Panama Sailing Vacations: Should we Visit Bocas del Toro or the San Blas Islands?
Both destinations have their own value that attract a certain type of traveler, but for those seeking an off the beaten path adventure with pure and uncorrupted nature, it’s like we always say. "Bocas del Toro would be great if San Blas islands did not exist"
Choose Bocas del Toro for the crowds and nightlife, a range of high end jungle resorts in the nearby island of Bastimentos mixed with backpacker hostels and popular surf spots. Choose the unexplored islands and pristine waters of the Kuna Yala region (San Blas archipelago) for an enriching and unique experience mixed with the idiosyncratic indigenous culture in the more than 360 islands that comprise this autonomous region of Panama.
Bocas del Toro is a province in northeast Panama which can be accessed both by land and sea. You can take a 45-minute flight from Tocumen International airport in Panama City to Bocas Town. A bus or car ride from Panama City to Almirante Port in Bocas del Toro will take you about 10 hours, followed by a ferry ride to Bocas Town in Isla Colon (1.5 hours.). San Blas is 40 minutes flying from Panama City and a maximum 4 hours by land transfer.
Cost of flight transfers to the two locations are very similar but for San Blas we use private planes that leave from Albrook local terminal at your desired time instead of commercial flights from the International airport. Flight price for both destinations is around $150/person/way. Road transfers to San Blas are $75/person/way and for Bocas $50/person/way.
Humidity and rain are important factors to consider when choosing between the two destinations in Panama. Bocas has Tropical Rainforest Climate and that means that it rains a lot while also being hot and humid year-round and here is no predictable dry season. San Blas has two differentiated seasons, wet and dry, with the Trade winds drying the atmosphere and blowing constantly from December to May.
Rain can be annoying at some point, but also crowds are and important factor to consider. If you do not mind mixing with other vacationers, enjoy hitting the disco at night then choose Bocas, If you are looking for a secluded place with no crowds, then take a sailing tour around the Dutch Cays in the San Blas islands. There are of course, islands we do not visit in San Blas because the proximity to the port and the road access makes them crowded at times
Above: Bocas del Toro nearby island
Cambombia Island in San Blas
Photo San Blas Cayo Coco Bandero waters
Diving into the local culture and meeting the locals is part of what we call an enriching experience and San Blas is an absolute winner in this category with a vibrant indigenous culture like nowhere else in the world. Bocas del Toro is a mix of local Panamanian, backpackers and expats.
Photo of Julio and his wife in Dutch Cays, San Blas
Visiting the San Blas region only makes sense if you rent a sailboat or catamaran and at least go for a 4-5 night stroll around the cays of Coco Bandero and Dutch Cays. You do not want to get stuck in one island because there is so much to see and explore. If you decide to visit Bocas del Toro you can rent a studio close to the main road in Colon for any number of days so that you have access to the water taxis you will need to visit the other parts of the island
Each of the two destinations offer unique value, and if you are backpacking, enjoy surfing and do not mind the rain that much and a bit of the hassle associated with touristy destinations, visiting Bocas, although to some this location is "To busy and to well known" still makes a lot of sense and also logistically since it is close to the border with Costa Rica and on your way North. If your main purpose of visiting Bocas is to enjoy the remote islands and beaches, snorkel in vibrant reefs and enrich from an unique indigenous culture, then reconsider your choice and rent a catamaran in the San Blas islands.