San Blas, Panama: 2 Nights of Island Life on a Budget
Being from the US, it might seem odd that I never paid much mind to my southern neighbors Central and South America. When I finally did decide to venture into this unknown territory, my plans were made a bit haphazardly, and the itinerary ultimately came down to price. This is how I ended up flying to Panama City, a hub and connector of Central and South America. I showed up without a plan, and without much knowledge about the country in general. On more than one occasion the words “San Blas” were mentioned as a must-see place, and after a quick Google image search, I was sold (a similar Google search is pretty much how I ended up teaching abroad and subsequently living in Thailand for two years).
The epitome of paradise, there are enough San Blas islands for every day of the year, and only 49 of them are actually inhabited. If you search online, you’ll find a series of tours that’ll put you up on one of these islands, all-inclusive, for $250 or more for only two nights. Considering I’m traveling on a budget and have made $250 last me an entire month before, I wasn’t a fan. Unfortunately, Panama isn’t the cheapest country, so two nights in paradise came with a price tag, but a reasonable one that even I was willing to splurge a bit for.
A few words of caution before I continue; if you’re not down with the following, this option probably isn’t going to tickle your fancy:
Huts with sand floors
Zero cell service
Two bathrooms, one island
Specific hours for water usage
Bumpy and often wet boat rides
No-frills meals (think lots of rice and chicken and/or vegetables)
Now if that didn’t scare you and you’re still reading, you deserve to know the perks:
A small island with white sandy beaches and crystal clear water
Very few people
Hammocks for days
Epic sunrises and sunsets
Excursions to deserted islands
A chance to disconnect
A group of like-minded people from all over the world
So yeah, it looks a little something like that. If I've done a good job of convincing you to rough it in paradise, here’s what you need to do:
Contact one of two hostels in Panama City: El Machico or Mamallena. These hostels have special “homestay” deals with the indigenous Kuna people on several islands. I stayed at Mamallena and arranged my tour the day before I wanted to go. Apparently these homestays can only be booked one day in advance, so if you’re a last minute planner this is great news for you.
For my particular trip, I chose Inas Cabins on the island of Naranjo Chico. There are others available, but I can only speak for this particular island. The most expensive part of the whole ordeal is the transportation, and you will pay the hostel $60 directly for a round-trip 4x4 ride to the port where the boats depart. It picks up at 05:00 AM on the departure day, stops by a local grocery store where you can stock up on snacks and water, and embarks on a several hour ride, part of which resembles a roller coaster undulating through the jungle. My advice? Grab the front seat if you can. I’m not one to get carsick, but the dramatic winding roads and hills are bad enough to test even the best of us.
When you’re almost to the port, you will be required to pay a $20 island tax, and at the port, an additional $2. If you have large bags, guys will be handing out garbage bags to put them in and protect them from the water. Take one. On the boat, avoiding the back left side is advisable if you don’t want to end up like my new friend from Switzerland, soaked head to toe.
When you arrive on the island, you’ll sit down with one of the Kunas and pay for your accommodation. Private huts are available, but I opted for a “dorm” which was essentially one big hut with 8 beds in it. The cost of the accommodation at the time of this writing was $26/night, and this included 3 meals a day. Don’t expect anything glamorous- you’ve got a thatched roof and walls, a sand floor, mattresses with sheets and a pillow, and a 15-second walk from your front door to the ocean (ok, that last part is semi-glamorous).
Once you’re there, your days will be spent lounging, eating, drinking, reading, playing volleyball, playing cards, and trying to get used to not having a cell phone. Bring sunscreen, and try not to fall asleep in a hammock with your hand on your thigh. The resulting tan line isn’t ideal.
Beer, soda, water and bottles of rum are available for sale at a little “bar” they’ve set up. You’ll pay very reasonable prices of $1.00-$1.50 for a beer or soda and $15 for a bottle of rum. I probably wouldn’t have dragged a gallon jug of water with me had I known this beforehand. You have the option of adding an excursion for $10-$15 as well- I opted for the $10 one which dropped me off at beautiful and deserted Pelican Island for a few hours, while others took the “special” tour and bounced around to a few different spots.
All in all, two nights on an idyllic San Blas island cost me about $150, which is $100 less than the lowest advertised tour I found online. On top of that, no reservation was needed, I made a bunch of new friends from around the world, and I got to frolic around in paradise.
I'll top this off with a few more photos in case you needed any more justification. Questions, comments? Feel free to leave them below!