Exploring the San Blas islands on Yacht Latina’s cruising yacht, the Lady Lu, makes life seem like a dream. Our last adventure aboard the yacht, with Captain Phil, and Aida his right hand man, was a three day adventure through the Archipelago. We visited a handful of uninhabited islands and one inhabited island, Nalunega. Aida knew the Nalunega well; he was able to give us an informative tour of the land and the people who lived there.
Over the 3 day getaway we docked in different harbors each night, and woke up to beautiful blue waters each morning. Each day was filled with activities like snorkeling, paddle boarding and fishing. There is no diving in the area, but there are many other ways to take in its beauty.
Staying aboard a boat seems like it would be most economical and comfortable accommodation option. A hotel (open air, open bathroom hut) will range anywhere from $60.00 - $320.00 a night, where as a day aboard the Lady Lu will run you approximately $125.00 a day, per person. This cost includes food and is dependant on the cost of gas, as well as how many people are splitting the cost of the boat.
What you need to bring:
- Passport *required
- Cash (small dollar bills)
What you might want to bring:
- Gravol or some sea sickness medication (just in case)
- Snacks (while food is included…it is nice to have some of your favorites)
- Toys for the kids on the islands
- items to trade for handcrafts from locals
- Bug spray & sunblock
- Water bottle
There are 3 different ways to get to the San Blas Islands.
1) Fly to the airport and get ferried out to the boat - Airports in the San Blas Archipelago – El Porvenir & Corazon de Jesus have flights from Panama City. There is one flight on Air Panama to El Porvenir every morning from Albrook Airport in Panama City. The flight leaves early, approximately around 5:30am. The cost of the flight is around $75.00 per person. The flight time is approximately 30 minutes.
2) Take a Kuna Taxi to Carti and get ferried out - Kuna Taxi - You are not allowed to drive in to Carti, unless granted permission, and generally you need a Kuna driving you in. This means you must hire a taxi to bring you past the boarder. We were able to drive one car with our taxi into Carti, but were still required to pay a fee for everyone as if they had taken a taxi in. The ride was $25.00 per person, each way. Expect to pay this as soon as you enter San Blas territory. There are no banks, make sure to bring cash for all of your transactions.
Expect to leave early in the morning, between 5:30 and 6am from Panama City. The trip is 2 – 3 hours long, in the back on a 4x4 with your luggage loaded on the top of it. The 4x4’s can carry 5-6 people. The roads are windy but the drivers know them like the back of their hands, since they drive them several times a day. Our driver had been driving the route for 15 years.
The steep and snaking roads take you through the western range of the Darien Mountains. While the majority of the roads looked ok, at one point part of the road had been completely washed out by rain. Be aware that a full taxi can be pretty tight, so you might want to try and negotiate a paying a little more to ensure a private vehicle.
Getting ferried out – The ferry is a 12 person tinner that jets you across open waters to the San Blas islands, where we found out boat the Lady Lu and captain Phil docked awaiting our arrival. The cost of the ferry was $12.00 per person; we boarded our boat and settled in on the Lady lu at around 9:00am.
3) Taking the boat - A boat from Panama City to Miramar (a port just east of Portobelo), and from there to El Porvenir, will cost approximately $55.00 and take approximately 5 hours of travel time. Waters can be rough, especially in dry season - at points in the season boats to not run due to weather conditions.
The boat – The cost of the boat will vary depending on the price of Gas.
Taxi -$25.00 per person each trip
Taxes-$ 6.00-8.00 road tax and a $3.00 tax at the Kuna boarder each way
Ferry boat-$6.00 - $12.00 per person each trip (depending on gas prices)
Fresh Seafood - $10.00 per person per day
Local handcrafted goods - $10.00 per person per day
What to Expect
- Expect to have to arrange to pick up your food, bring it to the islands, and help with the food prep and cleaning, over your stay on Lady Lu.
- Expect to be warm, especially while below deck.
- Expect to get motion sickness… if that’s your thing, bring gravol.
