Colombia to Panama: How to book a San Blas Islands boat tour
So you want to book a San Blas Islands boat tour, but have no idea where to start? We’re here to help! San Blas was probably the best trip we’ve ever done in 2 years in South & Central America, but we have to admit that we’ve heard of others who didn’t find it quite so incredible. Since we went in rainy season, experiencing big thunderstorms whilst there and STILL thought it was out-of-this-world, the only real variable is the boat they chose to sail with.
By the way, if any of you are Casa de Papel / Money Heist fans, these are the islands that Tokyo and Rio sneak off to 😉
If you’re looking for other paradise Caribbean islands to visit in this region, don’t miss our posts on:
Firstly, why should you bother to book a San Blas Islands boat tour?
Guys, seriously. This is THE BEST THING. We’ve never known paradise like it. The 365 San Blas Islands are a ‘country within a country’, as they belong to Panama but they are technically owned and governed by the indigenous Kuna people, who have maintained their way of life. You will therefore find zero swanky hotels, zero plastic-chaired restaurants and zero tacky activity tours. If a Kuna family decides to use their island (with permission from their elders) for tourism, you don’t have to worry that tourists may have ruined it. The place remains unspoilt.
Each captain will have their own relationships with different islands, so not all boats go to the same families (one of the islands our boat took us to – see above – was so out of the way that we didn’t see another boat for over 24 hours – except a little Kuna boat selling us their ginormous catch of the day). We spent that night eating a fish BBQ on the island, dancing around the fire and chatting to the Spanish-speaking members of that particular Kuna family.
Besides how amazing it is, there is no road between Panama and Colombia thanks to the impassable Darien Gap (the only break in the Pan-American Highway). Therefore your only options are to sail or fly between the two. If you want to convince yourself that Panama is worth visiting in the first place, check out Indie Traveller’s complete Panama guide.
Can’t I just do a San Blas Islands day tour from Panama City?
Correct. But if you have the time to spare for a full sailing trip, we strongly recommend you do not opt for the day trip. You tend to leave at around 4 or 5am, drive the 1-2 hours to the port, then have around 45 minutes on each of 2 or 3 islands before having to head back to the city again. We haven’t heard any blinding reviews from friends who have seen San Blas this way. These islands deserve to be experienced properly!
But isn’t it expensive to book a San Blas Islands Tour?
Well, it was our greatest single expenditure of our Latin American trip. However, let’s break down what that included and the ‘opportunity cost’ had we flown directly from Colombia to Panama at the end of the same 5 days, on a very optimistic budget:
5 nights accommodation
15 freshly-cooked, excellent quality meals
£50 at Colombian prices
Kayaking 1 day, snorkelling 3 days
Transport from Colombia to Panama
£250 for a flight booked 1 month out
Cost of 5-day San Blas Boat Tour: £420/$550
Cost of 5 days living before flying to Panama: £380/$500
So looking at a 5 day comparison, one might rationalise that you’re actually only paying £40 for the addition of experiencing utter paradise for several days. WE’RE SOLD.
So how do you go about booking a San Blas tour? Here are 4 easy steps:
Step 1: Filter your dates on Bluesailing.net
First up, it’s time to look at bluesailing.net. Now, much to people’s confusion, Blue Sailing is just a comparison site, not a tour operator or boat company. It shows all departures, so you’ll need to hone in on a timeframe. Even if you pick a great boat, if your schedule is tight you’ll have to be pretty lucky to get a perfect departure date, so have a check of departures on bluesailing.net at the very beginning of your search. Boats will usually leave from Cartagena twice a month depending on the company, so make sure you’re looking in advance to secure your place for dates that work for you. Make a list of your options and move to the next stage to whittle them down.
Step 2: Choose a style of boat tour
Next, have a think about what your priorities are for this trip. Do you want a party boat? Do you want less open sea sailing? Do you want a more luxury experience? Do you want quiet relaxation?
