2 nights on a small bounty island – my experience on San Blas

(This article is also available in Dutch)

Two nights sleeping on one of 300+ tiny, bounty islands. An autonomous region in Panama, ruled by the indigenous Kuna people. A place where coconuts are still legal tender in 2024.

It sounded like a dream, but I was a little afraid of the primitive side. And doing nothing for 2 days? Friends laughed that I would be so bored, I am far too active for something like that.

We deliberately planned the overnight stays at San Blas as our second-to-last destination in Panama. In the beginning of our travels I want to see way too much in a short time, at the end I am more ‘zen’.

Our experience? San Blas exceeded all expectations and even became the highlight of our trip.

Sit back and relax, you will read my personal experience in a detailed account in this article.

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Good to know

The San Blas Islands have officially been called "Guna Yala" since 2013, but in practice most people still call it San Blas. In this article I use "San Blas", but we're talking about the same islands! The indigenous tribe is called Kuna or Guna.

4:30 That damned alarm clock

Why did we do this again? Getting up that early is really inhuman. Sleepily, I get ready to leave.

We gave our backpacks to the “bell boys” at our hotel last night. You can only bring a small backpack to San Blas, not a suitcase or large backpack. My camera is already packed tightly waterproof, as I have heard wild stories about the boat ride.

At the last minute, we bought bath towels at the Decathlon yesterday. The tour description appeared to state that you should bring both beach and bath towels. Good that we have read that again….

We pick up our breakfast package at the front desk and set up in the lobby. Between 5:30 and 6:00 we would be picked up. At 5:45 am, we get into the 4×4. We pick up a few more people; it does get a little cramped in the car. Fortunately, we are in the very back, where we have the most space. We understand the luggage rule by now; there is very little room left in the car.

Together with two Germans and two Spanish girls, we drive toward San Blas. Apparently we are all on a different island and we all booked with a different organization. It doesn’t matter which organization you book through, it’s the families who arrange everything on the islands. Each San Blas islet belongs to a Guna family.

On the way, we stop at a gas station. The Germans buy some ice to throw into their waterproof bag of beers they brought. We hesitate for a moment, should we also stock up on beer or wine? That’s the hard thing about San Blas: they recommend bringing your own water and drinks, but there’s also a good chance you can buy it there. And if you buy it there, you support the Gunas, who live largely on tourism. The problem is that they don’t know what the stock on the island is. Clumsy though.

To be safe, we carry a gallon of water with us. And a bottle of rum. We will probably survive this.

The road to San Blas: improved, but still nauseating

The road to the San Blas Islands was recently renewed, and we are very happy about that. So far, the new road is riding quite smoothly. Occasionally things slow down because they are still working, but we cannot complain. We ride through nature, again and again with amazing views.

And then we seem to be in some kind of traffic jam. It is the border of the Guna Yala area. We have to give our passports, and they check if we have the Panama entrance stamp. Another person collects the admission fee from the driver. Still special, such an autonomous region.

The further we go, the more the ride begins to resemble a roller coaster. No criticism of the driver, as he drives heartily. But those curves, man, to make you sick. Sitting in the back may not have been the very best idea after all….

The last stretch of road has not yet been rebuilt, so it is off-road. I can’t imagine the whole road was ever like this. Now I really understand the stories I read online. Fortunately, we only have to do this for a short stretch, but nauseated we are.

Port in San Blas
San Blas port

On to Yanis!

And then we stop at something that should pass as a port. “Kimberly,” is called out. Apparently, we have to get out, everyone else has to stay. Vague.

We wait, along with some other people, and then we are allowed onto the boat. We are welcomed and the boy who guides us, speaks good English. He tells that you can take as many pictures as you want from him, but not to photograph other boats or people. Damn, I was afraid of that. Here on the San Blas Islands, they are not very fond of photographs. You are also not allowed to use a drone here, whereas in the rest of Panama that is not such a problem.

It is heavily overcast and the sea is not very chill. It’s a fairly bumpy ride, I hold my camera bag anxiously.

We first sail to the main island where many Guna live. The boy – I’ve lost his name, says it’s a holiday and the women are preparing food. We see a whole group of women in traditional clothes, sitting in a circle. Wow, this is such a beautiful photo moment! Old ladies with stripes on their faces, nose rings, traditional clothing, bracelets…. Sooooo beautiful! But. I. Can. Not. Photograph. Damn. OK, just enjoy this moment.

