San Blas Islands sailing | Is the San Blas tour worth it?
Many people ask the question, is sailing a San Blas tour, worth it? We would give it a resounding YES! Of course, a 5-day sailing trip including all your meals is going to be more expensive than picking up a short flight from Panama to Colombia but then you are forgetting the most basic rule of travelling. Travelling isn’t about getting to the final destination, it’s enjoying the journey!
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Where are the San Blas Islands?
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago off the eastern coast of Panama. They are made up of 365 islands, 49 of which are inhabited and they are the territory of the Kuna People.
Map of San Blas Islands
What is it like sailing the San Blas Islands, Panama?
Crystal clear waters, white sand beaches, snorkelling, hammocks, great food and a few cold ones in the sun. #paradise
What to expect in the San Blas Islands
Tour itineraries will vary slightly depending on which boat you sail with but to give you an idea we spent 3 days in the San Blas Archipelago, dropping anchor in a different area each day, where there would be one or two islands you could swim to. Our boat had full snorkel gear and close to each island was a reef we could explore. The islands varied in terms of size and how manicured they were but expect to find, volleyball courts, wooden tables and benches in the shade where you can sit and relax or play cards, a man or woman with a cool box selling local beers, maybe soft drinks and maybe coconuts. We also had a big cool box on our boat that we could store our own pre-bought beers in and there seemed to be no restriction on taking your own booze to enjoy on the island. Your meal times will be set by your chef but outside of that you are free to do whatever you feel like; swimming, snorkelling, relaxing on either the beach or the boat etc.
Food on the boat
Depending on the size of your boat will determine whether you eat on the boat or on the islands. We had all our meals on the boat as there was a seated undercover area at the back of the boat we could all comfortably sit and eat. However, the travellers on another sailboat, that sailed alongside us and followed the same itinerary, had their meals on the islands as they didn't have anywhere they could all sit at a table.
The food was plentiful and really good. They were happy to accommodate vegetarians and any dietary requirements as best they could, but you do need to inform them beforehand and some boats charge a slight premium for this. Breakfasts were light, mainly cereal, bread with various spreads & fresh fruit but a couple of mornings we had eggs too. For lunches and dinners, we enjoyed fresh lobster, fish, beef stew & chicken, pasta, and wraps, all of which were served with fresh vegetables or salad. It was amazing what our chef, Karmeny, managed to russell up in that galley kitchen.
Life at open sea sailing between the San Blas and Cartagena
36 hours at open sea is something we have never experienced before and Becca was particularly nervous about it for a number of reasons. However, we were lucky with our crossing and actually really enjoyed it.
Were we bored?
No! 36 hours sounds like a very long time but we set sail on the evening of the 3rd day so we had two nights and only one daytime at open sea. We passed the time reading, listening to music, having a few beers, chatting with our shipmates and watching the waves & the 4 pods of dolphins that visited!
Were we sick?
No! Seas sickness is obviously very common and it will depend on the sea conditions during your crossing. We were lucky and had fairly calm seas. We did still have up to 2m swells and the boat was rocky, making moving about the boat quite tricky, but out of 14 of us, only one girl was sick. We did take sea sickness medication as a preventative, which I would advise, as once you feel sick it's too late. I've covered more on this below.
Did we feel unsafe?
No! Becca had been worried it would feel scary and vulnerable being so far from land for such a long time but actually, we never felt this way during the crossing. The endless horizon was kind of mesmerising, we didn't experience any major storms (but saw a few good light shows of lightning on the horizon) and we actually saw a few other boats along the way.
Before setting sail we had a briefing from the captain in which he showed us the various safety devices on the boat should we run into any trouble, showed us where we could find lifejackets and fire extinguishers in our rooms and set some safety rules for the crossing. It felt very organised and safe.
Did we actually sail?
