The San Blas Islands (or Comarca Kuna Yala as they are called by the locals), are a truely fascinating group of tiny, idyllic Caribbean islands populated by the indigenous Kuna Indians (50,000 in some 50 communities). This is a semi-autonomously governed region of Eastern Panama, in which the only form of currency was the coconut until the mid 1990's.
These Caribbean islands have a real castaway feel to them, and the Kuna Indians are a friendly and fascinating group of people to meet. If you like beaches, as well as meeting indigenous groups and learning about local culture, Panama's San Blas Islands are an absolute must visit destination. Most of the islands are completely unpopulated - those where the local Kunas are present are often choc-a-bloc with very basic bamboo houses.
This is a very primitive, humbling, undeveloped and special beach paradise like nowhere else in Latin America. Tourism in the San Blas Islands is very small scale - and very memorable. If you like creature comforts, it probably best to visit elsewhere in Panama, but if you have a vague earning for adventure travel with a cultural influence, the San Blas Islands is the place in Panama for you.
Hotels in (Western) San Blas Islands
The access point to the Western region of the San Blas Airport is the airport at El Porvenir, which is served by flights from Panama City with both Air Panama and Aeroperlas. There is also a road (but little to no public transportation) to Carti Suitupo, from where is is possible to arrange boat transportation to the San Blas Islands. Other means of visiting the San Blas Islands include by cruise ship (which usually go to Ikodue) or arranged a private chartered sailing boat (the best way to explore - you can even continue onwards to Capurgana on Colombia's Caribbean coastline).
Coral Lodge - an elegant, relatively upmarket resort that is located just outside the borders of the Comarca Kuna Yula. El Porvenir's airport is the access point, and tours are offered to various islands within the San Blas archipelago.
Cabanas Coco Blanco - four simple bamboo cabins on the tiny island of Ogobsibu, which has a fine white sand beach. Coco Blanco is 15 minutes by boat from El Porvenir (where there is an airport).
Cabanas Ukuptupu - found on Ukuptupu Island, 5 minutes travel by boat from El Porvenir, this is a cheap, rustic option with sand floor cabanas or simple rooms on stilts over the water.
Cabanas Wailidup - simple cabins on Isla Wailidup.
Hotel El Porvenir - a very basic hotel located next to the airstrip on Porvenir Island.
Hotel San Blas - a popular backpacker choice on the island of Nalunega (near Porvenir) which has a community of 500 Kuna Indians.
Kuna Nishua Lodge - no sea views but good service, good value, and great for interacting with the local Kuna people (near Porvenir again).
Cabanas Kuanidup - a Robinson Crusoe style cataway experience, 25 minutes travel by boat from Rio Sidra airport, or 45 minutes from El Porvenir.
Cabanas Veronica - another rustic, remote hotel 15 minutes from the airport at Rio Sidra.
Hotels in (Eastern) San Blas
The Eastern section of the San Blas Islands are less visited, higher in biodiversity, and very slightly more Westernized that the Western regions. Accommodation is slightly higher in quality here. To travel to this region of the San Blas islands, Air Panama and Aeroperlas have very early morning flights to Corazon de Jesus, Playa Chico and Mamitupo. It is also possible to locally arrange to travel onwards to Capurgana on Colombia's Caribbean coastline.
Dolphin Lodge - I stayed at this small, spacious lodge on the Island of Uaguitupu and can thouroughly recommend it. The only drawback is that there is no real beach on the island, though various tours can be arranged to other islands and communities. Dolphin lodge is a short boat ride from Mamitupo airport.
Sapibenega Kuna Lodge - one of the more upmarket lodges in the San Blas Islands, this lodge is on the beautiful island of Iskardup, a short boat trip from Playa Chico airport.
San Blas Islands Travel Advice
There are no banks in the San Blas Islands, so bring plenty of cash. Scuba diving is prohibited everywhere. Always ask permission before taking photos of the Kuna as they can be particularly sensitive to having their photos taken. If you don't like eating fish, don't visit the San Blas Islands - most meals consist of fish. Camping is not permitted anywhere on the islands.