the two boats we used to travel from panama to colombia through the san blas islands

An Honest Review of San Blas Adventures Speed Boat Tour

San Blas Adventures 

An unforgettable cultural experience? One thousand percent. A sunny island paradise? Absolutely not. 

About the San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala / Guna Yala)

The San Blas archipelago or, as it’s known to its indigenous inhabitants, Kuna Yala, is a group of 365 different islands that runs down the Caribbean coast of Panama almost until you reach Colombia. Including the stretch of mainland included in their territory, it is home to 49 communities of indigenous people that make up the Kuna people, an autonomous region within but independent from Panama. Many of the islands are inhabited by small communities, some of them are partially inhabited, but many of them are completely uninhabited islands. They make for a truly unique natural and cultural experience. 

The San Blas Islands are a treasure of Central America. Many of the islands are practically untouched by the outside world, much less tourism, and San Blas Adventures, for the most part, does a good job at keeping it that way.

Most people visit the palm tree paradise of the San Blas Islands as part of a full day trip or overnight trip from Panama City. It’s not possible to just turn up or visit on a whim – you need to go with a guide who has the appropriate permissions and will pay the correct taxes to the indigenous people. And then there are the others. Those of us who want to make the crossing from Panama to Colombia by boat. Why? Don’t ask, because I’m not sure I could tell you…

There are two ways to get from Panama to Colombia by boat: the sailing trip, which takes 25-50 hours across the open sea (depending on the weather), or the speed boat trip, run almost exclusively by San Blas Adventures, which takes you on a four-day San Blas Island tour with a total of around 12 hours in a speedboat. (I’ll write a whole new article on the differences between going with San Blas Adventures and going with a sailing company.)

I paid to take this trip myself and nobody at San Blas Adventures had any idea that I would be writing about it.

About San Blas Adventures as a Company

San Blas Adventures (or San Blas Discovery) is a company owned jointly between two European backpackers and an indigenous Guna person, which, they say, is fundamental in making sure a majority of the $525 fee (plus hidden costs) stays with the Guna people. They also encourage you to buy your fares (beers, soda and souvenirs) on the islands to increase the indigenous peoples profits from tourism. They also advise you on how you can best respect the local community while you are there, but this came before the trip and our guide actually did nothing when people on our trip were disrespectful to the locals.

Honestly, before I took SBA’s speed boat trip through the San Blas Islands, I had only heard good things. Since then I have heard a few more horror stories similar to mine. And, I guess, that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to write this review. I’d say horror story is a bit dramatic, but you have to go into this with your eyes open and you don’t get that from looking at their Instagram page. But we’ll get onto that. Let’s go step by step…

Note: There’s a lot of information on the San Blas Adventures website, and although it’s a lot, I’d recommend reading it all through. They also send you a tonne of information after you book, and it’s tailor to whether you go in the dry season, rainy season, windy season, and everything in between. (Anyone on the trip who was underprepared in terms of what to bring hadn’t read the documentation properly.)

The weather is unpredictable no matter the time of year; you’re always rolling the dice, and it seems that the people who have good weather have a great trip, and the people who have bad weather have bad experiences.

the two boats we used to travel from panama to colombia through the san blas islands
The boats we travelled on

Read more about Panama: The Best Things to do in Bocas del Toro

Where to Stay Before the San Blas Adventures Trip

The day before the trip there is a briefing at Mamallena Hostel in Panama City. We were advised to stay there the night before and given a discount code, so I stayed there for three nights before our trip left. The hostel has good reviews and I did have a good time there, but for the full picture check out my guide on where to stay in Panama City, otherwise this article will end up 10,000 words long!

It’s a really good idea to go to the briefing – a lot of people in our group missed a few bits of key information. It’s also the first time everyone on the trip meets, so you can start getting to know your future travel companions. I’d guess around half of the people on our trip stayed at Mamallena the night before. 

​San Blas Adventures Pricing

So, there’s the advertised price of the San Blas Adventures speed boat trip, and there’s the actual price. Which means: there are several compulsory add-ons to the trip which make it more expensive than advertised. This is obviously a marketing tactic and at the end of the day business gotta business, but it would be easier for everyone if they were a bit more transparent about this.

San Blas Adventures Advertised Price: $525

Compulsory Jeep Ride: $35

Water*: ~$3

Suggested spending money: $50-$150

​Kuna Yala Entrance Fee: $20

Total: $633 – $713

Total money that’s collected by San Blas Adventures, i.e. the actual price: $580

*I don’t know why they don’t just charge a couple of dollars extra and ask us to help carry the water. Trying to keep track of whose-water-was-whose amongst 30 people was a nightmare and some people swore that theirs had been used or stolen… it was a whole thing.