“Take her!” The boy calls out to the man sitting behind me. A cute little girl with a unicorn diadem is ready to jump on the boat. The man catches her (thankfully) and puts her in the middle of the boat. A little old lady hands over a charger for her smartphone and some money. And we move on again.

I think I see our island! Oh, no, it’s not ours. That one maybe! No, neither. The islands are all beautiful, I have never seen anything like this. But how much I want to get out of this boat, I get nauseous.

Denis apparently too, “couldn’t you pick an island closer?”. Secretly, I deliberately chose one of the furthest islands, as they are less crowded…. I am silent.

The moment of truth is almost here: did I choose the right island from that gigantic choice?

Yansailadub

Me happy. We are here. We are on Yansailadub, or Yani, or Yanis. 3 names for the same island. How beautiful is this! It would be even more beautiful if there were fewer clouds, but ok.

Very little explanation is given, except a finger toward a sign with the island’s rules. On it is written what the eating times are and that you should stay away from the coconuts. I love it, money literally grows on trees here.

The man, we mutually call him “el jefe,” asks (in English) if we eat everything – I hesitate for a moment and then say “yes”. I want to try to eat the local food, normally I am not a fan of seafood, putting it mildly. 

 

Then the daughter (I think she is) takes us to the bungalow. YES, we got the right one! There are only three bungalows over the water, so we only have one neighbor. Ideal.

The bungalow looks fine, much better than I expected. A small double bed, a single bed, a small table and a balcony with two chairs. Inside, I make a little leap of joy.

We put our things down and then find out that our bungalow cannot be locked. Weird. But okay, it probably won’t be necessary.

 

We explore the island. It takes less than 5 minutes, because it’s quite small.

The toilets look fine, not unimportant. They are two shared toilets that you have to flush with a bucket of water. But all super clean, and fortunately there is toilet paper.

I had read online that there is a lot of trash on San Blas, especially on the beaches, but thankfully that is not the case here. Except in the trash cans, there is no trash here. They even seem to separate their waste.

So far, everything is much better than expected. I’m not going to say it’s a complete surprise, because I spent several hours researching to finally book this little island, out of many choices. Anyway, there is still a difference between reading something from behind your computer and experiencing it for yourself.

We sit down on the beach and I get talking to a German girl. Apparently, she booked a day trip. She stays here for a few hours and after lunch she goes to another island. She balks that it is so cloudy. It is beautiful here, but of course it does not look so paradisiacal with such a gray sky. I realize that she will soon have to go all that way back…. Twice in one day, I wouldn’t do that.

It’s time for lunch. Everyone gets fried fish – except the vegetarians. But I wouldn’t want to trade places with them either, because they literally get white rice with some cucumber, carrot and tomato. Fortunately, there is ketchup. We all have a different kind of fish, it’s just what’s swimming around the island.

Our verdict: the food is fine! The only thing I have trouble with are the eyes staring at me ^^.

Meanwhile, we got talking to a Swiss man who will stay here for three nights and then sail on to Colombia. And not much later also with three nice, Dutch girls just starting their journey, and a slightly older, British couple. It’s going to be a cozy here!

After lunch, the few day-trippers leave and the island becomes even quieter. Like having the island to ourselves with a group of friends. The few people who don’t feel like socializing are chilling on the other sides of the island.

Too bad the weather is not really cooperating, but it is certainly not a punishment to be here. In the 10 minutes it briefly clears, I take some quick photos.

 

Help, a shark!

Denis went snorkeling and saw two sting rays. Cool, I want to see them too! I enter the water and snorkel around. Except for some nice fish and brothers of the fish I had on my plate (hello guilt), I don’t see much. I swim back.

And then suddenly, I see a fin. I’m shocked, is that a shark? With my iPhone I film what I saw, and then I realize it really is a shark. Why am I filming? I get up and try to go quietly to the beach, but still can’t help running out of the water half panicked.

I run to (I think) ‘the owner’ of the island and shout, “I saw a shark!”. El jefe looks at me somewhat indifferently; it looks like I am disturbing him during his administration. “Just a big fish. Normal. Eats plankton.” Okay, clear. Happy. Panic for nothing. Would he experience this on a daily basis? I feel like a real gringo.

Denis and I enter the water together, up to our knees. I’m somewhat hidden behind him. We put that iPhone under the water again, yep, the shark is still there at ease. A few hours later, everyone, all of our 10 fellow islanders, saw the shark. Still special and so close to the coast!

Back to my hammock. I see an older man walking around the island with a stick held out in front of him. Apparently he has been moored with his sailboat down the road for years, coming here daily to get some exercise and buy fish. Unique life though.

