North America,  Panama,  Travel

Your Ultimate Guide to Panama’s San Blas Islands [2024]

White sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters and swaying palm trees: Panama’s San Blas Islands are a slice of paradise in the Caribbean Sea. There are approximately 365 islands and cayes in this breathtaking archipelago – that’s enough to enjoy visiting a different island every day of the year! 

Ready to find your tranquilo? In this San Blas Islands guide, we’ll explore the beauty of Panama’s San Blas islands, what makes them special, and help you decide which one might be the best fit for your next tropical escape.



The San Blas Islands, also known as the Guna Yala Islands, are located off the northeastern coast of Panama. Stretching along the Caribbean coastline, this archipelago is part of the semi-autonomous Guna Yala region, one of several comarcas Indígenas in Panama. 

This means that while San Blas is technically part of Panama, the islands are actually an autonomous Indigenous province owned and governed by the Guna people. The Guna have rejected all forms of mass tourism, as seen on other Caribbean Islands (think of all the hotels on Barbados or Grand Cayman!). Instead, they have managed to preserve their traditional way of life, making the San Blas Islands a unique and culturally rich destination.

Note: since you are technically entering an independent province, be aware that you will need to pay a fee as a non-resident. For us, this was $24 USD, but this price may be subject to change in the future. 


The Guna, also known as Kuna, are an indigenous people from the area that is now the Darién region of Panama and Colombia. Conflict with the Spanish in the 1500s forced the Guna to move northwest. They settled into the mainland coast and island archipelago (now known as San Blas), where they continue to live today. 

In 1925, the Guna led a revolution against Panama in order to gain their independence. The Guna Yala territory, formerly known as the Comarca de San Blas, was granted autonomy by the Panamanian government in 1938. This allows the Guna Yala people to govern their own affairs, including issues related to culture, education, tourism, and land management.


The Guna people are dedicated to preserving their cultural traditions and values. They have a deep connection with the land and sea, and fishing, agriculture, and artisanal crafts play significant roles in their traditional way of life. Despite exposure to outside influences, they continue to practise their traditions and maintain a distinct Guna identity. The Guna people known for pride of automony; they strictly regulate tourist visits to their territory and have rejected offers of large hotel chains to buy property on the islands.

You’ll get to meet some of the Guna people during your visit to the San Blas Islands, but you are unlikely to experience their traditions and way of life. The Guna are a private people. They keep their communities on islands separate to those that most tourists visit. In fact, many of the islands in the region are closed to tourists full stop and you won’t be allowed to island hop unaccompanied.

That said, you can still support these communities through your visit, and by purchasing their locally made jewellery and art.


San Blas is the name given to this archipelago of islands by the Panamanian government. The islands are located in the Golfo De San Blas – the San Blas Gulf – hence their name.

Guna Yala, however, has been the official name since 2011. Also spelled Kuna Yala,  this is what the local Guna (or Kuna) people call their home. It means “land of Guna (or Kuna),”

Both names refer to the same place, so they are used interchangeably.


If you notice the flag of the revolution of the Guna People you might do a double take. It is yellow and red with an inverted swastika on it. 

But this is NOT the flag associated with the Nazi Regime in the Second World War. It is the flag of the revolution that the Guna population has been using since their protests began in 1925. As a European, I am not used to seeing the swastika on any flag, I had the same shock when seeing the similar Buddhist symbol in parts of Southeast Asia. But in both cases, the symbols have no link and are not associated in any way.



With white sand, palm-fringed shorelines, and no Wi-Fi, the San Blas Islands are the perfect place to unwind, ignore the rest of the world, and just exist. You won’t find resort-style accommodation, all-you-can-eat buffets, or happy hour cocktails on these Caribbean islands. But there’s a sense of calm that it’s difficult to find elsewhere in Central America


With white sand, palm-fringed shorelines, and no Wi-Fi, the San Blas Islands are the perfect place to unwind, ignore the rest of the world, and just exist. You won’t find resort-style accommodation, all-you-can-eat buffets, or happy hour cocktails on these Caribbean islands. But there’s a sense of calm that it’s difficult to find elsewhere in Central America

Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I can’t get enough of those tropical blue oceans (we don’t get them in North England!). If you’re feeling up for an adventure, your tour itinerary will also usually include a series of small (optional) trips. The islands have some great snorkelling, we saw colourful fish and starfish. You can also rent paddlebaords and kayaks on some islands!