Getting from Panama City to Carti 

In the briefing, they reiterate that the Jeep ride is operated by 3rd party providers and they can’t control how it goes. What a great way to fill your customers with confidence at the start of a trip…

The Jeep ride was indeed a bit of a nightmare. The drivers didn’t know where they were going; they were constantly calling each other and changing locations. We’d been promised a stop at a supermarket on the way to Carti, and several people in our car were relying on this for essentials including water and cash for the islands. 

They took us to two supermarkets. The first was closed, because it was six am. The second was supposed to open at six am, so we waited until six fifteen and then drove off just as they were opening the door (?). After a lot of confusion, asking “do you definitely need to go to a supermarket?”, and wasted time, they eventually took us to a mini-mart, which did have water but no ATM, and by the end of the trip some people were really struggling without cash. 

Although San Blas Adventures are right – they can’t change the temperament of the drivers – surely our guide had done this trip before and knew which supermarkets would be open (?). But we didn’t see him or hear from him until we arrived in Carti.

Getting from Carti to San Blas 

Arriving in Carti was quite exciting. This was where the adventure would begin! We hung around in the port for a while whilst a few mishaps were solved, and then we were asked to carry our big bag (we each were able to take one big bag, that went into hold, and one hand luggage) across the port to the boats and walk back again. Then the boats came to us anyway (?). Not a big deal, but shows the general lack of organisation that continued throughout the trip.

The first small boat ride was smooth sailing, sunny skies and excited smiles, and it was just half an hour to our first of many remote islands. And when I specify small boat, I mean it – these were not the kind of boats you’d expect to be on the open ocean (although they do pretty much stay within sight of the mainland at all times). 

The first island we visited was heavenly. White sand beaches, fresh coconut water, a coral reef to snorkel and decent wash facilities. We had a few hours of bliss drinking in the sun and some really delicious food whipped up by the locals and our guides. It felt like being on a deserted island, in the best way. 

Palm trees and sunshine on the beach on our first day in the san blas islands
Perfect weather on our first island 😍

What’s It Like Staying on the San Blas Islands? 

After a few hours of palm trees, fresh coconut water and total bliss on our first tiny island, we took another 1.5 hour boat ride to the next island. This was when the water started to get a bit choppy, but at this point we were still optimistically climbing in fully-clothed, as our guide told us that the weather was forecast to be nice. I was sitting in probably the worst seat of the whole boat and got completely soaked. It was cloudy, now, and little did we know, we wouldn’t see the sun again for days. 

I’m sure that when the suns out, there is a lot to do. Snorkelling, sunbathing, volleyball, you name it. But when the sea is too rough to get in and all you have is a cool box of beer (operated like a kiosk by the local kuna people), a large table and a pack of cards, what’s going to happen? That’s right, everyone gets trashed. 

Unfortunately, I’m not talking funny-drunk. Well, actually, a lot of people were funny-drunk, but that doesn’t matter when there’s a few people at the table who are too-drunk. And when I say too-drunk, I mean:

– Urinating at the dinner table (it was 7pm) and other places they shouldn’t have

– Knocking people out of their hammocks while they were sleeping

– Making the women feel uncomfortable by hitting on them relentlessly

– Yelling all night long before a 5am start

The drunker they became, the worse they got at obeying the very few rules we were given to respect the indigenous owners of the islands.

It was at its worst on the first night, but it did continue and despite complaints from just about everyone else on the trip, the guides continued to encourage over-drinking (and if you know me, you’ll know that I love a drink and it’s bad when even I say that they drank too much!) 

The tour guides on the trip also felt really under-trained; all three of them were just travellers like us that did it for a couple of months because they wanted a free ride and some extra cash.

They were as clueless as us when it came to the plan for the day. Usually in a morning we were just piled into a boat and not told how long we’d be on there or where we were going. We never knew what was going to happen more than a couple of hours in advance.

The first night, all 28 of us slept in one large hut in hammocks strung precariously close together. (Ok it was a bit funny watching the really drunk people fall out of their hammocks). They are not the thick, well-made hammocks that are slept in by most Kunas but the cheap, polythene ones you can buy in decathlon for ten euros. They’re not terrible to sleep in but they did make the windy nights extra cold, and after very little sleep, we all woke up shivering.

On night two there were several huts, and we chose between ourselves where we stayed. Priority was given to couples (fair enough, but friends travelling in pairs were kicked out of the two-person huts, which I didn’t think was fair). I slept much better, but it was still really cold. I had brought a jumper and thick pyjamas, but I’d recommend taking a blanket too.

