Caribbean islands have always been the places of magic in the hearts and imagination of traveler, or would-be travelers all over the world. For Panama, the Caribbean is also something special, as it hosts half of the country’s coastline, and has a large variety of cultural heritage and historic influence. Amongst the most sought after places to visit on the Caribbean side of Panama are the San Blas Islands (or Guna Yala in their native name). San Blas is an archipelago that has around 400 small islands that hug the eastern Caribbean coast of Panama, all the way to the Colombian border. San Blas is protected indigenous territory and is populated nearly exclusively by the Kuna tribe.
Although it’s semi-autonomous indigenous territory, San Blas has opened up to some incredible (and culturally conscious) tourist opportunities. It’s a place to go if you want to be off the grid, in crystal blue waters, and with a culture and customs as rich and fascinating as any in the hemisphere.
What to do in San Blas
First off, if you’re looking for all-inclusive resorts, jet skiing, bars, and air conditioning, San Blas is not for you. This is a nearly unchanged, untouched by modern society group of islands, and people that both live and visit there love it that way. The most popular things for visitors to do in San Blas, apart from laying in the sun and sand is to sail, canoe, and explore the area by water. You can spend a day, ora week hopping island to island, seeing exotic animals, snorkeling, eating local fish dishes, and even hiking.
Sailing tours offer anywhere from day trips to 5-day Panama/Colombia trips, and will take you through the entire archipelago, with food and drinks typically included in the price. You can find all types of boats and sizes, and each will typically let you off at a number of islands to explore, and enjoy the pristine, untouched beaches. You can also go to a few select eco hotels, where you can live like a local, and learn more about the rich flora and fauna that populates the area. Local Kuna are very welcoming people, but also expect visitors to abide by their rules and customs, and to be respectful. You’ll find that electricity is rare in the area, and places that have it use it sparingly at night, and try to keep electrical cosumption at a bare minimum. Also, keep in mind, there are no ATMs in San Blas, so bring plenty of cash beforehand.
How to get to San Blas
Take a tour of one of Panama’s most iconic, if not controversial neighborhoods, El Chorillo. El Chorillo is a densely populated urban neighborhood at the southern corner of Panama City. It runs alongside Casco Viejo (the historic old city), and stretches from the bay to the base of Ancon Hill. Locals will tell you to be careful walking around here, so we recommend taking a tour. Local in PTY is a great option for this, and they take you on a cultural journey getting to meet locals, hear stories of the past, eat traditional street food, and even volunteer with kids.