- Expect unbelievably blue and clear waters.
- Expect mosquitoes and other insects on the Islands.
- Expect some rain.
What to hope for…
What we were lucky enough to see
- Birds of prey early morning.
- Baby turtles.
- Sting rays at night, chasing flash light beams.
- Dolphins following the boat.
- Freshly caught dinner.
Where to go?
There are over 300 islands in the Kuna Yala region. How could one ever decide which to explore? Where you are able to go will be determined by how long you stay in the region. The longer you stay, the further in to the islands you will be able to cruise.
There are highlights for any traveler on any length of trip. Captain Phil provided us with several fantastic day trip ideas, along with a sailing route that would last us the entirety of our trip – we spent every day exploring a different island.
Isla Perra - Dog Island– The Island is a popular destination for visitors. In the 1950’s a cargo ship carrying rum sunk on the bank of the island. The wreckage makes for good snorkeling – you can swim inside the ships engine room. There is $1 fee to ‘visit’ the island. If you are just hanging out in the water around the island you probably won’t be asked to pay, or If you are buying something from the locals you should be ok as well.
Holandes Cays – A group of islands that form a small and calm bay, perfect for snorkeling, fishing, paddle boarding and swimming. The islands are uninhabited, you probably won’t get asked to pay to visit them.
One palm tree island & the various islands along the way – there are various island scattered along your travels. You can snorkel, or take one of several watercrafts out to explore them. On our trip we visited an island that had been reinforced with rocks to preserve it from being washed away. It was smaller than a baseball diamond and home to a single palm tree. These little island gems are scattered along a landscape of pristine shorelines, crystal clear waters and blue skies – pick any of them, call it your own for the day. Locals may come to your boat, requiring you pay a ‘docking fee’, it should be no more than $5.00.
Nalunega & other Inhabited Islands – only 49 of the hundreds of Islands are inhabited by Kuna people. Wooden docks and outline these small islands, which are homes to many. Explore these islands to find locally made handcrafts, such as molas, and beaded bracelets. These islands are also filled with stories and histories. We were lucky enough to have Aida as our tour guide on Nalunega. He gave us a tour of the village and lead us to a hut constructed out of recycled materials, where were given a verbal history to the Kuna people and their traditions.
When to go?
Short answer: Ideally between beginning of June & the end August
A humid climate should be expected year around, with temperatures between the mid 70s in the evening and high 80s to mid 90s during the day. What changes throughout the year… is the amount of rain and wind. During the months of June, July and August (between dry and rainy season) it rains less and the winds are low, making these months ideal for cruising through the islands.
Dry season runs from December through April. While there is little rain in these months, winds are high. High winds mean reduced visibility for snorkeling, rocky waters, and difficulty traveling to and from the plethora of islands. Rainy season is from May through to November, it is best to visit during the rainy season and avoid the high winds. In the rainy season flora and fauna are lush and green - it rains a lot …the rain is however sporadic, and usually begins in the late afternoon or evening.
A Little bit about Lady Lu
Lady Lu is a one of a kind 63’ Goudy & Stevens classic motor yacht that provides plenty of space for a group of 6 – 10 people. The wide belly of the boat makes for smooth sailing in rough waters. A large living space makes for a comfortable area sheltered from winds or rain. There are 5 beds and 5 informal sleeping areas (pullouts). Most travelers on our trip preferred the informal sleeping arrangements on deck, where there was more of a breeze than below deck.
There is snorkeling gear, fishing rods, kayaks, and a paddle board aboard Lady Lu. Aida works and lives aboard the Lady Lu, he is very helpful, helping you rig your lines for some leisurely trolling or some sunset casting.
Dining is informal. Groceries are provided for you and will be dropped off to you in the city before your departure. At meal times everyone pitched in on the prep work, cooking and cleaning. While there is lots of food to go around, if you want fresh seafood be prepared to buy it from local fishermen. The water on the boat is good for drinking and there is juice, soda coffee and tea available. Liquor is not provided.