Guna Yala, formerly known as Tulenega and then San Blas Islands, is an archipelago comprised of over 365 islands, enough to explore one island each day of the year!
The San Blas islands are simply stunning, and to this day, remain untouched, un-commercialized, and home to an indigenous group of people, the Guna (Kuna) Yala Indigenous people. The tropical shorelines and crystal turquoise waters are jaw-dropping.
There are, however, a few things to keep in mind before sailing into the ocean towards paradise. For example, you will find the islands carry no cell phone reception and Wi-Fi, and no electricity.
This is, however, one of the quintessential benefits the islands have to offer, unplug and soak in the majestic beautiful landscapes! It is a true removal of all things first world, and a complete embrace of natural awes and wonders of grandiose tropical beauty.
If you are ready to be enveloped by the hypnotic sounds of the waves hitting the shorelines, then you are in luck. We’ve rallied the troops to serve up the must-knows before embarking on your trip.
From the documentation, you will need, the tours available to carry you to Guna Yala paradise from mainland, to the dos and don’ts of the island. There are a few things to keep in mind that will either make or break your trip. With our complete guide, we will ensure you are more than ready for your relaxation escape.
You will find a heads up on how to properly select a tour that is right for you, what documentation to bring along, and our tips and thoughts for travel insurance. You will also find a complete guide on how the tour and excursion systems are set up, and let you know what you can expect on each island and the must-see attractions each island has to offer.
Our suggestions list covering items and toiletries to bring along to your island-hopping adventures will have you well prepared for just about anything!
If you’re thinking about vacationing and exploring the Guna Yala Islands, then sit back and let us show you the way. No detail has been left out, and no island stone (or sea corral) has been left untouched! With our guide, you will be packing your bags, booking your tours, and lathering up that coconut sunscreen in no time!
The Prep Work! Getting to the Guna Gala Islands
There’s no way around it, there is a lot of traveling involved! However, firstly, if you are in Panama City for several days, visiting the Guna Yala Islands is a must!
A definite must before setting off your expedition and something you must remember at all times is to bring your passport! The Guna Yala Islands are semi-autonomous, meaning a passport will be required to enter and exit, as you would into and out of another country. Without this important piece of self-identifying information, your trip will come to a catastrophic halt.
Guna Yala Province Fee
Also, keep in mind that there is a mandatory $22 fee for foreigners entering the Guna Yala Province.
These islands are east of Panama and are relatively easy to access compared to other islands and only about 2 hours from Panama City. Most tours will pick you up from your hotel, extremely facilitating the coordination and trip.
There are no Air B&Bs or hotels on the islands, one can only stay in the cabins, tents or hammocks, or, if you have your own yacht, using a tour operator will allow you to dock near the shoreline is an option as well!
Island Hopping Breakdown in Layman Terms
A tour will include a home island where you will be staying overnight, with a package that includes excursions via boat rides to other islands on the archipelago. The excursions will take you island hopping during the day and towards the evening, after a long day island-hopping filled adventures, your tour guide will bring you back to your ‘home island’. Think of it as getting an Uber from your hotel abroad, it’s like that but on water, and boat rides. Doesn’t that sound like quite the adventure?
The Guna Yala islands tend to be more expensive than Boca del Toro in northern Panama, but it is also an all-inclusive experience where all excursions and meals are included in the price tag, sans the alcohol.
As an example, San Blas Tours offers an all exclusive package where the tour price includes a three-night stay on three different islands, which included a cabin rental for two, all-inclusive meals which consisted of 3 meals per day and coffee, for $800 USD. The price tag also includes all transportation and excursions, for your island hopping needs.
Although this is the most expensive package on their repertoire, other packages are available! Other options include day trips, one night stay, and two nights stays as well. There are even options for if you are just sailing through! Ah, living the easy-breezy life.
Keep in mind that there is a surcharge for credit card use. Most opt to make a small deposit on their credit card and bring cash for everything else including tip for the drivers and each of the islands on your excursions.
For example, a two-day tour $140 USD, includes a simple cabana, food, and tour, VIP cabana is $40 extra.