Most travellers will likely be interested in:

    • Relaxing: The main activity in the San Blas is relaxing. There is plenty of time to lay on the beach and just enjoy being in paradise.
    • Snorkelling! There’s some amazing snorkelling in the clear waters around each island. Despite what you may read online (and yes, this is why I have trust issues with AI-generated blog posts) the Guna do not allow SCUBA diving in and around the San Blas archipelago. But you can snorkel to your heart’s content. 
    • Swimming in the Natural Pool and visiting Starfish Cay. Remember not to remove the starfish from the water as this can kill them. 
    • Visiting Isla Pelicano, the island made famous from the Netflix show “Money Heist”
    • Paddleboarding:  Some tour providers provide paddle boards which is a lovely way to enjoy the ocean. 
    • Playing beach volleyball. Most of the islands have a volleyball net.
    • Eating fresh seafood. The Guna have close ties with the land and ocean as this is their source of food. 
    • Watching the sunset: My favourite thing when I visited the San Blas islands was to take in the sunset in a hammock over the water. There were always beautiful sunsets and it was magical to sit with the waves and watch the sun go down. 
    • Multi-day sailing tour. If you’ve got the time and money, you can book onto a multi-day island hopping tour, sailing through the San Blas archipelago. Some adventurous souls also sail the 5-day route from Panama to Columbia, the only way to get between these countries without flying.


Ecotourism in San Blas emphasizes respect for the local culture and traditions of the Guna people. The Guna are 100% in control of their territory and they set the rules. This means that you can engage with the community in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner but on their terms. Your visit will also support the Guna economy, which is centred around tourism, coconut exports, and the selling of artisan crafts. 

Your trip to the San Blas archipelago is also likely to be low-impact tourism. The rustic accommodations in San Blas are automatically ‘eco friendly’, with no A/C or electricity. As resources are limited, the Guna practice living in a way that reduces waste and conserves water and power. 


Anyone who’s spent any time on this blog knows that we’re extremely mindful of the impact of our travels on the planet and its inhabitants. This was one of our primary concerns as responsible travellers. We wanted to make sure that our visit to the islands would not exploit the Guna people and that the money we spent on our visit would go directly to the Indigenous communities.

And the short answer is yes! Visiting the San Blas Islands is ethical tourism at its finest. It’s a great way to support the Guna People. As long as you respect their lands, don’t pick coconuts, and don’t touch the starfish, you’ll be grand. 


Longer answer: Like many indigenous communities, the Guna Yala face challenges such as environmental issues, economic pressures, and the potential erosion of their cultural traditions. However, the Guna Yala region has become a popular destination for eco-tourism and cultural exchange. 

The San Blas/Guna Yala Islands are an autonomous province, and your tourism is regulated by the indigenous Guna people who own and protect the land. Balancing the preservation of their heritage with the opportunities and challenges of the modern world means that you may not explore the islands on your own. But your visit will directly benefit the Guna community and support their economy. 

The Guna economy runs primarily on coconuts, tourism, and selling handicrafts. When you visit the San Blas Islands, you’ll be able to experience the Guna way of life and learn about their customs. In addition to hosting tourists, they export coconuts to other countries. 

Note: Do. Not. Touch. The. Starfish. One of the many beautiful things you will see in the sea are very large bright orange starfish. If you touch them, you do a lot of harm, even if you’re ‘gentle’. 


Ok, we’ve sold it to you and you’re ready to book a visit to the San Blas Islands. To plan a trip to the San Blas Islands, all you need to do is choose an island, decide how long you want to stay, and book a tour. Your hosts will take care of everything, from transportation to activities and meals. All you have to do is turn up and be ready to relax. 

