Turning an uncertain boat charter into a close-to-paradise in the Caribbean Islands of the indigenous Guna Yala region of Panama.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
Remember that one time you took your family on an illegal boat trip?
You know, the ol’ “book months in advance and then arrive in-country only to find out what you’re doing is against the law” vacation? Yeah, that’s the one. That’s what happened to us in the San Blas Islands of Panama.
I’ve done a lot of tourist no-nos in my day. I’ve ridden on the backs of elephants, fed deer in the parking lot of the Grand Canyon and I have collected seashells since before I could walk – granted, these were years before I was aware it was not okay to do such things.
But we’ve been pretty good traveling citizens since starting to travel with our kids if for no other reason than the fact that kids hate it when you try to do something sneaky. I remember trying to fit four of us in a room for three in Beijing; our kids refused to take the elevators in pairs when they figured out our plan. Ugh!
So when we found out it had actually become illegal to sail a chartered boat around the San Blas Islands of Panama, we were mere hours away from departure. What’s a parent to do?
“That doesn’t sound too cool,” said our son upon hearing the news, identifying the umpteenth problem he’d found with our trip. At 18 and three weeks away from leaving for university, he had finally reached the age where he wanted to have summer at home with his friends rather than tripping around some foreign country.
A Native Paradise
We had added the San Blas to our bucket list more than five years ago. We had first heard of sailing boats through the tiny Caribbean islets of the autonomous Guna region of Panama when friends told us about it. After traveling with their kids for almost a year in Central and South America, they said it was their favorite experience – and they had done it because other long-term family travelers had told them it was amazing.
But in the ten or so years since sailing the San Blas has become possible and increasingly popular, the native Guna people began to be rightfully upset that they were not sharing in the upside of the 400 or so boats that were plying the light blue seas of their homeland. A blockade of the local port last year culminated in the reduction of sailing vessels from about 400 to 100. Increased fees for both entering, sailing and anchoring in the islands helped things settle down further.
The reality is that only boats with Guna sailors are legal in the San Blas. We had a Spanish captain and a Guna first mate. They assured us that these boats are still welcome in the area. The problem was that yachts from international ports would cruise through the isles but not contribute to the economy. Supposedly the hammer has come down on these foreign charters, but local boats are still approved to sail.
It is precisely the Guna’s tight control over their territory which has made the San Blas isles so dreamy. Resisting the opportunity to develop the white sand, palm fringed beaches with big resorts – or even electricity – has created one of the last paradises left in the Caribbean. Scuba diving is strictly prohibited to protect the reefs. The area looks not too different than it did when the Guna first arrived here a few hundred years ago when the seas were thick with legit pirates from England, France, Holland, and the West Indies; anthropologists believe the group were indigenous isthmus-ers running from the Spanish colonists.
It’s a rare corner of the world, indeed.
To the San Blas
“Everything will be fine. Don’t worry,” my husband Don told the kids, even as he and I both were a bit worried. Leaving the skyscrapers of Panama City before dawn, we picked up some other boaters and headed over the mountains from the Pacific “South Sea” to the Atlantic “North Sea.”
The road to the Guna Yala territory had only been finished a decade ago and though we’ve rode many a tropical road, this one felt extremely dippy, curvy and unpredictable – like they just paved over an ancient footpath. The rainforest was impressively thick on both sides of the road, not unlike the Soberanía National Park area near Panama City we had hiked and kayaked with Yala Tours a few days before.
After a couple hours, we hit two immigration posts, one departing Panama and one entering the Guna Yala territory. We showed our passports, paid our entry fees, and on we went. No problem. The only other living thing we saw? A dark jaguar race across the road in front of our truck! Our driver was shocked; I focused on the incredible luck of seeing the back half of a jaguar instead of a black cat.
