Travel to San Blas : Complete Tourism guide

In this article, you will learn All the best things to do in San Blas IslandsYou will discover the how to get there, where to go, what to do, where to stay, how to get around, costs, etc… So if you plan to travel to San Blas, you will love this new guide.Let’s dive in
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Travel to San Blas Guna Yala territory in Panama

San Blas, beyond being an archipelago of islands and islets worthy of any holiday postcard, is the territory of the Guna Yala.

We, before traveling to San Blas, had read and asked, and the truth is that it is a place that you can not fail to visit.

Its history and its current reality is something that still surprises us.

It can be said that it is the only indigenous community in the entire American continent, where they have real power and self-government over their territory and customs.

Where is San Blas

San Blas is in the province of Guna Yala, in the northern part of Panama, on the Caribbean Sea.

With these credentials, you can imagine, and you will not be wrong, that the place is simply spectacular.

This province reaches the northern border of Colombia.

In fact, it is common for sailboats to arrive from the city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia and make a long stop on these idyllic islands.

Origin of the Guna Yala

Well, the Guna Yala came from what we know today as Colombia to this territory more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

They are the owners of this territory, as in 1870 it was already recognized by Colombia.

But everything changed in 1903, when Panama became independent from Colombia, being its own country, and ignoring some agreements as the one that recognized the Guna Yala territory.

This meant losing the ownership of the territory, besides being divided between two countries, Panama and Colombia.

The government of Panama decided that any culture and language that is indigenous should be eliminated.

And this affected the Guna very much.

This generated strong resistance from this indigenous community, until the Dule Revolution of 1925, when they declared their independence and called themselves the Republic of Dule.

The conflict did not last long, but as always it meant death, but they managed to get the Panamanian government to recognize their autonomy.

Not only that, but it also committed itself to preserving its culture and language.

General Guna Congress

The Guna General Congress is the governing body of this territory.

In fact, Panamanian laws do not apply within the Guna Yala territory.

This self-government has reached such a point that the Panamanian police cannot enter this territory to arrest anyone, for example.

This General Congress is made up of representatives of the local and county congresses.

This is a consultative, deliberative, ceremonial, civic and executive congress.

It meets twice a year, and besides being a very strong tool of cohesion of the whole community, it takes the decisions that are going to affect its territory, always looking for its welfare.

And when we talk about welfare, we talk about preserving nature, helping the community and trying to have a balance between development, culture and economy.

The Guna General Congress has representation in the Panamanian parliament, so they do have some influence.

Moreover, being one of the most visited areas of the country.

Their flags

The Guna Yala have two flags, which you will see almost everywhere.

But there’s one that, if you’re Spanish, is going to get a lot of attention.

The first one is very recent, from the year 2010, it has three horizontal colors, red, yellow and green, with two crossed arms and eight stars.

The second one is much more controversial.

When I saw it, I felt a great need to know why they had that flag.

It’s a flag like the Spanish one, but with a swastika in the middle, yes, I was left with it too.

Well, this flag represents the uprising against the Panamanian government and the Dule Revolution, nothing to do with what it would mean outside that context.

So, when you see it, don’t be afraid, it’s the flag of their revolution.

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The Guna Yala and tourism

Many tourists come to San Blas every year, no more and no less than about a hundred thousand.

This means that for them, this tourism is something very important, but on the other hand, it seems that it does not reach everyone in the same way.

On the islands where there are lodgings and they are run by one or several families, the economic impact is greater.

But even so, illiteracy and poverty still exist.

But something that the Guna Yala do not want is that this tourism affects their culture in such a way that it is dragged into oblivion.

And for this reason, they do try to make visitors aware of how important it is to preserve their way of life.

So there are two lines that the General Guna Congress has imposed on their territory.

San Blas

On the one hand, investment in tourism by foreign companies or investors is not allowed.

And, on the other hand, no family is allowed to carry out a tourism model other than that marked by the congress.

One example is the sale or rental of islands to investors.

Tourists

I think it is very important, in order to preserve the environment and its culture, that we, as visitors, are aware of this.

One of the first rules we were told was that it is forbidden to photograph faces of the Guna Yala without their consent.

