Have you ever found yourself staring at the island screen saver on your computer wishing you could just jump inside? Turquoise blue water, lapping up on white sandy shores, sipping rum from a coconut under the shade of a palm tree. Have you ever day dreamed about sailing from deserted island to deserted island with nothing but a boat full of friends? Well let me tell you. You don’t need to be a millionaire or Johnny Depp to make your Pirates of the Caribbean fantasy a reality. In fact, it has become somewhat of a backpacker rite of passage and has started popping up on bucket lists for those heading to Central and South America. I am talking about sailing through the idyllic San Blas Islands of Panama. This is my Backpackers Guide to Paradise.
Dotting the Caribbean coast of Panama, there is a constellation like string of idyllic island known as the San Blas Archipelago. Of the roughly 365 islands (yes, that means a new island every day for a year!) only 49 are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. Still very traditional in their ways, most Kuna people make a living fishing the rich surrounding waters or tending to farms on the main land. On some of the islands you will find little “restaurants” or basic shops selling a few drinks. On the more populated islands they have basic schools, a barebones shop with a few pantry staples, and traditional “government” buildings where elders meet to decide on tribal matters. While the rise in popularity of these islands has seen an influx of travellers through these waters, the Kuna people who live here still lead very simple and traditional lives.
The landscape is that of a postcard. Soft white sand disappears into warm turquoise waters. Bustling coral reefs thrive beneath the surface. Small surf breaks dot the outer reefs. Tall lazy palms cast soft shadows with their broad fronds. It is the perfect backdrop for your dream pirate themed adventure.
WHEN TO GO?
Seasons in the Caribbean are marked by the weather. High season is hot, dry and windy and low season is not as hot, much calmer but wet. While most companies will operate in both seasons, be wary that high season brings rougher seas and can cause delays, cancellations or altered routes. Policies vary between vessel operators, but both will be affected. Sailboats will stick closer to the coast due to rough seas, with some offering alternative ports to disembark at if you do not want to complete the open water. Speedboats will take longer to cross patches of open water between the islands an warn you to be prepared to get wet.
How to make your Dream a Reality:
Step one: choose your mode of transportation and your final destination.
There are three main ways to make your paradise dreams a reality. Each with their own advantages and disadvantages, but all give you the ability to discover this incredible slice of paradise in a way that suits your trip the best. The first two options are available in both directions.
Each option offers a different experience and there is something for everyone. The key is to find the tour that suits you and your travel goals the best. Each will take you to incredible islands and be a trip you will not soon forget. And while I couldn’t cover EVERYTHING that each option offers these are the main points of debate that will help you decide what’s best.
Option 1: Sailboat from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.
($450-650 USD, Booked with Blue Sailing)
One of the most popular routes, and sure to satisfy your pirate aspirations. Charter company Blue Sailing is my top choice if sailing is the way you want to go. They will recommend boats to you based on the type of experience you are looking for, number of people in your group, size of boat and desired dates.
While the most expensive option this is also the longest of the three trips. It consists of 3-4 days spent exploring the postcard perfect islands. And after a few days of island hopping you make the roughly 40-hour open water crossing to your final port of call. This is an very unique experience and it delivers you to straight to stunning port city of Cartagena, Colombia. A perfect start to your South American adventure with no additional travel necessary. This is one of the biggest pros to sailing vs. speedboat.
However, it can also be considered the biggest con. Depending on the time of year, the seas can be quite rough, meaning seasickness and hiding below deck for nearly two days. Or even worse, diverting the route closer to the coast. This means disembarking at an alternative port or prolonged time spent on board in rough seas.
Bottom line, sailing definitely requires an adventurous spirit and a good stash of Dramamine. But it is sure to be a unique and exciting way to experience the San Blas Islands and enter Colombia.
Option 2: Speedboat from Panama to Sapzurro, Colombia.
($450 USD, Booked with San Blas Adventures plus approx. $70 USD to get to Cartagena or Medellin)
The other top choice for backpackers and the undeniable rival of Blue Sailing is booking a speed boat trip with San Blas Adventures. The biggest differences are in length, accommodation and end point. This is my other top recommendation for those looking to explore the San Blas Islands by boat to Colombia.
The trip takes 4 days, with a total of about 8 hours spent on the boat. Longest stretch being about 2.5 hours onboard. Accommodation is on different islands each night and are a mix of dorm beds in Kuna Villages and hammocks. Amenities can be a bit rustic so bring your sense of adventure! But the major pro to this option is more time on the islands. While the sailors retire to their boat at the end of the day, you get to enjoy evenings and nights on these beautiful islands. Bonfires, late night beach swims and more space are luxuries sleeping onboard a sailboat can’t offer.
