I have been running tours for a long time and I find that the hardest question to answer is a basic one and one that I hear a LOT, ‘what should we do?’
This blog is to help people answer that question themselves when it comes to 2 of Panama’s AMAZING archipelagos, the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean and the Pearl Islands in the Pacific.
Remember, Panama is a ‘developing’ nation and with that comes a developing tourism industry and recently there have been some developments that changed how we visit these amazing islands.
The San Blas Islands
A few years ago you HAD to fly to the San Blas and now there is a road, 4×4 only, and your tours there are approved by the Kuna (now Guna) Indians. So, that means you have options! The flights are still available and they depart ~6am from Panama City and they return ~6:45am from the islands and only take about 30 minutes (and rarely are on time returning to the city). As you can imagine, flying costs more and the places the flights go are the more expensive lodges with BETTER SERVICE! Going for a night starts at $300+pp and goes up depending on the lodge and season. Add ~$100pppn (based on double occupancy).
This will include good food, real tours/guides and a nice ‘cabana’ on or over the water.
You may want to save some $ and check out the ‘backpacker’ version of this trip.. well, be prepared. I am the owner of a tour company and one of the most reliable companies we sent our clients with was 1 hour late picking ME up when they wanted to show me what a great job they do. The drivers are just transport and its not really part of the ‘tour’, so they generally don’t care about your comfort or how long you might have been waiting (starting at 5am). Regardless, your going to what many people consider paradise! 365 islands, covered in palm trees in the Caribbean, amazing! Enjoy it, embrace it.. and don’t complain about the BASIC food your going to eat, its what you paid for, remember. A lot of people think when a tour is said to include snorkeling, that it should include snorkeling.. well, these amazing people do not think the same way. On my trip, there was no equipment and on some, well 1 mask should do for the group, right? IT IS WHAT YOU PAID FOR.. the experience (and it is also why we make it very clear this is NOT a BarefootPanama Tour! Diving is illegal..
The driving option’s options! Now that there is a road you can do this tour as a DAY TOUR! You start early ~5am and get back around 6pm due to the law about time you must leave the Comarca. It will include the transport (car and boat) + ‘tours’ + food and it will cost around $150pp after all is said and done (you will find tours for less.. and then you pay a tax and for the boat and the food and…. It will end up costing ~$150pp).\
Now, there is also another option. Visit the island via Catamaran! This is priced in middle. You still drive to get there and that saves $ but then your tour is run by a reliable guide on a nice boat.
Want to spend more time? GREAT! Stay as long as you want and add between $30 and $100 depending on if you’re in a tent or BASIC cabin or you want to sleep on the Catamaran.
Is this trip for you? ONLY YOU KNOW. Personally, I want to live there forever and think its incredible, but I lived in a hammock for 3 months in Mexico and slept on the roof of a van for 11 YEARS while traveling the Americas! What happens if it rains.. ya get wet or you sit under cover for as long as it rains, bring a book and enjoy this incredible part of the world.
The Pearl Islands
Until recently these islands were almost limited to the Panamanian elite. You had your own boat or plane or you took the 15-minute flight if you could afford it and the hotel (which most Panamanians could not). Along came a ferry and then another and now you can get there for under $100pp. There are options for restaurants and hotels, not a lot, but SOME is better than none. You can still fly to the islands as well making it easy to pick and choose when and how you want to get there and how long you want to stay. . These islands are amazing, historic (Spanish and the pearling industry), convenient (fly/ferry everyday) and recently seen on T.V. (Survivor). Abundant marine life (including whales from June – October) fills the sea. The snorkeling/diving is very good and it feels like the Caribbean because of the way the ‘waves’ lap the white sand beaches. BarefootPanama can help package something for you, but again, its not a tour and if your hotel’s a/c or T.V. doesn’t work or the pool is not full, remember, your in a DEVELOPING NATION.
The Tale of Islands in Two Seas
FREEDOM, that’s a big difference between the 2 destinations. If you want to go back in time, go to the San Blas. If you want to rent a golf cart so you don’t have to walk to the beach, pick The Pearls. Do you like to have a menu (Pearls) or take what they caught today and serve you (San Blas).
What do I recommend? GO TO BOTH! They are some of the nicest islands in the world.