They should not be treated as if they were part of a zoo, even if they are different, we are in their territory, and that must be respected.

There is also a limit to the number of sailboats that can enter their territory, in addition to the tax for entering their territory.

And the workers have to be Guna Yala.

Another thing that we as visitors have to take into account, is the management of waste.

If you bring plastic, such as water bottles, return them to Panama City or to your next destination outside this province.

For them, managing waste is not easy, even less so for islands.

Don’t throw waste into the sea, and zero plastic should be something we keep in mind at all times.

How to get to San Blas

The trip to San Blas (port of Carti) from Panama City takes about three hours.

The moment you enter the road that takes you to the Guna checkpoint, it becomes a real mountain road.

The landscape is spectacular, and you can only go in 4×4, with another type of vehicle, it would be impossible to get there.

This road crosses the Nusagandi Reserve.

The landscape is intense green, you can see the degree of conservation, so much so, that they say it is one of the best preserved reserves in the world.

Luckily, it seems that they have neither deforested nor intended to do so, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

When you arrive at the checkpoint, first it is the Panamanian police to whom you have to show your passport.

Once they let you through, the next checkpoint is the General Guna Congress.

They ask for your passport again, and you have to pay an entrance fee to their territory.

The money they take from this entrance, is dedicated to projects for the community, as well as the conservation of their territory.

Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why they do not need to deforest their land.

Islands in San Blas

We were on the Island of Chichime, and from there, we were able to visit other nearby islands.

The truth is that we felt we were in a paradise far from civilization.

An experience that was really worthwhile.

You can take a look at this article, Chichime Island, a paradise in San Blas, Panama, where we tell you our experience there, what we did, what islands we saw and what you can do in this little paradise of 365 Caribbean islands.

Next we tell you, according to the number of visitors, which islands are more peaceful, and which are more crowded.

This way you can choose the one that best suits what you are looking for.

Very crowded

Isla Diablo, Isla Perro Grande, Isla Perro Chico, Isla Aroma and Isla Senidup are some of the busiest islands in San Blas.

Some of these islands are very crowded because of their proximity to the port of Carti.

Others are quite cheap, so many people go there and they are always full.

If your budget is not too high, and you don’t mind sharing your time on the island with other visitors, they are a good option.

Very quiet

Cayos Holandeses and Chichime are the quietest islands in San Blas.

This is mainly due to the fact that they are quite far from Puerto Carti.

And if it takes an hour to get to Chichime, take at least half an hour more to get to the Dutch Keys.

 

Hire an excursion to San Blas

We hired the excursion to Chichime at Hostel El Machico, where we did not stay the night before.

During our stay on the island of Chichime, we stayed at the Wichudub Cabins, Argelio, the person in charge of the accommodation, told us that they also organized the whole trip, and perhaps with them, by taking out an intermediary, it would be cheaper.

 

Keep in mind that the islands get more crowded on weekends, as many Panamanians go there.

During the rainy season it will be emptier than in the dry season, but avoid the holiday from November 2 to 4.

During those days the most touristy areas of the country are full, and that includes Santa Catalina, Bocas del Toro, Boquete and San Blas.

Chichimé Island, a paradise in San Blas, Panama

 

San Blas, that Caribbean archipelago in Panama was one of the places we wanted to visit whether or not we went to Panama.

The reasons were varied.

On the one hand, we wanted to get a little closer to an indigenous place and get to know it first-hand.

But we also wanted to enjoy perhaps, one of the paradises of the Caribbean, the whole Caribbean, not just Panama.

And of course, we wanted to check if those images we had seen of postcard islands were true or not.

I’m telling you they are real, so real that it seems incredible that they are there, like that, with palm trees, crystal clear water, white sand and rudimentary cabins.

Our Robinson Crusoe experience on a lost Caribbean island was about to begin.

This archipelago has 365 islands and islets, a good plan would be to spend a day on each of them for a year! Well, of all these islands, only about 50 are inhabited.

And they are only inhabited by the Guna Yala, since they are the owners of this territory.

And it is they who govern and self-manage these islands.

A paradise for the almost fifty thousand Guna Yala who live in this archipelago.