San Blas Dreams, offers a tour package of a two-night stay, excursion transport, and 3 meals a day, for $147 USD.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Guna Yala Islands
Not all islands are created equal. Some islands are equipped with more modern amenities than others, and some islands serve better food than others. Most of the accommodations on the islands can be somewhat primitive.
It is important to venture into your tropical exploit with the mindset that you are visiting a foreign land and its inhabitants. The Guna Yala indigenous people are shy and very friendly. If you keep these things in mind, your trip will be a success!
One of the biggest pro tips, bring cash! There are no ATMs on the islands, so cash will be essential. Cash will be a necessity on the islands to tip your boat drivers, restaurants, and any drinks you may want to try. The Coco Loco drink is a must!
Uninhabited and secluded islands will oftentimes have generators running at specific times of the day. This is typical of islands that cater to tourists the most. Generators will be running during cooking times, and during the evenings to provide lighting in common areas of the island. During this time, one can charge their cell phones, cameras, and other electrical equipment. However, we recommend that you come fully prepared with extra external batteries and/or a solar charger with you!
Sometimes the floors are sand, sometimes they are wood. Some cabins have electricity, sometimes they do not. You will notice solar panels installed throughout some of the islands for electricity to power the bare minimum.
Some islands have larger beaches and more pristine water than others. The AC situation is nonexistent, but the cool breeze of the ocean more than makes up for it. The island bathrooms are rooms enclosed in four walls and situated right over the ocean.
Essentially, living conditions are basic. Electricity, running water, and air conditioning are scarce. Wi-Fi is non-existent! It is just you and nature. More than likely, you will be sleeping in a simple cabana made of sticks and natural earth.
We’ve all heard the adage, “when in Rome.” Here out in Guna Yala Islands, this rings very true! You will be eating as the locals do, which is a great thing! Most meals will consist of freshly caught fish, which we cover more in detail (per island) below. The fresh-caught fish is served with rice, vegetables, and coconut.
What to Do in Guna Yala Islands?
The islands of Guna Yala are distinct from one another, so paying attention to our suggestions below will be essential if you are looking forward to a certain experience. Snorkeling, checking out an old shipwreck, or swimming in a start fish lake, are all vastly different experiences!
The meals on the islands are very healthy. They are either chicken, or fish, often served with rice, plantains, and veggies. Some islands even serve lobster! We suggest checking with your tour guides before departure if you are in the mood for a specific item.
Depending on the tour company, tour guides will buy lobster and other marine food live, from fishermen selling their early morning catch. The transaction will happen right in the middle of the sea! The tour guides will then take the fresh, live goods, and cook it in front of the guest, it doesn’t get any fresher, and primitive, yet fascinating, than this.
Below, we have listed some of the islands that have stood out to us, and things to do on those specific islands!
Isla Chichime is home to an area designated as Piscina Natural, Spanish for “natural swimming pool”. It is an area in the ocean that is shallow, a sandbar, and the water is pristine and turquoise. Here, starfish gazing is a thing. This Island is home to beautiful beaches has yachts everywhere, bonfires light up the night, and if you are in the mood for lobster, you are in luck!
On this island, you will find signs that read “Beware of falling coconuts.” Now that is a special thing. However, do not pick up the coconuts or eat them, as coconuts are still used in the islands of Guna Yala as currency!
Isla Perro, or dog island, white sands, gorgeous waters, beautiful snorkeling, various corrals, and a sunken shipwreck to explore. You are in paradise, completely away from stress and city life, your only goal is to soak up the sun, relax, and enjoy the island.
This island is one where you can see the Caribbean Sea from anywhere you turn in a single spot, and peace and rest is your only goal. The water is crystalline and swim wherever you please.
The shipwreck is only a short swim away from the beach and is perfect for snorkeling. The island is exactly as you would expect a picture-perfect postcard or magazine. We recommend bringing your own snorkeling equipment, to get the most out of the experience!