The rest of the day we chill in the hammocks at the beach and drink with a sociable gang. A can of beer cost $2 each, and fortunately they have many in stock. The bottle of rum is also empty in no time.

Showering and brushing teeth in the open air is also a treat. Because it is full moon, it is quite bright, which gives a nice effect. I sincerely think I have never brushed my teeth in a nicer place. #lifegoals

The open closed bungalow

Have you had a good look at our bungalow? Then you will see that there are gaps between the boards. This is super chill during the day because it allows wind to pass through.

Well, I can tell you that when it blows really hard at night, it’s not so much fun anymore. It felt like we were sleeping outside, and I was cold. Denis’s eyes even hurt from the wind – I was so happy with my sleeping mask.

So, we had a terrible night. Fortunately, we don’t have to do much today, haha.

Miraculously, the weather is beautiful when we get up.

Breakfast is quite good. Afterward we recover from the night in the hammocks. Maybe I even fell asleep for a moment.

I hear from our fellow islanders that the other rooms are not much better in terms of wind penetration. Oh well, not everything can be perfect in paradise. We are not exactly the easiest sleepers, either.

The blue sky makes me quickly forget the terrible night.

To Isla perro Chico

Today, scampi are on the lunch menu. The smell makes me nauseous, and I decide I’m not really – or really not in an adventurous mood. “Just ask for chicken” the Dutch girls urge me. With some embarrassment, I ask for chicken and 3 minutes later I have a delicious meal of chicken in front of me. That’s how easy life can be.

After lunch, our tour begins. You’d think we’d be ready to get out of this island by now, but that’s actually not the case at all. With this lovely weather, I even considered skipping the tour. But my healthy portion of fomo (fear of missing out) makes me go anyway.

We got on the boat and sailed to another island in about 15 minutes. Isla Perro Chico. It is full of boats and, as expected, the entire island is also full of people. So gigantically busier than on our little island!

This island also seems to have slightly more facilities, such as a cocktail bar. We have a love-hate relationship with it. The beach is really beautiful, and the water is a beautiful turquoise. The view of the other islands is also stunning.

But, so many people! Am still happier with our little island, maybe slightly less beautiful than this one, but much more authentic and quiet, even with the few day-trippers.

And then we see two familiar faces. The two Spanish girls we were in the 4×4 with on the way there. Funny that they also have a trip to this island. In fact, San Blas consists of more than 300 islets.

We dive into the water with our snorkels. There is a sunken ship here and there are many colored fish and beautiful coral. I can’t get enough of it. Then Denis calls out. Our boat is apparently ready to leave. Fifteen minutes earlier than they had indicated. Damn, I wanted to have a cocktail. We run to the boat, and then we sail to the “natural pool” or “piscina natural”.

And that, too, is wonderful. A snorkel is not actually necessary, but when we do snorkel a bit in the dark area, we see starfish. A different species than in Bocas del Toro and Coiba, beautiful. Images I don’t have unfortunately, I thought I was filming, but not so….

The natural pool is not far from our islet of Yansailadub; we have an idyllic view of it. Then we sailed back. In all, we were out for about two hours.

And guess what: it’s time for beers in the hammock again! I love my life.

The red moon

An hour before sunset (golden hour), I take my camera around the island. Some of the Guna family is chilling in front of their thatched cottages. I actually want to photograph them, I want to ask, but decide to leave them alone.

Two boys are playing beach volleyball, and then I see one of the kids fishing from the dock. Next to him is a smaller boy and a girl. I go to them and ask if I can take a picture. 

The island dog stands next to him, barking toward the water. Is that dog barking at the shark? My Duolingo Spanish is unfortunately not good enough to carry on a conversation.

I see Denis a little further on talking to “the daughter” and her little son. I am curious to hear his stories, because his Spanish is indeed good.

 

Photographing sunsets on San Blas

The sunset is starting to turn beautiful colors, so I sit on the beach. I set up my camera to make a time-lapse and set it on a chair, in lack of a tripod.

What a wonderful life is this. I greatly regret that we only booked two nights.

The sun has barely set when the British woman runs toward me. The moon is red, she says. I call to Denis and the Swiss and go to the other side of the island. That sounds further than it was 😉

Wonderful this, unimaginable. The moon is big and red. So special! I try to capture it with my camera, but unfortunately I can’t, on camera the moon looks tiny. A few minutes later, the moon is back to normal.

We are too late for dinner, but fortunately we still get our food served. It looks super delicious. Apparently it’s octopus and some more seafood in a sauce. Oops, not quite my thing – again, putting it mildly. But look, I did try something new again. I am quite proud of myself. This time, I didn’t have to ask for chicken.