The third night we stayed in a Kuna community, even eating at one of their restaurants. This night was luxury – we had BEDS. Again, the best rooms went to the couples and I ended up in a room without a door (which, again, would have been funny if it weren’t for the rowdy drunks).

Read more about Panama: The Best Beaches in Bocas del Toro

What Is There to Do on the San Blas Islands? 

We were able to snorkel, briefly, on our first day. After that, snorkel masks were used exclusively for eye protection on boat rides, but I’ll get to that in a minute… 

I had hoped that snorkelling would be a regular feature in our trip, but usually we were told that the currents were too strong or there was nothing to see anyway. 

We swam quite a lot, to warm up after a boat ride or to cool off after sunbathing. (Talk about perfect water temperature.) 

Twice we were given a tour of the local Kuna community, to hear about their lives, opportunities, and meet the locals. This was really interesting to learn about and, of course, a tourism tax was paid each time (by the company, not by us). It was especially interesting to learn about the differences in culture from the north to the south, and they did dance demonstrations which also differed from community to community. On our second day we were given a dance class by a local dance teacher and our boat crew picked awards for the best dancers.

On day three, the sun finally came out to play. We’d travelled to an island called Atidup (this is Kuna for “Ati’s Island” because the owner was called Ati and apparently he was a local legend). 

Here we got coconuts (I’m not going to lie, I put a hefty amount of rum in mine) and finally laid out on the beach in the way we’d been waiting for days. It wasn’t until we’d re-loaded the boats with our bags that we were told we’d be travelling over to the next island in kayukos, traditional Kuna boats that fit two to three people, and are made out of one whole tree trunk. We didn’t have far to go but it was both tough work and really good fun (they’re a lot harder to steer than they look!).

All in all, I’m sure we’d have been busy non-stop if the weather hadn’t been miserable, but we got unlucky. San Blas Adventures do provide plenty in terms of equipment, but when it’s raining there’s not much you can do on an island 100 metres wide.

kayukos, traditional Kuna boats made from a whole tree trunk
The kayukos on our last day

How Are the San Blas Adventures Boat Rides? 

They tell you that it’s windy season, and you might get wet. That, I can tell you for certain, is the biggest understatement I’ve ever heard. Being on these boats was like having someone throw a bucket of salt water in your face every three seconds for two hours straight. You wear swimwear, a life jacket and snorkelling goggles to protect your eyes.

The salt water stings your eyes, cracks your lips and draws saliva from your mouth like a sour cherry candy. Your hair is always full of salt and sand, which actually I don’t mind if I can actually go to the beach, but when it’s cold and raining it is not a vibe.

Even according to the hardiest people on our trip (not me, that’s for sure :’)), at times it felt like the boat might capsize. It was not luxury, it was stressful, and you had to concentrate on your balance every second otherwise you’d get thrown around, which meant we often arrived a bit exhausted. 

The Kuna crew clearly know the waters well. Even though there were times when it felt like we were going to capsize, the captain never missed a beat and the crew seemed cool as cucumbers. But, even then, they can’t avoid the nose of the boat crashing down after a big wave. If you weren’t holding onto the seat in front you’d hit the roof of the boat, maybe fall, maybe both. By the end, once you have accepted that your fate is safe in the capable hands of the indigenous crew driving the boat, it’s more like being on a very wet rollercoaster than something to be scared of, but the combination of wet and wind still makes it a cold, unpleasant experience.

According to our guide, the waves weren’t so bad and he’d seen much worse. It’s all part of the experience, they said. Funny, I didn’t see that on their Instagram page.

The boats do feel safe, but they’re traditional. They’re not made for a comfortable ride.

me wearing a snorkel masking getting soaked on a boat
Me, getting wet!

What is the Food Like on the San Blas Islands? 

The food was great. For each meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’re served hearty portions of good food, cooked jointly between the local Kuna community and your guides. The food was tasty and filling, full of fresh fruit and vegetables and every meal had a source of protein, even those specially prepared for vegetarians. On one occasion, they showed the freshly caught fish before they cooked it. 

They tell you to bring your own snacks if you’re a peckish person, but I consider myself pretty snacky and I didn’t even make it half way through the snacks I brought, because the food was so good and so filling. One day they made us rum punch, another we got coconuts to sip on the beach, and on the last day we got ice cream made by a Colombian local, all included.

Read more about Panama: Is it Safe to Travel Alone in Panama?

What Should I Bring/Wear to the San Blas Islands? 

A raincoat. 

No, I’m not kidding. The people we were most jealous of on the boat rides were those that had packet rain jackets, and wore them backwards on the boat to keep themselves somewhat dry. (Backwards so that the hood could cover their face). 