If you are thinking about visiting the San Blas islands solo, think again. Sorry independent travellers, but you really do have to go through a tour for this. Yep, we’d much rather have done it ourselves too, but the Guna strictly regulate visits to their territory. Running tours is one of their main sources of income. Trying to get to the San Blas without out a local guide isn’t just downright disrespectful to these people and their land, but would also be difficult to co-ordinate and possibly illegal!

To book a tour, first you’ll have to choose an island…


We think you’ll find it hard to be disappointed with any of the islands in the Guna Yala region. All the islands are miniature tropical paradises with that white sandy beaches, turqouise water and swaying palm trees vibe. They’ll all feel fairly remote. And all of the islands are perfect to relax and unwind with a Pina Colada and a good book. I wouldn’t overthink it! 

That said, some islands stand out for specific experiences they offer, such as kayaking, paddleboarding, good snorkelling, or just excellent food. No matter what your travel style, you’ll find out the best island for you in our guide to the best San Blas islands for all travel types! Here are some of our favourites: 

  • Isla Perro (Dog Island): Best for snorkelling, Isla Perro has a part sunken ship that you can swim to and explore! 
  • Isla Pelicano (Pelicano Island): This small, picturesque island is featured at the beginning of the third season of the famous Netflix Series, “Money Heist”! You can also rent snorkels and paddleboards here, making the island perfect for those who can’t sit still and relax all day!
  • Isla Chichime: Best for kayaking: the locals have a couple available to borrow. 


There are two main ways to visit the San Blas Islands. You can either go by sailboat or by an organised trip to multiple islands:


The easiest and most popular way to visit the San Blas Islands is through an organised tour from Panama City. The best way to do this is organise an all-inclusive trip through one of the local agencies. We used San Blas Dreams

Organised trips depart regularly and there are so many options. All you need to do is pick an island, choose which type of accommodation you want to sleep in (camping, dorm cabin, or private cabin) and how many days you want to visit. Then, sit back and let yourself be taken care of!


The San Blas archipelago borders on the ‘Darién Gap’, a rugged and largely impassable stretch of land that spans approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) between Panama and Colombia. Lacking infrastructure such as roads and marked trails, the Darién Gap has earned a reputation as a wild and untamed wilderness. It’s not recommended to travel through this region as it’s regarded as extremely unsafe. 

This leaves sailing as the only way to get between the continents of North and South American without taking a flight. And, lucky travelleers get to sail right through the San Blas archipelago! The trips usually take around five days, and run in both directions. They’ll usually include two to three days of relaxing in San Blas, and two to three days sailing depending on the conditions. 

This way of travelling isn’t cheap – it costs at least $550 USD per person. We weren’t visiting Colombia during our time in Central America,  but we met many people that said this experience was the highlight of their trip. We’d love to go back and try it out when we have the time and budget!


The draw of the San Blas islands is the crystal-clear waters and the perfect white sand. The sea water is so clear it also makes for some great snorkelling and starfish spotting. However, the San Blas islands are not developed. We think that this is one of the things that make them so special – where else can you just relax with no expectation to pick up your phone or answer your instagram DMs?  

But set your expectations. There are no luxury accommodations or resorts here. The cabins are very basic – I’m talking wooden huts with palm leaves for a roof and sand on the floor – and most cabins will not have power sockets. 

The food you’ll get consists of what can be caught or grown in the region (think rice, fish, chicken, fruit). It’s basic and fresh but can get a little boring after a few meals. Some islands don’t have 24-hour electricity. And you won’t find wifi anywhere. This is the perfect spot to step away from the bustle of Latin America and have a digital detox.

We’ll give a couple of examples itineraries below to help you choose the best option for you. 


