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It’s an age-old traveler question: what’s the best way from Panama to Colombia? It seems silly, but it’s not possible to cross between the two countries that literally share a border, by land. The Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous and treacherous jungles in the world, separates the two and leaves it only possible to cross by air or sea. It’s a toss up at first – flying is cheaper (not by too much), but boating will involve exploring the tropical paradise of the San Blas Islands.
Upon further inspection and understanding that by paying a bit more, you will get to see one of the most beautiful and untouched places in the world, be accommodated for 3 nights, meet lifelong friends, interact with indigenous tribes, explore the most picturesque islands, and eat like a king… the choice is easy. The best way from Panama to Colombia is by boat….by speedboat, to be exact.
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Don’t miss my Complete Panama Backpacking Guide if you’re traveling around the area!
I recently did a speedboat adventure from Panama to Colombia with San Blas Adventures, and it really was the trip of a lifetime. But first, let me quickly clarify the basic differences between a speedboat and sail from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa!):
Sailing Panama to Colombia:
When you sail, it’s usually 5 days/4nights. You’ll spend 3 nights in the San Blas islands, staying on the boat and visiting islands, and then 2 nights doing an open ocean crossing to Cartegena, Colombia. These tours only see the northern part of the San Blas before the ocean crossing, eat and drink on the boats, take day trips to the islands, and may cost bit more due to the longer distance and duration.
Speedboat Panama to Colombia:
When you speedboat with San Blas Adventures, it’s 4 days/3nights. You are only on the boat for a transfer – you spend most of the time on the islands. You spend 1-3 hours boating between islands each day, and hang out on 2 islands each day, often interacting with the indigenous Kuna people and even spending a night in a remote village. These tours go through all the San Blas islands (all the way to the southernmost islands) and enter Colombia in Capurgana, a tiny beautiful remote Caribbean village only accessible by sea or air.
- If you want to weigh the options more fully,click here for my complete comparison of speedboat and sailboat trips between Panama and Colombia.
Phew! Now that we have that cleared up, let’s get on with letting you know how awesome my trip was from Panama to Colombia by speedboat. I got a little poetic for a minute below because the beauty of the islands inspired me so much!
So here is my San Blas Adventures trip review, complete with all descriptions of all aspects of the trip.
- Read More: When you get to Colombia, check out this awesome South America Travel Guide to plan your adventures!
Panama to Colombia: The Kuna People
First of all, the San Blas islands are the home of an indigenous people called the Kuna – the Kuna Yala, to be exact. This is a completely fascinating tribe who ended up residing on the San Blas islands after disease and difficulty pushed them from living in the Darien Gap jungle.
The Kuna are actually completely separate from, and speak a different language than, Panama. They are ‘chill’ with Panama (because years back they actually massacred the Panamanian government to ensure they would not be f*cked with) and now the two leave each other respectfully in peace but are there for each other if need be.
The Kuna people have their own government and interesting tribal traditions, rituals, and ceremonies that we learned about when we spent a night in a Kuna village. They’re a beautiful, simple, and kind people who live off the land and can teach us a lot! More on that below.
San Blas Adventures Food
The food on San Blas Adventures was AMAZING! Before each meal the other passengers and I looked at each other and tried to figure out how the hell they got such a gourmet and diverse meal to a tiny little deserted island. It was a skill indeed, which I have to commend the guides for. In terms of meat, we had fresh fish, shrimp, octopus ceviche, chicken, conch shell, tuna, and more over the week, but pretty much everything else was vegan/vegetarian friendly and TASTY even for people who weren’t!
Breakfasts were fresh fruit, coffee/tea/hot chocolate, yogurt, muesli/granola, bread, jam, peanut butter, and sometimes eggs. After getting used to rough hostel breakfasts, I was truly eating like a queen! But in that it was all super healthy, I felt amazing.
A Day in the Life from Panama to Colombia: Love at First Sight of San Blas
For this one, I’m just going to paint you a picture of a day in the life of our speedboat trip from Panama to Colombia. This is what day one looked like – and days two, three, and four were very similar! The islands were all dreamlike, there was an abundance of coconuts, the water was just perfect, and the people were too! San Blas is truly one of the most beautiful places in the Caribbean (and underrated).
