The San Blas Islands is a group of islands just off the Caribbean coast of Eastern Panama. The indigenous Kuna Yala tribe have self-governing authority over the islands.
The local people, the Kuna, are a wonderful example of an how an indigenous people continue to flourish and practice their age-old customs surrounded by the modern world. They are friendly and mostly welcoming to tourists. The Kuna self-govern the comarca Kuna Yala which essentially comprises of the islands and the neighboring mainland and extends all the way down along the coast to the border with Colombia.
Most of the 365 islands and cays are uninhabited, some are densely populated and probably not too attractive for tourists, and the rest usually have only a few buildings for the family that lives on the island and some facilities for tourists. Not all the islands have power generators. In any case, electricity is usually shut down at night. Then, the moon and stars provide the only light.
Tulekaya is the first language of the indigenous people of San Blas. The language is only written phonetically, i.e., you will find the same word written in many ways like islands of "Gardi" and "Cartí" which refers to the same place.
The younger generation is for the most part being schooled in Spanish in Panamanian-run public schools and therefore is fluent in Spanish. Generally, anybody who is professionally interacting with tourists will be fluent in Spanish. Knowledge of English is, however, very limited. In the more remote villages of Kuna Yala you may find that even knowledge of Spanish is much more limited.
Check list when going by boat
By sailing boat
There are a number of different boating options if you want to get here to or from Colombia:
'Sailing boats' to/from Colombia/Cartagena (prices from $300 for usually 5 days all incl). There are over 30 vessels operating this route. They vary widely in safety, comfort, and price. A person would be ill advised to book an 180 nautical mile ocean passage on a vessel he hasn’t inspected with a captain he hasn’t met. The waters between San Blas and Colombia can be challenging at times. Don’t depend on second hand information.
Vessels depart regularly from Portobelo, Puerto Lindo, Carti islands and Porvenir. iTravel byBoat, based out of the San Blas islands knows most of the boats on the islands and arranges trips and transportation.
Hostel Mamallena in Panama City has excellent contacts throughout the San Blas area and can arrange transport, tours and accommodation anywhere you need to go. They also deal with some of the best sailing boats operating private charters in the San Blas Islands and between Panama and Colombia.
Captain SailColombiaPanama.com offers automated online reservations 24/7. Plus honest advice from Captain Jack, a professional who knows about sailing this route.
Captain Jack's Hostel Portobelo in Portobelo is a wealth of information and hub for backpackers and sailboat cruisers alike. Because sailboat captains frequent the hostel/restaurant/bar, it is one of the best places in Panama to meet the captain of your perspective charter, inspect the boats, use internet, eat, sleep, as well as book day tours, kayaking, scuba, hiking, and snorkeling.
Panamore in Portobelo, contacts and organizes sailboat trips to San Blas or Cartagena whether you are by foot, motorbike or bike, amongst other tours and services. You can contact Francesco at +507 6739 1685 (he's got whatsapp!) or firstname.lastname@example.org . More than happy he'll answer all of your questions.
By motor boat
Coming from Panama City by land there are three ports: Barsukun (which only takes tourists to the islands,) Niga Kantule, and Dibin (which cater to tourists and locals alike.) All three are collectively referred to as Puerto Cartí or just Cartí (which actually is the group of islands across from the ports.) Niga Kantula charges a $2 port fee. If you go to Dibin and don't find a boat there you can walk a trail along the coast to Niga Kantula (200 m) and ask for transportation there without paying the fee. Boats from the islands arrive at about 15:30 at Cartí port. At that time there are plenty of boats available to go the islands. They charge per person and depending on the distance ($15 per person to go to Perro Chico, 45 min.) You can book your return trip at this time or do so from the islands which is advisable if you want to move between the islands and don't know from where you want to return yet.
Small (but very fast: up to 400 hp) motor boats service the entire stretch from Cartí to Colombia. Both, Niga Kantula and Dinib might have direct departures to Puerto Obaldía (about $100, 6 hr) There is no schedule and there are sometimes no boats going there all day (though Friday and Saturday should often have departures,) so it is best to show up at sunrise and ask around at the ports.
