The San Blas Islands consist of 365 islands, of which 49 are inhabited. Formerly known as Kuna Yala, San Blas is Home to the Kuna, an autonomous indigenous group who run San Blas with minimal interference from the national government. The islands are regularly named as some of the most beautiful islands in the world by sailing groups and travel guides, including Lonely Planet.
In 1903, Panama achieved its independence from Spain, however, the Kuna people did not want to be part of Panama. Protests continued until 1925, when the Kuna community was granted the status of an independent state within Panama. During this revolution, the Guna Yala territory seceded and operated as the short-lived Republic of Tule. Following mediation by the United States, the Kuna reunited with Panama. In 1938 the Kuna made their own constitution called “La Carta Organica de San Blas”, which was approved officially approved by the Panamanian government in 1945. Don’t be shocked if you see swastikas around the place either, since the rebellion in 1925, the yellow flag has represented the San Blas province.
There are many tour providers who will facilitate visits to San Blas, however, they all come with the disclaimer that once you are on the islands you are in the hands of the Kuna people and that the tour providers is basically not responsible for the service you receive while on the islands.
The customer service is very different to what you might be used to, some may see it as quirky, others rude but remember you are in their paradise.
Tourism is allowed in San Blas only at the Kuna people’s discretion and at times they maintain strict controls over it. It is also forbidden for outsiders to operate businesses within San Blas. So, keep in mind that whoever you book with on the Panamanian mainland will most likely not be the person you receive service from on San Blas. In my experience, this isn’t really a problem. They seemed a little unclear about what accommodation I had booked when I first arrived, and if you have any special dietary requirements, be prepared to repeat yourself a lot even if you emailed the booking agent. Also, the food is hit-and-miss at best, so make sure you take some snacks.
I did a round trip from Panama City, but if you’re going to (or from) Colombia, you can charter a sailboat that will travel for 4–5 days between Panama City and Cartagena with a layover in the San Blas islands. Either way, make sure you bring your passport as there is a checkpoint where the Kuna people will request to see it.
I spent three days on San Blas, which has already blurred together into a montage of beer, rum, sun, white sand, snorkelling and sleeping. Do not leave San Blas without visiting the shipwreck, just off Isla Perro (Dog Island). The gunboat, a Colombian boat from about 40 years ago, has been taken over by nature and is now home to fish and other marine life. The other must-see is Isla Estrella (Starfish Island), which has very shallow water where you can see loads of starfish. PLEASE don’t take the starfish out of the water unless your middle name is arsehole.