My Family Adventure: Sailing in San Blas, Panama
Victoria Westmacott and her family take a catamaran trip to discover the magical, untouched San Blas Islands in Panama.
By: Victoria Westmacott, co-founder globetotting
Children: Two children aged 6 and 5 at the time of travel
Our sailing trip in the archipelago of San Blas was one of our first family holidays in Panama, and remains one of my favourite long weekends to date.
Located just off the north coast of Panama, this network of coral islands stretches over 226km in the direction of Colombia and is a region of remarkable beauty. Hundreds of picture-perfect islands sprinkle the Tiffany-blue waters of the Caribbean sea. Untouched by the modern world, this slice of paradise is like stepping back in time. If 15th century explorers such as Columbus and Balboa were to return to these parts, I don’t expect they would find that much has changed.
San Blas, or Guna Yala as it’s officially termed, has the unique, and somewhat contradictory advantage of being both accessible (from Panama City it’s only a 2.5 hour drive to the other side of the isthmus) and spectacularly remote. Only 49 out of the 365 islands are inhabited, not by Hollywood celebrities or media moguls (fortunately!), but by the Kuna (or Guna), an indigenous group of American Indians.
After a violent uprising in 1925, the Panama government granted the Kuna partial autonomy, giving them control over their land. Unaffected by notions of wealth, the Kuna put strict regulations in place to protect the region from foreign investment and mass tourism, measures which they still adhere to very much today. As such, you won’t find any chain hotels, luxury restaurants or modern amenities here. It’s near to impossible to find a phone signal or even a flush toilet and mercifully you won’t encounter any banana boat rides or jet skis here either!
This is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of many other Caribbean destinations. San Blas is a haven for unplugging and unwinding; reasons for loving it that little bit more.
Video: Sailing in San Blas, Panama
How to Go
Overnight visitors to San Blas have the option of camping on one of the islands in simple cabañas or chartering a boat. With the odd exception such as this one, the former are backpacker-basic and offer double rooms or dormitories with shared bathrooms. Depending on which island you sleep on, you may need to bring all your food and drinking water with you. Not surprisingly, the option of sleeping onboard a private yacht appealed to us much more!
We booked two cabins on a 4-cabin catamaran through a specialised tour operator (see details below). We opted for a catamaran as its hammock-like net between the hulls offered a bigger, and a safer (we assumed) deck area than a monohull – something to consider when sailing with kids. We were very happy with our choice, as were the children who would lie on their bellies as we set sail, transfixed by the water flowing beneath them.
Our hosts, a retired French couple, occupied the remaining two cabins. They had plenty of experience in sailing, including a period in their lives when they sailed a large chunk of the world with their children (kudos to them!). We felt very lucky, as they couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful with our two kids. It was like holidaying with family!
One of my initial concerns was how safe the boat would be for the children (they were 6- and 5-years old at the time of travel). Not surprisingly yachts are not particularly child-proof! The handrails that run around the deck function better as washing lines than safety rails and the gaps between the ropes are, in places, bigger than the child itself. Needless to say, you do need to keep an eye on children at all times, particularly when they are on deck.
Despite these concerns, it proved to be an extremely doable, and surprisingly relaxing holiday for both the children and us. This was also, in large parts, due to the kind support of our hosts. They told us they had grandchildren the same age as our children and were wonderful in helping out with ours. It was the little gestures we particularly appreciated such as hosing down the kids as they came out of the sea and getting them a towel or sharing their iPad with them for a game of Solitaire.
Our three days were filled with simple pleasures such as leaping off the back of the boat, kayaking in still lagoons, snorkelling in coral gardens and enjoying some gentle sailing between moorings. One of the great advantages of having your own boat in San Blas is the independence it offers. If an island becomes too crowded you can simple continue to the next one. There is, after all, one island for each day of the year here.
The Best Parts
Jumping off the back of a yacht into the sparkling, aqua-blue sea! The children also enjoyed bobbing around the waters in their lifejackets and it would often be twilight before we could get them out. The underwater world is equally captivating; there was one coral garden in particular, I believe somewhere between Chicheme and Lemmon Cays West, that was so mesmerising that I felt myself slip into something of a trance! I spent so long admiring the intricate patterns of the corals and eyeballing fearless little fish that I surfaced as an ice block.
Tip! If you plan to be in the water for lengthy periods (or have the habit of losing time underwater as I do) bring a wetsuit!
I also discovered the classic rum cocktail that comprises 1 shot of rum, a spoonful of sugar and a generous squeeze of lime. So good! Particularly when drunk watching the sun go down and/or under the stars and with a tummy full of lobster.
Most packages to San Blas include a car transfer from Panama City to the little dock at Carti (approx. 2.5 hours drive). Our car pickup was scheduled for 4:45am but the car arrived at 5:15am. To avoid a stressful experience, it helps to accept from the start of your holiday that Panamanians are not particularly punctual people! If you organise this drive independently, be advised that the road can be extremely steep in places and a 4×4 or a decent SUV is essential.