Whilst you are on a sailboat, the conditions have to be perfect to actually raise the sail and instead, you might find the captain opts to motor. In between the islands, we only used the motor, I think this was because there wasn't much wind. However, when we headed out to the open sea the captain raised the main sail. He opted to keep the motor running as well though as apparently we had strong currents working against us. The main sail only stayed up for the first night and most of the morning of the next day but an incoming storm caused him to lower it again. The front sail (not sure if that is what it is called) stayed open 90% of the time.
Food at open sea
Our chef, Karmeny, had been busy pre-preparing meals on the last day on the islands so that even in the worst sea conditions she would still be able to serve us meals. Our meals at open sea were served in a bowl rather than a plate and the wonderful crew brought the food to us wherever we were sat to save us from having to move about the boat. I think this was partly with safety in mind (the crew are much more skilled than us at moving about a rocky boat) and partly so that you didn't need to risk making yourself feel sick by moving.
The nature of the meals, tuna pasta, chicken wraps, chicken with roasted new potatoes meant it could be served up as and when people felt like eating and so meal times were less strict. If someone was asleep or feeling a little queasy when it was ready, they could have theirs a few hours later when they felt ready.
Is a San Blas tour worth it?
We hear many a traveller saying are the San Blas Islands worth it? Do I need to do another beach? I’ve been to Bocas del Toro & Utila, should I just skip the San Blas Islands tour? If you can afford it definitely don’t miss the San Blas! The only place in Central America which comes close is Little Corn Island and in all honesty, I can’t say which is better. Our answer is both, for different reasons. You can’t dive for one on the San Blas but the feeling of sailing through the beautiful little sand islands or deciding whether you fancy swimming over to the next island is something you just can’t do on the Corn Islands.
The San Blas island tour is 100% one of our best travel experiences of all time. If you can afford it, go! There is a chance you may get seasick, but read the reviews, even the people who do get sick still absolutely love it!
Which is the best company to sail the San Blas Islands with?
We were a little confused at first trying to pick which company to use. Everyone talks about Blue Sailing, who are they & is it cheapest to book through them or direct with the captains? Here’s the long and short of it. Blue Sailing is simply a booking company, that acts on behalf of the boat owners and captains. You pay a deposit to them of $60, which basically covers their administrative costs and completely liaise with them until you are picked up on the day. You can throw any questions at them to put your mind at ease, and they help inform you as to what to expect. This type of cost we would normally try to avoid by booking direct but believe me, they well and truly deserve the commission they get, as let’s face it, how quickly is the captain going to respond to your queries if they are out at sea all the time?!
We have heard of people making their own way to Portobelo and getting the San Blas sailing tour a bit cheaper because they didn’t have to pay Blue Sailings commission. We sailed in the rainy season and many of the days around, when we wanted to travel, were fully booked, I would say yes, there is a chance you could save some money by doing that, but it will mean you can’t research the captain/crew of the boat, don’t know what vibe it will be (party, chill, etc) and there is always the strong possibility you will end up having to hang around for a few days waiting for a place, which could end up costing you more than if you just booked through Blue Sailing in the first place. Just book with Blue Sailing, you won’t regret it!
How to pick which boat to sail the San Blas Islands with
A lot will depend on your chosen dates for travel, as you can imagine it’s impossible for the same crew to set sail every day as it’s a multi-day trip. We settled with the Amande I, as that ticked all the boxes for what we wanted out of the trip. Here are the questions to ask yourself…
Do you get travel sick just looking at a bus?
If the answer is yes, flying might be better for you.
Becca is someone who can get queasy on windy roads etc & she was absolutely fine as she had her trusty anti-sickness bands on and took travel sickness pills for the legs at open sea.
Big boat or little boat?
The sizes don’t vary massively, you are not booking onto a cruise liner but the atmosphere of a 6 berth compared to a 22 berth will be very different. The boat we chose, the Amande I, had room for 14 guests and 3 crew members. It ended up being just 12 guests for our trip, which was perfect, in all honesty, 14 would have been quite snug!