“Is this it?” asked our daughter. After another twenty minutes, the road deadended into a clearing along a muddy brown river. A few dozen tourists of all stripes – families, backpackers, jetsetters and Panamanian groups – waited on benches and milled about as vans and boats pulled in and out. Our driver ushered us toward a river bank and we climbed down some log steps into the exact boat from Disneyland’s jungle cruise. Motoring through the mangroves, bamboo and palms to the open sea, you almost expected to see an open-mouthed hippo charge the boat.
Part of the new world order of officially chartering a boat in the San Blas involves this boat transfer from the port, passing the densely populated islets near shore that house several Guna villages, and out to a specific islet to meet the boat captains. And as soon as we stepped on the white sand of Nuinudup to meet Captain Carlos and our Guna sailor Alvin, all uneasiness about the sail disappeared. We crossed the hundred feet to the other side of the island, hopped in a dingy and motored to our sailboat, one of a dozen or so moored in wait of passengers.
Days at Sea
Days on the water involve picking a spot to anchor, snorkeling and swimming, and barefooting it around a tiny isle. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Captain Carlos from Barcelona who will prepare you Catalan classics and epic fresh fish and seafood from a tiny sailboat cookstove.
Guna locals zoom to the side of your boat in an outboard-powered dugout and offer fresh halibut, king crab and, most delicious of all, lobster. The “grocery store” boat caught us another day, selling pineapples, potatoes, beer, rum, pasta, rice, batteries and just about anything else you might need in the San Blas.
We stayed four beautiful nights in anchorages around the Holandes Cays, so named for the Dutch pirates who hid out here behind the treacherous reef, and pounced on unsuspecting treasure-laden ships bound for Europe. Though we hoped to see some villages of local Guna, most live on densely populated islands right off the mainland shore. The Guna inhabitants of most of these isles only stay on the islands for a few months at a time, rotating with other family members on the mainland or in Panama City, to hold onto the islands ownership for their families. They make their living spiffing up landing spots for charter boat tourists, selling traditional tapestries called molas, and dressing up in traditional Guna dress to charge for photos.
The stands of coral teemed with tropical fish; stoplight parrotfish, sergeant majors, angels and damsels. Mini cowfish were floating near the surface and often dead – perhaps from the August heat? Global warming? Our captain didn’t know.
There were massive stingrays during the day and the splashes of eagle rays at night. Nurse sharks and turtles are rarer sights, as are lobster, squid and crab, given the locals’ expert fishing skills. It was easy to float around in the super salty, bathtub-warm water for hours and watch the underwater world swim by.
In the August of Panama’s “winter,” we were lucky to have five days without any rain – but the days did get hot in the afternoon. Our sailboat that officially slept six made for tight sleeping quarters with two teens, two parents, a captain and sailor. We played musical beds moving from the big bedroom to the benches on deck to the hammock and back.
We had no rough seas whatsoever – hardly even any bobbing – but somehow all had a bit of trouble sleeping in the calm, warm nights.
Above board, there were cards to play, books to read and a fight over whose turn it was to play DJ on their phone. Best of all? No wifi. It felt as close to paradise as our family was going to get.
- Travelers: Maryann & Don Thompson, plus kids age 18 and 16
- Date: August 2019
- Itinerary: A four-night sail through the Lemon and Holland Cays of the San Blas Islands in the Guna Yala region of Panama, as part of an eight-night trip to Panama with time in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood before and after the islands
- Cost: A six-person sailboat for four nights cost $2,800 plus tips, including all stops, snorkel gear, meals, beer, wine and soft drinks. Transfers to/from Panama City by 4WD ran $80 per person. Entry into the Guna Yala was $20 per person.
The Good Stuff
The Islands These are the Caribbean islands of dreams. To me, the best part of this trip was just being anchored offshore of tiny islets. Splashing into the blue when it got hot. Laying on the paddleboard – not really paddling. Beach combing the shore. Many had palm trees, some had grass, some had small villages, but they were all incredible.
At first, I thought we’d be aiming for specific isles – or snorkel spots, or villages. But in reality, it seems these charters roll a route through the cay to specific beaches or moorings that they’ve prearranged or familiar with. I think if you had a preference about which isles to visit, you could ask. But it is likely better to go with the route your captain recommends; because so much changes so quickly in the San Blas, you will want to let them be your guide as to the best spots when you visit.
