San Blas Islands

If you’re looking for soft white sand, crystal clear water and plenty of sunshine, then you’ve found the place. The San Blas Islands extend along Panama’s southernmost Caribbean coast and are part of the Comarca de Guna Yala. The archipelago is composed of some 400 islands, and spreads across 226 kilometers (140 mi), stopping just shy of the Colombian border. The islands are postcard-perfect and famous for their pearl-bright beaches and serene atmosphere.

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Cayos Holandeses

The Cayos Holandéses (Dutch Cays) are several remote and mostly uninhabited islands along the northwestern end of the Guna Yala archipelago. These are some of the prettiest islands in the entire comarca (semi-autonomous reserve). There are small Guna villages on three of the twenty islands.

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Maquina Island

Isla Maquina is a small island in the Guna Yala archipelago. Set near Río Sidra and the mainland, Isla Maquina is an attractive island with a strong traditional Guna culture.

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Achutupu Island

Achutupu is a tiny private island along the western edge of the Gula Yala archipelago—both El Porvenir and Cartí are fairly close. You may hear this island referred to by its old name, Isla Perro, or "Dog Island." Travelers come here to meet with the Guna, on one of the most densely populated islands in the archipelago.

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Ailigandi is a small island near the northern coast of Panama, in the Guna Yala province. This province is named a for the Guna people, an indigenous civilization that has lived in this part of Panama since long before you Spanish arrived. Ailigandi has an important place in the Guna Yala history books — it is the location of a museum commemorating the revolt that took place here in 1925.

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Guanidup Island

Guanidup is one of the tiny islands that makes up the vibrant San Blas archipelago, right off Panama’s Caribbean Coast. These islands have been the domain of the indigenous Guna people since 1925, and they protect their culture along with the pristine environment. Visitors here get to explore white sand beaches lined with coconut trees, lapped by bright blue water.

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Sapibenega Island

Sapibenega Island is one of the 378 islands in the San Blas archipelago. This small island covers 2.5 acres (1 ha), which is just enough space for you to feel like you have your very own island. These islands are famous for being the ideal island escape – with sand is so white, and water so clear, they’re the ultimate in tropical island getaways.

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Yandup Island

Like all of the islands in the Guna Yala Comarca, these islands are surrounded by bright, clear water. You’ll be greeted by swaying palms and hammocks, within easy access of the coral reef that’s just off shore. Visitors here tend to fill their days with boating, swimming, and trips to nearby Guna communities.

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Uaguitupo Island

Uaguitupo Island is a tiny island in the Guna Yala archipelago. You may hear it referred to by its other name, “Dolphin Island.” It offers simple accommodations, a short boat ride from islands that offer you a peek into the world of the Guna. While you’re here, you’ll get to experience one of the most stunning beaches in the world.

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Corazón de Jesús and Narganá

The islands of Corazón de Jesús and Narganá are set some 25 miles (40 km) east of El Porvenir in the Guna Yala archipelago. The islands are much less traditional than other islands, but have a few basic services that can be helpful to travelers.

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Playon Chico

Playon Chico is a large island in the Guna Yala archipelago. The village is fairly modern and has a large health center, several churches, and homes made of concrete. It's on many itineraries to the San Blas islands – it’s one of the most accessible islands, with a bridge that connects it to the mainlands.

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Aguja Island

Aguja Island has some of the best-developed traveler services of anywhere in San Blas. It also has a spacious white sand beach, one of the longest in the San Blas archipelago. It’s not far from here to the mainland, making it an easy island to start your exploration of the San Blas islands, especially close to the port of Cartí. Travelers might come here on a day trip from Panama City.

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Set to the south of El Porvenir, this cluster of islands is collectively referred to as Cartí (Gardi). It takes around 45-minutes on a motorized boat to reach them from the mainland. The main island in the group, Cartí Suitupu, is large and colorful and houses a Guna museum.

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Coco Blanco Island

Coco Blanco is a tiny island that you can circumnavigate in 10 minutes. There are cabins for travelers who want to sleep not far from the idyllic Caribbean shore. The accommodations here are quite basic, and travelers here should plan to enjoy the simple luxury of lounging on and exquisite beach. But if a serene beach getaway is what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.

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Corbiski Island

Corbiski Island is one of the San Blas islands that’s closer to the mainland. The village isn't super traditional (cinderblock houses and electricity exist), but it does give travelers a good opportunity to interact with local Guna. Getting here from the mainland is quite an adventure on its own – there’s the road trip through the jungle in an all-terrain vehicle, before you reach the shore and meet your boat for the most scenic cruise of your life. Of course, travelers who don’t want to experience the jostle of a jungle road trip can opt for a flight.