Isla Peliacno, or Pelican Island, is about a 20-minute boat ride from Isla Perro, where another gorgeous, quaint, and quite an island awaits. Isla Pelicano has beautiful palms and scenic views, and its beach offers fine white sands. Very pleasing to take a fresh walk!
The island only has one house, not available for use! It is possible to walk around the island in just 5 minutes and snorkel around it in 2 hours due to all the beautiful sights below the surface of the water.
Isla Aguja, or Needle Island, is a postcard-perfect. It offers lazy palms, golden sands, and gentle surf. The neat thing about Isla Aguja is that the entire island only has 8 cabanas, and only half are dedicated to tourism! The people are very hospitable and very welcoming. This is the perfect getaway from the more high traffic islands in Guna Yala.
Isla Pino, or Pine Island, is the triple threat of the Guna Yala islands! It is the largest island of the archipelago but has the smallest population of roughly 100 people. Isla Pino is also the only island to have a small hill, scalable in about 15 minutes. On the island, freshly caught fish by the Kuna indigenous people, white rice, lentils, and stewed onions are offered for dinner.
Isla Coco Bandera
Isla Coco Bandera or Coco Flag Island will provide the feeling that this island is just for you. Here, one can get their own custom made bracelet sewn on you, more snorkeling adventures, and swim to other tiny islands in the vicinity, have rum punch at sunset, and an all you eat lobster feast! The feast includes potato salad, coconut rice, garlic butter, and fresh conch ceviche, delicious! Top off the night with a giant bonfire and smores over the campfire.
What to Pack
Pack light! Packing light is essential, as you will be moving a lot, but who’s complaining about island hopping? This means you will want to bring along a few key items.
- Water. One of our recommendations is to bring along ample amounts of water. There will be water for sale, however, it will add up in the end otherwise!
- Sunscreen lotion. Since you will be visiting, essentially, very near the equator, bring sunscreen. Lots and lots of sunscreen. You will not want to look like the lobster you will be eating!
- Sun hat. A good pro tip is to bring along a sun hat for added protection. Bring basic toiletries such as soap, shampoo, and toilet paper. Keep in mind you are essential stepping into secluded and uninhabited islands, so you will pretty much need the essentials.
- Sandals. Since for several days you will be living out the phrase, life is a beach, you will only need Sandals. Nothing more. Ladies, it is okay to leave the Gucci stiletto heels at home for this one.
- Beer. Now, about the beer situation. Bring your own beer. Again, there will be beers available, however, this can get pricey! Having a cold brew on the beach under beautiful blue skies lathered up in coconut lotion, now doesn’t that sound nice? Beach towel. If you are planning on doing some serious sunbathing, bring along your favorite beach towel to lie down on the white sands.
- Sunglasses/shades. You will be near the equator, in a tropical climate. If this is not sunglasses and shades weather, then I don’t know what is.
- Sarong. Ladies, this will be essential when not in the water!
- Swimsuit. Everything revolves around the fact that you did not forget to pack your favorite swimsuit.
- Rain jacket. Something most island goers do not ponder is a rain jacket. Since tropical rainstorms are common in this region during the ‘rainy season’, we suggest bringing one along for your excursion!
- Flashlight/headlamp. This will come in handy if you are planning on an overnight stay on an uninhabited island. It just makes sense!
- Dry bag. Think about it. You are bringing along your cell phone, cameras, passport, and other important documents with you. Let’s ensure they do not get as soaked as you do when snorkeling in the Pacific! You will also want to bring along a dry bag big enough for your spare clothing and towels.
- Bug Spray. You will be stepping into uninhabited and secluded islands near the equator. The expectation of mosquitos is… super high.
- Medications. Prescription medications that you usually take should be brought along. Just because you are partying and relaxing, doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind is permissible! Or is it? Safety first!
- Sea/motion medication. This makes sense if you tend to get sea or motion sickness. We want to ensure you feel great during your excursion.
- An extra bed sheet. Some island accommodation options may not include one, so we suggest bringing one with you.
- Snorkeling equipment. It is not a bad idea to bring along your own as some equipment provided may be fully worn out.