The final major difference between sail and speed boats are the final port in Colombia. Being a speedboat adventure the trip does not deliver you to Cartagena. Instead, it takes you to a town not far from the border on the Colombian side. An area that is not necessarily on everyone’s list, arriving here does give you the chance to explore a little seen part of the country. However, it is a bit of an adventure to get from here to Cartagena or Medellin. Depending on your route expect to pay an additional $60-$75 USD, 3 modes of transportation and around 2 days of travel. This is a small price to pay for the luxury of minimal boat time, maximum island time and decreased chance of prolonged sea sickness.
Option 3: Explore the islands on a tour that begins and ends in Panama.
(Approx. $250USD depending on chosen company)
The final option is a great choice if Colombia isn’t in the cards for you. There are numerous companies that offer short tours of the San Blas Islands that begin and end in Panama. While they are decidedly less adventurous than marking a border crossing by boat, this is a great way to include the exploration of the San Blas Islands in your Panama trip. Accommodation is in dorms on the islands and day trips are made to surrounding paradise beaches.
Step Two: Book your tour and start prepping!
Now that you have selected the trip that’s right for you it’s time to start getting for your adventure of a lifetime.
WHAT DO I BRING?
Each company will send you a comprehensive packing list for the essentials that you will need based on mode of transport and what is included. But a few extras that might come in handy are:
Waterproof bag: Life on a boat can get a bit wet, so keep your electronics safe by slinging them in a dry bag before hopping in a dingy to shore.
Hydralite: Long days in the hot Caribbean sun, too much rum and the resulting hangover can put a huge downer on your trip. Make sure you stay hydrated by having a sachet of electrolytes. Also, great to have if you toss your cookies due to seasickness.
Underwater Camera/go pro: Great for capturing memories while out on the water and takes away the worries of damaging your expensive cameras.
Bed Sheet/Sleeping bag liner: This one is just for the speed boaters. It can get chilly in the hammocks at night, so bring something to wrap around yourself while you sleep by the beach! If you get cold, or just want to embrace the extra comfort, bring a jumper and some long pants.
Bring more booze than you think… While you may feel like a borderline alcoholic stocking up at the grocery store, having more booze is better than having none! It is a common thing for people to underestimate and wind up shit out of luck, or paying for pricey beers on the islands (when available). A bottle to share is a great idea if you want to bring the party. An extra bottle of tequila can be a great break from rum and will make some fast friends ;).
Step 3: Live the Caribbean dream aboard a boat in the amazing San Blas Islands
Once all the hard work and research is done, it’s time to live the dream and explore the unspoiled beauty of the San Blas Archipelago.
My Top 5 Moments from the San Blas Islands
In late October 2017, I went on my own San Blas adventure through Blue Sailing. I spent 5 days living aboard a 60ft turquoise sailboat called Wild Card. There were 18 backpackers and a crew of 5 aboard, plus Maxie our sea-pup. It was an incredible 5-day adventure and something I will never forget. Here are 5 of my favourite memories from my trip, and little something to help inspire your own dreams!
#1 Exploring islands
Our first four days were spent cruising through the idyllic island chain. On our second day we were able to visit a Kuna village and learn about their traditional way of life. Lazy days were spent indulging in morning dips off the boat and hammock naps on the islands in the afternoon. We lazed in the crystal-clear shallows swapping tales from the road and soaking up the warm Caribbean sun. We wandered soft sand paths around the islands beneath the shade of large leafy palms. At sunset, we’d head back to the boat before dinner.
#2 Beach front Lobster Dinner
The ultimate food highlight, was the much-anticipated lobster dinner. We arrived by boat as the sun was setting and stood around the open fire as we watched a local fisherman expertly prepare an incredible Langoustine feast. Plates piled high, we sat around low wooden tables in the glow of the rising moon. Faces red from a day in the sun and the mood upbeat after a few rum and pineapples. The experience was truly magical.
#3 Celebrating Halloween Pirate Style
We set sail on October 31st and decided to celebrate in true pirate style with matching costumes and a big old bottle of rum. While no one else thought to bring costumes, we embraced the holiday and, in the end, donated bits of our costume to some local kids.
#4 Full-moon Bonfire with Santana
On our final night on the islands, we teamed up with another Blue Sailing boat Santana, for a full-moon beachfront bonfire. We headed over just as the sun was setting for a big BBQ, while they built our fire pit. With music pumping from a few small speakers, backpackers from both boats intermingled drinking mostly rum based mixes out of 2L pop bottles. We watched as the moon rose illuminating the sparkling water surrounding us. Late night beach swims and the sound of laughter filled the warm night air.
#5 Learning about Kuna Culture and visiting a local village
On our second day we were able to visit a Kuna village and learn about their traditional way of life. Our local guide, nicknamed Cannabis, showed us around the village. Taking us to various points on the island to tell us about everything from how the government works, to local industry and even philosophies.
Thanks for reading!
Planning an adventure? check out my travel guides for some inspiration!
Looking for more San Blas inspo? Check out the article I wrote for Lost Tribe Magazine
Have you travelled the incredible San Blas Islands?? Are you planning an adventure? Anything you think I missed?
Leave your recommendations and highlights below, I want to hear from you!
CHEERS TO ADVENTURE!