Speed boat or sailboat to do your San Blas tour?
The general rule is, speed boats are more party boats and sailing is a more chilled affair but some sailboats can be more party than others. Another thing to consider is whether prefer the sound of an 8-hour speed boat or a 36-hour sail trip. Personally, we felt the worst on our speed boat going out to our sailboat and got absolutely drenched! We were only on the speed boat for about 45 minutes but we certainly didn't find it overly enjoyable. However, I can tell you the sailing was actually really fun; we spotted dolphins on multiple occasions on both days of sailing, checked out the bioluminescent at night and enjoyed the vastness of the open sea. An 8-hour speed boat doesn’t sound like much fun to me! If you decide on a speed boat, you stay in hammocks on the islands rather than aboard the boat.
Read reviews of your ship and captain
Really easy to do, type the captain's name into Google and the boat name, and hay presto there are the reviews! You will find a lot about the vibe of the boat from the reviews, if you read “It was epic man, we got wasted every night and had a blast!” I would guess you are looking at a party boat. On the other hand “the San Blas Islands were more beautiful than anything I’ve seen, our group was absolutely amazing, everyone got on and it was a great mix of social and chill time”, then you are looking at a chilled vibe.
Of course, more important than the vibe of the boat is safety and experience. Glowing reviews of spotlessly clean boats, amazing food and crew being first class, is what you want to read. Not the captain made everyone feel unsafe as him and the crew were just getting drunk all the time.
What sleeping arrangements do you want?
Mixed cabin, private with shared bathroom or private en-suite. We opted to really splash out & went for a private en-suite as Becca was so worried about being sick and wanted privacy if she was feeling unwell. In the end, it turned out to be needless worrying, but it made her feel more comfortable.
Is it better to sail from Panama to Colombia or vice versa?
A lot depends on which direction you are already travelling, that is if you are already on the road. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. Having not sailed both ways we can’t 100% say, but everyone on our boat agreed, more by dumb luck than anything, we were glad we did Panama to Colombia as it means you do the San Blas before the open sea leg. If you are one of the unfortunate ones who get a rough crossing, you don’t want to end up feeling ropey when you arrive at the San Blas Islands as you are only there for a few days.
Our crossing was absolutely amazing, the swells went up to about 2 meters but nearly everyone onboard was fine (one girl did feel a little ropey for a while). Also, don’t believe all the horror stories about the crossing, yes sometimes the sea can be rough but this isn’t guaranteed. The captains know what they are doing and will only sail when it’s safe to do so!
Is there Wi-Fi onboard the boats?
You aren’t going to the San Blas Islands to stream Netflix! As far as we know, non of the boats have Wi-Fi but one island we visited did have Starlink. Shockingly, Becca’s +Movil SIM worked the whole time we were in the islands but at a very low signal. She ended up hot-spotting anyone that needed to check anything online.
Can you scuba dive on a San Blas islands tour?
Sadly, you can’t scuba dive on the San Blas islands, however, all boats carry snorkelling gear.
What wildlife will I see on my San Blas tour?
The islands themselves aren’t teeming with wildlife, apart from those who frequent the beaches from the sea, like hermit crabs and some birds. Under the sea, there are some beautiful reefs to snorkel. On your sailing trip, keep your eyes peeled for dorsal fins, dolphins are common, whales if you are extremely lucky, and we loved seeing the flying fish!
Best time of year to sail the San Blas Islands
The weather in Panama is tropical, which means that year-round there is a chance of rain, this is why the country is so green. Panama has 2 seasons, a rainy season and a dry season. The rainy season runs from June to November and the dry season from December through to May.
The rainy season will still be primarily blue skies and sunshine with short, heavy rainy spells. The benefit of this time of year is that there is less wind and so the sea is generally calmer for the crossing. The wettest months are October and November.
