Visiting the San Blas Islands in Panama is a dream come true for many. I had the pleasure of visiting this archipelago on a three night private island tour. It was a fantastic trip and a place that I highly recommend.
Before I tell you all about this beautiful destination, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Ally Archer – born and raised in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington State. I’ve always been fascinated by history and culture. I loved learning about Egyptian history and the Spanish language at school.
This inspired me to want to visit Spain and countries in Latin America. However, like many American families, travel was something we did inside the borders of the USA. It wasn’t until I put my life savings towards a tuition for a summer study program in Florence, Italy that I traveled overseas.
Catching the Travel Bug from Studying Abroad
My worldview completely changed from that moment onwards. I’ve carried the travel bug with me ever since. I was a naive traveler at age 19 when I studied abroad in Florence. Since then, my love of travel has motivated me to find unique ways to earn a living while traveling the world.
I worked a number of different jobs on a few different continents in the travel and education industries before starting my own online business a few years ago. The goal was to live wherever and work whenever I wanted!
As for photography, I have always been interested in photo and video editing but I didn’t have a ton of experience. In college, I purchased a Nikon DSLR camera right before an internship at an online fashion magazine.
Starting my Travel Blog: Go Seek Explore
This hobby for writing and photography grew into a passion for creating and sharing my work with the world. After the internship ended, I started a personal style blog. However, after working in Europe, my interest in travel grew stronger and I had heaps of advice to give based on my travels.
I then decided it was the perfect time to start my own travel website: Go Seek Explore. I wanted to share my love of travel and photography while helping others find unique ways to work and travel around the world too.
Visiting Panama with Global Degree Academy
I actually went to Panama as part of my role as Academic Coordinator for Global Degree Academy. They brought me in at the end of their Fall 2018 semester. So I was working and traveling with the students through Central America, namely Costa Rica and Panama.
Since I had been running my flexible online business for a couple of years at that point, I was able to take on the short-term work and travel opportunity whilst balancing the academic role with my business.
Our itinerary in Panama included five days in Bocas del Toro, five days in Playa Venao (an incredible little surf destination), a few days in Panama City, three nights on a private island tour of the San Blas Islands, and then back to Panama City again for our last two nights of the trip.
Panama was a country that I didn’t expect to fall in love with. Now, I can’t wait to return one day! The energy of this place was just awesome with its beautiful beaches, amazing wildlife, rich culture and overall positive vibe.
I loved taking my first surf lesson at Playa Venao, seeing dolphins and sloths and going zip-lining in Bocas, taking in the Panama City skyline at night, and of course unwinding on the white sand beaches of San Blas – which have to be some of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Three Amazing Nights in the San Blas Islands
We spent three nights in the San Blas Islands. Our group did a private tour with San Blas Adventures. They arranged everything including the pick-up and drive from Panama City, the boats around the islands, a visit to a local Kuna community, delicious meals such as lobster and fish, and more!
The accommodation on San Blas Islands is as remote as you could imagine. We stayed on three different islands overnight and visited a couple of others during the day. At night, we slept in hammocks inside beach huts. There was no electricity except for one lightbulb outside the hut.
There were no floors too, just sand. We had the islands to ourselves each night except for the locals who partnered with the tour company. The bathrooms had one bucket toilet and a separate bucket shower. Without electricity, internet and shops – we were truly able to unplug and relax.
Favourite Place in the San Blas Islands
It’s hard not to get amazing photos in the San Blas Islands. This archipelago is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world. Many of the photos on my blog or on Instagram were taken by Jake (@jakesthekidd) and Cristina (@cristinatoscan) who both happen to be incredible photographers!
My favourite place was the very first island we visited. It was tiny and was the perfect introduction to the San Blas Islands. Imagine an island with just one little hut, some palm trees, two hammocks and white sand. Paradise!
We left Panama City at 4am in the morning. Our journey to get to this teeny-tiny island involved a long bumpy drive through the jungle and at least an hour or two by boat on choppy waters. Once we arrived, it was time to chill. We played volleyball, went snorkeling and took naps on the beach.