The San Blas Islands are a couple of hours drive from Panama City, plus a 30 to 40 minute boat ride. We don’t think it’s really worth going for one day. It won’t really save you any money compared to an overnight trip. Plus, if you want to relax, you’ll want at least an overnight stop in this slice of paradise. So, leave your big backpack in Panama City, grab enough for just one night, and get ready to find your tranquilo! 

We chose the two day option as we didn’t feel like the San Blas Islands were excellent value, especially for travellers on a budget. Plus, we had planned to explore the rest of the coastline, all the way up to Mexico! We’ll share more on our personal experience later on in this post. 

Duration: Two days, one night 

Cost: Upwards of $130 USD per person (all inclusive) + Entrance to the Guna Yala territory + port fee (tourist $ 23 USD)

Usually includes: 

  • ​Round-trip ground transport from your accommodation in Panama City
  • ​Accommodation of your choice on the island you’ve picked 
  • ​Boat rides to and from the port
  • ​Traditional Guna Meals
  • Any tours mentioned in your itinerary

What to expect: Your tour operator will pick you up from your accommodation in Panama City bright and early (around 5:30 am) and drive you to the port. It’s a bumpy ride, even in a 4×4! You’ll have to pay a Guna territory entrance fee and port fee. You must also show your passport – the original only, no copies allowed.

Once you arrive, you’ll need to wait for all the other tour companies to show up. When your Guna host has collected everyone scheduled to be staying on their island, you can hop into their boat, sit back, and enjoy the views. 

During an overnight trip to the San Blas Islands, you’ll usually base yourself on one island. You’ll be shown to your cabin when you arrive and can settle in. Depending on the tour you booked, there may be short trips planned, such as to the shipwreck of Isla Perro, or the starfish pool near Isla Pelicano. Or, you may just be left to relax in paradise and only interrupted when your meals are ready to be served. 

Head out on a excursion. Relax, unwind, and soak up the scenery. Stretch out on a beach towel. Read your book in a hammock under the shade of a swaying palm tree. Play volleyball with new travel friends. And fall asleep in your wooden cabin to the sound of the waves lapping at the shore. An overnight stay on any of the Guna Yala Islands is sure to leave you feeling rested and rejuvenated. 

The next morning, you can choose early (8:30 am) departure from the island, or pay a little extra (~$15 USD) to return to Panama City in the evening. Your Guna hosts will sail you back to the port where your ride will be waiting to drop you back at your accommodation in Panama City (or in our case, at a random metro station to continue our journey by night bus to Panama’s coolest jungle hostel!)

The next morning, you can choose early (8:30 am) departure from the island, or pay a little extra (~$15 USD) to return to Panama City in the evening. Your Guna hosts will sail you back to the port where your ride will be waiting to drop you back at your accommodation in Panama City (or in our case, at a random metro station to continue our journey by night bus to Panama’s coolest jungle hostel!)


Two to three days seems like the sweet spot for a San Blas trip. Fellow travellers have mentioned that after three to four days in this paradise, it all begins to feel a little ‘samey’ and we see how that could be the case! Sunburned and a little grumpy, I was itching to be back on the road after just one night, but I’ve never been very good at sitting on the beach for days! That said, if you love soaking up the sun, we’d recommend staying a couple of nights. 

Duration: Upwards of two nights 

Cost: Upwards of $210 USD per person (all inclusive) + Entrance to the Guna Yala territory + port fee (tourist $23 USD)

Usually includes: 

  • ​Round trip ground transport from your accommodation in Panama City
  • ​Accommodation of your choice on the island you’ve picked 
  • ​Boat rides to and from the port
  • ​Traditional Guna Meals
  • Usually tours plus snorkelling equipment will be included for the duration of your trip 

What to expect: You’ll get to the islands in the same way as the overnight tour: a combination of driving plus a short boat ride from the port with your Guna host. Depending on the tour you’ve chosen, you might base yourself on one island for the duration of your trip, or you may stay on a different island for each of the nights. All your meals will be provided, so the only thing that you have to worry about is relaxing! 