A little history Guna Yala

Since it is an indigenous area, we wanted to find out a little bit about their history before arriving, but the truth is that we found out much more by talking directly to them.

When we arrived at the port of Cartí, where the boats from the different islands arrive, something that really caught my attention was that there was a flag with the colors of the Spanish one with a swastika, but on the contrary, where am I?

Well, as soon as I arrived on our island, I did not take long to ask for that flag, as it was everywhere, boats, cabins, jetties…

And so we learned the reason for this flag and the history of Guna Yala.

The past

It is in the year 1925 when the Guna Yala rise up against Panama.

They consider Panama a colonist country, the same as Colombia, since previously Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador were a country.

After gaining independence from Spain these four countries formed the United States of Colombia.

Restrictive laws, taxes and the crushing of the Guna Yala culture made them rise up in arms.

After a war with Panama, they managed to have independence over their territories, where the law, which still prevails is the Guna Yala.

 

They told us that the flag we had seen and that had left us in checkered clothes, was the one they used during their war against Panama.

Since it defined the fight against the Spanish and Panamanian colonists.

The present

Today, San Blas and the entire Guna Yala region, which also has territory on the continent, is governed by its laws.

They have representation in the Panamanian Congress.

They are administered through local councils (each island, if inhabited, forms a council).

Above these local councils is the Great Congress that unites all the local councils and is where decisions affecting the community are made.

San Blas Chichime

They have all the power over the natural resources of this region and how to use them.

If there is one thing I like, it is that the area of the continent is very wild and is preserved from possible deforestation.

In addition, the archipelago is clean, as always, as far as possible, since plastic reaches everywhere.

The Guna Yala speak their own language, the Dule, and for us it is incomprehensible.

But if you ask them how to say “Hello” or some other word, and then use it, they will love it.

Chichime Island

As I mentioned above, there are 365 islands that make up the archipelago, but not all of them, although some are prepared for the arrival of tourists.

 

We chose this island, Chichime, because where we bought the 4-day tour, we were told that it was one of the quietest, in addition to being very close to the Guna Yala during our stay.

They showed us some pictures, and after we were amazed, we did not hesitate to go there.

I think it was a very good choice.

The Guna Yala community is distant, but there were several people who were very nice from the beginning.

So much so, that any question you asked them about them, they would tell you everything.

We felt really welcome and cared for during the time we were there.

 

The island is not very big, it takes about 25 minutes to walk around it, but it has incredible beaches and water.

From Carti it takes about an hour, which means that not many people arrive, as there are other islands that are closer and, due to their proximity to the coast, are more touristy.

On this island there are three different accommodations, with quite a few cabins, very few, so it is difficult to see you overflowed with people.

This makes you feel comfortable, very comfortable.

 

The Guna of this island live next to the cabins of the visitors, that is to say, almost next to the beach.

Seeing the cabins like this, makes you feel as if you were watching a documentary, since the women dress in traditional costumes, and their way of life has changed little in the last decades.

The center of the island is full of palm trees and a small jungle.

The coconuts from the palms are one of their most important sources of income, so if you want a coconut, you ask them, not you.

And the only other wildlife here, apart from visitors, are two parrots and a squirrel.

 

In front of Chichime, some sailing boats from Colombia, Cartagena de Indias, to this idyllic archipelago usually anchor.

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What to do in Chichime Island

Well, don’t forget to bring snorkel and tube glasses, although if you don’t have them, they’ll rent you the ones they have.

Get ready to enjoy incredible marine life.

Snorkel, sunbathe, lie down in a hammock and rest.

But also, within the price you pay to go to this island, it includes a tour to see other islands and snorkel.

Snorkel

One of our daily activities was swimming and discovering fish and more fish.

We saw white tipped sharks, like in Santa Catalina, huge manta rays, and when I say huge, I mean very huge.

We also saw many starfish, endless schools of colorful fish, and a coral in perfect condition.

You can swim to the barrier reef, take it easy as there is no hurry, and you will see all kinds of fish.

If you like snorkeling, Chichime is a paradise.

Also, the visibility of the water is huge.

Regarding the excursion we did, we visited the following places.

Natural pools

Near the barrier reef there is a natural pool in which you can swim.

