Adventures in the San Blas Islands

Dingy ride up the Rio Diablo San Blas

Since we started living aboard Sava in 2018, we’ve wanted to visit the San Blas islands. Small islands in pristine Caribbean waters, barely inhabited except by friendly people living off the land, and protected reefs you are only allowed to snorkel and free dive, the San Blas Islands sounded like a dream, and in many ways it was. It took us much longer than we thought to get there, but we did, spent 2.5 weeks, and had lots of adventures in the San Blas islands!

About The San Blas Islands

Map of Panama and San Blas archipelago
Panama Map with the San Blas archipelago

The San Blas Islands is an archipelago of 365 islands in the northeastern Caribbean of Panama. Occupied and governed by the Kuna/Guna people, less than half of the islands are inhabited. You may also hear them called the Guna Yala islands for their residents. The San Blas are one of Panama’s top vacation destinations because of their natural beauty in the Caribbean sea.

So yes, you can visit and stay in the islands: in hostels, resorts, or on a boat. Close enough to major cities that you can also do a fun day trip to visit the San Blas Islands! We are lucky to bring our home with us and moved around the San Blas over our 2.5 week visit.

anchorage San Blas Islands
Boats at anchor in The San Blas

Beautiful Anchorages

One of the best things about sailing in the San Blas islands is the assortment of beautiful anchorages. Everywhere we stopped had clear water, gorgeous skies, marine life, and tropical islands to admire from afar or walk along. Anchoring in this paradise wasn’t free: twice we were visited by tribe officials who charged us for use of the waters. Additionally, residents ask for small fees for visiting the beaches or building bonfires. No complaints, as it wasn’t that expensive and is worth it for visiting such lovely places far from the crowds.

Anchorages in the San Blas map
We explored a lot of different anchorages in The San Blas

Each anchorage was a little bit different from the last: one had a wreck to explore, another a beach bar, and others had shallow reefs to snorkel for hours. The water in most spots is lovely and refreshing, just calling us to jump in, and after months in marinas, we were happy to do so!

San Blas selfie
Posing for a selfie in one of the beautiful anchorages of The San Blas Islands

Snorkeling in The San Blas

The locals spend a lot of time snorkeling and free diving to catch fish, for themselves or to sell to the tourists. We bought a freshly-caught large crab for dinner for $5 and devoured it.

crab for sale
Crab for sale in San Blas

The fish were plentiful in the San Blas Islands, and part of our adventures in the San Blas was snorkeling in the different anchorages. Often we could swim directly from our boat over to snorkeling spots and we’d stay in the water for an hour or more checking out the beautiful marine life.

Snorkeling in the San Blas Panama
The water in The San Blas is so appealing for snorkeling

Other times we’d take our dinghy to a snorkel spot, like the shipwreck at busy Dog Island. That was a cool sight with pieces of the ship protruding out of the shallow water. Not a ton of marine life, but a very cool snorkel spot nonetheless.

Snorkeling adventures in the San Blas Islands

The Friendly People

Most mornings, in most anchorages, someone or three would stop by on their noiseless dugout canoes, called ulus. Seriously, they were so quiet I got scared a couple of times when someone called out right behind me.

ulu in the San Blas islands
Gunas in their ulu

The Kuna have their own language, but many also spoke very good English and/or Spanish, so it was easy to communicate.

Besides being excellent fishermen and selling those fish to the boaters, the Guna make and sell molas. They hand-sew these beautiful artworks; if you follow my instagram you may have seen them already.

Mola Lisa on my instagram. Click through to follow my account
cat on a boat in the San Blas
Domino in the San Blas

The molas are beautiful and are Panama’s most popular souvenirs, alongside the hats. If you go to shore on a populated island in the San Blas, you’ll see women sewing these lovely pieces in front of their homes. Molas are sold across the country: we’ve seen them in Portobelo and Panama City but we bought them on our adventures in the San Blas islands.

ulus are digout canoes in the San Blas
Some of the dugout canoes, or ulus, in The San Blas islands

The ulus aren’t the only boats in The San Blas. Some of the boats have big motors for trips with supplies for the cruisers. A few entrepreneurs visit the cruisers selling bread, produce, fuel and more. It’s more expensive than in town, but still a good deal for the convenience.