To go to Colombia you need to go to Puerto Obaldía where the immigration office is. The official rates ($90 to Puerto Obaldía as of October 2016) are posted at the Niga Kantule office (people at the office might tell you that that rate is a typo — which is nonsense — and that you should just go with El Negro. You might also be told that this does not apply to tourists which is also not true since the document states explicitly that it applies to any passenger.) El Negro (+507 6105-2530, lives on Cartí Sugdub) goes to Puerto Obaldía frequently and charges about $110 per person. However, he has a fame of letting people down in the last minute and tries to talk you into staying at his very unattractive hostel while you're waiting for a departure that is always scheduled for the next day. The inspector at the Dinib port is very friendly and knowledgeable about which boats might leave or pass by today. He also has the phone numbers of most of the captains that operate in the area. When choosing your boat, make sure that it has a roof, otherwise you might get the sunburn of your lifetime. Also, ask the captain whether he is going directly or whether he is doing a service called cedulación. In the latter case, the journey to Puerto Obaldía might take up to five days. To remain in a stronger negotiating position, it is advisable not to pay the full fare upfront.
If there are no boats all the way to Puerto Obaldía, you can also go to intermediate points and try again from there. Some of the destinations en route are (in that order): Cartí, Nargana/Corazón de Jesús, Maguebgandi, Playón Chico, Alligandi, Akwadup, Achatupup/Wakitupu, Isla Pino, Ustupo, Mulatupo, Caledonia (about $60, 5 hr), Carreto, Anachukuna (+507 6065-0001 goes infrequently), Armila, Puerto Obaldía (+507 6144-1221 goes infrequently), and La Miel (which is the actual border but has no immigration office.) From the last few ones, Puerto Obaldía is in a hiking distance on trails through the jungle.
By cargo boat
There are cargo boats that go infrequently between Porvenir, Cartí, and Puerto Obaldía (the frontier with Colombia.) They can take up to 8 days as they go along the cost mostly to buy coconuts from the various villages and islands. Most captains are very reluctant to take passengers; going into Puerto Obaldía, their paperwork is checked and they usually have no license to carry passengers. ($50 a day per person including food is a good price, but you might have to bargain).
Air Panama offers daily flights from Panama City-Albrook Airport (PAC) to the Kuna Yala region on the airfields/strips of Achutupo (ACU), Corazon de Jesus (CZJ), EL Porvenir (PVE), Malatupo (MPP), Playón Chico (PYC) and Puerto Obaldía (PEU). Most of the flights are flown with very small aircraft, which can only take up to 20 people. Booking an flight ticket in advance is strongly recommended as there are few seats available. Average flight prices are $50–150. Some places do not have daily flights and you might have to wait a day or two. (April 2019)
Charter operators fly from Marcos Gelabert (Albrook) Airport in Panama City. Travel times range from 1.5 to 2 hours depending on the destination. San Blas is a large area so when selecting an aircraft and location or landing zone to book a flight, be sure to have an idea about various locations in order to get a clear cost and landing zone. This is the most expensive but also safe and reliable way to access the corners of the archipelago.
From Panama City there is a regular road all the way to the ports of Cartí. Though a 4x4 vehicle is not necessary at all anymore, only registered vehicles are allowed on the final stretch of road. Several tour operators (ask at your hostel, or go with ) take you in a 4x4 from your hotel in Panama City to the ports of Cartí ($25 each way, 2 hr) You can also take a bus from the Albrook mall to the Cruce de Cartí (any bus to Agua Fría, Darién, or Cañitas should work.) You pay the driver directly ($3) but need a special card ($2.50 + $0.10) to get to the platforms. You should be able to ask a local to borrow a card for a few cents. At the Cruce, cars pass by every couple of minutes to take tourists or goods to the ports. Many are willing to give you a ride for $10 (what locals pay) to $15 per person. On the road to the port everyone is charged a $20 ($7 for nationals) fee to enter the Kuna territory. From the ports you can go to the islands or towards Colombia by boat (see above.)
The San Blas offers a large array of sights. Starting with the fascinating people, incredible seascapes, colorful reefs and islands, to the abundant sea life in its waters and wildlife on the mainland. There are continuous festivals and gatherings occurring at villages that visitors can witness to get a glimpse of the culture. Numerous Kuna villages offer visitors multiple opportunities for various glimpses at the daily lives of the Kuna.
Measuring about 150 by 60 meters (500 by 200 ft) Assudub Bippi, also known as Perro Chico, the island is small enough to swim around. Covered by palm trees, there are not many buildings on the island: a restaurant, basic cabañas, and plenty of space to pitch a tent ($8 per person.) There are clean restrooms and showers (free) and access to fresh water (free but you might want to use a filter if you plan on drinking the water.) The island is surrounded by a reef except for one side which has a great white sand beach for bathing. On that beach there is a sunken boat to explore with snorkeling gear (for rent, $5 per day.) Isla Diablo and another island are in swimming distance (but beware of the tidal currents that can be very strong between the islands.) As anywhere on the San Blas islands, nothing is for free. You get to pay a fee to use the hammocks ($7), the beach ($3), or seats ($5).
