Friday, August 31, 2012

Why and How to Visit The San Blas Islands in Panama - 8-31-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through Panama's San Blas Islands. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. And with 380 individual islands, some only yards long and wide, you can check out a new island every day of the year with a bit left over.

This post covers the history of the San Blas Islands where to stay, and how to get here. Subsequent posts will cover my three day cruise through San Blas (which was awesome, thanks for asking).

Isla Pero (Dog Island)
History of the San Blas Islands and the Kuna Yala Comerica:

The San Blas Islands are part the Kuna Yala Comerica, which is a semi-autonomous region of Panama. The indigenous people, the Kuna Yala, have had contact with Europeans since the 1600s and are a fiercely independent people. In 1924, they violently rose up against the Panamanian government in response to adverse policies affecting the area. Shrewd diplomats, the Kuna Yala struck a deal with the American military. When Panamanian military elements moved to respond to the uprising, a Yankee gunboat was waiting for them. Backed by the Americans, and powered with their deep sense of sovereignty, the Kuna Yala negotiated their own constitution with the Panamanians, and autonomy within Panama. Subsequent constitutions have ceded more and more autonomy to the Kuna Yala. Today, the Kuna pay no Panamanian income taxes, have their own governance and police force and control all development within the Kuna Yala Comerica, including the San Blas Islands. Panama takes care of all international affairs and military defense of the Kuna Yala Comerica, and only interferes in Kuna law enforcement in the most serious circumstances such as murder.

Kuna Village
San Blas Today:

The Kuna have severely limited commercial and resort development in the San Blas Islands, making the area somewhat "rough" for typical Western tourists. Don't expect nice hotels, electricity, or even running water if you stay on an island with the Kuna. Do expect to bathe in rainwater from a bucket and use an outhouse sitting over the water on an isolated part of an island. The upside is that the islands are nearly completely unspoiled; you get NONE of the obnoxious, high density resorts and high rise hotels that dot Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, for instance. You also get the clearest, most pristine water you may see outside of Belize or the Maldives, and you get thick, verdant jungles on many islands.

Fresh fish
Island Accommodations:

Several Kuna families in San Blas host backpackers in Kuna "hostels." Like regular hostels, these hostels have dorm beds and private cabins. The dorms and cabins will be spare...don't expect mattresses or electricity. Do expect some bugs in the cabins, and again...expect to bathe from a bucket and use an outhouse for your toilet. Meals are included in your stay; expect simple rice dishes and seafood. If you get hungry, though, nearly all Kuna accommodations offer guests the opportunity to purchase fresh crab, lobster and fish pulled from the ocean that afternoon.

Unlike regular hostels, you have to book these Kuna hostels either through a hostel or hotel in Panama City, or through a travel company like Panama Travel Unlimited. Different hostels, hotels and travel companies have relationships with different Kuna. So check around to see which place offers nights at the Kuna island most suited to you. Expect to pay between $35 and $150 per person per night depending on the food offered, island you'll be staying on, tours included, and whether you booked a private room or dorm. One hostel I stayed at in Panama City, Mamallena Backpackers, has relations with several Kuna families and offers a range of budget options to stay with the Kuna. Mamallena's owners also own Panama Travel Unlimited, which offers more expensive options to stay with the Kuna.

Travelers I met stayed two or three nights with the Kuna, but you certainly have the option to stay longer. The people I met cited boredom and "island fever" by the third day as their reason for moving on from San Blas.

So relaxing...
Sailing Charters Through San Blas:

Not looking to shower from a bucket? Rather not commit to one island for several days? Book a boat charter! My friends and I used our hostel, Mamallena Backpackers to arrange transportation to and from Carti, which is where the water taxi picked us up to take us to our boat. We arranged our boat charter by contacting a captain directly, however (see below). Mamallena Backpackers in Panama City, and other hostels and hotels in Panama City, have relationships with tour companies and boat captains and can definitely assist you. The list at the end of this post offers several reputable sailing charter companies you can contact, including the one my friends and I used.

Expect to pay between $125 and $175 per person per night for a San Blas Islands boat charter.

Getting to the San Blas Islands:

My friends and I used our hostel in Panama City, Mamallena Backpackers to arrange transportation to and from Carti, which is where the water taxi picked us up to take us to our boat. We arranged our boat charter by contacting a captain directly, however (see below). Mamallena Backpackers and other hostels and hotels in Panama City will have relationships with tour companies and boat captains and can definitely assist you too.

Expect to pay about $60 round trip for the 4x4 taxi ride between Panama City and Carti. Also expect to be picked up from your hostel or hotel around 5AM. The trip should take three or four hours. Taxes to enter Kuna territory are $3 and are payable upon entrance to the Comerica. The water taxi from Carti to the islands or your boat should cost $10 to $15, depending on which island you're headed to.

If you want to contact a tour company or boat captain yourself, start with the following reputable operators. Please note that different captains will have different sized boats, so be sure to ask about boat size and how many people the boat can comfortably accomodate.

1) Panama Travel Unlimited -- This company is owned by the same folks who own Mamallena Backpackers in Panama City. The company has relationships with numerous captains, and even some Kuna if you'd like to stay on an island instead of on a boat.

2) Captain Mats of the boat Da Capo -- This is the boat my friends and I used. Captian Mats has a reputation for being well...moody. He treated my friends and I great, however, and fed us really well. I would recommend using him, if you're OK with sharing the boat with his girlfriend (a great cook!) and their six year old son (somewhat hyperactive).

3) Yacht Latina -- As of August 2012, this company has been operating for about six months, but has a positive reputation. They have two boats.

4) Sailing One World -- The One World is a custom-built 64 foot brigantine schooner. She's got plenty of space and plenty of sail to take you where you need to go.

1 comment:

  1. Not to miss Panana Sun Sailing for bocas del toro sailing tours.