Have you ever dreamed about living in paradise, surrounded only by the ocean and fine, white sand beaches? How about not only spending time in paradise, but also completely immersing yourself in the culture and way of life of the locals? Welcome to the San Blas Islands, the place that offers you the perfect combination of natural beauty, serenity and culture.
So, what are the San Blas Islands?
Off the coast of mainland Panama are a group of 378 islands, only 49 of which are inhabited, owned by the indigenous Guna Yala people. These islands feature small, private getaways with fine white sand and coconut trees, completely surrounded by the warm tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most notably, what makes the Guna Yala territory even more special, is that the Guna people have their own laws and are in full control of the tourism on their lands, something rarely seen in colonized lands. This strict control is what keeps their islands healthy, pristine and a unique destination. Although they live in close proximity and work closely with Panamanians, the Guna also have their own distinct culture and traditions. Seemingly untouched by modernization, the Guna people continue to live as their ancestors did, in handmade huts and living off their land. A visit to the islands provides you with an unforgettable, intimate experience, one that I am about to share with you now!
Rustic living off the grid
Before we dive in, I would like to mention that my experience was that of a student travelling on a budget, and there are many other ways in which one can experience the San Blas islands. From camping in the sand to living on a catamaran, the options are endless. For approximately $215 USD a person, we spent 2 full days exploring the region with a group of 15 other tourists, living and eating like the locals.
From start to finish, our entire San Blas experience was as a unique experience as I had ever experienced. Our adventure began at 5:30am at our hostel in Panama City. We were picked up by 4×4 Jeep which took us on a 3-hour bumpy and winding road to the coast. As the San Blas islands are on Guna Yala territory, they have their own land crossing and they control tourist access to their lands. So, don’t forget your passports! We got our passports checked, stamped, and we were off. Once at the coast, we were loaded into small speedboats and jetted off to paradise.
Not even 10 minutes into the boat ride, we were surrounded by crystal clear blue waters and tiny islands filled with palm trees. The view was absolutely breath taking and unique. There were no large buildings, hotels, resorts or even houses like those we were used to seeing on the mainland. Only beaches, palm trees and clear blue skies.
30 minutes later we pulled up to the shore of our home island, Isla Aroma. A tiny island, no bigger than about 100 meters squared, greeted us. Depending on the island and personal preference, you can choose whether to stay in the cabanas, bring your own tent and camp, or sleep in their rustic accommodations. We chose the most rustic option, living in a sea side hut a mere 10 meters from the water. Our accommodations consisted of a single giant hut made of palm tree logs lined with dried palm leaves, all tied together. Inside, the hut was filled with beds made from more palm tree branches, placed directly on the sand. The beds are specially made for the tourists, as the Guna prefer to sleep in hammocks, either under the stars or in their own huts. A thin wooden door was placed at the entrance, which is only closed when there is a storm. The bathrooms and shower were located on the other side of the island, about 50 meters away, and were shared by the tourists.
So, what is there to do?
Once we settled in, the real fun started. What activities is there to do you may ask? Well the world is your oyster on your own semi-private island in the middle of paradise! Depending on the island you are on and how luxurious of a stay you have chosen, different options are available to you. As we chose the most rustic (and cheapest) option, we had to bring a lot of our own stuff. We came fully equipped with card games, snorkeling and swim gear, water floaties and most importantly, beers. With ample free time on our arrival date we got to walk around our home island, taking pictures, swimming, tanning and interacting with our host family.
A typical day in San Blas
8-9am: Breakfast time. A typical breakfast included eggs with some bread and butter. This is a special meal prepared for tourists as the Guna eat a full meal of rice and meat for breakfast! After breakfast, we had time to wander around the island, take a dip, tan, snorkel or lounge around in a hammock.
10am: All aboard! The speedboat arrived to take us to the first island of the day. Depending on the schedule, the island we were taken to may be another family owned island, or it may be a deserted island only used for daily swims. During the morning we had free reign of the island, to swim, snorkel, tan and play games with the other guests. The music got turned up high and the party flowed! Reefs for snorkeling surround almost all the islands, and the locals were very helpful in showing us the perfect spots. We saw so many magnificent creatures including sea stars, colourful fish and amazing reefs.
Noon: Lunch is served! Generally, lunch was served buffet style, where we could choose what we wanted to eat. Rice and beans, plantains, fresh fish and salad were a staple. Depending on the day, chicken was also offered. And for dessert, fresh island fruit!
1pm: All aboard and off to island #2! The afternoon island was always a bit more chill. The drinks were flowing, the party was still going but everyone was a lot more relaxed and calm. Again, the choice of activities was plentiful and the locals were there to help us have a good time.
4pm: Back to home base. With the day winding down and the sun getting ready to set, the boat ride back to the home island was the most beautiful and the perfect time to take beautiful photos.
6pm: Dinner is served! Similar to lunch, food was served buffet style with the same mix of rice and beans, plantains, fresh fish and salad. The fish was always freshly caught and cooked to perfection.
After dinner, the campfire and evening party began. Everyone gathered round and played drinking games or just chatted about life and their adventures. The night parties were always the most interesting as we were able to interact with so many cool people with such amazing stories. Everyone came from different walks of life, and yet here we were, all gathered on this one tiny island that night.
9pm: The electricity was shut off and only the campfire and moonlight were left to light our way. Most people only stuck around for a while longer, before slowing getting ready for bed, and enjoying the serenity the ocean breeze and waves had to offer.
Day 2: We did it all over again on two new islands! With over 300 islands to explore, you could easily spend weeks in the area and not have to repeat an island.
Disconnect and reconnect with nature
Although there was no luxury, no air conditioning, cell reception or televisions and electricity was only available for limited hours, the beauty of these islands and the people was so blinding we hardly realized anything is missing. Too hot and want AC? Jump right into the crystal clear waters. Bored and want TV? Impossible! But on the odd chance you are, go watch the locals going about their daily lives and interact with them. You never know what you can learn. Missing the buzzing city lights? Stare up into the sky and get lost in the stars. Then party all night by the campfire or go to sleep early to enjoy the cool ocean waters on your early morning swim the next day!