We arrived at the coast after a bumpy 3-hour car ride to finally get on our speedboats. After sailing a few minutes, we quickly came upon what I could only describe as the most perfect island I could imagine. It was flat and small – tiny, even – with a few dozen palm trees in the middle and bordered by the whitest of sand. The water around it was an impossible shade of turquoise that faded out into a beautiful deep blue.
We were all in total awe, getting our phones and cameras out to capture this amazing slice of perfection manifested in a miniature island. But as we kept sailing, we saw another island just like it…. and then another. We quickly came to realize that this perfection actually repeated itself in all 365 San Blas islands, and that THIS is what we about to experience for the next four days.
We saw one bigger island with a few wooden huts on it, and even some smaller ones with just a few palm trees and light coral reefs extending out around them – turning the water a whitey sea foam green color. Each little island was in itself a tropical droplet of a dream, like islands I have pictured in my head but didn’t know actually existed anywhere in this world… especially dozens within a few hundreds of meters of each other.
We arrived at our first island after an hour or so of more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ and this might have been the most picturesque one of all! It was the smallest and cutest yet, with only a few dozen palm trees growing from a big circle of flat white sand. You could walk across the whole thing in a minute! We all gathered our belongings and our wits, making the actualization that yes, this was indeed a real place and yes, we are really here. After lots of photos, a drone session, and a fantastic lunch of freshly caught fish, we were on our own for a few hours to enjoy this paradise.
So, I grabbed a snorkel. I swam out to where the water deepened, and had a bit of an exploration around the island, which was actually much larger with the reefs around it! I swam through the sea grass and inspected a few corals waving gently in the underwater currents before coming to a small, shallow patch of white sand. I sat myself up, taking my mask off and grasping a handful of this fine, white, soft sand and letting it run gently through my fingers and back into the water.
I looked up at the tiny island, which gradually emerged out of the water about 30m from me. I was surrounded by more shades of blue than I knew existed, and could count at least 20 other islands of different sizes all around me. They were all bordered by the same bright white rim and green, level palm tree topping like a frosting on a cake. As I contemplated how insanely perfect this island was, with its soft light sand and few palm trees shading a little hut, quite a big realization washed over me: this is absolutely one of, if not the, most beautiful place I have been in my entire life.
A bit humbled by but confident in my epiphany, I pressed on. I came upon a stunning coral reef, and made an entire lap of the island before finally begrudgingly deciding to remove myself from the refreshing cool water for a little while. As I sat and joined my tour mates in the shade of coconut trees and looked out once again upon the scene in front of me, I knew that my decision was correct.
Only a 15 minute boat ride away was our island home for the night. We passed another 4 or 5 perfect circle islands before coming up to ours, and offloaded our belongings to keep with us for the night.
This island was home to a Kuna family, who had beer and coconuts to sell us on a tab basis. There were a few tables of hand made arts, crafts, and jewelry, and a few beautiful traditionally dressed Kuna women clad in many different colors and beaded jewelry from their ankle up their calf. A few tiny children ran around, waving and shouting ‘Hola!’ To all of us with the biggest of smiles on their faces.
Our rooms were little open huts with hanging hammocks, and after choosing our ‘beds’ for the night we went on a snorkel tour with one of our Kuna guides.
We left our island towards the open sea, and quickly realized that a lot of the little sea plants and weeds were growing from dozens of the most massive conch shells I have ever seen. I had a little period of beauty overwhelm where I picked up the conches – all much bigger than my head – trying to find which one was the biggest! Usually it would be exciting to find one conch shell, but not here! There are hundreds of shells all through the water and on the islands, all home to either an actual conch snail or lots of different corals, fish, and seaweeds.
