Bocas del Toro, las Perlas or the San Blas Islands. Which is the Best Sailing Destination in Panama?
Panama has for long been the favourite yacht charter destination for many of those who seek a true sailing holiday. It’s up to you to choose the location that best suits your needs, either in the Caribbean or the Pacific.
Located south of the hurricane zone, Panama, unlike the rest of the other sailing destinations in the Caribbean such as for example the BVI, Antigua, the Grenadines or St. Martin has never been hit by any major hurricane and is also not on the way of any tropical storm. With this info, it’s no wonder both the Caribbean and Pacific side of Panama are a great year-round attraction for boaters and yacht charter enthusiasts alike.
The main cruising attractions in Panama are the 365 islands of the San Blas region and that is simply because of it’s wondrous uniqueness, but there is more to Panama than just San Blas; Bocas del Toro also in the Caribbean side like San Blas and las Perlas on the Pacific side, also offer all-inclusive catamaran charters and must be considered as an option when traveling. There are few other sailing areas in panama that we will not consider in this post and this is because they are either too small, isolated or do not have the minimum safety requirements.
What are the differences between these 3 main cruising locations in Panama and what should you know before booking a sailing charter in one of them?
HOW TO REACH THE SAILING LOCATIONS
Las Perlas: to get to the archipelago of las Perlas on a sailing charter you usually embark the night before in Marina Flamingo in Panama City. Next morning you will start sailing at 6:00 Am and after 12 hours you will reach Las Perlas. From there you can easily sail to the rest of the locations.
Bocas del Toro: book a one hour flight that departs from Albrook terminal in Panama City to Bocas del Toro’s main island Isla Colon. Once in the main island, you can easily access your catamaran/sailboat with a quick taxi ride. Main cruising grounds in Cayo Zapatilla are around a 2 hours sail.
San Blas islands: take a 40 min private flight to the heart of San Blas also from Albrook terminal in Panama City or take a 4 hour land/water taxi transfer from Panama City to the catamaran
Las Perlas: taxi within Panama City to Flamingo marina is cheap but embarking and paying for one more charter night in order to sail 12 hours the next day can easily increase your charter quote by a couple of thousand $, so take that into consideration when booking your sailing charter in las Perlas.
Bocas del Toro: local flights from Panama City to Bocas del Toro departing from Albrook terminal in Panama City cost around $150/person/way and will put you right on the main island where your catamaran is most likely to be located.
San Blas islands: Road transfers from Panama City cost $75/person/way and the other option of a private plane for up to 8 guests costs $1,337.50/way. If you were 8 guests, then price/person/way is $167,
Las Perlas: Food in this archipelago is very similar to the one found in Panama City since the proximity of capital makes it easier to provision there.
Bocas del Toro: The busy main island and the adjacent Bastimentos islands offer a variety of both international and local restaurants
San Blas islands: Cuisine in San Blas is elaborated mainly with the fish and live lobster and other sea delicacies that the Kuna indigenous bring us to our catamarans. Tropical fruits grown in the jungles around are also provided to us by the locals.
Las Perlas: the Pacific side of Panama has always been a major spot for whale watching while on season (August - September), but bring a rain coat because those months mark the peak of the raining season. Fish are plenty in las Perlas and snorkelling is a must although visibility can be poor most of the times because of the abundance in plancton and other organisms. Commercial/sport fishing have made their mark in the recent years. Mosquitos are present throughout most of the islands and anchorages
Bocas del Toro: Caribbean tropical fish are abundant in the non fishing areas of this archipelago. Reefs and corals that are outside of the wave breaking zone can be easily visited. Snorkeling is also a must but due to the proximity of the rivers around the sailing area, mud on the water can make water visibility poor at times. Mosquitos are abundant in some places, including anchorages, this is due to the lack of wind and extreme humidity.
San Blas islands: No commercial fishing on the islands make this part of Panama unique. Local nature is abundant both in the water and the close by jungle. Water visibility on the outer cays is perfect. No fresh water makes mosquitos unable to reproduce in the Cays, also the wind blows any mosquito or bug away to the nearby jungle.
Las Perlas: From May to November, the south-west currents predominate, which bring abundant rainfall especially on the southern side exposed to the Pacific Ocean. There is usually little to no wind in both dry and wet seasons. Surf and tides are significantly bigger that any other location in the Caribbean. Expect it to be hot and humid year-round.
Bocas del Toro: the typical Caribbean weather with rain most of the year and high temperatures. Little to no wind most of the times. Squalls hitting sailboats without proper shelter during the rainy season can be a concern. Surf is strong during the dry season and Bocas has become a very well known surfing spot for American and European surfers.
San Blas islands: Unlike Bocas del Toro, the Trade Winds blow throughout the region and almost all the way down to Colombia from November-May. The winds blow away any atmospheric moisture and humidity does not turn into rain most of the times. When the Trades die, humidity comes back and rains show up. Little to no surf and small tides make sailing within the Cays an easy and enjoyable experience.
Las Perlas: year- round high surf and little to no wind.
Bocas del Toro: year- round moderate-high surf and little to no wind.
San Blas islands: dry season (November - May) little to no surf and moderate wind / wet season (May - November) little to no surf and little to no wind.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Las Perlas: Mainly Panamanians and US expats. Culture is Panamanian since the boom of tourism and the proximity to Panama City has greatly influenced the islands.
Bocas del Toro: Mostly Panamanians, US expats and European residents make up for the totality of the population. Culture is mostly Panamanian-Caribbean with an indigenous touch.
San Blas islands: Kuna indigenous habitants and culture with little to no Panamanian/international influence. Unlike Bocas del Toro and las Perlas, the San Blas Islands cannot be sold to foreigners and as a consequence, no major hotels or tourist attractions have sprouted.
Las Perlas: relatively no safety issues apart from normal ones like choosing night anchorages with other boats, locking up the dinghy and other minor preventive details.
Bocas del Toro: There is some civil unrest and protests focusing on domestic issues (students’ rights, labour disputes, indigenous issues) are common and typically non-violent.
San Blas islands: no safety issues. Small communities are perfectly organised to spot any non local intruder.
Now you know what to expect: choose your next catamaran sailing holiday wisely.