Getting to San Blas Islands – The Awesome and Awful

San Blas…archipelago of more islands than days in the year, hidden off the east coast of Panama. A place where desert island is more than a saying, it’s a way of life. White sand, turquoise water, thatched huts with sand floors…

It’s a dream come true and we wanted to go there. 

But we didn’t want to tour paradise. We wanted to love it. 

Also…we didn’t want to pay $199 or $299 for a tour for a few days. If you’re in the same boat (ha no pun intended!), fear not. We managed to do it a little bit cheaper with the help of our awesome hostel, Posada 1914.

First of all, you’ll have to decide what island to go to. We went to Franklin’s. Basically, we chose Franklin’s because it’s the only name I could remember when the Posada receptionist asked us which island we wanted to go to. Also because somewhere deep in my mind was the memory of reading about someone’s experience at Franklin’s and it seemed to be positive. 

Because we didn’t go to any other island, I can’t recommend anything else. However, after hearing stories from another traveller as well as from a guide from Barefoot Panama, I would say to stay far away from Starfish Island. It has horrible sandflies!

Honestly, every island has both glowing and negative reviews online…

San Blas is kind of like that: awesome but awful in the same breath. I’ll tell you more about in another post.

Once we decided on our island, it was time to make arrangements — all of this was done 2 days out. It’s low season now, so there was loads of space on every island. But in high season, it’s best to make arrangements as soon as you can to avoid disappointment, or worse, be forced to sleep with the sandflies.

To get to San Blas — Guna Yala / Kuna Yala — we had to take a jeep and then a boat. I’d read so much about how you MUST take a 4X4 and I basically thought it was BS. People are overly cautious and/or need way too much comfort. 

I believe that a little danger keeps the old heart pumping longer and that everything is uncomfortable when it’s 1000 degrees and humid so who cares. I’d rather save the money than pretend to be comfortable.  

After making the journey both ways, I’m now in the you-must-take-a-4X4-camp. The road on the mountain isn’t fantastic. It’s steep in places. Chunks of road are washed out and there’s potholes deep enough to get you to the other side of the world. 

Anyway, on the way there, it was evident that the 4X4 wasn’t for comfort or luxury.

The speedometer didn’t work. 

Neither did the suspension.

We could feel it every time the driver put his foot on the gas, even just a little. And we could feel practically every pebble that we drove over.

So really, the 4X4 isn’t for comfort, it’s to make the journey possible.

I hope I didn’t lose you. That was a ridicilous but necessary aside.

The jeep cost us $60 each. A stupid high price, yes. I agree with you! But, it’s the going rate and the $60 was return. So really, it’s $30 a trip. If that’s still too high…The drive itself is about 3 hours, so you could think of it like $10 an hour. 

Plus, the driver stops at a grocery store so you can buy water and food to take to San Blas, and go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and stretch the old pins a bit. 

Make sure you buy water. There is no water on the island! The shower is salt water. Coffee was made with boiled rain water. 

How much water do you bring for 2 people for 2 days? That question weighed heavily on my mind the days leading up to San Blas. 

We brought 12 litres of water for 2 days. I drink abnormal amounts of water so that was a perfect amount for us – we had exactly 1 litre left for the journey home. 

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to getting picked up. 

Our driver was extremely professional. He got to Posada 1914 (our hostel, remember) early to pick us up. Let it be known that early is a freakin miracle here, and also considering that we were meant to get picked up at 5:30am. That’s what time everyone going to San Blas gets picked up at. 

As in, FIVE THIRTY IN THE MORNING. I don’t care where in the world you are, that’s just so early. There’s no way roosters would be cockadoodle-doing at that hour and neither should we.

It was still pitch black out for heaven’s sake.

Luckily or amazingly, we were ready a little early.

After we pretend drank our too-hot coffee that the overnight (probably a vampire) receptionist made for us, we piled into the jeep. We were pretty surprised to find an extra row of seats in the back. 

There was no leg room, and there was no way all of my 5’1 self was going back there. No way no how. We were here first!

Besides it didn’t matter. We were the only ones in the car.

For 5 minutes. 

Of course, having a giant jeep all to ourselves would be way too good to be true (kind of like having a working speedometer in Central America) so our driver went around to pick up lost souls/additional travellers.

There were too many people to fit properly in the jeep. This being not Canada, I figured we’d all be expected to cram ourselves and all our luggage/groceries into the jeep. As I was cursing the fact that I wore my new dress (which was a stupid decision), I was preparing myself to sit on Matt’s lap for 3+ hours…and was mentally apologizing to him in advance for crushing his legs. I was also praying to the air conditioning gods because there is hardly anything grosser than random person sweat touching you. 

Amiright!?

But none of that happened, thankfully! In Panama, stuff like that hasn’t happened to us. Even most cars have seat belts that work (mostly, kind of, at least more so than Nicaragua).

Remember when I said our driver was professional? Well, upon realizing that there was more people than seats, he called another jeep. And he (and we) waited all through sunrise for the other jeep at arrive. Longest “5 minutes” of my life.