Touring the Islands with San Blas Adventures
I would recommend traveling to the San Blas Islands with a tour company that includes everything you want to do. I am 99% sure that you actually have to travel with a tour company. There are no true hotels or modes of transportation other than by boat or small plane from Panama City.
You definitely want to go with a company and tour guide. Our guide Peter from San Blas Adventures was awesome and extremely helpful. We also had a local Kuna guide with us. He helped us coordinate the logistics with the locals in the community and on the islands.
Our tour with San Blas Adventures took us to the islands from Panama City on a round trip. Some tours will take you from the islands to Cartagena or vice versa. I ended up flying from Panama City to Cartagena after we got back anyway. If you want to visit this city then look into this option!
The islands we saw were pretty much all the same: beach huts, hammocks, white sand, palm trees and maybe a volleyball net. You can’t go wrong with any of them. While the islands all have a similar feel, the look and views vary. Watching a sunrise/sunset from each different island is totally worth it.
Visiting a Kuna Community in the San Blas Islands
We had the pleasure of visiting a local Kuna community and stayed there overnight. It was interesting to see how the Kuna people live. Most have large families, kids tend to play a lot of volleyball, and many live happily without modern conveniences like electricity and the internet.
One local man even invited us into his home and hung out with us. Our tour group and guide Peter were all surprised as that gesture is an extremely rare occurrence. He was so nice and welcoming.
A Cherished Memory in the San Blas Islands
The moment that really stood out to me was on our last full day. We were all relaxing after lunch – taking photos and dancing around to music. I realised then that after being “unplugged” for a few days, you become used to not checking your phone every five minutes or doing productive work.
You just live in the moment and enjoy the experience. I truly felt like I was living in the present moment, soaking up the energy of the San Blas Islands and feeling so grateful to be in such a beautiful place with wonderful people. I’ll never forget that feeling of relaxation.
What you Need to Know Before you Go
Make sure you book your travels to the San Blas Islands with a tour company. I recommend doing some research about the logistics beforehand. Also, be aware that when people say there are no outlets – like electricity, internet, convenience stores, etc. – that this really is the case.
Bring all the essentials you need with you such as medication, swimsuits, a towel or two, sunscreen, a book, shampoo and body wash (for the bucket showers) and snacks. That being said, you don’t need to pack a full wardrobe. You will be in your swimsuit all day after all.
The water gets choppy when you’re boating from island to island (as it was the case for us). The one day I wore shorts and a top over my swimsuit, they got drenched. So I stuck to wearing a swimsuit under a lifejacket.
Try to leave your electronics in Panama City if you can. You certainly won’t need them in the San Blas Islands. The exception to this is your phone and camera because you will still want to capture the beauty of these islands! I bought my DSLR camera, phone and laptop.
San Blas Adventures had plastic sheets to put over my gear just in case anything got wet on the boats. If the company you’re with does not have plastic sheets then forget about bringing your electronics. However, you can secure them with waterproof bags if you want to buy your own.
Take only Memories, Leave only Footprints
Make sure you recycle when you visit San Blas! Our tour company had crate boxes for us to put any trash or recycling in so we could dispose of it properly. Sadly, on one of the bigger islands, we found a secluded beach which was covered in trash. We picked up as much trash as we could here.
A lot of cruises travel around this part of Panama on their way to the Panama Canal. This explains much of the trash. Plus some of it likely washes up from the mainland. I recommend keeping the following phrase in mind for San Blas: “Take only memories, leave only footprints”.
For more San Blas inspiration, come find me on Instagram @allyarcher. Scroll to my “San Blas” highlight to get a look behind-the-scenes. Plus see lots of gorgeous photos I’ve posted over time. I also have some additional travel tips for the San Blas Islands on my blog.
Finally, if you’d like to create an online work + travel lifestyle where you have the freedom and flexibility to take advantage of visiting places like this whenever, check out my free masterclass where I go over the process.
You will love your visit to the San Blas Islands! Have fun and enjoy the beauty that lies in this little corner of the world.