With a multi-day tour, there will likely be excursions included so that you don’t get bored.  These may include trips to other islands and/or a visit to the starfish cay and sunken ship. We really like the look of this tour, which also includes a rare visit to a Guna Community 


We would have loved to do this but Colombia wasn’t part of our Central America itinerary! That said, we think this is a great tour if you want to experience more of the islands and are going to Colombia anyway. Travelling through the archipelago will give you a different experience each day, meaning you won’t get bored!

Duration: Five days, four nights 

Cost: Upwards of $500 USD

Usually includes: 

  • ​Boat travel from Carti (the Guna port) to Sapzurro (the port in Colombia) or Sapzurro to Carti (depending on trip direction)
  • Three meals a day throughout the trip + one drink per meal
  • Four nights accommodation 
  • A bilingual tour guide and local Guna guide 
  • Any fees for immigration, visiting islands, etc. 
  • Snorkel and beach equipment. 

What to expect: A five-day adventure between Panama and Colombia: a few hours each day will be spent on the speedboat, and the rest of the time is for exploring! You’ll visit a series of islands and have time to swim, snorkel, and relax. On the trip you’ll sleep on the islands, spending two nights in Kuna villages and one night camping on a deserted island.  

We think the Panama to Colombia crossing is one of the best and most unique opportunities to understand the Guna culture. You’ll get a unique opportunity to meet the people as well as experience the pristine beaches and ocean in the archipelago. 

Once you arrive in Colombia, you can stay in the port town, or head on to to Cartagena or Medellin by boat and bus.



This was one mistake we made. We normally travel with our Water to Go bottles – they allow us to fill up from almost any water source, as long as it’s not salt water. And there was the problem. Pretty much all the water on the San Blas Islands – the shower, the taps, the toilet flush – is either pure salt water or rainwater diluted with salt water to make it go further. This meant that we couldn’t safely drink the tap water in the Guna Yala territory. 

I get it. Water here is scarce and the Guna can really only collect fresh water when it rains. Diluting it with saltwater for shower/bathroom use is eco-friendly and means the water goes further. I also get that it’s important to support the economy of the Guna by buying coconuts, soda or alcoholic drinks. But it’s hot, you’re dehydrated from the sun and the ocean, and you’re going to drink a lot. We’d recommend bringing a large bottle of water for your trip. Paying $2 USD for every 500ml bottle of water really adds up. 

If you have dietary requirements I’d also really recommend bringing some snacks. The ‘vegetarian’ option for all meals was the same as the ‘meat’ option… just without the meat! This meant I was eating rice and salad at every meal, hardly substantial! 


Every Saturday, local Panamanians from the city swarm the San Blas Islands for a weekend away. What may seem like a peaceful retreat on a Friday becomes a busy, rowdy beach party-like atmosphere around midday on a Saturday. Boatloads of local tourists are constantly dropped off, along with their deckchairs, beer coolers, and speakers pumping music. 

I’m not saying that the islands should be off-limits to locals! I think it’s great to see local people having the income and desire to explore the ‘touristy’ areas of their country. What I am saying is, that if you’re looking for a tranquil getaway, you might want to plan your visit on a Monday to Friday. 


The San Blas islands are a paradise, with turquoise waters and perfect white sand.  But they only stay a paradise because the Guna have chosen not to develop mass tourism. This means you get a really authentic experience. Simple cabins instead of huge resorts is what keeps the islands feeling so pristine. We think that this is one of the things that make them so special

But it’s important to have realistic expectations for your visit to the San Blas islands. The cabins are basic. There’s limited electricity and no wifi. The food is simple. That said, the San Blas Islands are incredible. I’d be sad to see mass tourism develop here.


It’s important to understand and respect the culture of any land you visit. The Guna people are traditional people. They don’t dress super conservatively, and they don’t expect you to either (if you’re not spending all day in your swimsuit, you’re doing it wrong!). However, nudity and public displays of affection are considered very rude. 

That said, despite being ‘traditional’ in values, the Guna are very accepting of LGBT+ people. Queer folk are unlikely to run into trouble here. 


