The San Blas Islands are a group of 378 islands off the coast of Panama in the Caribbean sea. The archipelago is relatively untouched by major tourism because the area is entirely controlled by the native Kuna people. You can tour through the archipelago on a sail boat, or on speed boats, like we did with San Blas Adventures (SBA). SBA offer a four day trip from Colombia to Panama or vice versa.
I should say upfront that we were aware before embarking on our trip that it’s currently the windy season in the Caribbean. This means large swells, rough seas, choppy water and not much fun for 2-4 hours every day as you transit through the archipelago.
It can also mean weather like this:
That said, I’m not convinced SBA should be running their tours through the windy season. I’m not sure I can emphasise enough how uncomfortable a ride in a small boat, in the rough open water is. Even before our trip began, a boat ride from Necocli to Capurgana to we could get to where the tour started was a complete eye opener. For the last hour of the trip we were hit by waves from all directions, banging hard over the swell. Screams were let out when we’d drop a particularly large amount and at one point a wave hit our side of the boat, throwing Niki and I from our seats onto the floor. I’ll show you the bruises later! This boat was bigger than the one we’d be taking for the actual tour.
The transiting we did during the tour was not quite as bad at the trip from Necocli to Capurgana. But it was still painful for my neck and back, scary as hell and had me worrying for the much older members of our group (in their 70s I’m guessing). I’m not comparing a tropical holiday with fleeing for one’s life, but I certainly have even more empathy for people seeking asylum on boats than I did before. There is absolutely no way you would choose to flee by sea if you had any other option.
So we were off to a somewhat shaky start with the rough seas, throw overcast weather and occasional rain into the mix and I was not a particularly happy camper to begin with.
But you know what helps? Coco locos. Or rum in coconuts:
On the second day we saw a glimpse of blue sky!
It was pretty much gone by the time we got to our island.
Our hut for the night:
That afternoon we went to a tiny nearby island whose owners had pet monkeys.
It was amazing to hang out with them (spider monkeys). They were apparently rescued when their mother was hunted for meat. I’m not sure how I feel about the domestication of wild animals and the leashes on them, but it was amazing to observe them and how manlike they are.
The third day of our trip is when all the postcard perfect moments happened. Literally all the good stuff happened as soon as the sun came out and group morale lifted exponentially.
It also helped that we were on a tiny, sandy island owned by one Kuna family who were lovely. Have a look:
This lady is wearing traditional Kuna clothing. Part of the dress includes shakiras or beaded bracelets going all the way up the arms and legs. They look beautiful. It was awesome to see traditionally dressed Kuna ladies wandering around big malls and busy streets in Panama City.
Even more blue sky starting to emerge.
For about an hour everyone in our group ran around, maniacally laughing, taking photos, prancing about and just celebrating finally getting good weather!
After that we calmed down and decided it was time to crack open the rum and a bunch of cigars Niki had managed to bring (and keep dry!) all the way from Cuba.
We majorly over catered on the rum, but as I always say, it’s better to be safe than sober.
We lazed about for a while and then our guide Angie and her volunteer set up a hilarious obstacle course for us to tackle in teams. It involved blind folding someone and guiding them by voice only, through a course without touching any of the obstacles put in place. If you found a beer in the course you had to chug it (wearing a snorkel mask!) to eliminate the other team. And we won! We won another bottle of rum. Yesss.
That night we sat around the bonfire, singing songs and telling stories.
The next morning we had a couple more hours to enjoy our island paradise.
We then packed up all our stuff and headed here for lunch:
After lunch we headed back to land, on the way our driver pulled some stupid stunt move and swung us around at high speed, throwing us to the side and convincing many we were about to capsize. Apparently he did this because his mate was taking a photo?! This is despite knowing there were many nervous boat travellers onboard. Jerk.
As we got closer to land our boat’s motor died just kilometres off shore meaning we had to be towed back. Then we got into 4WDs for a harrowing ride through the jungle to Panama City.
San Blas Islands tour
Pros: our guide was amazing, the food was excellent, the last day when the sun came out was one of the best on our entire trip so far. The Kuna people were all lovely and welcoming, they are also fascinating and it was great to learn about their customs and traditions.
Cons: the weather, the rough seas, the feeling of dread every time we got back on the boat. On one of the trips we went super slow because some people in our group had requested it, whereas I’d rather get the trip over with and get to our destination rather than drag it out. Worrying about the 3 older couples on our tour who had obviously missed the memo about this being a ‘backpackers trip’.
Overall, definitely do the trip. But avoid the windy season at all costs!