CENTRAL AMERICA NORTH AMERICA PANAMA

San Blas Islands – The Cheapest Way To Visit!

The San Blas Islands, with it’s crystal clear, turquoise waters, white sands and swaying palm trees cheats no ones idea of paradise. An archipelago of over 360Β beautiful islands along the Carribean coast of Panama (enough islands for each day of the year), belongs to the Guna-Yala people (aka Kuna Yala), an autonomous territory of Panama. Within these islands, only 49 are actually inhabited.

Since researching my travels through Central America I knew I wanted to visit this incredible paradise, but didn’t think it would become a reality due to the ridiculously high prices that seemed to come with it. In my six years of traveling I have never experienced such a strong US dollar, which is making our travels this time round so much more expensive, especially as Panama uses US dollars for their currency. Our money is all in Australian so $1 USD is only, currently, worth $0.70 AUD. As I could only find tours of San Blas that cost a minimum of $500 USD, however, our dream of visiting these islands seemed impossible.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

Most tourists make the crossing between Panama and Colombia via a five day sailing Β trip through the San Blas Islands. They depart from Panama City and drop you off in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia. The first three days are spent exploring the San Blas region whilst the last two days are spent entirely at sea (unless you go from Colombia, in which case it is reversed). These trips include accommodation on the boat and food for the entire five days. Prices start at $500 per person. Whilst this option sounded ideal I wasn’t too keen on spending two days at sea, and I definitely couldn’t afford it.

Most people we discussed San Blas with suggested the speed boat option, with San Blas Adventures, which completely takes out the two days of sea crossing, but then drops you off in a little town far off the gringo trail of Colombia, which will still require two days of land travel to get back to Cartagena. This option was advertised as the cheapest option, at only $375 USD but after more research I discovered that it didn’t include the jeeps from Panama city to the ports, the Guna Yala taxes, the accommodation or transport costs from the point of entry in Colombia to Cartagena etc which would then bring the total to the same prices as the sailing boats at $500 USD. Again, we simply could not afford this. With the exchange rate it was going to cost us $700 Australian per person, for three days of traveling. I couldn’t justify this.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

We had almost given up entirely on our dream to visit San Blas until our friend heard about the possibility of staying with Kuna families on the islands for only $25 a night. We did some research and found that this was absolutely the cheapest way to visit the San Blas Islands and now I want to share our information with you so you to can enjoy this beautiful paradise too, under a budget.

 

So without further ado, this is how to travel to San Blas the cheapest way possible…

 

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

 

HOW TO ORGANISE IT

Book a night at Mamallena hostel the night before you wish to attend the San Blas Islands (I stayed at Magnolia Inn during my time in Panama as it’s much better located but Mamallena is who you will need to organise this trip with) and ask the front desk to arrange your trip to one of the San Blas Islands. I suggest checking in no later than 3pm so you have enough time to organise this.
They have a book of Islands/Families you can choose to stay with. The most popular family, according to them, is Franklins but they were unable to get in contact with them so we ended up staying with the Ina family, which ended up being a blessing in disguise as they were awesome and the island was beautiful. I highly recommend them.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

HOW TO GET THERE

Mamallenas will arrange for a jeep to pick you up at 5am the following morning and drive you the four hours into Guna Yala territory. The jeep will drop you off at the river for your boat transportation to the islands. Due to the conditions of the roads 4×4 Jeeps are the only option for you to get there. If you experience motion sickness, be sure to take tablets with you as the roads are very windy.
The family you will stay with will then pick you up by boat and transport you to their island.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

COSTS

Return 4×4 from Panama City to Kuna Yala – $60 (which is the most expensive part- they are making a killing on this).

Entry taxes to Kuna Yala – $22 in total

Boat trip to Island- $10 each way

Accommodation & 3 meals a day- $25 per person/per night

TOTAL FOR 3 NIGHTS & 4 DAYS- $177 USD (prices current at time of writing).

 

(That is over half the price of the San Blas Adventures Tour!)

 

If like me you will have to fly from Colombia the cheapest way to do this is from Medellin, Colombia to Panama City. We flew into Panama Balboa airport with Viva Colombia. Originally the flight was $110 but upon check in at the airport they gave us a $40 refund (as we are not Colombian we apparently did not need to pay the taxes).Β How awesome is that?! Our flight ended up costing us only $70 each way. Even with the flight included in the prices above it is still so much cheaper!

