Port Barsukun, Entranceway to the San Blas Islands
It's easy to get to Panama City by air. PTY is a modern, busy international airport with easy access to downtown Panama City.
However, travelers desiring to vacation on one of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago or tour the islands on a chartered yacht or on a friend's private yacht will face challenges in traveling from Panama City to the San Blas Islands region in Kuna Yala.
The entire Kuna Yala region is governed by the aboriginal Guna Indians. The Guna inhabit and govern most of the land from the northern slopes of the mainland mountains facing the sea and extending to most of the islands in the Bay of San Blas comprising the archipelago. In short, if you want to travel to the San Blas Islands eventually you will come in direct commercial contact with the Guna. Not to fear, the Guna are friendly and helpful, but they hold a virtual monopoly on travel from the mainland to the islands.
While possible, air travel to the San Blas is difficult. Air Panama used to fly to both El Porvenir and Corozon de Jesus. El Porvenir is located in the western end of the archipelago where most of the vacation islands are located and is about four miles north of the small port community of Carti. Unfortunately, the airport in El Porvenir is closed and is likely to remain closed for the remainder of 2013 according to Air Panama. Air travelers can still fly from the small local flights airport located near to the Miraflores Locks on the canal to Corozon de Jesus, but this airport location is on the eastern side of the archipelago, far from the vacation action.
With air travel currently difficult, that leaves overland travel as the only real alternative. An internet search provides a very limited number of tour operators providing both land travel to the San Blas Islands and accommodations on a good selection of vacation islands. The writer utilized Lam Tours Panama to make overland travel arrangements and found the service safe and reliable with good pre-travel communication. Judy Lam runs the agency. Judy can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (507) 395-7105 (office) or (507) 6088-9000 (mobile).
The overland trip from Panama City to Carti takes about 2.5 hours. It also requires a 4X4 Jeep or SUV to negotiate the steep terrain changes and road washouts once the two lane road reaches the area of the 2000 foot elevation of the continental divide. Reviewers have described this trip as a roller coaster ride, and the description is appropriate. Once in the mountains, steep drops and rises and switchbacks occur frequently for almost an hour. Travels that get car sick should definitely medicate prior to the journey. Cost of the overland trip is US$25-30/person. In truth the trip is breathtaking and the views from atop the continental divide are magnificent. Finally, be prepared to be picked up and depart Panama City early in the morning from your hotel - early means 5:30 - 6:00 AM.
All the vehicles that make the overland trip with one of the tour operators must pass through a Panamanian government security checkpoint as the vehicles approach the Carti area. All travelers must present passports to enter the region. Don't forget to bring yours or you will be making a quick return to Panama City. All the vehicles then proceed to the boat motor launch dock location run by the Guna Indians called Port Barsukun. The Guna charge an entrance fee of $20/person to enter Port Barsukun and the San Blas Islands. Travelers will be given a token (really a poker chip) signifying that the entrance fee to the San Blas Islands has been paid. Retain the token as you will need to present it upon your return to Port Barsukun at the completion of your vacation. Otherwise, you will be charged the fee a second time.
Port Barsukun is nothing more than earthen cuts in the side of a small river that leads to the Bay of San Blas. Don't expect wooden docks, there are none. The motor launches (lancha in Spanish) just pull up to the side of the river at the cuts and passengers embark and disembark from the earthen cuts. The launches that take travelers to the islands seem to be seaworthy, and every traveler is required to don a life vest prior to departure. In any case you are traveling at your own risk.
When a traveler arrives at Port Barsukun, it will be necessary to identify the launch headed to the vacation island of choice. For this purpose it would be most helpful to speak Spanish. The Guna speak their unique language and Spanish. English speakers should try to find a Spanish speaker to assist them in identifying the correct launch to take. This usually can be accomplished while meeting the other travelers in the 2.5 hours spent in the 4X4.
The focus of this article is transportation, but a few words for travelers vacationing on one of the islands is appropriate. Depending on the length of your island stay, bring enough bottled drinking water. Fresh water for bathing on the islands is brought to the islands by boat in drums dropped upstream on one of the fresh water rivers feeding the Bay. It is suitable for bathing and cooking, but not for drinking. The menus are mostly based on locally caught seafood and rice. If you want to broaden the menu with sweets or fruit, bring it with you from Panama City.
Travelers desiring to reach a charter boat or private yacht anchored off a nearby island in the Bay of San Blas still have two more transportation hurdles to cross. The river that leads to the Bay from Port Barsukun is located about a half mile east of the wooden boat dock at Carti. Private boat captains can not see Port Barsukun as it is located about a half mile up river. Private boat captains will most likely head to the boat dock in Carti in their dinghies to pick up guests, but will not find them there (they will be in Port Barsukun). In fact, the Guna will likely shoo them and their dinghies off the Guna owned docks immediately.
So it will be much easier for guests on charter boats or private yachts to get to the boats from Port Barsukun than vice versa. In order to accomplish this, first the traveler will need to communicate with the boat at anchor in order to determine the boat's location. From experience, cell phone service in Port Barsukun is poor. A travelers best bet for this purpose is a handheld marine VHF radio with a pre-agreed hailing/communication channel. VHF Channel 72 is good for this purpose because it is the hailing channel all boaters use in the San Blas Islands.
Once the traveler has communicated with the boat at anchor and identified the anchorage, the last hurdle is arranging with the Guna for a private launch to take the traveler to the boat. Again, speaking Spanish or finding a willing translator is essential. Private launch service to a nearby anchorage will cost about $10/person. Incidentally, a very good pre-agreed anchorage location is the lee side of Nonolulu Island located about 250 yards from the Carti docks. The Guna recognize Nonolulu Island as a charter and private boat anchorage.
Returning to Panama City from the San Blas basically is everything in reverse with land travel arrangements departing from Port Barsukun made prior to departure. For travelers on a boat they can find the telephone number of reliable launch boats to pick them up at an anchorage and return them to Port Barsukun by participating in the daily boater's net on VHF Channel 72 or on Single Side Band short wave radio at 8:30 AM each morning.