I had to look up where the San Blas Islands were on a map when my husband suggested adding them to our trip to Panama. As it turned out, they weren’t even called the San Blas Islands anymore, now officially recognized by Panama as part the Guna Yala, a province governed by the semi-autonomous Guna indigenous people. This became part of the intrigue for me. Not only would we be able to visit some palm tree perfect uninhabited islands, but we could also have a unique experience learning about this tribe. In this matriarchal society, the women are famous for their colorful blouses decorated with hand crafted molas (a very labour intensive multi-layer embroidered appliqué) and bracelets in vibrant hues wrapped around their legs and arms. This was enough to pique my interest.
San Blas Sailing
As I started to research the islands, I discovered that the accommodation options were in most cases very rudimentary, and that one of the best ways to see them was by chartering a sailboat. As our schedule would only allow for a few days, this seemed like a great way to visit a bunch of islands in a short period of time.
Researching family-friendly boat charters in the San Blas Islands proved a little challenging, but eventually I found a gorgeous catamaran called the Southern Belle owned by George and Melinda Salley. As they had raised their son on the boat I knew that having children on the boat would not be an issue for them.
Update June 2016: It is my understanding that the Southern Belle is now in the U.S. but please keep reading.
Another boat charter company that comes highly recommended for sailing the San Blas Islands is Blue Sky Sailing owned by Debbie and Breeze Filina. They get great reviews (5/5 stars on TripAdvisor) and you can book directly with them (no middle man). Alternatively, if you prefer, you can book them through the Airbnb booking site. Debbie and Breeze assist in making all travel arrangements at no extra cost for their guests with 100% of the proceeds going directly to the SUV service provider and to the launcha boat service. They also offer a waterfall hiking tour through a Kuna Indian friend. The hike takes you past a large Indian burial ground and includes a boxed lunch and water. 100% of the proceeds go directly to the guide and her community island of Rio Sidra. Families traveling with young children may be interested to know that Debbie and Breeze raised their son Josh onboard the Blue Sky. He is now a professor of marine biology at the West Palm Bch. State College !
Sailing the San Blas Islands – The Experience
Our 3 day trip was fully all inclusive with the only additional costs being what we purchased on some of the islands (a cash only business) and our road transportation via 4×4 to and from Panama City. Seas were generally calm and we enjoyed visiting a number of interesting islands, did some great snorkeling, stayed up late on deck watching shooting stars and procured some beautiful molas and beads from island villages. At one such stop, a mother and mola maker even took it upon herself to play a little game of dress-up with my daughter (she had 2 boys).
Tips for Sailing the San Blas Islands
When to Go: December-April for the trade winds and little to no rain
Getting There: Most boat charters will arrange your transportation on a 4×4 truck from Panama City to a dock near Carti (at which point you take a short boat transfer). Pick up from your hotel is normally around the hideous hour of 5am. We used Lam Tours and the cost was $42 per person each way, payable in cash (this included various entry fees and taxes). Personally, I was imagining the worst, with some kind of open back pick up truck, but the vehicles were nice new models that could even accommodate a car seat if necessary (although call ahead if this is what you require). The road, although mostly paved and in decent shape, is very windy and rather unpleasant for those who are prone to carsickness. Once you are in the islands you forget all about this nasty trip and it will only creep back into your brain on the morning of your return trip.
What to Bring: Your boat will likely provide you with a list of things to bring, but be aware that there is no fashion show going on in the San Blas islands. In fact, I was told I would look out of place when I tried to bring my flip flops to shore. Bathing suits, sunglasses (ideally polarized), hats that stay on in the breeze, sun covers, water shoes, sunscreen, mosquito repellent (although this was not an issue for us in dry season) and small bills for purchases (most places do not have power, let alone a bank machine) are all you really need.
Important to Know: There is little in the way of medical facilities in the San Blas Islands (although I saw a new hospital under construction near Carti). Bring with you any and all medication you may need. If you are concerned about a serious medical issue…..perhaps choose a different vacation destination.
Boat Safety: Find out what your prospective boat has in terms of emergency and safety equipment. Also find out if they have lifejackets for children as well as adults.
Cost of a Family San Blas Boat Charter: We paid about $700 USD/day for our family of 4 which included all meals, beverages (including alcohol), island visits and 2 crew members. When researching boats, I had quotes ranging from $500/day to $1000/day (the latter was through charter companies). Be sure to confirm the number of crew and passengers on the boat. It may cost a little extra to have the boat just for your family, but it beats having to make small talk with a stranger for days on end.
Tips for Sailing the San Blas with Kids
In additional to my tips, Debbie Felina of Blue Sky Sailing kindly offered these expert tips:
- I would suggest the parents purchase snorkeling gear that fits their children properly.
- Check for a proper fit. Place the mask without the strap or snorkel on their face. Have them breathe in with only their mouth. Then quickly remove the mask. If you hear a “pop” sound, it means there is proper suction and should not let water in when they snorkel.
- The kids should practice with the gear in a swimming pool, or if necessary the bath tub..
- If the parents are purchasing a new mask for their kids, it will probably have a bit of a film on it. The film can be removed with just a bit of toothpaste vigorously rubbed on both the inside and outside, then rinsed.
- Just a very small drop of baby shampoo rubbed in each of the lens will prevent fogging. Rinse the baby shampoo out in the water before snorkeling.
- It is important kids have their own properly fitting life jackets. If your family will be traveling on launcha boats ect… the tour operators will not normally carry children sizes.
- Transportation around the islands in the San Blas is by launcha boat. You will most likely get WET! Bathing suits and a T-shirt are all the kids will need to wear on the launcha boats aside from their life jackets. Don’t forget a bottle of water for each person.
- In any remote area such as the San Blas, there are often no places to purchase grocery items. Food must be brought in from the city. It is most important that you let the boat’s chef know several days in advance of any dietary restrictions, or food items your family doesn’t care to eat. Parents should bring snacks and sweets with them that their family will enjoy.
- LEGOS! We have a big box of Legos onboard for kids to enjoy. It is surprising the lack of toys that parents bring.
- For older children e-books with a “backlight” are perfect for reading on the deck or in their beds at night.
- Don’t forget sunblock, sunscreen, hats, and long sleeve shirts to wear snorkeling. Some type of enclosed water shoes are a must, stepping on a sharp shell or sea urchin is no fun!
- Flash lights are helpful for night times trips to the bathroom in the unfamiliarity of being in a boat or cabana.
- The SUV ride from Panama City to the Carti coast thru the mountains on twisting roads can be a tough on kids tummys. Dramine or other anti motion sickness meds may be necessary. Bring a bottle of water for each person.
While certainly not the easiest place to get to, sailing the San Blas Islands is probably one of our most memorable family adventures to date. If you would like to see a little more, here is a short YouTube video: