I was pretty wary of booking the overnight tour to the San Blas Islands through Panama Travel Unlimited (PTU). First, I'd read and heard a lot of different information about getting to the San Blas Islands. Some people insisted you could only get there by plane.
Second, PTU does a pretty good job about almost talking you out of the experience. They have a letter on their website clearly explaining that they are simply acting as a middle-man and that you are going to a remote area with a different culture and where they can't control the weather.
Our experience couldn't have been any better. First, PTU provided me with a safe way to pay for the trip online. They were VERY responsive to all of my emails, INCLUDING the emails when I wasn't sure I would make my flight to Panama and, thus, miss the day we were supposed to go on our excursion. They checked immediately to see if our "hotel" had openings for the next day and were ready to change it if I needed (luckily, I didn't). They were also VERY clear about the extra expenses we would have to pay (fees to enter Kuna Yala and the "port").
Second, the driver provided (a contractor, I believe) was on time and very knowledgeable. The road to the "port" is fairly treacherous (it's a pretty good road but has some bad parts) but I always felt safe. The guy was a little "abrupt" but knew what he was doing.
Third, I can speak mostly only to the trip to the specific island Kuanidup but it was AMAZING. It's one of the most beautiful places you'll ever see. It's tiny, with a beautiful sand beach and crystal clear water. The huts are traditional (no nails even) with dirt floors.
The beds aren't the best you've slept in and it can be hot, even in the night, but you're on a camping vacation rather than a hotel trip, so you deal with it. There's some electricity on the island (lights in the huts, electricity for the cook and the workers that live there) but why in the world will you be using your cell phone in this heavenly place? They had shared bathrooms but they work on a trapped water system, not indoor plumbing. They have to put the water in there themselves if it doesn't rain, so it ran out a couple of times. Again, it's more like a camping trip.
I got nervous that we wouldn't be fed like I thought we were supposed to be. Turns out they just eat a little later than I'd expect. The food is nothing special but it's good (and I don't even like seafood). Many people brought their own food (snacks) and drinks. This is a good idea. I would have also brought a flashlight and maybe playing cards.
There's a volleyball net set up and several hammocks (had an amazing nap in one). It's a place to relax, not a place with a ton of activities.
We were offered 2 excursions. Isla de Perros for snorkeling (those that went, said it was good but didn't really rave about it so I don't know if it was anything special) or to visit a Kuna community. We chose to do that one. This is were the only extra expense came that I didn't know about. The 2 communities on the island we went to charged a total of $3 a person to come visit. Not a big deal. It was an eye-opening experience to see how these people live. Might be heart-breaking to some people. My wife makes jewelry and raved about the stuff she bought from them.
There was a lot of warnings that the Kuna aren't exactly hospitality specialists. I didn't this to be a problem. Actually, the people on Kuanidup were incredible. There's some language barriers there and you're not going to a place that even COULD be a 5-star resort but they are kind people that work incredibly hard just to get the basics done.
In conclusion, this is an adventure, not a resort visit. And it's worth every penny.
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