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

 

WHAT TO PACK

  • Passport- you will need your original passport to gain entry into Guna Yala & to return to Panama
  • Swimmers
  • Towel
  • Suncream
  • Aloe Vera – in case you get sunburnt
  • Insect Repellant (the sand-flies are a bitch)
  • Sarong (so you can lie on the beach without getting your towel sandy)
  • A change of clothes (you will likely get your clothes wet on the boat over)
  • Snorkels
  • Snacks
  • Water (you can purchase it on the islands but it’s more expensive).
  • A book
  • A torch
  • Malaria Tablets
  • Enough Cash to last you however long you wish to stay on the island.
  • A pack of cards

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

TAKE NOTE

Whilst it is paradise you will be traveling in a third world country on a cheap budget. It isn’t fancy by any means, you may not be given a pillow or sheets for your bed, you will get sand everywhere as the floor in your hut is the same sand as outside, their is no air-conditioning or fans, no electricity or wi-fi, you may not have the chance to shower (the Guna people would have to manually fill the shower tanks with water each night). Life in the San Blas Islands is basic and simple, but it is beautiful. Make the most of your time off the grid. Go to sleep early, wake up with the sun, go star gazing, make the most of the beautiful coral and sea life and go snorkelling. Read a book. Take a nap in a hammock. Drink from a fresh coconut. Chill out!!

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

I loved our time with the Ina family, they cooked delicious meals, the beach was beautiful and clean and they even took you on a free tour to a neighbouring island, Isla Pelicano, where you could snorkel with hundreds of Starfish. If you wish to stay three nights I also recommend organising a trip to Isla Perro, where you can snorkel above a sunken ship. It is also possible to stay at a few different islands with different families, just ask your family if they can take you to the island. Boat transfers are usually $10 each way (though this could be more depending on how far away the island is and how many of you there are). Just be sure to take enough cash with you to last you the duration of your stay. Accommodation is roughly $25-30 a night and always includes three meals a day.
Mamallena will give you a wristband with your jeep drivers phone number on it so your island family can arrange your transport back to Panama. Arrange this the night before you intend to leave.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

 

MY HIGHLIGHTS

– Our excitement when we realised the beautiful island we saw from the boat was where we would be staying.
– Seeing the Milkyway in the night sky.
– The gorgeous Coral, Fish & Starfish we saw whilst snorkelling.
– Learning about the culture and people of the Guna Yala.
– The delicious and freshly caught fish we ate for lunch each day (and how we expertly learnt to eat a whole fish properly).
– Our authentic beach huts.
– Managing to not get sunburnt the entire time.
– The excitement we all had when Charlotte saw a reef Shark.
– Playing card games with our friends and how funny they thought it was that I completely sucked at the game ‘Cheat.’
– How Andy could not manage to get sand off his feet before getting into bed, resulting in a mattress that resembled the beach.
– Being off the grid and fully embracing the simplicity of island life.

 

The Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit The San Blas Islands!

 

We are so glad that we were able to find this option as we would not have been able to afford to visit the San Blas Isands otherwise, and the San Blas Islands was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I feel honoured that I was able to visit this beautiful part of the world, and meet and interact with the Guna Yala people, before the sea levels rise and they disappear forever.

 

 

Over to you! Did you find this post useful?
Will you use my method to save hundreds of dollars?
If you have visited the San Blas Islands, if so did you love it too?
Let me know in the comments below!Β 

 

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48 Comments

  • Reply Lauren 07/04/2017 at 4:03 am

    Thanks guys! Think I’m going to follow your advice and try to get over to San Blas this way. I am going solo, so I feel a bit weird, but hopefully I meet people at the hostel that are going!? Looking forward to it as your pictures are absolutely stunning! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Claire 15/03/2017 at 9:39 pm

    Very helpful! I’ve been struggling to figure out how to do this on a budget, thank you!

  • Reply franzi 08/03/2017 at 3:39 pm

    Many, many thanks for sharing, Sasha! I’m currently planning my trip to central america and was close to give up my dream of visiting this beautiful place on earth!

    much x

  • Reply Lien 10/02/2017 at 4:39 am

    Hi Sasha, thanks for your info. I live in Colombia for a year and got a flight the 17th to Panama (i booked it long time ago because i needed it to leave to Colombia). By reading your blog i desided to do the same as you!Also i don’t know how to get back from San Blas to Colombia? I don’t want to be on the expencive boats to Cartagena.. So any tips there?
    @ Marisol: Do i get easily to the Coiba islands? Can i sleep there?

