Panama’s autonomous San Blas: Part two of a four-part tale

After a few days in Panama City indulging in resort life at the Westin Playa Bonita and exploring the nearby jungle and iconic canal with Gamboa Tours, our writer ventured away to discover another Panama, the archipelago of San Blas — a decidedly rustic getaway.

The stretch of nearly 400 islands is by no means General Manuel Noriega’s Panama, nor is it the glittery party scene of the Hard Rock Cafe Megapolis and its ilk. Rather, this unique pocket of paradise is the quintessential off-the-beaten track experience. It’s where one must surrender time and expectation, and accept simplicity and a lack of electricity (and often running water) under the ruling of the indigenous Guna people.

This is the story of her journey to San Blas’s otherworldly Isla Diablo. Today, Part 2.

Read Part 1 here.


What are we getting ourselves into? An adventure beyond our control. At the border into the Guna Yala province, we are held at a standstill. The traffic jam is an hour deep thanks to a deliberately slow moving passport checkpoint replete with car search and various “invented” tariffs, according to our guide Judy Lam. Though she tells us the wait isn’t always this long, it doesn’t help our restlessness, and we get out of the car to shake our legs.

There are several outfits like Lam Tours, so each traveller will have a different experience, but the best way to deal with the uncertainty of new and improvised added fees and tariffs is to book a tour package ahead. Before paying and signing off, repeatedly ensure there are no hidden fees. Don’t forget to reserve extra cash for the option to dine on a local lobster dinner and for any tips along the way.

As of January 2015, the Guna charge US$50 a head for those passing from Panama. The sentiment behind the roadside check is that they are looking for drugs coming through the provincial border from Darien and, just beyond that, Colombia.

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