Visiting Guna Communities

While most of the San Blas islands are uninhabited or home to just a family or two, there are still a few towns, and we visited two of them. The first was the island of Corazon de Jesús, or “Heart of Jesus,” home to 600 people just across from the mainland of Panama. Corazon is attached to the bigger island of Nargana by a bridge, but Nargana had strict Covid quarantine in effect and didn’t allow us past the bridge.

bridge to Nargana
Crossing the bridge between Corazon de Jesus and Nargana, San Blas

We were able to provision on the island, as they had a bakery and a few small shops. Produce was pretty hard to come by, but we needed some local beer and that was easy to procure. It was fun walking around the town, and we stood out and attracted some attention, and everybody was very welcoming.

San Blas grocery store
A grocery store in San Blas

These two communities are the most westernized of the Guna islands, because they have electricity and telephones. The residents were very friendly and welcomed us to walk around, shop, cheer on the basketball players, and spend time relaxing at the bar on Corazon de Jesus.

Basketball game San Blas Islands
Basketball game in the San Blas

We also did a fun dinghy ride up the Rio Diablo on the mainland. Yes, Heart of Jesus town is near the Devil’s River in the San Blas.

Rio Diablo cemetery
A cemetery on shore along Rio Diablo
Corazon de Jesus
On the island at Corazon de Jesus

Later in our visit, we stopped in to the busy community of Carti. The crowds on a Saturday were tight, as they were celebrating a puberty ritual in the town centre. We visited the local museum, which wasn’t much, and strolled around a bit.

Guna museum Carti
At the Guna museum in Carti
adventures in the San Blas islands took us to Carti
The streets of Carti, a Guna Yala community in San Blas
Carti, a town in the San Blas islands
looking at Carti from the water

Seeing The Wildlife

On the way to the San Blas, dolphins visited us, and we saw them a couple more times during our 2.5 weeks in the archipelago. I posted a short clip on instagram but here’s a longer video of our dolphin friends in the San Blas.

On our first day anchored in the islands, in Chichime, we saw a small shark swimming under our dinghy. That was the beginning of a visit full of interactions with birds and animals in the wild. I am thinking Panama may be just as good as Colombia for animal sightings.

On our multiple snorkeling excursions, we saw huge schools of fish, lots of lobsters, and a few rays. The water was usually very clear even though we had lots of rain, and more lightning. We have since learned that the San Blas is an epicenter for lightning strikes: we’ve personally met three boats who’ve lost their electronics there.

When we dinghied up the Rio Diablo near Corazon de Jesus, we saw monkeys (too fast for our cameras) and a wide variety of birds, including a well-posed toucan. The toucan sighting was our first ever in the wild and I’m glad we got the photo.

Toucan in a tree Rio Diablo
The toucan sitting in a tree on the shore of Rio Diablo
Rio Diablo San Blas dinghy ride
In our dinghy going up the Rio Diablo in the San Blas
Shore Bird Blue and Red
A beautiful bird on the shore in the Rio Diablo, San Blas Islands

We loved the San Blas Islands

Sunset in the San Blas
Sunset in the San Blas

Nowhere on earth is perfect, but the San Blas islands are pretty close. We loved waking up to the fresh air and beautiful water, watching sunrises and sunsets over the Caribbean sea, and chatting with the friendly locals. We probably won’t return, but we’ll always have the photos and the memories.

Pin Sailing the San Blas Islands
Pin Me
Pin Adventures in the San Blas Islands Panama
Sharing is caring so please Pin Me!
pin Adventures in the San Blas Islands Panama
Pin me

Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, scuba diver, cat parent, cyclist, blogger, love the water and exploring new places.

6 thoughts on “Adventures in the San Blas Islands”

  1. Wow I had never heard of the San Blas Islands before reading. I love great snorkeling destinations. Seeing dolphins AND sharks sounds like such a treat. I am going to have to add that to our destination listt.

  2. So fun! I grew up on a sailboat, lived on one for 2 years but only on the East Coast of the US. I love reading others’ adventures of doing the same. The San Blas Islands look like a great place to spend some time and explore.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: