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 360 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.
Most tourists make the crossing between Panama and Colombia via a five day sailing 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.
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…
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.
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.
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). 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!
WHAT TO PACK
- Passport- you will need your original passport to gain entry into Guna Yala & to return to Panama
- 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)
- 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
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!!
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.
– 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.
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!