After a ten minute swim we arrived at a beautiful dropoff clad with all different kinds of colorful living coral. I haven’t been to the Caribbean since I was small, but this was honestly some of the best snorkeling I can recall in my life! The reef was at a perfect depth to explore with a snorkel – and dive down deeper if you felt the need. As we traced this reef we saw a manta ray, a few lion fish with all their peacock-like fins on display, and so many other fish and sea life. It was definitely worth going snorkeling a second time!
The night consisted of snacks, rum, hilarious stories, sunset volleyball, an AMAZING dinner of coconut rice, cooked veggies, potatoes, octopus ceviche, and garlic shrimp, a bonfire, more rum, amazingly clear stargazing, a bit of dancing by the fire, and… more rum. It was a night for the books with an awesome group, and we all slept much more soundly in our hammocks than we thought possible. But then again… maybe it was the rum😝
Visiting a Kuna Village with San Blas Adventures
On the last night of our trip from Panama to Colombia (it would be the first night if you were going Colombia to Panama), we stayed on an island called Caledonia which was a big indigenous Kuna village. We had dorms for the night in bamboo/straw huts, which was actually somehow a reluctant change from the hammocks we had grown to love!
This island is in the South San Blas islands, closer to Colombia and far from the main tourist area of the San Blas. Because they aren’t exposed to as much tourism, this made the the experience far more authentic and valuable. It felt like we were truly encapsulated within another culture, experiencing a first-hand slice of a different way of life.
The showers were little stalls with buckets, and the toilets were legitimately wooden toilet seats about 5 feet above the sea! Through the toilet you could see the fish swimming around in the aqua blue water…. this is why we aren’t allowed to swim around the island!! 😛
Our guide gave us a little walking tour of town, telling us about all sorts of Kuna traditions, beliefs, ways of life, and different ceremonies they do. It was so interesting because their belief systems were so unique and traditional; the way they marry, enter adulthood, and exist in a community are much, much different than we are used to in the Western world. We walked through the town of straw huts, waving at and playing with children along the way. All the children gathered in the main square for a massive game of duck duck goose (path pato gallina).
This game was great fun as the kids were actually SO good at it – even using cheeky ways to cheat us out – and were absolutely over the moon to play such a simple game with us. One adorable little girl even adopted me as her temporary human and decided to do my hair, help me take photos, and run around with me during duck duck goose!
It was so incredible to play with them – just like any happy little child, but with a way of life so different than we are used to. These kids may not have ever seen a car or a skyscraper, yet still have the same twinkle in their eye as any kid on the planet when playing a game of chase.
Afterwards we had an old Kuna silah come and speak to us. The Silah are like the community leaders who make important decisions and lead. He told us (translated from kuna, to spanish, to english) about their history and answered a ton of our questions about the Kuna way of life. It was amazing and so immersive!
San Blas Adventures Responsible Tourism
SBA works to make sure that lots of the money spent to come here remains in the San Blas islands and with the Kuna People. They have close working relationships with families and communities along the entire archipelago, and help work both to preserve their amazing culture and make sure they benefit from tourism in a healthy way.
This really sets SBA apart, and was one of the main things that made me choose this company. Passengers can rest assured that part of the price of the tour does go toward the indigenous tribes that they will even meet themselves!
The Speedboat Panama to Colombia Experience
On this kind of trip, there’s really something for everyone. Because you spend most of your time freely on the islands and not cooped up on a boat, you can choose whether you’d like to be social and hang around with the group, or sit quietly and read in the shade of a palm tree.
There are travelers from all over the world on these trips, many of which love to get together and chill on the beach or around a bonfire. Many travelers like to have a bit of a party, and get to know each other and chat about their home countries and travel experiences. But what makes it great is that you have the freedom of choice to join a party-type atmosphere, or not. This is the kind of trip where you can do exactly what you want without being expected to joing a group if you don’t want to, but with the option always there for you.
The value of the Kuna experience is also so much more than many people realize. I knew that we were going to interact with local people, but being able to play games with and enjoy some real time with the adorable local children in the Village was something I will truly never forget.