As for the dry season, as the name suggests, it is drier, so the rainy spells are infrequent meaning blue skies are likely for much more of your crossing. The negative of this time of year is that the wind is stronger and so the likelihood of bigger swells and motion sickness for the less hardy is more likely.
Essentially taking a San Blas tour is great year-round, if you are concerned about motion sickness head to Panama during the rainy season as the seas are likely to be calmer, just be prepared to get a little wet!
What causes motion sickness?
Motion sickness is the result of mixed messages from your senses being sent to the brain. When your inner ears sense one thing, but your eyes see another, these mixed messages make you feel unwell.
After the voyage, when on dry land, you may still feel the sensation you are moving but your eyes tell your brain something different and the result is motion sickness.
Avoiding travel sickness when sailing the San Blas Islands
Here is a quick round-up of everything the guys on our boat did to overcome motion sickness. I’m not sure which of these are just placebo or actually work but even if it is placebo, if it means you are not sick, who cares!
Travel sickness tablets - Most people on our bot had these & they are widely known. Be aware though, they will make you drowsy!
Travel sickness bands - Becca loves hers, she says she isn’t sure if it’s a placebo or not, but she feels so much better travelling with hers on, as she is prone to motion sickness.
Ginger - The chef on our boat gave us a tiny bit of ginger to put under our tongues. Everyone who was feeling at all queasy felt loads better!
An earplug - A Kiwi guy on our boat swore by putting in one ear plug. I've never heard of this one but maybe it helps stop conflicting messages from your inner ear to your brain.
Look at a fixed point on the Horizon - If you do feel rough, focus your gaze on the horizon, not the inside of the boat. Your body is confused that it’s swaying back and forward but things in front of you aren’t moving as much. Staring at the horizon will make sense to your body (something along those lines, either way… it works!).
Fresh Air - If you feel sick, there is nothing better than fresh air. Get yourself out in the breeze!
What to take with you on your San Blas tour
Sun cream (SPF 50+) - the sun can get pretty strong at open sea, due to it reflecting back off the surface of the sea.
Sun hat - Although the Panama hats do look epic, they are probably not the best for this trip as you may see it floating into the distance off the back of your boat. A cap or floppy hat with a string will be best.
Sunglasses - Protect those peepers, a sunny day with extra glare can be quite damaging to your eyes!
Insect repellent - Grab one with a high percentage of deet. It is the tropics so you have a chance of sand flies during the day and if you go over to a beach in the evening for a BBQ, rather than eating aboard your boat, there is a good chance of mozzies!
Camera - Your phone may be enough for you but with a decent camera your shots will more likely allow you to share just how beautiful the San Blas islands are!
Booze - If you are a non-drinker this is a moot point. However if you are a drinker, everyone says take more alcohol than you think & they are right. At least half of our boat ended up having to buy supplies from the islands. Although they are not expensive considering how remote they are, at only $2 a beer, that is a hell of a lot more than the mainland and there isn’t much in the way of selection. A few people didn’t bring beers as they didn’t realise there was a big cool box, there was a massive one on our boat. I’m sure it will be the same on every boat, but if you want to double-check just email Blue Sailing and they will confirm.
Snacks - The food portions were plentiful, we still enjoyed an afternoon snack though.
Waterproof mini speaker - There were speakers in the eating area on the boat but not up top. We had one and so did someone else in our group. It’s best to take one with plenty of your favourite songs downloaded.
Travel sickness supplies - Any variation of the above.
Swimwear - The sea is irresistible, you are going to need your swimmers!
Lightweight clothing - Year round the San Blas enjoys toasty warm weather!
Bag cover - Even if you end up resorting to a bin bag, you will need something to cover your bag as even if you are sailing it’s likely you’ll need to take a speed boat to your boat. We used our bag liners as they were big enough.
Waterproof coat - It’s the tropics after all. If you go in the rainy season it’s likely to rain at some point.