select your trip, dates, number of guests and that’s it. I booked my tour just a week in advance, but I know that they can book up quickly especially during high season. If you have specific dates you want to travel it’s a good idea to book in advance to secure your spot.
Packing list for San Blas Adventures
Your big bag gets stored away for the duration of the trip so you have to pack what you want for the trip into a smaller day bag. You don’t much, I lived in my bikini and sarong. Here’s a packing list for the San Blas Island Tours:
- Dry Bag – You will get wet so keep valuables and electronics safe in a dry bag.
- Raincoat – I went during February and we had no rain, but during the rainy season it might shower on you. More so, a rain coat helps with the speedboat journey. I love my Northface raincoat because it’s super effective but packs up small.
- Clothing: 1 – 2 pairs of shorts, 2 – 3 tops, 2 – 3 swimwear, & 1 pair long sleeve shirt/pants for mosquitos. You don’t need much clothes since you’ll live in your swimsuit.
- Towel – A towel to dry off after swimming. I recommend the microfiber towles as they pack super light.
- Sarong – Great for lying on the beach and protecting you from the sun.
- Sunglasses and Sun Hat
- Sandals and Reef Shoes (the corals can be painful)
- A rash guard for snorkelling if you want extra protection from the sun
- Refillable water bottle for bringing and refilling water. I love my hydro flask because they keep your drinks cool for 24 hours.
- Reusable Straw. Straws are great for drinking out of coconuts but the plastic ones are terrible for the environment. Take a reusable straw on your trip to cut back on your environmental footprint.
- Bug repellant
- Reef Suncreen – It’s so important to use sunscreen and not get burnt, but since you’ll be swimming in fragile ecosystems it’s important to use a sunscreen labelled as reef safe that won’t damage the corals.
- Hand sanitzier – there isn’t soap in many of the island bathrooms, so bring some hand sanitzer to keep clean.
- Any other toiletries you want.
- A roll of toilet paper.
- Portable battery bank – I love this one because it’s small and can charge your phone up to six times. There’s no electricity on the islands so you need this if you want to charge your electronics.
- Kindle – The San Blas islands are the perfect place to kick back and relax with a good book. Safe on space and bring a kindle with books downloaded beforehand. Plus the new kindle is waterproof so you don’t need to worry about getting it wet at the beach.
- A camera to capture the moment! GoPros are great for snorkeling. If you have a drone it’s an incredible place to use one. I took my Mavic Pro and it was my favorite place I used my drone all year because you can capture the entire island in one shot. You have to get permission beforehand from the Kuna to use a drone, which you can apply for in Panama city.
- 3 copies of your passport – you need this for immigration, it’s easy to get done in Panama city.
- Water – you won’t have access to fresh water until the third day, so bring at least 4L with you.
- Snacks – the food they prepare for you is awesome, but you might get hungry in between meals (especially if you’re doing a lot of snorkeling) so bring your favorite snacks with you. Remeber to take any garbage off the islands with you.
- An open and adventourous mind : )
- Cash – You need cash for drinks on the island, at least one nights accomodation in Capurgana, and a bus ticket out of town (175,000 COP/$60 USD to Cartagena) There is no ATM in Capurganá, so you need enough cash with you to cover costs until you get to your next destination.
Canadians also need to pay a visa entrance fee to Colombia which is pay 190,000 COP/$65 USD. You have to pay this EVERYTIME you enter Colombia, FYI. Even if you leave for 5 minutes. I didn’t realize and ended up having to pay it again when I left and then a third time because of poor planning, so I’m a little bitter 😛
Tip: Panama uses the US dollar as their currency, but in Colombia you need Colombian Pesos. You can exchange US dolars for pesos in Capurgana but the rate is not great, so get some Colombian pesos in Panama city beforehand.
Don’t forget to buy travel insurance before your trip! In case of an injury means you end up with expensive medical bills, or even have to cancel your trip mid-way. I recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for a San Blas Adventures tour as they have insurance policies designed for adventourous travelers. Get a quote below now!
If you are traveling between Panama and Colombia and love adventure I can’t recommend San Blas Adventures enough. It was an awesome four days away from the world and a chance to experience another way of life.
I hope this post inspired you or helped in making the decision to take a San Blas tour from Panama to Colombia. If you’re thinking about it but have some questions, let me know in the comments below and I’ll answer them. If you’ve already been, let me know how your experience was!
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