San Blas Adventures Review: Sailing from Colombia to Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama — August 2014

Sailing from Colombia to Panama was an absolute dream. After leaving Cartagena, we spent just one night in Turbo before leaving for the promised (is)lands: the San Blas Islands. There are a few ways you can do this three-night, four-day journey. Most of the options involve large-scale sailboats and lots of time in the open water. Because I get seasick, and because we wanted to spend time on the islands themselves, we chose San Blas Adventures.

At the start of the trip, our guide, Jessica said that this was going to be the “highlight of our travels.” I’m not usually one for hyperbolic statements, especially about travel, so I sort of laughed and took it to mean that the trip would be a good one and I’d enjoy myself. Little did I know that Jess would be right.

San Blas Adventures Review: Sailing from Colombia to Panama

The Kuna Yala

At first glance, this trip could seem very superficial. Lots of pretty islands, a ton of rum, coconut trees, crystal blue waters. It’s everything a Caribbean calendar in the supermarket promises. But sailing from Colombia to Panama means sailing through the lands of the Kuna Yala, the indigenous Panamanian population. And with San Blas Adventures, we got a whole new layer of experience—staying with the Kunas along the way. That quickly became a very special layer to all of us on the trip. San Blas Adventures is the only tourism company currently operating as a 50/50 partnership between Westerners and the Kuna. Due to bad relationships with tourism companies in the past, many Kuna communities have shuttered their islands to tourists. In fact, the bulk of the islands we visited with San Blas Adventures were completely closed to other groups.

Meeting the Kuna Yala

Spending time on the islands meant staying in actual Kuna villages themselves. Aside from one of our fellow travelers who was Panamanian-American, the rest of us knew nothing about the Kuna people or their culture. The first thing we did when we got to our first island, Caladonia, was a detailed tour of the village, which ran to the very edges of the land space. We learned about their history, their way of life, and their traditions. Basically everything from their political structure to their interactions with mainland Panama to the way they celebrate weddings. What I found most fascinating was their matriarchal system. Female Kunas run the show, from families to businesses; in fact, oftentimes we’d see the men out doing the day-to-day work, and the women sat in hammocks, giving directions. Jess also told us what were appropriate interactions with the villagers and what weren’t. For example, we were advised not to take photos of the women unless we specifically asked. She also introduced us to different families as we wove our way through the village. I found that whole experience to be really refreshing and respectful—and felt less like an intruding tourist than a welcomed guest.

Staying with the Kuna Yala

Our accommodations were also “very Kuna”. Sleeping in hammocks, adventurous bathrooms, and more than the usual share of the elements (especially since it was rainy season!). The first night one enterprising family had set up the equivalent of a hostel for us. Basically a large hut that extended out over the water, it was absolutely stunning. But the real kicker was the toilet, which “flushed” straight into the sea. The second night there was another hostel, but due to an impending storm that closed some of the outdoor sleeping areas, we couldn’t fit everyone in. That meant we stayed in an actual Kuna home, constructed of coconut fibers with a simple dirt floor. The third night we spent in coconut fiber shelters on the beach on a deserted island, with sand for the floor and fairly open walls.

What do you do on a San Blas Adventure?

Our days were spent boating from village to beach to village again. We started our mornings early and miximized our time in the beautiful Caribbean water. We’d have a simple breakfast of cereal and powdered milk, bread and jam, or fresh fruit, and take our ginger pills. Then we plopped into boats manned by our Kuna captains. Once we got to our “day-trip” islands, we were free to do as we pleased. Sometimes we set up a beach volleyball court, or hiked around as best we could in our flip-flops and bare feet. Sometimes we grouped together for an impromptu yoga session. On our last day, a few of the group swam to a neighboring island. There was lots of snorkeling, tanning, and Frisbee tossing. We shared books and travel stories amongst the group—who were from Australia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and America.

Our nights involved claiming our hammocks and hunkering down. The first and second nights we explored the villages and played with the Kuna children. They loved showboating for our clicking cameras. Meals included plenty of fresh seafood, chicken, rice, and D’Elidas hot sauce, served on blue and white Melamine plates as we sat elbow-to-elbow at wooden picnic tables. After we finished our meal, we’d wash the plates in saltwater, using sand as the dish soap. Then we’d gather back around for card games, drinking games, or a rousing round of Werewolf, which involved a lot of shouting and false accusations. Pretty much every person had brought his or her own bottle of rum. Beer, Cokes, and coconuts were all available for purchase in the villages, recorded on an honor tab system.

Pushing “reset”

Sailing from Colombia to Panama took four days. By the end, it was as if some huge hand has pushed the reset button on all of us: despite being unshaven, unshowered, and woken every morning by huge thunderstorms, we were simply and raucously happy. Jess was right—it was the highlight of our travels: the perfect combination of good people and good times. If you ever find yourself passing through Panama and are in the mood for an adventure, you have got to do this.

What to pack on a San Blas Adventure:

  • Frisbee, blow-up beach ball, soccer ball
  • Sunscreen is obvious, but also make sure you’ve got bug spray and calamine lotion
  • GoPro, watertight camera case or underwater camera
  • Ziploc bags and trashbags for extra water-proofing (passports, docs, phones, etc)
  • Your favorite drinking game to share
  • A hat or cap to keep the sun at bay (and aloe lotion in case of sunburn)
  • A bottle of hand sanitizer and/or pack of Wet Ones

Pro tips:

  • This trip isn’t for the squeamish—if you’re finicky about showering every day or peeing outdoors, you’ll have to check that at the door.
  • SBA has snorkels, but there aren’t enough for everyone to have one if the whole group wanted to snorkel at the same time. We brought our own snorkels (and flippers) and were glad to have them.
  • Bring ginger pills, even if you don’t think you’ll get seasick. If nothing else, they’ll be good for settling your rum hangover.
  • It’s probably worth investing in some dry bags before embarking—that’s the one thing I would redo, just for peace of mind.
  • Be advised that Panamanian Immigration is serious business. They completely empty your bag and pick through everything you’ve got in there. So be careful if you’ve got your stuff packed super tightly. It will be a pain to jam it all back in there on a tight schedule. And if you’ve got the chance to do laundry before embarking…do it. Nothing worse than the immigration lady poking through your dirty undies in front of the whole group.

Other than that, what’s left to say but have a great time!

Pin for later!