You are currently viewing Visiting the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala): 2024 ultimate guide

From the rainforests of the Darién Gap to the Boquete highlands and the sandy beaches, Panama is a remarkable and diverse country. After exploring Panama City and its famous canal, you should head to the stunning San Blas Islands (now officially called the Guna Yala archipelago) in the northeast.

This paradisiacal region will likely be one of the highlights of your trip to the country known as the “Bridge of the Americas”. It’s a hard-to-reach place with less infrastructure and higher prices… but it’s so untouched and far from mass tourism. 

Here’s all the information you need to plan your visit to San Blas Islands.

 

What are the San Blas Islands?

Let’s be clear to avoid confusion: there are several places called “San Blas” around the world (in Mexico, Colombia, and Spain, for example). Here, we’re referring to Guna Yala in Panama.

A man walks on Guna Yala Beach in Panama's San Blas Islands with a stick in his hand
Guna Yala, Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Guna Yala is the official name of the territory governed by the Guna indigenous group. It consists of a narrow strip of land on the country’s Caribbean coast and its archipelago (the San Blas Islands). “Guna Yala” means “Land Guna” or “Guna Mountain.”

“San Blas” is an outdated name from Spanish colonization used for this incredible region. The indigenous name was also changed in October 2011 to align with the Guna people’s language (it was spelled “Kuna Yala” before). Many travelers still know it as San Blas and search for it that way, which is why we’ll use both here.

Group of Guna women in traditional clothes talking in front of a store in Panama City
Guna people in Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Guna Yala belongs to Panama as an autonomous indigenous territory (comarca indígena) recognized by the government. This special status grants the Guna people some power to preserve their cultural identity. They also have some level of self-governance over their territory.

The archipelago has around 365 islands (almost one for every day of the year!) and only 50 are inhabited by Guna people.

Among the biggest ones are:

 Some of the more popular islands are: 

A person wearing a hat is in the ocean, swimming towards Isla Perro from Panama’s San Blas Islands 
Isla Perro, Guna Yala, Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Why are the San Blas Islands worth a visit?

Guna Yala is a dreamy tropical getaway with beautiful beaches, coconut trees, and sunny weather all year. It’s very remote and quiet, so it’s a great place to completely disconnect.

The most popular things to do there are island hopping and suntanning. If you enjoy a slow-paced island vacation, you’ll love this Central America destination.

People enjoying the tropical beach and islands surrounded by turquoise waters in Panama’s Guna Yala
Guna Yala, Panama (photo credit: Sol Cerrud)

 

In addition to natural beauty, a trip to Guna Yala lets you discover a unique Indigenous culture and language. The Guna people are fascinating and have managed to keep their traditions, so learning about their way of life is a privilege.

For example, they believe there is a 3rd gender called omeggid, challenging Western gender roles by acknowledging both male and female spirits in one person. They’re also known for crafting the famous Molas textile

Guna woman in traditional clothing selling Molas in Panama City
Molas textile in Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Where are the San Blas Islands located?

The territory of Guna Yala is situated in the eastern part of the north coast of Panama, more precisely east of the Panama Canal. It borders a few other provinces and Colombia. The islands are located off the coast, in the Caribbean Sea.

location of Panama’s Guna Yala/San Blas Islands on Google maps
Location of Guna Yala (photo credit: Google Maps)

 

How to get to the San Blas Islands?

It’s secluded and it’s not easy to get there on your own, unlike almost every place on Earth where travelers go. At least not for cheap.

First, you need to get to Panama. That’s the easy part. Panama City Airport (PTY) has many affordable flights from Canada, as low as the $400s roundtrip in the flight deals Flytrippers spots.

A wooden dock on the turquoise waters leading to a boat of Panama’s San Blas Islands
San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Sol Cerrud)

 

From Panama City, you can take a 4×4 jeep taxi to Cartí for $25-35 (it takes about 2.5 hours). Then, you can access the individual islands by speedboat (lancha) in just 20 minutes for $15-25. 

Given the remoteness of the San Blas Islands, it’s one of the very rare places where it’s worth considering packaged tours. Most include transportation from Panama City, and prices start at $196 for 2 days.

If you prefer to just visit for a day, day trips from Panama City cost $192.

Air Panama used to fly from Panama City to a few small airports near the San Blas Islands, but these flights no longer seem bookable individually

View of someone swimming to a boat on the Caribbean sea in Panama’s San Blas Islands 
San Blas Islands (photo credit: Franz Schäfer)

 

For a fancy introduction to one of the most beautiful regions in Panama, you can also arrive on a sailboat from Cartagena, Colombia!  A sailing trip from Colombia to San Blas takes around 2 days if you don’t stop. To rent a ship and captain, you’ll need to spend around US$500-700 (including a border tax of US$100), which is ∼ C$700-1000.

 

What are the entry requirements for the San Blas Islands?

Panama has very few entry requirements for Canadians. You do not need a visa (for stays up to 180 days), but your passport needs to be valid for 3 months beyond the date you plan to leave Panama (as is the case in many countries).

The San Blas Islands’ special status means that as a foreign visitor, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee and port fees of US$20-25 (∼ C$30-35) in cash to visit. There is a border crossing where you are technically leaving Panama and entering Guna Yala territory so don’t forget your passport (just in case). Then, you’ll also have to pay a fee of US$2-3 (∼ C$3-4) for each island you want to visit.

 

What is the best time of the year to visit the San Blas Islands?

The weather in the San Blas Islands and Panama in general is great all year round! There are 2 seasons: the rainy season from June to December and the dry season from January to May. 

The dry season has stronger winds, and during the rainy months, the sun usually makes an appearance. The rain showers are often intense but short. So really, you can visit anytime you want!

