Panama’s San Blas Islands (also known as Guna Yala) are a must-visit destination. Spanning approximately 100 square miles, the dreamy San Blas Islands are perfect for sun-worshippers, beach bums and introverts alike! If you wondering how to get to the San Blas Islands, I’ll explain everything you need to know here.
From flying into the islands direct from Panama City to visiting San Blas on an island hopping boat tour to Colombia, by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know exactly how to plan your own trip to these dreamy coconut-clad islands.
Read more: (opens in a new tab)
- Where to Stay in Panama City, Panama
- Cheap/Free Things to Do in Panama City, Panama
- Panamanian Food – Must-Try Dishes
How to Get to the San Blas Islands – A Guide
This post contains affiliate links. If you use them, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
San Blas (Guna Yala) Archipelago: An Introduction
The San Blas Islands float off the north coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. The archipelago is made up of around 378 different islands (that’s one for every day of the year!) and despite being a part of Panama, they are self-governed by the Kuna people.
Formerly called Kuna Yala, the name of the San Blas Islands was changed to Guna Yala in 2011 when the Panamanian Government officially recognised that ‘Guna’ is closer to how the community pronounce the name.
Tourism is managed by the Kuna people who have so far successfully protected their lands from the perils of over-tourism. This means that while rustic, a visit to the San Blas Islands offers a true paradise experience – you’ll feel like you’ve plunged into the turquoise seas of a postcard!
3 Ways to Get to the San Blas Archipelago
1. By Water – Either from Panama City, Capurgana or Cartagena
Most people who visit San Blas tend to embark on a tour. When it comes to tour options, there are a few different choices. To help you choose the best option for you, I’ve broken them down below.
Day Trip from Panama City
The San Blas archipelago is commonly visited on a day trip from Panama City. While this is arguably the only option for those short on time, in my opinion, it isn’t worth visiting Guna Yala for just one day.
Day trips will be required to depart very early in the morning (usually around 5 am) and return late evening. Travellers will be driven in a 4×4 to Carti, the jumping-off point for San Blas trips, before hopping on a speedboat to the islands. If you are visiting on a day trip, you will likely get to experience between 2-4 islands, however, your time is limited so you are likely to feel very rushed.
It is far better to carve out more time for your visit to San Blas to allow yourself to switch off for a couple of days. After all, that is what these islands are all about!
Multi-Day Trip from Panama City
It is possible to visit the San Blas Islands for a little longer on a trip from Panama City too. 2D/1N and 3D/2N trips run to the islands and deliver much more than the standard day trip. An overnight tour will mean you learn more about the Kuna people and their way of life, as well as give you some time to relax on the islands. As you’d expect, the longer the tour, the more islands that you’ll be able to see.
When it comes to booking either a day trip or a multi-day trip to San Blas from Panama City, I’d advise booking online in advance or through your accommodation. If they don’t host trips, any of the popular hostels in the city will be able to arrange your San Blas trip for you. Selina in Casco Viejo arranges San Blas trips for travellers as does Mamallena.
Sailing Trips to San Blas (Panama to Colombia & Vice Versa)
One of the most popular ways to experience the San Blas Islands is to travel via sailboat. These trips usually begin in either Carti, Panama or Cartagena, Colombia. As it is very difficult to cross between the two countries by land, sailing is a popular method of transit between the two.
While sailboat trips offer smaller group sizes, they also come with a higher price tag and longer crossing times. In peak season, this can be a big perk but sailing on rough seas offers very little respite from seasickness – you should consider this if you’re travelling during the windy season (December to April)!
Those seeing San Blas on a sailing trip will visit the islands by day but stay on board the boat overnight. This will likely provide a longer and potentially rougher crossing between Panama and Colombia than travelling by speedboat.
Sailing trips are high in demand so always make sure to book in advance. The most highly recommended company is Blue Sailing. Sailing to the San Blas may be a better option for older couples who want to travel as part of a smaller group.
Speedboat Trips to San Blas (Panama to Colombia & Vice Versa)
The most budget-friendly way to travel by sea from Panama to Colombia (and vice versa) is by speedboat. These trips are usually cheaper than sailing and visitors don’t have to spend as much time on board the boat, maximising their time enjoying San Blas.
The speedboat trips are often no-frills but offer a chance to meet like-minded travellers and explore the islands over four or five days. Travelling via speedboat also means that you can sleep on a different San Blas island every night – quite a cool experience which reveals a lot about the local culture.
Speedboat trips are best booked online in advance. There are several tour operators but the most popular choice (and one that I can personally recommend) is San Blas Adventures. Catering to Panama’s backpackers, they offer a super fun experience while not being a booze cruise.
2. By Air – Fly from Panama City to San Blas
Tours generally offer the best value for money when it comes to getting to San Blas, however, if you have your heart set on visiting the islands independently, this can also be done. Flights depart from Panama City to San Blas (usually with AirPanama). There are airports located on El Porvenir, Playon Chico, Achutupu, Puerto Obaldía or Corazon de Jesus.
It is worth bearing in mind that while flights are not too expensive when booked in advance (you can often get deals for around $100USD), your options for onward travel are fairly limited when you get there as only a small handful of the islands host airports. This means that to explore further afield, you will almost definitely need to strike a deal with a local boatman.
These deals can be hard to find using traditional flight booking engine sites so it is best to arrange your trip with a Panamanian travel agent if possible. Make sure you do this at least a week in advance as flights only leave once a day.
3. By Land – 4×4 from Panama City to San Blas
If you are insured to drive in Panama, it is possible to make your way to San Blas from Panama independently. Alternatively, choose a tour operator to transport you to Golfo de San Blas. From there, you can grab a water taxi to one of the nearby islands. These water taxis are operated by the Kuna people.
Tips for Getting to the San Blas Islands
- Make time. The San Blas Islands are 100% worth visiting. They may be a little difficult to get to but this means that if you are going to visit, you should absolutely carve out some time in your Panama itinerary to stay for at least a couple of nights.
- Do your research. There are a few different ways to get to San Blas, either from Panama or Colombia. You’ll need to research to work out the best option for your travel plans and budget.
- Make reservations in advance. Some trips to San Blas can sell very quickly, which makes advance planning your friend. Be warned that around national holidays, tours are often booked up weeks in advance so try and work out a schedule and be prepared to be flexible with your dates if needed.
- Buy seasickness tablets if you’re travelling by boat. While this will depend on each individual, it is well worth bringing some seasickness tablets on board if you are travelling to the San Blas as part of a longer boat trip from Colombia to Panama (or vice versa). The sea can be rough and nausea can really put a damper on your trip!
Guna Yala is one of Panama’s best destinations. Clocking on to beach time in these remote paradise islands is an experience that few will be lucky enough to have. While it may take a bit more effort to get to the San Blas Islands when compared to other destinations, it is well worth it.
To get the most out of your visit, plan to stay at least a couple of nights and be prepared to embrace a rustic, no-frills lifestyle. Remember that the lack of development is what makes these islands so special! Oh, and bring a good book – you’ll need something to keep you occupied…
Have you visited the San Blas Islands? How did you get there? Share your experience in the comments below!