  • Reply Marisol 05/02/2017 at 12:33 am

    I got so emotional to read this as I am a proud panamanian girl. This blog was so helpful even for me!! I leave very near the Mamallena hostel but Ive never heard of this kind of accomodation. It was very insteresting! If you ever come back, make sure to visit Coiba Island which used to be a jail😱
    Lots of love from Panama

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 06/02/2017 at 12:55 pm

      Oh thanks so much Marisol, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading this blog post. Panama is one beautiful country, so glad you are proud of it! Coiba Island sounds super interesting, I’ll be sure to keep it in mind!
      Sasha

  • Reply Chantal 15/01/2017 at 5:08 pm

    Hi Sasha,
    Thanks so much for sharing! And wow, you ve amazing pictures! I was wondering which month you went to the San blas islands? Maybe you also know which months it is better to avoid the San blas? I search a lot, but can t find how the weather is in May (end of May)… Only That it could be raining in Colombia, but nothing specific about the San blas. Thanks a lot though!

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 16/01/2017 at 1:53 pm

      Hey,

      I visited in September. I was supposedly in Central America during rain season but had pretty good weather except for a few days in Guatemala, I had a few clouds usually in the morning in San Blas but by 11am or so it was usually quite clear. I believe the driest season is January and February however. Hope this helps πŸ™‚

  • Reply Jay 08/01/2017 at 9:56 pm

    i am going there soon. Trying to find a way to avoid the 4×4 costs. Is the road from Interamericana possible to bike? It’s just 40k to the port. Any idea?

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 12/01/2017 at 5:16 pm

      Hm I’m not sure to be honest, from memory the road was very bumpy (a few of us got quite motion sick). You would probably still get charged to enter the Kuna Yala region though. If you do it please let me know how you get on.

  • Reply Sinat 30/12/2016 at 11:20 pm

    Make it even cheaper, bring your tent. Payed like 15$ a night including all meals.
    And another highlight: Glowing plancton! πŸ™‚

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 05/01/2017 at 3:10 pm

      Glowing Plancton, you got lucky. What time of year were you there and which Island did you stay at? Did you do the same process as I did? Tent is a great tip, thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Natasha 17/01/2017 at 11:11 pm

      Hi,

      We are looking at taking our tent and camping in march but cant really find any info, can you let me know how you organised it and if you can just turn up/ get dropped off at certain islands? Any information really would be great!

      • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 24/01/2017 at 1:48 pm

        Hi Natasha, I don’t know if you were writing this to me or the reader above you. The islands are very narrow and often don’t have a lot of space for your tents (I think they would charge you the same too to be honest as the huts are very basic) but if you do camp there I would love for you to give me an update on how it went.
        Sasha

  • Reply Susan Ford 07/12/2016 at 5:30 am

    Hi Sasha:
    I’m wondering about going out there for some serious R & R. Is it party free?
    Thanks for any help you can provide.
    Susan

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 07/12/2016 at 1:31 pm

      Hi Susan. The island that I was on was definitely party free. The crowd was mixed but mostly young but teh beauty of tge islands was that we would wake with the sunrise and sleep with the sunset so it was quite relaxing. Hopefully it hasn’t changed much in the last year.
      Sasha

  • Reply Love from scotland 04/11/2016 at 6:00 pm

    What amazing photos! I’d never heard of these islands before and now really want to go. Such a great idea to stay with the family as you work with them for tourism on the islands.

  • Reply Natalie 04/11/2016 at 2:18 pm

    Enough islands to visit one each day for an entire year. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You should do that and write a book! πŸ™‚ This looks so pretty and a respite from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives!

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 07/11/2016 at 4:39 pm

      That is a good idea, actually haha. I know, it is literally paradise! Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

  • Reply Jenn and Ed Coleman 04/11/2016 at 5:32 am

    What a fantastic find. Too often we associate beaches with luxury and opulence when, by their nature, they are fleeting and whimsical. Up until the advent of full coverage insurance, the only suitable buildings for beaches where huts. The lifestyle was simple, fresh and clean. It seems like you have found the paradise befuddled Milton.

  • Reply Natasha Welch 03/11/2016 at 10:14 pm

    Whoa never heard of the San Blas Islands before now but they sure sound (and look) amazing! Well done on your super budgeting, you really shaved a lot of money off that with your plan. Amazing pictures <3

  • Reply Lydia@LifeUntraveled 03/11/2016 at 9:27 pm

    I didn’t know visiting the San Blas Islands was so expensive but thanks for sharing a cheaper (and better) way of staying on these paradisiac islands. This is making me want to escape the awful Canadian winter even more (though our dollar is worth even less than the AUS which sucks!!).