Measuring about 120 by 60 meters (400 by 200 ft) Assudub Dummad, also known as Perro Grande, is actually smaller than Perro Chico. It features a spacious beach and there are hardly any building on the island: a house where the local family lives, a block with a shower and toilets (free,) and a well. There is plenty of space for camping and the vibe on the island is more relaxed than on Perro Chico maybe because the family does not charge for the picnic tables or seats.
If you snorkel, (Dog Islands) you will find a great variety of tropical fish in the shallow warm waters. This is not the case for the main villages that have their latrines where land and water. such that boat transport often is required.
Many of the tiny islands with beautiful beaches have one member of the Kuna tribe on the island who collects $1 per person for use of the island for sunbathing or swimming. Be sure to bring small change with you and be prepared to be in the middle of nothing.
The native peoples wear very colorful traditional clothing and make and sell beaded jewelry and molas, which are creatively stitched squares and articles of multi-layered cloth that can be very elaborate and take weeks to make. They also incorporate the mola craft into clothing, shirts and other various articles which can be purchased.
The larger villages in San Blas have small restaurants with limited menus. Villages also have small grocery stores that sell basic food items and beverages. Ice is very hard to come by in San Blas.
Kuna hotels and lodges typically include meals as part of the stay. Meals usually include locally caught fish, crab and lobster. Available vegetables are typically the basics, tomatoes, carrots, yucca, onions and potatoes. Do not expect a wide variety of foods as the kuna diet is very basic and exposure to western-style foods is highly limited.
Some of the islands have one small bar that caters to the locals and tourists alike. Ice is in short supply. Drinks, including beer and sodas, can be purchased at small stores on some islands.
Water in most villiges is piped directly (unfiltered) from streams on the mainland, and is therefore unsafe as drinking water for tourists. As a non-native, beware of any locally-prepared beverages including: hot chocolate, chicha (fruit or vegetable-flavored drinks), chicha fuerte (alcoholic chicha), water, and ice. Follow sanitary practices with all eating utensils and plates/bowls, as they are likely washed using non-potable water.
Tourists are advised to bring their own drinking water and drinking receptacles.
There are small and very rustic hotels on some of the islands, and due to the lack of restaurants, they offer all-inclusive meal packages. Also most hotels will include day trips to some of the smaller islands, where they will leave you alone for several hours to snorkel, sunbathe or swim. These Islands offer pristine white sand and crystal clear water, and coconut trees that offer natural shade from the hot sun.
Be aware that all the accommodations are very basic, often simple huts made of sticks as rooms - which is also what the locals live in. You hear your neighbours, you might see them as the walls are a little see-through at night if the lights are on inside, and you share a bathroom with toilet and shower look alike.
At the Cartí Ports
There is no dedicated lodging at the ports. You can pitch a tent for free in a shelter at Dinib (there is a guard all night). As of late 2016, there is still a construction site for a school (yellow building) about twenty minutes walking before you reach the ports. The workers there have often hosted travelers who got stranded at the port for some reason. They might have a spare room (very basic but probably not worse than lodging on Cartí Sugdub island). The guys are mostly drunk, friendly, and harmless.
On Cartí Sugdub
The island of Cartí Sugdub (also spelled Gardi Suddub) is very well connected to the port ($1, 10 min). There are a few very unattractive hostels ($2-5). Cartí Homestay used to be a pleasant hostel but they are only rarely receiving guests now because of issues with the community. (Try to locate Germain if you want to stay with them.)
WiFi is hard to find on the islands. Most of the San Blas islands are covered by +movil and Digicell, whereas coverage by Claro and Movistar is very limited. If you go further South towards Colombia, there is no cell phone coverage anymore (and some islands like Caledonia don't even have land lines nor eletricity) until eventually some Colombian cell operators start to service the area.
The Kuna are usually timid, though friendly and welcoming of tourists. There is drug trafficking in this region, but it occurs without incident in almost all cases, using small fast boats that deliver drugs to the mainland from Colombia mainly late at night. There are almost never any incidents involving these drug runners locally. There are rumors that they "camp out" on vacant islands. This is patently false. The drug runners are typically interested in getting in and out as quickly as possible to dodge surveillance.
The San Blas Islands is also a heaven for cruising yachts and sport fishing boats. Most of these yachts keep to themselves and rarely venture onto the village islands. For the most part, the San Blas Archipielago is extremely safe and tourist-friendly.