I also wish I’d had a head torch for midnight trips to the bathroom, a dry bag to keep my valuables (zip lock bags do work, but they’re less practical), more layers, because it was cold at night, and earplugs, because there was some pretty intense partying on our trip and 5am starts every day. 

I’d considered bringing my own hammock backpacking, and kind of I wish I had. The hammocks they provide you with are not comfortable, but nobody else brought their own and it’s definitely not a necessity. 

Other than visiting the local Kuna communities, where you have to dress appropriately, I spent ninety percent of my time in a bikini and a hoodie.

I hadn’t packed many clothes anyway, but I had two outfits: one I was willing to get wet if necessary, and one I needed to keep dry. Everything else stayed in my bag. Bear in mind they tell you not to put anything valuable or breakable in your “checked luggage” because it will get trodden on. I travelled with all of my electronics in my “hand luggage”, including my laptop, but my day bag wasn’t really big enough for everything. So, make sure your day bag is 20L or more.

In the welcome meeting, they go over how to waterproof your belongings. This step is an absolute necessity, and not a “just in case”. Line both the inside and outside of every bag with plastic, but especially your hold bag. Even double-lined, we still ended up with wet belongings. To be honest, they may as well have scuba dived our bags to Colombia. 

Exiting Panama by Boat

Of the 3 passport copies you’re asked to make, your guide will take two and hand them into immigration. I’m not exactly sure what happens then, but I’m pretty sure it speeds up the process, anyway. 

After an hour-long boat ride from the last San Blas Island, one of the roughest boat rides yet, we pitched up in a cafe and went in groups of four to officially stamp out of Panama. 

Once everyone was done we hopped back into the boat for another half-hour trip to Sapzurro, Colombia. The boat stopped and we cheered as we officially crossed the border. In Sapzurro we had lunch on the beach and said goodbye to our amazing Kuna crew. 

Entering Colombia by Boat

We then travelled from Sapzurro to Capurgana. Luckily it was only a ten minute boat ride, because this was the one time on the trip that I felt truly unsafe. We were with a new, Colombian crew, who took us on even smaller speedboats around the bay.

As the boat left the dock, we looked around and said “hey, where are the life jackets?” And we were simply told there weren’t any. I was also sitting right next to the fuel tank, and my feet tangled in the thick tubes that were attached to the tank with old socks. 

In Capurgana they were having issues with their electricity generators, meaning they only had electricity between 6-11pm. That included the immigration building, so we had to hand in our passports when we arrived and get them back later at our final dinner.

The dinner was nice but there were only two choices: lasagne or lasagne. (Okay, meat lasagne or vegetarian lasagne.) We paid in advance for dinner and a cocktail, but it turned out the cocktail was not-choosable and half of our group did not want the rum and coke that we were served with dinner. We also waited two hours for our food, presumably because the owner wanted us to spend more money on drinks, but after such a long day all we wanted was to eat and go to sleep. 

Arriving in Capurgana 

Something that you don’t see in the glossy adverts for this trip, but something I had read about in other reviews, is the immigrant situation in Capurgana. Capurgana is inside the Darien Gap, just minutes from the border between Colombia and Panama. The town is simply full of immigrants, waiting their turn to attempt crossing the gap, the most dangerous jungle in the world and the only way to reach the promise of a better life in North America. 

The Darien Gap dominates the border between Colombia and Panama, marking the only gap in the Panamerican highway that otherwise stretches 30,600 kilometres from Alaska to Argentina. A record 400,000 people crossed the gap last year – that is to say, 400,000 people made it. The number of immigrants lost in the jungle each year is unknown, but likely to be very high. 

The Darien Gap is naturally dangerous, thanks to an impressive range of wild animals, poisonous snakes and deadly mosquitos. Not to mention the lack of clean drinking water and food (the trek takes upwards of two weeks). That was before the danger of cartels, traffickers and militant groups came onto the scene. 

As we passed on the boat, the Darien Gap was practically indistinguishable from the rest of the Panamanian coastline, but knowing what was happening within left a hollow feeling in my stomach.

Capurgana is an idyllic town that makes you feel like you’re at the end of the earth. Pristine beaches, practically untouched by tourism, sweeping scenery. But it’s important to remember that, for some people, this is the beginning of the most dangerous journey of their life. 

What Should I Do Next? 

Practically everyone from our group travelled onwards to Cartagena or Medellín. I went on to Medellín the day after we arrived in Capurgana, and very soon I’m going to start writing about my time in Colombia, this included! So, keep your eyes peeled for another article, and remember that after you arrive in Capurgana there’s still one boat ride left…

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