Set a reminder on your phone and constantly apply sunscreen. I’m not joking, the sunshine here hits different. Maybe it’s because you’re near the equator? Or because you’ll be in and out of the sea? But I ended up with really bad sunburn despite applying sunscreen 3-4 times per day and making a conscious effort to stay in the shade. I still have tan lines from the San Blas Sunshine six months after returning to the UK!

Make sure your sun cream is reef-safe too. This is super important for going swimming in the sea anywhere, but especially in Central America, which is home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef! 


Think beach holiday! Unless you’re heading on to Colombia, you can leave most of your stuff in your accommodation in Panama City. The boats the Guna drive around aren’t huge and won’t have room for everyone’s big backpacks. 

  • USD Cash: Most tours include all meals, plus a drink with each meal, but it’s goof to have cash on hand to buy extra drinks, coconuts or souvenirs made by the local people
  • Reef safe suncream or UV protective clothes: Reef friendly suncream is a great idea to protect the marine life around the islands. There isn’t much shade, so if you burn (like me!) you might want to bring something to cover up too. 
  • Swimming costume and beach towel: this goes without saying. If you don’t like the beach, you’re going to the wrong place
  • A good book: The San Blas Islands are a maximum relaxation zone. A great book and hammock with the sound of the waves are a perfect combo. I use a kindle when I travel to save the weight in my bag.
  • Bug repellent: There are quite a few bugs including mosquitoes so bug repellent is very useful.
  • Battery pack: Not all of the lodges have 24 hour electricity. If you need power having a charged battery pack is very useful.
  • Camera: Believe me, you’ll want to take so many photos of this paradise. We have a GoPro Hero 10 and love it!


After two crazy weeks in Peru, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and trying to cram in every sight possible in the Sacred Valley, sitting on a tropical beach with nothing to do except relax sounded like our idea of heaven. We chose Isla Diablo, because we didn’t do much research and it was the cheapest option! 

Maybe it was just the tour operator we went with, but the logistics of getting six tourists to the San Blas Islands felt more chaotic than it had to be. It felt like we were constantly having to shell out cash. Rather than paying one person for the entire trip, you hand $50 USD for your driver, then $8 USD to enter the Guna territory, then another $24 USD at the port. It feels expensive compared to the rest of Panama, which is already expensive compared to a lot of Latin American countries. And of course, no one had change. It left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths. 

Once we arrived at the port, we were given a wristband and shepherded into one of a handful of wooden shelters. Eventually, a boat showed up, we paid another $150 USD or so (the rest of the cost), and were taken to our island for the next two days. 

It was paradise! Suddenly the early morning, bumpy roads, and the cost of getting here felt like it was worth it! It was rustic, but the beach was perfect, the ocean blue and clear, and there was nothing to do except relax. A couple of hours after lunch, we set off on our first of three trips to the natural pool and starfish cay. We swam, we sunbathed, we drank Pina Colada and ate fresh coconuts. That first day was perfect. 

And then came the second day. A huge thunderstorm rolled in just after breakfast, casting a shadow over our sunny tropical escape. Large droplets of rain fell from the sky all morning and our Guna host cancelled all the trips that we’d already paid for. Instead, he took us to another island, that was so close to Isla Diablo that we could have swum there ourselves. Then, we had to pay again, only to sit inside the restaurant of another island and pray for the rain to let up so we could see the rest of the sights.

Spoiler alert – it didn’t. It rained until it was time to go back to Panama City. We’d paid for late checkout, so we were pretty annoyed about the whole thing! Luckily rain doesn’t affect swimming and snorkelling, so we hung out in the ocean and made the best of it. Obviously the Guna can’t control the weather, but it would have been nice to have had some communication throughout the whole thing

All in all, though, we did have a mostly good time and would recommend the San Blas Islands to anyone who loves being near the sea! 



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Alice is a UK travel blogger who advocates sustainable travel and being more eco-conscious on a budget. She loves coffee, her houseplants and summiting mountains.

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