Another awesome part of the tour is that, when you arrive in Colombia, you will more than likely plan your onward travel with your new friends from the tour group. In that it ends in the tiny paradise or Capurgana, Colombia which is only accessible my sea or air, and that there is only 1-2 departures per day out of the town, most passengers end up traveling to Cartegena or Medellin together. Many even end up traveling together for a long time – even a month after my trip a lot of the members of my group are still together or meeting up periodically. It’s a pretty cool way to meet travel buddies that turn into lifelong friends.
- Read More: My Travel Guide to Capurgana, Colombia (where the trip ends/starts!)
Panama to Colombia: The Boats
The boats, of course, are speedboats. Picture what you imagine a speedboat to look like…. now imagine a Panamanian version! 😛 They’re quite small, able to fit maybe 4 people per row, and have an overhang on top for shade. One Kuna guide stands at the front while one drives the boat, and you get the whole sail time to just… chill!
San Blas Weather: What’s With the Plastic Bags?
Possibly the biggest disclaimer of the experience is that weather is uncontrollable and can (and probably will) be bad, at least for a part of your trip. It could rain, and sometimes the sea swells can get large. The speedboats are open at the sides and flick up water when the swells are of a decent height, meaning – you guessed it – you could get quite wet!
This is why everyone tapes up their big bags in multiple plastic bags, and brings a few extras to keep over their small bags for the boat journeys. You will pack a small bag/backpack to use for the week, and completely seal off and put away your bigger luggage, so make sure to pack efficiently! See below.
This may seem strange at first, but remember that this is Panama and the boats, although totally adequate, are basic. It is quite easy, though – simply buy a few backs of plastic bags and share tape with some other adventurers to seal your bag off. The guides should have spare tape as well, and be expert at properly sealing things off as they do it all the time. Keep one bag for your day bag, and just tie it up during boat journeys. Sometimes you won’t even need to!
The plastic bags are more of a safety precaution. If big swells come, you want your stuff to be protected. Apparently I was SUPER lucky during my journey because we didn’t get wet whatsoever, and the water was lovely and glassy a lot of the time and definitely bearable (yet sometimes bumpy) for the rest. We honestly didn’t get wet at all, but I have heard from many that getting wet is just a part of the experience. They give each row covers for your legs, and you can wrap up in a poncho if you want too. This is the trade-off for having only 2ish hours on the boat per day and the rest, pure island time!
What to Pack for Your Trip from Panama to Colombia
As I mentioned, you will be putting stuff you need for the 4 days in one day bag, and the rest you will keep in your bigger bag/suitcase and seal off with tape and plastic to stay in the boat for the week.
So, you must makesure to have everything you need in a smaller day bag, and not leave anything in your big bag once it’s been sealed up! Here’s my list of must-have’s:
- Swim Suit: bikini/board shorts (If you bring one thing… make it this 😛 ) This is my favorite sarong!
- Cover Up’s: sarong, tank tops, shorts, sun dresses. Remember it’s just 4 days so you could relly use the same outfit the whole time, but maybe bring 2-3.
- Plastic Bags – You can get them from anywhere in Panama City or Capurgana.
- Sunscreen – It’s best to bring a few types (face sunscreen/body sunscreen) of high SPF. And remember to reapply!
- Day Bag – If you don’t already, you’ll want to have a smaller multi-functional backpack to use as your day bag for your basic tour needs. You could also use a dry bag for this.
- Dry Bag – This might be a smart idea rather than so many plastic bags, especially to keep your valuables safe and if you’ll be traveling around the water for a while. This 3 piece set comes with a dry bag for your phone, a fanny pack dry bag, and a bigger one for all your stuff. My pick!
- Sunglasses – very important.
- Flip Flops/Sandals – one pair should be fine for the whole trip.
- Towel – When I travel I use this microfiber towel to dry off and my sarong to lay on the beach.
- Camera – this is a must! Iphones will do these days, but I carry around my Nikon DSLR when I travel.
Don’t miss my Complete Panama Backpacking Guide if you’re traveling around the area!
Thanks so San Blas Adventures for hosting me on a trip from Panama to Colombia. Of course, all words are my own… can I go back yet?!