Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2017
Overall experience: I didn’t really believe places like this existed. I stayed on tiny islands with nothing more than sand and coconuts completely surrounded by the beautiful ocean. I hung out with the Guna Yala people and other travelers looking to get off the beaten path and relax. It was a great experience and absolutely somewhere I’d love to return with my friends and family so they can experience this amazing place themselves! My heart literally flutters when thinking about these islands.
About: The San Blas Islands consist of over 350 islands across 100 square miles and are the permanent home to over 50,000 indigenous Guna Yala (Kuna) people. The Guna govern the islands autonomously from Panama. One of their main sources of income is ecotourism and they are incredibly friendly and open to sharing their piece of paradise with outsiders.
Logistics: I booked this tour through San Blas Trip while debating if I should sail from Panama to Columbia. After some research, a few nights on the islands and then flying to Cartagena turned out to be the best option for me. There are a variety of tour length options and stay types. We chose 2 days and 2 nights in a private hut for $245 a person. This includes transportation from your hotel to the island, all your meals, excursions and of course, your hut.
Getting to the island is an adventure in itself. We got picked up at 5am from our hotel in Panama City and basically drove east across the country to get to the Caribbean side. The ride takes anywhere from 3-4 hours through the windy jungle roads. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it feels like you are on a roller coaster. I slept most of the way there but the return trip was not as pleasant! I felt horribly nauseous going up and down the endless narrow hills. I highly recommend taking Dramamine if you are queasy. When you pass between Panama into the Guna territory, you have to pay a $10 per person entrance fee (cash only). On the way back, there’s no tax to pay, but the Panamanian border security can be very thorough. We had ALL of our bags searched.
Once you get to the end of the road, there’s an outdoor holding area where you check in, pay your $2 tax, get a life jacket and wait for your boat to take you to your designated island. We waited for about 20 minutes and passed the time at a small restaurant serving some tasty fried chicken and drinks.
Snorkeling, Swimming, Napping, Reading…… that’s pretty much how I spent my days. You are coming here to get some sun, relax and recharge and the islands check those boxes! I literally slept for 12 hours the first night I was there. It was amazing. Don’t worry the Guna make sure you are fully entertained! Each day they take you to explore a few different tiny islands surrounded by clear aqua marine water:
Isla Aroma – This was home base for my stay on San Blas. Our palm hut had two beds, a small wobbly table and an overhead lightbulb. It was comfortable for sleeping, although a little warm, and since we covered the interior with a fog of bug spray, we were mostly mosquito free. We did wake up to little lizard tracks on the sandy ground in the morning but it was actually really adorable. The island also had a shower and two bathroom stalls. Again, you are on a tiny little island, so you need to fill up the toilets with water from the adjoining rain buckets to get them to flush. Not a big deal.
For entertainment, there were areas to swim, snorkel, play volleyball and basketball. Everyday a Guna woman would set up shop selling colorful clothes, called molas, and jewelry (You’ll see the Guna women wearing the beaded bracelets up and down their arms and legs). I’m still wearing a beaded bracelet I bought there where the woman tenderly knotted each strand along my wrist. I hope it never falls off.
For meals, this island had both indoor and outdoor seating with long picnic style rows of tables. Additionally, the indoor area became a bumping dance club for the island visitors at night! Yes, even the Kuna have a sound system. My grandma-self was in bed but I loved hearing the stories during breakfast from my new hungover travel friends!
Isla Perro – The biggest attraction here is a small ship wreck where you can snorkel and chase some tropical fish. On the island, there’s a volleyball net for pick up games and plenty of sand to get a tan or take a nap. Our Guna guides set up some snacks, fruit and cold drinks for us to enjoy while we stayed on the island.
The Piscina – This spot is in the middle of the ocean in ankle-to-knee deep water where I just walked around and checking out starfish and sand dollars. It was definitely a festive atmosphere with our awesome Guna guide, Germain taking music requests and handing out drinks!
Isla Iguana – My favorite island! We had a great day exploring this larger island and hanging out drinking beers in the hot sun with our new travel friends. On the other side of the island, there were quite a few boats parked and an actual modern shipwreck almost a mile off the beach but in very rough waters. There were tons of starfish around the island as well as a few manta rays jumping in and out of the waves.
The Arena – Another dot on the map punctuated with a driftwood on a mound of sand and surrounded by endless lolling waves. There’s stunning snorkeling areas within the shallow reef or you can take a break and watch the sun dance on the water.
The best part about meal time is that one of the cooks will blow a conch to round everyone up! It’s amazing. I’ve been trying to find it as an alarm for my phone. It’s important to remember you aren’t staying at a five-star resort and try to appreciate a simple dish. Our meals consisted of the following:
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs and bread with instant coffee or tea.
Lunch and Dinner: A variety of fried chicken or fish with rice and veggies. We had a buffet style lunch with BBQ chicken, avocado salad and fruit salad, rice and lentils.
- Bug spray. The legit stuff with DEET, not fake oils.
- Towels. If staying for 3 days, I would even suggest bringing two (one for showering and one for the beach)
- Hand Sanitizer
- Sun block
- Toiletries – Soap, toothpaste, etc.
- Underwater camera
- Solar charger
- If you are bringing a GoPro, those things die fast! We bought a solar charger on Amazon for $25 and it was well worth it
- Flashlight/solar light (the generators get turned off between 9-10pm)
- You can bring your own small coolers, snacks and drinks to the island. If you don’t feel like hauling all that stuff around, you can buy drinks (beers, juice, water) for $2 a pop on the island.
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