Good Snorkeling The waters are crystal clear and the reef is wide. There is plenty of stuff to see to hold your attention snorkeling several times a day. We didn’t see sharks but did see many large rays, lobster, shrimp, and endless reef fish. The small wreck on Dog Island was an impressive spot to snorkel. Lying in just a few meters of water, we luckily hit the spot at an uncrowded time (I believe weekends can be packed with day trippers) and spent an hour swimming over, around and through it, watching all the fish who call it home.
The Guna are excellent fishermen so game fish will run when they see a snorkeler coming. Alvin could freedive down to at least 50 feet and hold his breath for what seemed like forever. There is a good amount of spear fishing around as well.
Seafood Feasts Locals boat up to your boat selling fish, crab and lobster they’ve caught that day. We feasted on lobster, crab pasta, and all kinds of fish.
Our captain outdid himself with meals – from bruschetta to apple flambe, everything was incredible. There was crab pasta and grilled lobster and homemade bread!
Family Time There’s no hiding when you travel with your parents on a boat – and there ain’t no wifi either. Our teens hung out with us and with each other – and it was pretty great. Sure, there was some fighting over who ate the last sleeve of cookies or who’s turn it was to DJ off their phone, but overall, we played games and relaxed and logged some quality time together.
Smooth Sailing Some friends said they’d never charter a boat because their kids might get seasick. While this is absolutely something to consider, this area is somewhat sheltered. Our captain was very focused on moving between islands at the right time to avoid any rough seas.
The Not So Good
The Trash If ever you doubted the need to eliminate plastic from your life, a trip to the San Blas will convince you. Most of the small islets we visited were not inhabited full time and therefore, no one is making any effort to clean the beaches. The trash floats there from the mainland, from the other islands, and from boaters nearby. Environmentalists have tried to convince the Guna Yala to make trash collection a priority but to little avail. So walks around the islands can be a bit depressing when the shore is rimmed in trash, especially when the short-term Guna tenants don’t feel any need to clean or corral the refuse. On board boats, cans can be recycled, bottles are filled with sand and dumped into the deep, organic is tossed overboard, but plastic must be burnt on an island – there is nowhere to get water let alone dump trash properly. Unfortunately, the trash also collects on the reefs. I found myself navigating one snorkel by the pair of jeans hooked onto a coral head L Overall, however, these isles are likely far less inundated by trash than other parts of the Caribbean, given their low population and remote location.
The People The Guna Yala of the San Blas have been overrun with tourists. They now don’t do too much to introduce their culture to visitors. We loved our Guna sailor Alvin and we were able to learn a lot about them through him and our captain, but the other characters we met on islands kept their distance. You felt a bit like intruders sailing through – which, I guess, we were.
The Cocaine Yeah, that… The position of the San Blas between Colombia and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua places it right on the Cocaine Superhighway. The American Coast Guard patrols the open water outside the Guna Yala islands, and when traffickers see them coming, they dump packages of the drug into the water. Our captain calls it the Guna Lottery, whoever finds these packets gets a ton of money reselling the drug locally or back to the traffickers. We heard stories of getting 2 lines and a beer for $3 on some of the islands, and backpackers having a ton of fun taking budget boats from here to Columbia but didn’t really see any evidence of it firsthand.
The Sand Fleas Summer is sand flea season. San Blas has the no-see-um variety. We were being careful on the islands but still got munched somehow. My daughter had spent the summer in Panama’s Azuero region and her “mom” there blamed tiny rashes of bites on “hammock bugs,” which could have explained what I thought were sand fleas. Either way, it wasn’t a big deal but something to be aware of.
