San Blas Islands from Cruising Info Community

George.Curtis2 (Past OCC Member)
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Porvenir – 09°35.00'N, 78°57.00'W

San Blas Islands

This is generally a fast passage with current pushing you, so time your passage carefully for daylight arrival. Follow the instructions in the green Zydler guide and only enter the San Blas at one of the three entrance channels. There are many uncharted reefs off-shore, making other entrances dangerous without local knowledge.

Most cruisers desire to cruise the San Blas Islands before passing through the Canal or heading to the Northwest Caribbean. When you clear out of Cartagena ask for your next port (Panama or Honduras) with puntas intermedios. We are not aware of anyone having problems with the length of time between clearing out and into the next country. Many cruisers stay in the San Blas anywhere from a few days to 3 or 4 months before clearing into next port. Porvenir, the westernmost of the San Blas Islands, is an official port where you can obtain your cruising permit for US$70. However, it is not clear whether Immigration here is official or not. Some people clear in with Immigration, then fly to Panama City to fly out of the country with no problems. Yet when you enter Colon with the boat, you must clear with Customs again (no additional charge if you already have cruising permit) and with Immigration, where you need to buy the tourist visa (90 days) for US$10. In Porvenir, there is also a Kuna chief 's fee, as well as an anchoring fee and a US$10 to $25 per passport charge. Our advice: avoid Porvenir, and clear into Colon whenever you get there.

The San Blas Islands are generally theft free; however, there have been reports of clothing taken off lines or things disappearing from dinghies while on some islands. (Usually the takers are kids). Colon is a big city, and another story - you should have no real problems while anchored on the Flats (except the rare dinghy theft) or docked at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. But in town, be very careful at all times and always use taxi at night. Taxis cost US$1. Ask others for current crime situations.

In the San Blas Islands, diesel is available in Rio Diablo at $1.80 and gas is $3.10. Propane ($10) is available but you must rig up some sort of adapter to gravity-flow into your bottle, or else purchase a Panamanian 25-pound bottle ($75) to use with an adapter - so fill your propane bottles in Cartagena! Water comes from the sky. Most people collect rainwater if close to the coast; the outer islands get less rain. Also, fresh water can be found farther up some rivers.

For the San Blas, you need to bring any provisions you normally use. Some villages have small tiendas selling rice, flour, butter, some tinned goods, and basic veggies such as potatoes, onions, cabbage and sometimes tomatoes; availability depends upon the arrival of the local veggy boat. In a few anchorages, some Kunas paddle out from their village to sell some veggies. If you need special items or have guests visiting, call Julie in Panama City (e-mail with your specific list of wants; she will buy them, box them (frozen stuff in coolers), and fly them to an island near you for you to collect. Of course, there is a cost for this - expect to pay approximately US prices plus 50 percent to cover her costs and shipping.

The official currency is the US dollar, although prices get quoted as "Balboa". The paper money is US dollars, and coins are the Panamanian Balboa which are exactly the same size and value as US coins. Have lots of small denomination US dollars for the San Blas; you 'll need lots of cash to buy molas. There are no ATMs, no credit card usage, no cash advances in the San Blas. However, those services are available in Colon and Panama City.

Surprisingly, there are phones in most villages in the San Blas. However, there are often long lines to make calls and it is difficult to get past the busy signal. Some phones are coin, some are phone card; and you can access ATT. There are several phones at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. There are no fax machines in the San Blas but the PCYC will send/receive your faxes. The internet has not yet reached the San Blas, however there is an air-conditioned café in Colon, or the office at PCYC, for US$3/hour. You cannot get mail in the San Blas unless you make special arrangements through Julie Arias to have it flown in (for a price). In Colon, the US Postal Service International Express Mail takes 2 or 3 days to get to a nearby post office. FedEx and DHL will deliver to the yacht club. Packages can be sent to the yacht club with no duty owing as long as they are marked "yacht in transit". Great place to have all those marine parts sent in! You may pay a small delivery or Customs clearing fee.

In the San Blas, you must do your own laundry. If you need to collect water, anchor close to the mainland; it usually rains. Also, you can dinghy up some of the mainland rivers to get fresh water. Some islands have freshwater pools where you can bucket some water for laundry. If the island is inhabited, ask permission first. Take care of your own garbage; don 't give it to local people for disposal, as they often just dump it in the water. Cruisers have organized "garbage burns" for their combustibles - if doing this on an inhabited island, ask permission. And anywhere, make sure everything is thoroughly burnt, the fire is really out and the ashes are well buried. In Colon, there are machines at PCYC for laundry and there is a small garbage collection area.

No restaurants or activities per se, but these islands are a wonder in themselves. The Kuna villages to the east are traditional, with only some outside influence. Each village will provide you with a different experience. These people are happy and friendly. Expect visitors to your boat, primarily to sell you molas, but the fishermen sell fish, crab and lobster. If you wish to have gifts for the people, bring candy for the kids; men always appreciate extra fishing hooks, etcetera; the women can use sewing needles, fabrics and reading glasses.


