Paddling in Panama’s San Blas Islands

Panama, paddlexaminer, san blas islands

Talking to a friend last winter, she mentioned she mentioned she had recently returned from a trip to Panama. She and some friends stayed on a sailboat for a few days in the San Blas islands. They had fresh lobster, layed around in the sun, and relaxed. I was intrigued. I got the contact information for the tour operator and starting researching.

The San Blas Islands are on the Caribbean side of Panama, North of the Isthmus of Panama and east of the Panama Canal. The islands are owned by the Guna tribe, the local indigenous people. The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of approximately 365 islands, some of which are uninhabited. The islands are protected by a massive coral reef, as such, the ocean swell does not affect them as much. There is a somewhat rainy season from June-November and sunny season from December-May. I looked into how “rainy” the rainy season actually is and turns out, it’s not too bad so I decided to go at the end of October. The advantage being it would be less crowded and slightly cheaper. I checked out a few tour operators but decided to go with the one my friend used because they were the most responsive and seemed the best organized.

Olde Town Panama City

I booked my trip flying direct from Denver to Panama City in late October. The day I left Denver it was a cool 30 degrees and I landed in 80 degree weather! What a change!

The first day I toured Panama City and on the top of my list was a visit to the Panama Canal. I love history, so being able to see the canal in operation was a real treat. I walked around the city, popping into small restaurants to eat during the day. My favorite part of Panama City was the Olde Town with the cobblestone streets and narrow walkways. My ride to islands was picking me up at 5am the next morning so I called it a night early.

The first sign of trouble

I was down in the lobby at 4:50 am waiting for my taxi. When thirty minutes came and went I started to get nervous and called the tour operator. Luckily they answered right away. I explained the situation and was told they would make some calls and find out what was going on.

A long thirty minutes later, the tour operator called back saying the taxi driver was having car trouble. The tour operator was trying to arrange another transport but it was said it might be difficult. At this point, I wasn’t sure I could rely on the tour operator to get me a taxi.

It was just past 7 am and I noticed someone was putting up a sign in the hotel lobby advertising day trips to San Blas Islands. I walked over to talk to them and explained my situation.

The guy I talked to, Juan, said they could definitely get me there but the cost would be much higher than the $30 I was expecting to pay. I thought about it for a few seconds, the islands were THE reason I came to Panama; I looked at him and said “Let’s do it!”

I called the tour operator back and told them I had a ride, I just needed to know which port to go to and for them to arrange the water taxi. The tour operator stated they could make it work, but had to make some calls to confirm. Twenty minutes later I received a WhatsApp message from the tour operator stating: “The water taxi will be there, the driver’s name is Alberto, and here is his number. Please give Alberto’s number to your taxi driver so they can communicate”, which I did.

I had to run to the bank to get more money to pay for the taxi. On my way back I could feel my stomach growling. It was after 8 am and I had been up for over three hours with little food.

I found a little restaurant and popped in to grab a bite. When I walked inside I noticed Pablo my new taxi driver. We had met in the hotel lobby while I was waiting for my tour operator to get back to me. We sat down together and had a quick breakfast. Before we left I grabbed two Cokes, one for each of us.

On the road to the port

The drive to the port took 2.5 hours. The roads are not great in Panama and drivers don’t necessarily follow the rules of the road, assuming there were rules to begin with. The car was comfortable and had air conditioning which was a nice perk. Pablo was a good driver and handled the craziness of driving with ease.

Pablo’s English is limited and my Spanish is terrible so conversation throughout the journey was light. We did use Google Translate a few times which was helpful but Pablo had to focus on driving for most of the trip. Once we arrived at the port, Pablo called Alberto my water taxi driver. He did not answer…for twenty excruciating minutes. Finally he arrived at the dock, I jumped in the boat, waited a few minutes for him to handle some paperwork and off we went!

Out to the catamaran

The water was pretty disgusting in the port area and for a good ten minutes after we passed the port’s entrance. Then, as if a line was drawn in the water, POOF, the water was crystal clear. After about 35 minutes in the water taxi I noticed a catamaran in the distance. The water taxi approached the catamaran from the rear and pulled up next to the ‘Kaya’. The captain, Flo, greeted me, took by bag and gave me hand climbing on board.

Flo was just starting to prepare lunch. Normally he has coffee ready but due to the logistical issues I arrived at 1230pm. Flo showed me to my room and gave me a quick tour of the boat. He asked what would you like to do. Well, I’m kind of hungry and would like to try out one of your paddleboards. “Do you like lobster?” he asked me. Hell yeah I like lobster! Flo made a fantastic lunch with fresh boiled lobster, potatoes, onions, and peppers. After lunch we sailed 30 minutes to a different group of islands where we would stay for the night.

I took the longer of the two paddleboards out for my first paddle. Both boards were Bic Sport hardboards, one being 10’ (blue) and the other 11’ (red). The weather was perfect, slight breeze, 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 Celsius). I used the rope attached to the board to pull it to the end of the boat so I could hop on, adjusted the paddle length, and off I went!

Crystal clear water

The water so so clear I couldn’t help but look down most of the time. I spotted starfish on the seafloor along with some small fish. I got into an easy paddle rhythm as I rounded an island and saw a small island off in the distance and decided to head that direction. The paddling was pretty easy, a slight swell coming at my 2 o’clock was noticeable only because there was hardly any movement before. I thought to myself how lucky I was to make it to where I was then given how the day started. I’m sure I had a big grin on my face!

I got to the small island in about 45 minutes. It had a dozen or so palm trees and a small shack on the far side. I got off the board and pulled it to shore to take a few pictures.

I headed back to where the Kaya was anchored which took around 50 minutes. I found my captain Flo was on an island with some beer and a small sack which held a game he called Mölkky. We played a few rounds while having a couple beers which was a lot of fun. The local shopkeeper even played with us and was quite good at the game. The game is played to 50 so it gave me a chance to practice my numbers in Spanish!

After a while the sun was starting to go down so we paddled back to the Kaya and Flo started preparing dinner…more lobster!

The next three days consisted of more paddling and snorkeling. The weather was good with the exception of one raining morning. One of my favorite things was to jump from the boat into the water, a good 7-10 feet!

On the last day, I was relaxing on the boat out of the sun, Flo came over and said we would head to the island “over there”, as he pointed, to sleep for the night and check on my transportation back to the mainland after lunch. The island didn’t look too far so I asked him if I could paddle there. He thought a moment, “Well it would take you one hour, maybe 45 minutes.” That’s no problem I responded.

After we ate lunch and cleaned up. I hopped on the paddleboard and told Flo I’d see him there. The weather was once again gorgeous; clear blue skies and minimal wind. I put some tunes on and stepped it up a notch. Along the way there was a school of fish that jumped out of the water all at the same time There must have been at least thirty! When they landed it made a nice swishing sound. As I cruised to my destination I glanced back to see where Flo was. The Kaya was just now getting started and I was already ¾’s the way there. I just laughed out loud. An hour? Ha, I did it in just 28 minutes!

Michael Chebatoris
About Michael Chebatoris 24 Articles
Michael is a Denver, Colorado-based CPA, marathon runner, alpine skier, and white water paddler. He grew up in Nebraska paddling Marathon canoes with his brother on the lake behind their house. That led to a summer job leading canoe tours on the Platte River for Nebraska State Parks. Now a Colorado resident, Michael is the co-founder of the financial services firm Flagship Consulting. When he's not crunching numbers he can be found enjoying the abundant opportunities for outdoor exploration throughout the Rocky Mountain State and beyond.

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