 

Red moon
Een gezellig avondje op San Blas

Farewell, my Yani

My alarm clock rings. I have a big hangover. Last night was very enjoyable again. Together with the Swiss and two nice Berlin girls, we spent hours drinking beers. And then the Swiss turned out to have another whole bottle of rum.

We danced under the stars, lay in the warm water and talked for hours. One of the guys, who lives on the island, joined us for a while, super fun.

It was super cozy until we ran out of rum and the entire supply of beer. One thing is for sure, we sponsored the locals well!

And also, we left behind a piece of Belgium here. No, not in the form of chocolate. The boy turned out to be a fan of electronic music, so we showed him Charlotte de Witte’s techno. Charlotte, should you ever read this, know that you have a Guna fan there 😉

Don’t whine, get up. I had promised myself to photograph the sunrise. I get out my tripod chair, pick out a palm tree and put the camera back on time-lapse mode.

Sunrise at Yansailadub (by Yani Island) - San Blas

And then suddenly it begins to rain, and hard too. It’s a good thing we’re leaving, if it’s going to be another rainy day like this…. We go to breakfast and then suddenly it clears up. A beautiful, clear blue sky. Back a grin on my face.

The realization dawns that I haven’t taken many of the pictures I wanted to take. Shit.

I grab my camera, but then hear shouting in Spanish. Our boat is already leaving! We thought we were leaving at 9, but apparently it’s as early as 8, and it’s now 8:15. NO! I throw all the crap in a bag, and then they come again, that the boat is leaving NOW. Do tranquilo people, why are you so punctual? Who looks at the time when you are here? I. Do. Not. Want. To. Leave.

We are always people who are on time, but apparently here, we are always late. Just leave without us, I really don’t mind.

We grab our things and run to the boat. Meanwhile, I shout “nice to meet you” and “safe travels” to our new friends – how I would have loved to give everyone another big hug. We jump into the boat and leave.

I swallow away my tears. What a treat this was. I repeat, I do not want to leave. It. Is. So. Nice. Here. My new happy-place.

I thought I would be bored to death, but I didn’t even take all the pictures and videos that I wanted! This is a place where I really found peace and really enjoyed “doing nothing”. I didn’t even know I could do that so well. Okay, granted, we just chatted a lot with other people, too. But how f*cking beautiful life is. Seriously, I begrudge everyone a night on this island.

The whole trip feels like a very heavy goodbye. We also only have 3 more nights to go before we have to return home.

At the gas station, we again meet the girls who were in our 4×4 on the outward journey. They, too, had a great time.

Showers and a hamburger

By 11:30 we are back in Panama City, at the hotel where we left our luggage. We are not staying here; we will soon travel on to Gamboa.

We feel like wanderers. Two days of showering with salt water does not feel so clean, I can give you that. Anyway, that shower will have to wait. We go to a shopping center nearby. My flip-flops broke on San Blas, so I’m walking on water shoes, not very charming. I buy new slippers, and then I have only one priority: A HAMBURGER. An overpriced, large, burger. Trust me, a burger has never tasted so good.

Then we pick up our backpacks and take an Uber to our hotel in Gamboa. Finally, a hot shower. It feels so good.

San Blas was the most expensive excursion we ever did. But it was worth every euro. Priceless memories that we will cherish forever. Not for those who need many luxuries. But it does for those who crave a great experience on a beautiful, indigenous island!

 

Does this story sound like “I want to sleep here too” to you? Then don’t wait too long, because they expect these islets to disappear (unfortunately) by 2050 due to rising sea levels!

 

About this excursion

We were on Yani Island (Isla Yansailadup) in one of three overwater bungalows. The tour includes 3 meals per day as well as a day trip. All you have to buy yourself is drinks.

Book the same tour?

👉 Book the 3 days 2 nights tour here

👉 Prefer just one night? You can book that one here.

If you have the budget and 4 days / 3 nights, it is nice to sleep on different islands and also visit an island where you can learn more about the indigenous culture-and people you do get to photograph. We heard good stories from fellow travelers about this 3-night tour.

Prefer to stay on the same island? Here you book 3 nights at Yani.

WATCH THE 360° VIDEO!

Denis gives you a tour in this 360° video. Don’t forget to turn your smartphone or use your mouse, to look around the 360° environment. Unfortunately the quality is not the best, but it gives you a good idea of the island!

Tip: Manually set the video to 4K or higher image quality.