Just before reaching Carti you are obliged to pay a toll (rates range from $2-$10 depending on whether you are a foreigner, diplomat or national). Once at Carti you transfer to a motor launch to take you to your appointed yacht. The organisation at the dock may appear a little chaotic but I can vouch that it works!
The length of this transfer service can vary significantly depending on where your yacht is moored at the time. It took us 1.5 hours to reach our boat (we were the last drop-off). As the wind was against us the ride was relatively slow and extremely wet!
Tip! Get changed into your swimming suits / rash shirts at Carti, apply lots of sun-cream and tie your hats to your lifejacket!
It is also possible (and sometimes quicker depending on where your boat is moored) to fly from Panama City to the airport, Corazon de Jesus. Flights tend to get booked up quickly (there were none left when we looked into this option, a fortnight or so before departure).
Our San Blas Itinerary
We booked this holiday through San Blas Sailing, a tour operator that is recognised by the Panamanian Tourist Board and based in Panama City.
The itinerary of your trip will be determined by your host/captain. As a guide, this was how our days were filled:
Transfer Panama City to Cardi.
Boat taxi to Salardup, where our catamaran was waiting for us.
Snorkel around Salardup.
Sailed to Lemmon Cays East (1 hour).
Swam around boat.
Sailed to Chicheme.
Kayak in lagoon.
Swam around boat.
Snorkelled on other side of island.
Snorkelled around a tiny one-palm-tree island with no name.
Sailed to Lemmon Cays West.
Snorkelled in a coral garden between Chicheme and Lemmon Cays West.
Boat taxi back to Carti
We were told the pick up would be at 7am but they didn’t arrive until 10am. This, we were told, is typical Kuna scheduling!
Tips for Visiting San Blas
The Kuna are famous for their colourful molas (intricate embroideries depicting birds, animals and marine life) and beaded jewellery that they wrap around their arms and legs. They usually paddle out to the yachts in dug-out canoes to sell these. Be warned, they can be quite persistent, but if you are going to buy a mola, I’ve found them to be cheaper here than anywhere else in Panama. (They can cost between $20 and $100 a piece depending on the design and work involved).
The phone network, Movistar doesn’t work in San Blas, but we were told that Digicell and Masmovil work in some spots. Also WiFI can be found on Isla Verde, apparently!
Our sailing hosts recommended Holandes Cays for snorkelling (although we didn’t have time to get there ourselves).
Don’t take any coconuts off the islands! The Kuna’s economy is fuelled by coconuts and taking any (even coconuts on the ground) is considered stealing and may result in a fine.
Clothes that get wet from salt-water (or even a little damp) will take days to dry. Take a tip from our sailing hosts and rinse your swimmers / sarongs etc in a bucket of fresh water at the end of each day.
Where to sail? San Blas can be divided into two zones that sit either side of Isla Tigre. The most popular side for sailing is the zone west of Isla Tigre (where we were). This comprises of popular islands such as the Lemon Cays, Hollandes Cays, Chichime and Coco Banderos. To the east of Isla Tigre the islands are scattered over a much larger area. This area is less frequented by boats and as such, the Kuna communities here are less affected by tourism and perhaps more traditional.
See our recommended reading for San Blas and remember to download any books to your kindle in advance as there is no wifi here!
What to Bring
- With the exception of the Kuna indians selling their wares from dug-out canoes, you won’t find any shops here (see photo above). Do ensure you bring all essentials with you, including any favourite snacks for the kids.
- Cash to pay the Kuna taxes (around $10 per person) which is to be paid directly to the Kuna at Carti (credit cards not accepted).
- Bring small change too: Some Kuna communities charge a small fee (e.g. $2) to access their island. They also charge tourists a small fee (e.g. $1) for taking photographs of them.
- Snorkelling kit + spares (we lost a snorkel on day 1!)
- Aqua shoes are a good idea (coral cuts can be nasty)
- Sunblock / cream (high factor)
- UV rash vests with long sleeves, the sun is extremely strong.
- Lifejackets for kids are a must.
- Wetsuits for serious snorkelers
- Having said this is unplugged paradise, the iPad can be a blessing when the kids are tired and waiting for dinner. Remember that the electricity on boats is generated by solar power so choose your gadgets well (no hairdryers for example!).
- Classic board games (travel chess, backgammon, cards) are always good to have on holiday!
The Best Time To Go
Panama, including the San Blas islands, is located outside the Atlantic hurricane area and has a tropical maritime climate with two distinct seasons: the dry season (mid December to April) and the rainy season (April/May to December).
Some believe that the dry season is the best time to visit San Blas, however we don’t necessarily agree. Although there is very little rain during this period it does coincide with the arrival of strong trade winds. This can make the sea very choppy in parts and underwater visibility is significantly reduced. One advantage of these winds though is that mosquitos are less of an issue.
We took this sailing holiday in March, at the very end of the dry season, and found the conditions very good.
For more information on travelling with kids in Panama visit our Family Guide to Panama
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