It doesn’t cover much, above the knees.

The water is like a raft, since there are no currents or anything like that.

 

Frigate Island

This island is a typical postcard island.

Or rather, typical, since it is a small island from which a tongue of sand emerges and joins another even smaller island.

You can walk around it, and as it is the destination of some excursions, there are stalls where you can buy some remnants.

Sunken Boat Island

This island doesn’t have much on land, but in the sea, there’s a wreck, a wreck.

We actually spent over an hour going around, snorkeling around this boat.

It’s been sunk for so long, it already has real coral of different colors stuck to its walls.

Besides, there are some nooks and crannies that will make you feel like Jaques Cousteau.

I really loved this place.

I wouldn’t have minded coming back more times.

Thousands of fish have taken this boat as their own, a place to meet, eat or even live.

A real treat.

Other islands of San Blas

As I mentioned above, there are 365 islands that make up this archipelago, and not all of them are inhabited, nor can you go and stay there.

Here are some of the most common, so you can get an idea of what each one offers.

Very crowded

Isla Diablo, Isla Perro Grande, Isla Perro Chico, Isla Aroma and Isla Senidup are some of the busiest islands in San Blas.

In some cases because of their proximity to the port of Carti, and in others because they are quite cheap.

So if your budget is not too high, and you don’t mind sharing the time on the island with other visitors, they are a good option.

Very quiet

Cayos Holandeses and Chichime are the quietest islands in San Blas.

This is mainly due to the fact that they are quite far from Puerto Carti.

And if it takes an hour to get to Chichime, it takes at least half an hour more to get there.

Mind you, you’re guaranteed to feel a bit Robinson Crusoe in a spectacular place.

Best time of year to visit San Blas

Choosing the best time to travel to San Blas is important, and I tell you this from experience.

We travel in the month of November, when it is the rainy season, and also, the most important holiday in the country.

So, when we got to Carti, it started raining as if there was no tomorrow.

Something exaggerated.

We had to put our backpacks, cameras, etc, in tightly closed garbage bags to prevent them from getting wet.

When we arrived in Chichime, after more than an hour by boat, bailing out water, and the super rough sea, it was still raining.

The truth is that the trip was not the best due to these weather conditions.

During the four days we were there, except for the first one that rained until noon, the rest were fine.

The second day was very good, both in terms of sunshine and heat.

Well, in San Blas, having a tropical climate, temperatures are mild all year round.

 

On the third day, we saw a real tropical storm forming.

Suddenly the sky in the background turned black, and when that black man approached us, it started to get very windy.

Because of this wind, the branches of the palms and the palm trees seemed to suffer to stay in place, and it began to rain heavily.

But after two hours, the day stayed very good, and our fourth day was also a good day.

But keep in mind, that the rainiest season in this Guna Yala region is from November to February.

How to get to San Blas

You can go to San Blas on your own, but depending on how much time you have, it might not be worth it.

And it also makes a difference if you go there at the weekend or from Monday to Friday.

We discarded this option, as it involved too much logistics.

And apparently on the way, going on a rainy day without being a weekend, we would not have been able to get 4×4 to go from the Pan-American Highway crossing to the port.

After driving around and making calls, we bought a tour that for $220 per person included the trips from Panama City to Carti.

The boat from Cartí to Chichimé and back, the accommodation and the three meals of the day.

We also bought bottled water, since there is not much running water on the island.

But remember one thing, if you take plastic to the islands, you must return it with you.

Waste management on the islands is not easy.

Hire an excursion to San Blas

As I told you before, we hired him at Hostel El Machico, where we didn’t stay the night before.

But when we were on the island of Chichime, we stayed at the Wichudub Cabins, Argelio, the person in charge of the accommodation, told us that they also organized the whole trip, and maybe with them, by taking out an intermediary, it would be cheaper.

 

In any case, keep in mind that the islands are fuller of visitors during the weekends, since many Panamanians go there.

And during the rainy season it is going to be emptier than in the dry season, but it avoids the November 2-4 holiday.

During those days the most touristy areas of the country are full, and that includes Santa Catalina, Bocas del Toro, Boquete and San Blas.

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