If you answered yes to the first two, perhaps consider the San Blas Adventures Tour if the dates suit you. This is a little cheaper than usual ($400 during low season compared to around $500-550 average) as it’s only a 4-night trip instead of 5. Because of this, you leave from/arrive in a small town near the border with Panama (note that you still have to get an all-day bus from Cartagena and then spend a night in that town in order to catch the boat early the next morning, so it doesn’t save you any time in the grand scheme of things). On the plus side, leaving from/arriving at this point along the coast means that you skip out the 36 hours of open sea sailing those who travel directly to or from Cartagena have to do. This makes it a great option for those prone to sea sickness.
Anyway, San Blas Adventures has a reputation for being great for young people who want to party, play fancy dress and mingle with the Kuna people. This is perhaps the only tour where you sleep in hammocks on the islands instead of on the boat, so expect the group to be much bigger (more than 20 people) and make sure you bring your bug spray. There is a strange perception that goes around the travel community that San Blas Adventures is the only tour that takes you to different islands every day and that the others just sit at sea the whole time, but that’s not true. In our 4 days around the islands, we had the freedom to visit at least 7 islands, some of which we kayaked to ourselves.
If you’d like something less partied out but still with a young, exciting vibe, we absolutely 100% recommend Sailing Koala’s Koala X with Captain Fabian. This is the boat we chose to go with. A near-brand-spanking-new vessel with enough space for the small group of 12 people on board, fantastic food from the on-board chef, great relationships with the Kuna people and an English-fluent captain – bald man pictured below – with a cracking sense of humour but a keen eye for safety made this an amazing trip.
They have 2 double bed cabins for the couples on board and then some smaller cabins for single or group travellers. The passengers always seem to be a good mix of mid-twenties travellers with a few younger and older smattered in. Note that on this boat Captain Fabian will not allow passengers to drink during the open-sea stretch (the first 36 hours from Colombia or last 36 hours from Panama). This is due to a high risk of falling off-board into a pitch black sea and the higher risk of getting sea-sick and puking everywhere. The less safe captains will let this slide.
You can usually tell a lot about the style of trip from the bluesailing.net profile and photos. Catamarans tend to have a more chilled vibe, but any boat, catamaran included, that has stripped out the communal areas of the boat and installed bunk beds like a dorm is typically party-only. Don’t expect any frills or luxury food on these types of boats; the owners are not being subtle in their quest for lower costs and larger groups for higher margins. Some will even go as far as offering a free bottle of rum to the group every night in order to sweeten the fact that they’ve had the same tomato pasta for every dinner 😉 While this may sound shite, if it’s rise-n-smash that you’re into, it’s a great way to ensure you’ll be with spritely, like-minded people.
Step 3: Check reviews and blogs of the tours that fit the bill
This is a critical step that should not be missed before you book a San Blas Islands boat tour. There are common horror stories of drunk or stoned boat captains driving through stormy seas and food poisoning due to a rubbish chef or using tap water instead of buying it in bottles.
While Blue Sailing will give you boat and captain profiles, they won’t give you reviews, so we strongly recommend googling both the boat name and the captain’s name to check previous passengers’ experiences. Read TripAdvisor, and search for blogs that mention their boats by name. Certain captains are far more interested in your safety than others who are just there to party with the passengers (again, your choice). Reviews shall reveal all!
Step 4: Get booking your San Blas Islands boat tour!
For the most part, booking through bluesailing.net will give you the security of handing over your deposit securely without paying extra to sort their commission. However, if you have a large group you may be able to chance contacting the captain of the boat directly (most will have their own website) and see if they are willing to negotiate on price, though expect them to ask for the amount in full via bank transfer if you go direct.
And that’s that! The crew should send you detailed instructions of what to prepare and bring with you, where to meet and when. Some boats (namely San Blas Adventures) will ask you to attend a fairly pointless yet mandatory briefing the day before; others will do the right thing and just speak to you before you set sail. Don’t forget your passport, some USD in cash, Mareol tablets for sea-sickness and copious amounts of alcohol (key learning from this trip: it’s surprising how quickly you can get through a litre of rum).
Oh, and did we mention we saw dolphins?!
Did you find a great boat with which to visit the San Blas Islands? Let us and our readers know in the comments!
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