San Blas Islands: A Backpackers Guide to Paradise

The gentle sway of my bed brought me out of a deep slumber. It was 6:45am and the temperature in the cabin was already approaching 30 degrees. I needed air. Peeling myself out of my bunk, I pushed my sheet to the side and used the railing to guide my tired body up the stairs. Stepping out on deck, my eyes strained against the bright morning sun. Coffee in hand, I made my way towards the bow of our 60ft baby blue sailboat. The sparkling turquoise water of the Caribbean lapped the sugar white sand beach. Lush palm trees swayed in the morning breeze, a vibrant green against the pale blue sky. A lazy smile spread across my face as I closed my eyes, letting the sun warm my skin. I had woken up in a postcard and it wasn’t a dream. This was our paradise for the day.

Growing up, I had always dreamed of travelling on a sailboat. I always imagined the type of people lucky enough to unfurl their sails and set off to explore distant and exotic lands. To me they were true adventurers. I dreamt of the lives of pirates who spent their days chasing the horizon to unknown lands. A life of constant discovery and exploration set in paradise. I never thought that it was a dream I could make a reality while backpacking. But in October 2017, eye patch in hand, I climbed onboard a 60ft baby blue sailboat named Wildcard with 17 other backpackers. Ahead of us a 5-day sailing trip through the San Blas Islands of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.

Traditional Kuna fishing canoe in paradise

A constellation of 365 idyllic islands, the San Blas archipelago is home to the Kuna Yala people of Panama. And over the past few years it has become a popular route for travellers looking to connect Central and South America. With no traditional land crossing available, making the crossing from Panama to Colombia by boat makes this journey worthy of a top spot on every adventurer’s bucket list.

We met our captain on shore in Puerto Lindo, Panama before hopping in the dinghy and heading over to the boat for our briefing. We listened intently as Captain Debbie got us acquainted with the safety procedures, daily routine and the crew on board. “Wildcard is yours for the next 5-days, so please make yourself at home and enjoy it!”. With a ceremonial backflip off the top deck and a swig of rum, we hauled up the anchor and kicked off what would be a 5-day trip to remember.

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Kuna village visits

Our first four days were spent cruising through the idyllic island chain. On our second day we were able to visit a Kuna village and learn about their traditional way of life. Lazy days were spent indulging in morning dips off the boat and hammock naps on the islands in the afternoon. We lazed in the crystal-clear shallows swapping tales from the road and soaking up the warm Caribbean sun. We wandered soft sand paths around the islands beneath the shade of large leafy palms. At sunset, we’d head back to the boat before dinner.

Lunch was served on the beach, with our toes in the sand and a fresh green coconut topped up with rum to wash it down. Dinner was a seafood feast, barbequed red snapper or fresh langoustine cooked over an open fire and smothered in herbed butter. Plates piled high, we sat around low wooden tables in the glow of the rising moon. Faces red from a day in the sun and the mood upbeat after a few rum and pineapples. The experience was truly magical. We ate like kings, drank like pirates and lounged on the top deck like a young Hollywood heiress on vacation. On the third day, we celebrated the full moon with a bonfire on the beach with another backpacker boat named Santana. Time seemed to simultaneously fly by and stand still. And for a perfect moment, life was a dream.

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Searching for buried treasure

But every hardened traveller will tell you that with every true adventure, comes its challenges. For the most part sailing was smooth and effortless as we cruised the protected waters around the San Blas Islands. But to complete the journey to Cartagena, Colombia we needed to cross a large portion of open water. A truly unglamorous expedition that took us nearly 40 hours. The larger rolling swell brought on seasickness for a few unlucky passengers, myself included. And those lucky enough to dodge the bullet, remained confined to the top deck with nothing to do but watch the horizon. Leaving late afternoon on our fourth day, the majority of our crossing was done overnight. And before daybreak on the morning of our sixth day, we had dropped anchor in the port of the historical city of Cartagena, Colombia.

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Going local

So, what does it take to make this dream a reality? A lot less than you think!

There are two main options to make the crossing from Panama to Colombia, and vice a versa. Option one, is to channel your inner pirate and make the crossing over 5-days on a sailboat, costing $550 USD. Cartagena based Blue Sailing is highly recommended and takes the guess work out of organizing. Managing a large fleet of boats, they will match you with a boat based on the type of experience you want. From smaller boats of 6 people to 60ft vessels accommodating 20 people, they have something for everyone. They offer both catamarans and regular sailboats. This option does require an open water crossing, but it delivers you to Cartagena. The perfect first port of call to start your Colombian Adventure.

The other option is a speedboat journey with extremely popular San Blas Adventures. This tour costs $450 USD and takes 4 days. With rustic beach accommodation on different islands each night, you get more island time and less boat time. Seasickness is generally a non-issue, as a total of only 8-hours is spent on the boat over the 4-day adventure. The downside of this option is its final destination. Dropping you just on the other side of the border. While it does allow you to visit an area of Colombia often overlooked by travellers. You can expect to pay an average of $70USD and two travel days to get to Cartagena or Medellin.

Both options can be booked travelling South or North. It is also a good idea to look at booking your passage around 3-4weeks in advance because trips can fill up quickly. There is also an option available to tour the islands without crossing to Colombia if that suits your plans better. With accommodation in a hostel on an island it is also a good option for those feeling less adventurous.

Regardless of your chosen route, one thing is for certain. An adventure through the San Blas Islands of Panama deserve a top spot on your bucket list.

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Cheers to the good life

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