Why the San Blas Islands?
The San Blas islands are composed of a multitude of small islands (378 in total, of which only 49 are inhabited) grouped into various archipelagos, and stretched on an area of about 200 km on the northeast coast of Panama (Atlantic Ocean). These islands earned an excellent reputation among the boaters, and have even been dubbed “Caribbean Polynesia” by some. It must be noted that they offer everything that a sailor can expect: coconut palms, white sand beaches, turquoise waters, coral reefs for diving, sun, etc…
It also must be added that the San Blas Islands (like the whole Panama) are located outside the Atlantic hurricane area, which is a clear advantage, considering the stress and the problems that this may represent for boaters. The San Blas is probably the only sailing area of the Caribbean Sea, to be totally hurricane free (except for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala which is not really a navigation area and the southern islands of the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and Tobago, which unfortunately, were hit by several hurricanes few years ago: Ivan in 2004, or Emily in 2005).
For proof, just look at the map of all known historic routes of hurricanes in the Atlantic.
Another reason to sail and visit these beautiful islands is that their only inhabitants are Kuna Indians. These Indians have managed to acquire a certain autonomy vis-à-vis the Republic of Panama, and their territory (Kuna Yala Province) remains primarily subjected to the Kuna law. Thus, even though the Kuna gladly welcome tourists or passing boats, foreigners are not necessarily allowed to settle permanently in their province (also valid for residents of Panama). You cannot find luxury hotels or even houses and modern buildings in these islands. Instead, they remain quite wild and the Kuna Indians live simple close to nature lives.
Where to sail in San Blas?
Generally the sailing area of the San Blas can be separated into two more or less distinct zones, and situated on both sides of the island of Isla Tigre (located at longitude 78 ° 31.5 W )
To the west of Isla Tigre lies the most popular and frequented by ships area. This part is the beginning of the San Blas chain for the boats coming from the west (the vast majority) and from different ports or anchorages located on the Atlantic coast of Panama (such as Boca del Toro, Colon, Portobello, Linton, etc …). Here we can find the beautiful archipelagos of Lemon Cays, Hollandes Cays, Chichime, or Coco Banderos (perhaps one of the most beautiful islands), all highly frequented by cruise ships and tourists.
To the east of Isla Tigre, are situated some more scattered islands over a much larger area. This part is much less frequented by ships, however for sailing it still is a very interesting and original place to explore (as the big island of Pinos for example), especially as the Kuna culture there will tend to be more traditional.
What is the best time of the year for sailing?
Here like everywhere else in Panama (and surrounding areas), the year can be divided into two more or less distinct seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.
The rainy season (from May to December) It should be made clear from the outset that contrary to what one might think this season is better for navigation. Indeed, while it is true that in Panama the rains can sometimes be quite significant during this season, in these islands which are several miles away from the coast there usually is a lot less rain and, therefore, this area is not subject to the vagaries of weather encountered on land. This season also enjoys relatively calm or variables winds, despite some sudden and violent storms or small and localized pressure systems accompanied by strong winds (although short), to avoid (however rare). Note also that it will be much nicer to sail during this period, due to the fact that the calm winds will not corrupt the clarity of the water, reefs or lagoons.
The dry season (January to April) Again, contrary to a widespread false idea, this season is far from being the most pleasant to visit the San Blas. Of course, there is no (or very little) rain, but unfortunately this season coincides with the arrival of trade winds (constant and generally quite strong winds, coming from Africa with 3 or 4 strength or more). In general this affects the comfort at anchor or even the daily life because given the limited relief of these islands it will often be difficult to find a place to properly hide from the wind. Also bearing in mind that “dry season” does not necessarily mean good weather, often instead we get unsettled weather accompanied by high altitude clouds.