As the founder of a guiding operation in the San Blas islands, I have spent several hundred nights there. Sometimes I stay for weeks or even months at a time. I have experienced every condition possible in the islands and have learned all the little tricks to make sure I am comfortable in them. A big part of being comfortable is knowing how and what to pack for the San Blas Islands. I learned most of this the hard way over several trips, but I am sharing my tips so you can pack like a pro and stay in comfort on your first trip. Here is the breakdown of what I like to bring with me:
Here I pack only the things I might need for my first day trip:
- Towel – they generally are not provided
- Sunblock – try to get a natural product that does not harm the reef.
- Water Shirt – the sun can be really strong, sometimes sunblock is not enough. I like to bring a long sleeve shirt that dries quickly. This can also be great for wet or windy boat rides.
- Sunglasses and/or Hat – I like to have both, but sunglasses are more important because they protect your eyes from both the sun above and the sun that reflects off the sea.
- Phone/Camera – San Blas is picture perfect, you will want to capture it.
- Portable Phone Charger – on most islands charging devices is only possible in the evening and ports are often shared between guests. Having a portable charger of your own ensures your camera can stay charged for when an amazing photo opportunity appears.
- Wallet & Passport – you must have your original passport to enter the indigenous territory that is home to the islands and you might want some spending money for souvenirs or cold drinks. Bring enough cash to pay your trip balance and small bills for purchases in the islands.
- Light Rain Jacket – between the months of May and December it rains fairly often. It’s warm rain, so you can either embrace being wet until return to Panama City, or you can bring a rain jacket… your choice.
When I am going to the islands for a few nights, I like to take one small backpack and one medium size dry bag. I like to do this so that when I check into my hut on the home island, I can just put my small backpack down and take off for the day trip knowing I am prepared without any repacking.
My small backpack is 30 liters. You don’t need anything bigger than that.
- Toiletries – as a general rule, try to make sure anything that will run off into the ocean, such as soap, is natural.
- Insect Repellent – you might want this in the mornings and evenings.
- Flashlight – if you want to save your phone battery, bring a separate flashlight to navigate your way around the island at night.
- A Good Book
- Snacks – basic meals are included and on some trips one snack a day is provided. If you are a picky eater or like to snack a lot, then consider bringing some tasty snacks that do not need refrigeration. I recommend putting them in a ziploc bag to prevent insects and birds from helping themselves to your treats.
- Beverages – some trips include drinking water, and in general cold national beers and sodas are available for purchase in the islands for about $2 each. On a few islands, it is possible to buy bottles of rum but the price is usually double than in the city. If you want any specialty beverages or alcohol, most are available for purchase at the market where the vehicles stop on the way to the islands.
- Small Garbage Bag – in case you need to protect your backpack from the rain.
In this backpack, I pack all the things I don’t need for the trip on my first day.
Here are some clothing items that might come in handy:
- Bring at Least 2 Swimsuits – In general, visitors to the islands live in their swimwear, so it’s nice to have an extra bathing suit that is always dry.
- Lightweight Sweater or Scarf – If the air conditioning in the car is too strong or strong winds pick up in the islands, this will provide plenty of warmth.
- Lightweight Long Trousers That are Tight Around the Ankles – In certain conditions, there can be san flies in the islands and mosquitoes in the port. Wearing pants in the mornings, evenings and in the port is the best defense against bug bites on your legs.
Remember, if you are visiting a Guna community wearing a shirt is required.
This will be short and sweet! You only need one pair of flip flops and really those are only necessary to enter the market on the way to the islands. Footwear is not a priority of what to pack for the San Blas Islands since there is nowhere to hike and nothing else that would require it. In fact, I regularly leave my flip flops in the islands because I take them off when I arrive and forget about them until I am back in the city.
One time, this was problematic for me because the one pair of flip flops that I left in the islands were also the only footwear that I owned. I arrived back to the city barefoot. I proceeded immediately to attempt to buy new flip flops but was denied entrance to the store because I was barefoot. Ironic right? I ended up having to ask a friend to purchase me flip flops. But unlike me, you are probably normal and have at least one backup pair of footwear, so you should be fine 🙂
No Need To Bring
There is limited space in the vehicles and boats and everything you need will fit in 2 smaller bags, so you can leave large bags in the city. Keep in mind that you won’t need any of these items:
- A Laptop – there is no wifi, there are very few areas without sand, and a lot of opportunities to damage it.
- Large Backpack or Luggage – most hostels and hotels will provide storage for large bags when you go to San Blas. If you must bring large bags, notify your guides ahead of time, have a lock for them, and put them in a waterproof bag in case they need to ride on the roof of the vehicle.
- A Watch – a watch that accurately tracks island time does not yet exist. So ditch the watch and relax.
You don’t need any tech devices to distract you from the Islands’ natural beauty.
A Spirit for Adventure and Openness to New Experiences
If you are a minimalist and limit yourself to bringing only what is absolutely essential, ignore the rest and bring these 2 things:
- Your Passport – you will not get into the territory without it.
- An understanding that these beautiful islands are home to a unique indigenous culture with a way of life that is different from most and one whose standards may be different than your own.
The San Blas islands are a rare gem, and visiting them is an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. So get off the internet, get packed and prepare to have an amazing trip.
Now that you know what to pack for the San Blas Islands, check out the trips we have for you!