During this 40 minute period, I fought the urge to get out of the car. I didn’t want to lose my spot and be forced to sit in the crammed back seat.

I was able to hold down the fort and watched as the tallest guy in the group break his femurs in half then contort his body to fit in the comically small back seat. 

Once he was snuggly packed in there, I casually stretched my legs out completely vertically. 

Just joking. I didn’t do that.

There was a part of me that felt bad for the guy. He was at least 8 feet tall and not at all suited for such a small environment. And being the small person that I am and have always been, I really should have taken my rightful place in the most undesirable seat in the car. 

That’s how it works for short people.

But screw that. I was going to be selfish. I was rather enjoying having 2 extra feet of leg room.

So with everyone piled into the jeeps and no (hu)man left behind, it was time to take off.

The drive was uneventful so I spent most of my time trying to work out:

  • how you drive with a speedometer that doesn’t work
  • how you know when you need to get gas when your gas gague that doesn’t function
  • what the conversation would be like if you got pulled over for speeding, “No, I don’t know how fast I was going, officer. My speedometer always says 0km.”  And if that’s a legitimate excuse for speeding.
  • and wondering if it’s legal to drive a car in that condition in Canada

I also spent alot of time worrying that at any point, the tall dude in the back was going to ask me to switch seats with him. I obviously would have even though I didn’t want to.

Before we got to Isla Franklin, we incurred two more fees, adding up to $22 a person, which we handed over to our driver and he delt with. I assume. I never saw the money exchange hands.

The first was a $20 fee to enter Guna Yala. This is a semi-automous region in Panama that is, you guessed it, run by the indigenous Guna people. Sometimes it’s referred to as Kuna Yala and the people as Kunas. I think that’s because the G and K sound in Spanish are so freakishly similar no one can tell the difference.

The second fee was a $2 port fee. I really don’t understand that one because there wasn’t much of a port. It was more just boats lined up along the river bank. I suppose the fee covered the use of the toilets — by which I mean solely the porcelain bowl. Toilet seats are overrated anyway.

After getting attacked by tiny biting flies, and noticing that one of the boats was flying a flag with a swastika, we borded our boat to paradise.

First, let me tell you about the flag, which wikipedia so helpfully explained to me. It’s got nothing to do with the Nazis and was used by the Guna people before the Nazis usurped and ruined the symbol. The flag the boat was flying was the flag of the Guna revolution.

To see their flag and to learn more about the history of the symbol and why they changed it, visit Earthcircuit.

The 40 minute boat ride to Franklin’s cost $20 per person for a round trip. I don’t know if it’s worth it. It seemed expensive and greedy because how else would we get there? There wasn’t exactly a second option.

But alas, you must’n forget that all of these things — toilet bowls, and well organized boat rides through turquoise water — have been set up so that visitors can experience the idillyc islands that are San Blas. We demanded it.

There were 6 tourists on our boat including Matt and I – everyone was paired off. In front of us was a couple who spoke a load of different languages to each other. And behind us was a German couple. 

Being the anti-social gem that I am, I didn’t talk to anyone but Matt. To be fair, no one talked to anyone.

We all just sat there in complete horror as the boat pulled up to the first island. Oh my god, please don’t let this be my island, we all thought.

The island was shocking.

Look, I’m sure some people — maybe even you — are going to think I’m a horrible person for what I’m about to say. But hear me out.

We were greeted with a view of homes that edged the water, homes that looked like the inside of a ripped open garbage bag. 

Homes that were made of a mixture of plastic sheets, tin, and palm leaves. They were falling apart – or maybe they were never really together. There was NO SPACE in between the homes. They were practically touching each other. 

And there was garbage everywhere!

At one point after Matt had been looking down into the crystal clear turquoise water, he learned over to me and said “there’s a garbage reef below us” in a sad and horrified whisper.

But really, these islands are literally in the middle of nowhere so where would garbage go?! I mean, sewage went into the ocean…you could see the toilets hanging off the end of docks so why wouldn’t garbage go there too?

Every one of us on that boat was hoping the same thing: please don’t let this be my island!

Thankfully it wasn’t any of ours. Matt and I and the very nice German couple carried on to Franklin’s and the multi-language couple went somewhere else.

The boat ride started off beautifully. Then it got super wet and I couldn’t see out my eyes anymore. However, the ride back to the mainland a few days later was dry and sunny so I’ll use that experience to describe what I would’ve saw and would’ve thought.

There was a vast expanse of turquoise sea as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, you can make out the outline of mountains. 

Peppered through out the sea are tiny islands.

Some with white sand. Some with seemly endless supplies of coconuts.

Some inhabited. Some not.

All in paradise.

******

Recap getting to San Blas Island

1) Choose your island. We picked Franklin. 

2) Take a 4×4 jeep for $60 round trip to Guna Yala (Carti dock)

3) Pay the $20 entrance fee to the territory and the $2 port fee

4) Fight off biting flies while you wait for your boat 

5) Sit back and enjoy your $20+ (round trip) boat trip

Total for getting there (and away): $102+*

*Some islands are further away and thus coat more to get to. 

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