1) Information Submitted by George Curtis – on board Asterie

2) Date 2002

3) Harbour or Area Covered Include Lat & Long

Porvenir, San Blas Islands, Panama

9°33’N 78°57’W approx

4) Suitability and Attraction for Yachts

Port of entry for San Blas Islands and Panama. Entry point to idyllic cruising ground with few other yachts, friendly people and good beaches and snorkelling.

5) Marinas, Berthing or Anchorage

Anchorage off South end of Porvenir Island reported in the Pilot Book as at 09°33.5N 78°56.98W. Keep clear of aircraft approach to runway on Porvenir

6) Entry Ports

Porvenir, Puerto Obaldia, Colon. Graham Morfey, “Flight of Time” was specifically warned in 2000 not to go to the port on the Colombian border, Puerto Obaldia, as the last yacht had arrived with bullet holes in the hull.

7) Formal Requirements for Yachts Entering/Departing:

a) from/to same country

Clear in at Police Post on Porvenir

b) from/to abroad

Clear in at Police Post / Immigration on Porvenir. No cruising permit is issued so yachts going outside the San Blas Islands will need to apply for one elsewhere in Panama.

c) visa requirements

Nil for UK citizens

8) Location/Existence of:

b) customs/immigration - “Intendencia” at Porvenir

d) police - Porvenir and Nargana

9) Control of Foreign Yachts

The Intendencia at Porvenir will levy a small charge for cruising in the San Blas. Where there is a village (there is none on Porvenir) call on the sahila (chief) for permission to anchor. He will probably levy a charge of $5.

10) Attitude of Officials to Visiting Yachtsmen - Very friendly.

11) Repair/Hauling Facilities

None seen. It is possible to fly to Panama to obtain spare parts or you may be able to negotiate with the pilots on daily air services to obtain spared for you.

12) Sailing Directions or Charts

US DMA 26063 and 26065. Admiralty Chart 2417 covers part.

Beware of shallow outcrops which remain uncharted typically 20 ft deep or even shallower just inside the 100 fathom line. During the dry season, swells may break on them. There are a few deep safe passages mentioned in the Cruising guide. One of these is the Canal San Blas. There is a bank in Canal San Blas about 4 miles East North East of Punta San Blas with depths of as little as 8ft. Large vessels enter using the deep water to the west of the bank. Coming from the San Blas channel, head for Porvenir when its south point bears 270°T. Leave good access to the pier which is frequently used by small freighters, and avoid the approach to the air strip where aircraft approach at very low altitude.

13) Cruising Guide and where Obtainable. Include Phone and/or E-Mail

The Panama Guide by Nancy Schwalbe Zylder and Tom Zydler, Seaworth Publications, ISBN 0-9639566-3-9 has good coverage of the San Blas Islands.

17) Other Facilities:

drinking water

The islanders obtain their drinking water from rivers on the mainland, purity unknown. We used a water maker and only drank bottled water and canned drinks when ashore.


May be available in some of the Islands. There is a fuel dock at Nargana Island (approx 9°26N 78°35W) This is shown on the US chart as Rio Diablo

gas (propane)/gaz - Not seen

chandlers - None – but can air freight in spares from Panama

bank - Bank in Nargana will change large dollar bills for smaller denominations

shops/market - Bread, chickens and very basic stores available from villages. Nalunege (about half a mile SW of Porvenir) has a store. Naranga has several

restaurants/hotels Very basic resort hotel on Porvenir and Nalunege

post office/telephones including mobile facilities - It is reported that there is a call box on Porvenir. There are also call boxes on Nargana

internet cafes - Not seen

transport/air services

Daily air services to local airport near Armador, about 40 minutes drive from Panama International. These flights can only be booked in Panama. We had excellent service arranging to join Asterie in Porvenir from Margo Tours, Email: Tel: +507-264-8888 /264-4001 Cel. 507-617-6566 ; Fax: 507-264-5355. There are also air services to Nargana

medical facilities/hospital - There is a clinic at Nargana

18) Recommendations or Warnings

Chart Surveys are very old and inaccurate. Out GPS position at anchor often placed us ashore on the chart. The Pilot book “The Panama Guide” (see above) gives good advice for safe entry into numerous anchorages but Pilotage by eyeball with the sun as high as possible is necessary.

19) Other Information – please include here general impressions, opinions, comments or any other matter which might be of use to those visiting.

A delightful cruising ground with very friendly locals who have clung to tribal culture rather than joined the 21st Centaury. Be prepared to buy beautifully worked “molars”, tribal tapestry, varying in price fro £10 to £40. If you go ashore you will be expected to do so to support the local economy but they will not be pressed on you if you firmly decline.

Some Islands contain tightly packed villages and some coconut plantations with only a caretakers house. All coconut trees are “owned” by individuals.

We took an interesting trip in a motor canoe up the Rio Diablo from Nargana.

It was arranged by Frederico who will act as guide and facilitator for yachts in Nargana. He flies a white flag on his jetty.

When we were there in March we sometimes anchored on our own and sometimes with three or four other yachts but the islands can in no way be described as crowded.

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