A boat on a sand beach with a lot of palm trees on Panama’s San Blas islands 
San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Azzedine Rouichi)

 

Where to stay in the San Blas Islands?

You won’t find any big hotels or resorts on the San Blas Islands. You can camp, sleep on a boat, or like most people, spend the night in a typical seaside hut built by the Guna people.

4 cabins built over water on Yandup Island at sunset
Cabins on Yandup Island, Guna Yala, Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

These simple accommodations are rustic and built from natural materials like wood and palm. They are often located right on the beach, just a few meters from the turquoise water. Inside, you’ll find a bed and that’s about it. Don’t expect Wi-Fi or fancy furniture. 

Having electricity all day long is also not guaranteed… It’s an opportunity to totally disconnect and enjoy the present moment in a tropical paradise. For more comfort, you can bring your own pillow, flashlights, and other personal items. 

Here are some places to stay in the San Blas Islands: 

You can find more accommodation options on the San Blas Islands on Trivago.

Because the infrastructure is almost nonexistent, you might struggle to find a place to spend the night if you don’t book ahead. Again, it’s such a remote area that it’s one of the rare places where it’s worth considering a packaged tour that includes accommodation. 

 

How long should I stay in the San Blas Islands?

A lot of visitors go to the San Blas Islands on a day trip from Panama City. It’s better than nothing, but you’ll spend most of the time on the road getting there and back in just 1 day. You’ll be leaving early in the morning around 5 AM, and returning to Panama City around 7 PM.

Instead, we recommend you stay at least 2 or 3 days to make the most of this gorgeous region’s relaxing atmosphere. It’s just enough time to feel rejuvenated but also not bored from the isolation.

A canoe on the turquoise waters by a beach on Panama’ Guna Yala/San Blas Islands
San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Angel Silva)

 

What are the best places to eat in the San Blas Islands?

Native Guna cuisine includes a pescetarian diet featuring red snapper, crab, or lobster with coconut-flavored rice. It’s healthy and delicious!

 

A popular drink served by the locals is the Coco Loco, made by opening a fresh coconut and mixing its water with rum. 

Here are some great places to eat in the San Blas Islands: 

One important thing you need to know is that foreigners are not allowed to fish or collect coconuts from the San Blas Islands.

 

What are the things to do in the San Blas Islands?

Here are 5 activities you can do while visiting.

 

Snorkeling or paddleboarding

With its crystal-clear waters and stunning coral reefs, the sea is the most remarkable feature of the San Blas Islands. Make the most of it by exploring the marine life in Isla Perro or floating along the coast.

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Island hopping

With so many islands to explore, it’d be a shame to see only one! There are so many beautiful islands, like Banedub Island or Robeson Island.

Drone view of a beach and island full of palm trees in turquoise Caribbean waters of Panama’s Guna Yala/San Blas Islands
San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Dresla)

 

Meeting Guna people

Now is your chance to learn about a culture that is nothing like yours. You’ll be amazed by their traditions and way of life.

2 Guna women with a child, all wearing traditional Molas textiles walking in Panama City
Guna people in Panama (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Sailing

Sailing to San Blas Islands is quite a unique experience! You’ll have all the amenities you need onboard, including snorkeling and diving gear. You will also sleep under the stars onboard. 

If you’re sailing from Colombia, the journey typically starts from the city of Cartagena and it takes 2 to 3 days to reach San Blas. 

 

Just relaxing

Soak up the sun, read a book, and enjoy the views! You can totally disconnect and unwind by having some alone time or you can meet other travelers at beaches like Playa Chichimei.

A sailboat on the sea traveling from Cartagena to San Blas islands 
San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Azzedine Rouichi)

 

FAQ — Frequently asked questions about the San Blas Islands

Here are a few other commonly requested answers.

 

Is San Blas Panama expensive?

The San Blas Islands are more expensive than Panama’s mainland and Central America in general. This is due to their remote location and semi-autonomous status. 

Panama uses the Balboa as its official currency, which has the same value as the U.S. dollar. However, Panama doesn’t print its own paper money and uses U.S. dollars only! That’s also the case in Guna Yala. 

Bring cash (including small banknotes and coins) for your transactions. It’s unlikely you’ll find places that accept credit cards. There are no ATMs on the islands, so make sure to use your free Wise Card (it’s not a credit card, so everyone should have it) to withdraw money in Panama City with no ATM fee (up to C$350 per month).

 

How safe are the San Blas Islands?

The San Blas Islands are very safe. The Guna Yala people are known for their hospitality toward visitors. Keep an eye on your belongings (as you should do anywhere) and you should be fine.

 

What language is spoken in the San Blas Islands?

The locals speak Guna (also known as Dulegaya), and Spanish is also prevalent. 

English is not as common so knowing some basic phrases in Spanish would be helpful. Or just make sure to download the Spanish language option for offline use on Google Translate.

 

Is it safe to swim in the San Blas Islands?

Swimming in the San Blas Islands is generally safe and is one of the main attractions for visitors. 

If you’re afraid of sharks, you should ask for advice from locals about the best and safest places to swim.

 

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Summary

Visiting the San Blas Islands is not a typical beach vacation experience because the indigenous people who live there fully manage this destination. From quiet and empty islands to lively Guna communities, exploring the archipelago is quite an adventure. Not all the islands are well-known or easy to reach, but they are numerous, so the possibilities are endless. You can expect a mix of slow living, cultural immersion, tropical beauty, and sustainable practices.

 

What would you like to know about the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala) in Panama? Tell us in the comments below.

 

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Featured image: San Blas Islands, Panama (photo credit: Alessa Ciraulo)

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