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El Porvenir

El Porvenir is a small island that acts as a gateway for trips into the western portion of the Guna Yala archipelago. The island has an airstrip that receives flights from Panama City.

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Isla Diablo

This is one of the tiny islands in San Blas that makes you feel like it’s just you, the sun, the sand, and the sea. Visit Isla Diablo for its wide, white sand beach, not far from the remains of a shipwreck. The shipwreck makes a tremendous place to see marine wildlife, and it’s close enough that you can swim there from the beach.

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Senidup Island

Senidup Island is actually just half of an island – the other half is called Franklin’s Island. You can choose from private huts or dormitory-style accommodations. It’s a hospitable place for backpackers, as well as anyone ready to let go and unwind.

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A little more about San Blas Islands

The archipelago is home to the Guna people, a colorful and culturally rich indigenous group. The Guna’s comarca includes not only the islands but also a mountainous strip of forest along the mainland. Most visitors, however, spend time on the islands, and for good reason – they are gorgeous and isolated enough to allow for utter relaxation.

Despite centuries of outside intervention, the Guna tribe has managed to maintain their language and traditional way of life. Although the men wear Western clothing, the women still adorn themselves in customary garb. Vibrant, geometric beadwork winds from ankles to knees, and molas (handcrafted blouses) cover their tops. Today, some 40,000 Guna live in villages scattered along the forty largest islands. Travelers are certain to hear the Guna referred to as Kuna. They were called this for several decades, but in 2011 the tribe petitioned the Panamanian government to officially recognize them as the Guna. They argued that their native language lacks a “K” sound, and thus their name should change. The government agreed and their name officially became Guna. Interestingly enough, the group doesn’t refer to themselves as this – within their own circles they are known as the Tule (pronounced TOO-lay).

Those thinking of visiting Guna Yala should have realistic expectations. The islands are far from resort-like, and until recently only catered to adventurous travelers. These days things are slowly changing. Still, visits to the islands are not luxurious. Even the most exclusive accommodations are relatively simple. Most lack air conditioning, TV, internet, hot water, and sometimes even electricity. In terms of activities, you won’t find jet skis or parasails out here. Rather, you will spend your time lounging on the beach, swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, and visiting villages.

If you can rid yourself of any romantic ideas about island resorts, you’ll have a fabulous time. All accommodations are all-inclusive. There are no restaurants other than those operated by the hotels and the few island stores don’t offer much in the way of edible stock. Most meals are heavily reliant on variations of rice, beans and fish. Inhabited islands have small kiosks that sell basic snacks, beer and soda. These islands will also have plenty of Guna vendors selling handicrafts. The Guna can help arrange any number of island-hopping adventures, including a Robinson Crusoe style drop-off at one of the uninhabited islets.

Many hotels offer complimentary day trips for guests, which is a nice way to explore the archipelago. Boat rides between islands can be long, cramped and choppy, but with unbelievable views. The Caribbean is clear and full of fish, and the snorkeling is akin to swimming through a tropical aquarium. On clear days, the visibility can reach up to 30 meters (98 ft.). Scuba diving is prohibited, but kayaking and sailing are allowed and are excellent ways to explore the islands. While the Guna welcome visitors, they expect guests to observe a few basic restraints. On some of the inhabited islands, travelers must pay a visitation fee. On these islands women should refrain from wearing provocative clothing and men should keep their t-shirt on. The biggest rule of etiquette regards photography – never snap a photo without asking. Many Guna will request a small fee (generally $1) to have their photo taken. However, if you buy a handicraft, they will generally provide this to you for free. Needless to say, these people are well aware of their exotic allure.

The Comarca de Guna Yala is accessible by road or domestic flight. Flights were once very common, but with the completion of a new road to the western edge of the comarca and the collapse of the Aeroperlas airline, this has changed. No flights currently serve the western islands (including Cartí and Río Sidra), but some still land on islands farther down the archipelago. Most flights take around an hour and include several stops. Going by road generally entails leaving Panama City early in the morning and making the 4-hour trip to the coast. The road is fairly good, although it does get bumpy in a few spots. Once at the coastal port, visitors will be transported to the islands in a small wooden canoe with an outboard motor. You will often first go to a larger island (such as Cartí) and then continue on to your destination of choice.

The Guna have one of the most vibrant cultures in Latin America and the natural beauty of this archipelago is hard to surpass. This is an ideal destination for those seeking proximity to an original culture in one of the most sublime locations on Earth.

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