- Passport. If we have not driven the message home yet, you must bring your passport! It is a must to get into the Guna Yala Province. We want to ensure you don’t reach the departing port passport-less, only to be held up after a one hour drive.
- Travel insurance. Again, this is one of those bureaucratic things that most island goers do not think about, but very essential. We have more in-depth details in our insurance section below.
Best Time of the Year to Visit
So what is the best time to visit Guna Kaya? Year-round! The islands are good to visit year-round, however, there is only one thing to keep in mind, there are two seasons:
Rainy season months in Guna Kala are from June to December. Although the term ‘rainy season’ may conjure up images of lots of rain and stormy weather, this is not the case! There is a chance of rain, but although you may get some rain sporadically, it will only last about an hour.
During this season you may get alternating days between cloudy and sunny, however, nothing extreme or off-putting, and most of the time, a very light breeze will caress your skin whilst sunbathing.
Dry season months for the islands are from January to May. During this time frame, the islands experience no rain at all, mostly sunny days, but very strong and constant winds blowing from east to west, making snorkeling a little difficult as the water will be a little less transparent than on rainy season months.
Hola, Como Estas?
Although the official language of the Kuna indigenous peoples is called Tulekaya, Spanish is also spoken. English is not commonly spoken on the islands, so it is important to know a few common Spanish phrases to get by! Spanish phrases relating to food, transportation, and time will be dandy to bring with you, as part of your essentials!
Mobile phone coverage is scarce. So we want to ensure this expectation is also clear before your excursion!
The Kuna indigenous people are very friendly and even inviting. They work year-round to ensure tourists are tended to and try their best to be not only hospitable but welcoming!
The Guna Yala tourists are also generally pretty safe. If any questions ever arise, be sure to ask of your tour guide for help.
Do I Need Travel Insurance?
The answer is yes. Never travel without insurance! It is a good idea to have travel insurance that covers items such as the cost for an emergency flight home, in case of any developing life-threatening conditions. You may also look for policies that pay doctors or hospitals on the spot, rather than pay out of pocket and file a claim later on.
Should you file a claim, keep all documentation readily available. Also, ensure that the policy covers ambulances. It is a good idea to research infectious diseases in the area. Also, research good preventative measures and what safety precaution measures you can take before your trip.
Like any trip, there is much research to be made and lots of planning to be done. The Guna Yala Islands is one of the many excellent offerings of Panama. The Guna Yala Islands is a tropical destination that requires a lot of extra planning, as it involves selecting a tour company, a tour package that makes sense for you, and the knowledge to know what to bring along to your island-hopping adventure.
Small details that one would normally not consider are a must and essential for this trip. Bringing cash as there are no ATMs, bringing only sandals, extra water, a bedsheet, basic toiletries, and even a rain jacket, are a few examples of items that most people would not consider while island hopping! Of all things, a rain jacket? Really? However, it is a good call!
Essentially, if we think of it as stepping into a completely uninhabited island, with no electricity and power, you will get the gist of the expectations. Granted, a completely beautiful tropical paradise of an uninhabited island, but nevertheless, it is a good idea to be well prepared!
Knowing what documentation to bring along with you at every step of the way is also essential, as it will not be pleasant to have to forgo a boat ride because our passport was left back at the hotel! Being prepared with travel insurance while abroad is also a must.
Let us reiterate, never travel without insurance! Researching the policy ahead of time that makes sense for your trip, and the activities you will be doing on your trip, will prevent a lot of extra hassle later down the road should any unforeseen incidents take place. It’s better to be prepared than not!
To be able to go to secluded beaches and not be bothered so you can relax and enjoy the islands sounds phenomenal, so the extra planning and preparation work is well worth it. So what are you waiting for?
It is time to rehearse our Spanish phrases, throw on our swimsuits, lather up with that coconut sunscreen, slip into sandals and some sunglasses, properly hydrate with the extra water we packed, bring along our favorite beach towel, and throw our passport, extra cash, and spare cell phone batteries into our dry bag!
See how easy that was? All that is left is enjoy our overnight stay in a primitive, au naturel cabana!
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