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San Blas vs Bocas del Toro - which Panama islands should you visit

Author Carina Klein
Carina
· 9 min read · 5 comments

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TL;DR

Panama travel blog: Should you visit the Bocas del Toro or San Blas islands in Panama? A complete travel guide including a Bocas del Toro and San Blas Islands map.

Our Panama travel guide includes everything you need to know about Panama San Blas and Bocas del Toro travel. Whether you want to go backpacking Panama or have a relaxing holiday on the best beaches in Panama - we have got you covered.

Things to do San Blas

Things to do Bocas del Toro

You can
relax,
go snorkelling,
hit the beach,
visit Pelicano Island if you’re into “Money Heist”
go island hopping,
eat seafood,
learn about the Kuna culture.
You can
relax,
go snorkelling or scuba diving,
hit the beach,
go island hopping,
enjoy food and drinks,
party,
spot wildlife like sloths,
learn about chocolate.

San Blas islands

Bocas del Toro islands

The archipelago consists of 365 small islands - one for every day of the year. The archipelago consists of six big islands:
Colón
Bastimentos
Solarte
Zapatilla
Cristobal
Popa

Best time to visit San Blas

Best time to visit Bocas del Toro

The best months to visit San Blas are January - April as well as December The best months to visit Bocas del Toro are February - April as well as September

How to get to San Blas

How to get to Bocas del Toro

It’s easiest to reach San Blas with a guided tour from Panama City.
You could also rent a 4x4 car but the road is pretty bumpy and you have to pay fees to the Kuna people.
You can book a transfer to get from most places in Panama and even Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, to Bocas del Toro. They are relatively cheap and convenient as they should include the boat transfer as well.
It’s also super straightforward to diy. Take a bus to Almirante, a 1$ taxi or a walk to the boat, and a 30-minute shared water taxi to the main island Isla Colón. The two main companies are Bocas Marine Tours and Taxi 25. Boats currently leave every 30 minutes during the day and cost 6$.

How to get around San Blas

How to get around Bocas del Toro

You are pretty much dependent on your tour company. Our accommodation offered some tours as well but it was pretty much impossible to leave the island on your own. Water taxis are omnipresent. They even run in the night for an additional charge.
A taxi from the main island to Carenero Island costs 1$. If you want to go to other islands like Solarte or Bastimientos it’s more expensive but you’ll pay less sharing a boat from the main pier on Colon but you can also opt for a private boat.

Where to stay in San Blas

Where to stay in Bocas del Toro

Again, you’re pretty much dependent on your tour company. Independent accommodations are sparse and expensive. Currently, there are only 19 listings on booking.com starting at 150$ per night. Here, you have more options than islands. prices start at 12$ per night. Here are our recommendations:
Colon: Selina for party and meeting people
Carenero: Aqua Lounge for partying hard
Solarte: Bambuda Lodge for water slide into the ocean
Bastimientos: Palmar Beach Lodge for relaxation at the beach

San Blas Nightlife

Bocas del Toro Nightlife

At night, there is not much going on in San Blas. Our accommodation did not even have electricity except for a light bulb in the common area. In addition to Panama City, Bocas del Toro is the nightlife hub of Panama - and most definitely the hub of backpacker nightlife.
The Selina on Colon and Aqua Lounge on Carenero are the two main addresses on the archipelago.
If you don’t want to miss the biggest backpacker party in Panama, make sure to go to the Filthy Friday boat party which runs every Friday.

San Blas restaurants

Bocas del Toro restaurants

And yet again, you are mostly dependent on what your accommodation serves. Most places we are aware of include all three meals per day in their package.
In our case, we had pancakes for breakfast and fish/seafood with rice for the two other daily meals. It can get a bit dull but we did get a surprise lobster one evening and we would never complain about an included lobster…
You have many more food options on Bocas del Toro.
On Colon, you’ll find some cheaper street food as well as larger supermarkets.
On Carenero, there’s a reasonably sized supermarket. The resorts and restaurants offer some pricier food options.
On Solarte and Bastimientos you are mostly dependent on your accommodation to feed you which can add up.

Vegetarian food on San Blas

Vegetarian food on Bocas del Toro

Vegans and vegetarians get the same meal as omnivores minus the fish, i.e. rice and salad. Vegans and vegetarians have a lot more options on Bocas del Toro.
The two vegan / vegetarian restaurants we enjoyed was Leaf Eaters on Carenero and the food at Palmar Beach Lodge.

Beaches San Blas

Beaches Bocas del Toro

Again, you are dependent on the island you stay on as well as on the tours you book. Pretty much all islands are small tropical paradises. Playa Bluff on Colon is a local favourite.
Starfish Beach is super unique (do not lift the animals out of the water!).
Our personal favourite is Playa Polo on Bastimiento. It’s the quintessential Caribbean beach with palm trees, coconuts, and some nice snorkelling.
The famous Red Frog Beach is nice but the waves and currents are quite strong so it’s tough to swim.