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 07/11/2016 at 4:40 pm

      So glad this post has inspired you! We had been living in Canada prior to traveling there and so exchanged our money into Aus before departing. I feel your pain. But at least the flights are way cheaper from Canada!

  • Reply Cliodhna Ryan 03/11/2016 at 8:38 pm

    Wow that looks like paradise. I would love to read more about your stay with the family and the Guna Yala people in general. What was their culture like? I had never even heard of the San Blas islands but your post makes it sound worth the extra effort to get there.

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 07/11/2016 at 4:41 pm

      Good idea, maybe I will make a most about it all. It was an incredible experience! Thanks for reading.

  • Reply Tyler Ward 03/11/2016 at 7:35 pm

    Your pictures are aaaamaazing! Never heard of this location until now, officially adding it to my list!

  • Reply Ivy 03/11/2016 at 7:27 pm

    I’ve never heard of San Blas before- I’m so glad I read this!! It does look like paradise indeed. I looooove beautiful beaches and turquoise waters so this is totally up my alley. And GIRL how do you open your eyes underwater? Doesn’t it sting?!

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 07/11/2016 at 4:45 pm

      Yay, I am so glad I have introduced you to a new place! I can’t remember it stinging to be fair but I think I wore my goggles most of the time πŸ™‚

  • Reply Suz 03/11/2016 at 7:03 pm

    Oh my goodness, this looks incredible!! Your photos are stunning; that Milky Way shot? I died! It sounds like it would be so cool to stay with a family on one of the islands – way more interesting and fulfilling than just doing a tour. This sounds like such an interesting place to visit, thank you so much for sharing! I’ll have to add this to my wanderlust list!

  • Reply Christine 31/10/2016 at 2:09 pm

    This is just what I needed! Heading there in a couple of days and was floored at the prices. Thanks for the tips!

  • Reply Anja Beckmann 30/09/2016 at 10:46 pm

    Hello Sasha,

    Thank you so much for your article! It was a great help to plan my Panama trip.

    Cheers
    Anja

  • Reply Arlette 21/06/2016 at 10:31 pm

    Thank you so much for all the info. I’m traveling on August and this is really helpful.
    XO

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 25/06/2016 at 9:52 pm

      I’m so glad you found this helpful! Thanks so much for reading and please do let me know how you get on! Have fun!

  • Reply Lee 14/01/2016 at 1:29 am

    Stumbled across this great post planning my San blas trip. I’m in same boat re dollar and can’t justify 700aud or the trip. How is your Spanish? Was it hard communicating with the kuna family? My Spanish is ok. But far from great. Cheers.

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 14/01/2016 at 5:34 pm

      Hi Lee,
      I’m so glad you found this post helpful. My Spanish is average, I know enough to get by but am no means fluent. The Kuna are pretty used to backpackers visiting them so from memory their English is pretty good, in fact I think it might even be better than their Spanish as they have their own Kuna languages they use instead. Hope this helps.
      Happy Travels, Sasha

  • Reply Kata 25/11/2015 at 5:20 pm

    Hola! I just looked at Mamallenas webpage, and found this; http://www.mamallenatoursandtravel.com/the-ultimate-san-blas-tour/

    Is it the one you are refering to? Seems unbeliveable that the price changed so much only since september? :O From 177 to 269…

    Thanks for the tips!

    • Reply Seven Continents Sasha 27/11/2015 at 2:03 am

      Hi Kata,
      That was a different website to the one I originally found. This is the one I found months ago http://www.mamallena.com/sanblasisland.html they mention on there that you can either book it independently or do it on the new group tour, which sounds like the one you found. That website though was a bit off prices with the taxes as it was $22 for us, not $12 but everything else sounds the same as my trip. It is now peak season in Central America though so do note that prices could have gone up, as you’ll find hostels, tours and even restaurants put up prices during peak periods. This is just a guess though, I’m not entirely sure on current prices. I would show up to the hostel as I mentioned din the blog as I don’t think you can pre- arrange it unless you plan to do the more expensive group tour and if they try an charge much extra show them their website.
      Hope this helps πŸ™‚
      Sasha

      • Reply Kata 27/11/2015 at 3:29 am

        Thank you for the help! I will contact the hostel, I think that is the easiest way. Have a safe trip! πŸ™‚

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