Good to Know
How to Charter a Boat Because of the unique territory and recent crackdown on San Blas sailing charters, it is critical to partner with a local charter company that has been in business for many years. Lonely Planet has a good list to choose from. We used Pantalasa and they were all-pro. If there are any issues that arise locally, you will know well in advance (especially if you read the info they give you before the day before you depart 😉
Choosing a Captain Again, it is important to hire a captain who has sailed the San Blas for several years, and preferably a boat with a Guna captain or sailor on board. There are a lot of “issues” with charters and it is critical to have someone who isn’t encountering them for the first time if you are sailing with your kids. That said, we met people who’d chartered with European couples heading up their boats and they seemed happy enough.
Choosing a Boat We chose a small sailboat to save money versus a catamaran or bigger sailboat. The charter company will provide photos of each vessel to choose from. We made sure there was enough room to hang out on deck and below deck. We had great weather so didn’t regret our money-saving decision aside from the sleeping situation. With a teen boy and girl, we didn’t realize they would have only one full bed to share – and a tight one at that – which wasn’t going to happen. Our subsequent nightly games of musical sleeping-spots made for less-than-ideal nights of rest.
Sailing Season The North American winter is high season for sailing in the islands and for Panama in general. The local “winter” runs from April through November. Sailing during our summer months will undoubtedly hit rain or storms, though the isles lie beyond the path of typical Caribbean hurricanes. Our August trip missed the rain entirely.
Non-sailing Options You can camp on several islands, including Chichime. The tough part would be the sand fleas and inescapable heat. Having roughed it for decades in such tropical spots, Don and I were happy to splurge on a boat – granted our boat was one of the least expensive out there. And for $700 a night all in? It’s less than you’d spend at Disneyland or a hotel in Hawaii hotel for four people.
Stay Awhile You can do fewer nights sailing or camping – you can even book a day trip from Panama City – but I would spend at least four nights to make a boat trip worth it. The day trips only a few hours on the islands before they have to turn around and return. Or they visit isles closer to the shore which are not as idyllic because they are subject to runoff from mainland rivers and overpopulation. The last day is really just transit home (see below) so the longer, the better.
Timing Your Trip Transfers to the San Blas port begin at dawn and get you to the islands by midday. We had a midday “breakfast” and were snorkeling on the Dog Island wreck by 1pm. On your day returning to the mainland, you will anchor near Nuinudup the prior afternoon and get the boat back to shore at 7:30am, putting you back in Panama City by noon-ish. That means it is possible to get a bus or flight later that afternoon, if needed.
What to Bring The charter company will tell you to hit a grocery store for any additional snacks you might want on board. Though we had plenty of food at mealtime, our teens went through a couple extra bags of chips, cookies or peanuts every day. We also had to stop at the market en route to the port for our captain to grab some things he had run low on, like coffee and fruit.
Great Books Don’t forget your reading material! I devoured Stephan Talty’s Empire of Blue Water, the tale of Captain Morgan’s pirate victory in Panama and the wild stories of the Spanish Main vs. the privateers of the West Indies. Don worked on The Path Between the Seas, a must-read David McCullough about the Panama Canal. The Tailor of Panama is another great oft-recommended read for traveling in Panama. We also had Lonely Planet’s new Panama guide along for the journey.
Maryann Jones Thompson – August 2019
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
Some beasts are delightful.
Best food. Best beaches. Best getaway.
Wildlife lovers listen up.
A week - or weekend - of family fun
Rainforest, beaches & culture - without leaving the US
See secret gardens & endless waterfalls
The easiest family beach vacation in Southeast Asia
Poolside Palm Springs & Joshua Tree & more!
Granada, Seville, and Córdoba—and much more
Hiking, surfing, and exploring from Eilat to Tzfat
From sea glass beaches to redwood forests
Poolside Palm Springs & Joshua Tree & more!
Bring home far more than snapshots
Pass the Outer Banks for the “Wright” Beach
Art! Architecture! Parks! Garlic fries!
Fun in Florence, Newport & Cannon Beach
A day-by-day recap of one family's Alpine trek
How to get RVs, resort pools, chef dinners, and more
Life at a High Sierra pack station
Get a taste of the REAL Provence