Snorkelling / Scuba Diving San Blas

Snorkelling / Scuba Diving Bocas del Toro

You can go snorkelling from the beach from pretty much all the islands but we did not come across any dedicated snorkelling tours. Snorkelling was nice but not a highlight.
There are no dive centres as scuba diving is banned.
If you want to go snorkelling from the beach, make sure that they don’t face the open ocean. Two of the best beaches of the archipelago, Playa Bluff and Reg Frog Beach are not suitable because of waves and currents.
There are guided snorkelling tours. Many lead to Zapatilla Island.
We have also done some excellent scuba diving with Panama Dive School spotting shipwrecks and octopuses.

Average Cost on San Blas

Average Cost on Bocas del Toro

Transfers, accommodation, food, and activities are included in most tour packages.
We paid 180$ for 3d/2n averaging 60$ per day.
On the lower end of the budget, expect to spend around 40$ per day:
~15$ accommodation in a dorm
~15$ food and drinks (min. 10$ per meal out)
~10$ for activities or water taxis

Internet on San Blas

Internet on Bocas del Toro

In contrast to what you read in older blogs, there is some sparse mobile data connection on the islands. You won’t find any Wifi.
Do not opt for Claro but Digicel instead.
Warning: We had to pay extra to charge our phone.
You’ll have Wifi at most (if not all) accommodations. Additionally, the mobile internet connection is very good.
I was able to work at Aqua Lounge on Carenero and in the co-working space of Palmar Beach Lodge on Bastimientos. Of course, the Selinas are excellent hubs for digital nomads and internet addicts.

ATM San Blas

ATM Bocas del Toro

There are no ATMs on San Blas. Some tours offer a stop on the way.
You have to pay for everything in cash.
There are currently two ATMs in Bocas Town. Many places accept credit card payments.
Picture of a beach on San blas Picture of a restaurant at night on Bocas del toro

Conclusion

If you have the time, you should visit both.

Bocas del Toro has many different options - from food and drinks to accommodation, from budget to luxury. If you are on a tight budget, you can have a cheaper stay, but you should be aware that Panama is not a budget-friendly country. You even have some land-based activity options like sloth spotting. Water taxis make you super flexible. Additionally, it’s the nightlife hub of Panama.

San Blas is the quintessential Caribbean island paradise. The small cays can be crossed within seconds and the waters are crystal clear. You have much less infrastructure, limited power and internet, which makes this archipelago perfect to unplug. On the other hand, you are much more dependent on your tour operator concerning transport, accommodation, food, and tours.

San Blas or Kuna Yala

San Blas is the old name for Kuna Yala or Guna Yala, a tribal province which is home to the sovereign tribal people known as the Gunas.

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5 Comments

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Carolin

14.10.2022, 14:41

Can only echo what previous commenters have said, the structure and layout is superb. Based on this and the bite-size info that you gave for each criteria I would definitely chose Bocas del Toro.

Carolin | Solo Travel Story

Carina | Bucketlist2Life

18.10.2022, 08:42

Thank you so much! Yes, Bocas has a lot to offer. I guess the only "downside" is that it is not as much of a tropical island paradise as San Blas which is setting the bar very high^^

Peggy

06.10.2022, 03:38

We had a trip to Bocas planned last year. I had to leave CR unexpectedly and didn't get to go but Patti went on and loved it. I would have loved to try San Blas next so your article is really helpful.

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Carina | Bucketlist2Life

18.10.2022, 08:36

How sad that you had to leave Costa Rica! Yes, Bocas is super easy to reach from Puerto Viejo and hence a very logical next stop on anyone's itinerary.

Hannah

04.10.2022, 21:34

This is a great side-by-side comparison - great info!

Carina | Bucketlist2Life

05.10.2022, 09:17

Thank you!

Paul (Paul Passing Through)

04.10.2022, 18:57

Great structure to this article to make it easy to compare these two places. If you're not already considering it, you should think about making more articles like this as adjuncts to longer articles you make for quick resources!

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Carina | Bucketlist2Life

04.10.2022, 19:20

Thank you. We wanted to try something new. Let's see how others find it^^

Mitch

04.10.2022, 15:19

Really enjoyed this post and particularly liked the format so that it was easy to compare and contrast the islands. We've never visited Panama but would love to go. Both islands have activities we'd love to do - wildlife spotting, snorkelling, chocolate and seafood would definitely be high on our lists so your advice to visit both sounds like the best plan!

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Carina | Bucketlist2Life

04.10.2022, 19:15

Thank you. We tried something new for us. Both islands compliment each other incredibly well!