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How to Be a Tour Guide on the San Blas Islands

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Say hello to paradise.

I mean it.

If you've seen just one picture of the San Blas Islands you know I'm not exaggerating.

This semi-autonomous region consists of 365 sun-filled islands stretching along the Caribbean coast of Panama down near the border with Colombia. Some islands are large enough to house small villages, others are hardly large enough for much more than a palm tree or two.

I stumbled across the San Blas Islands by chance. I was volunteering at a bed and breakfast in Bocas del Toro, Panama and had dreams of traveling back to South America, starting in Colombia and working my way down. My only concern was how to get to Colombia on a shoestring budget. From chatting with guests at the lodge, I learned about the islands and then about San Blas Adventures.

I reached out and had an online interview to work as a volunteer. My only goal was to stay as long as needed and get dropped off in Colombia without having to spend a dime. What I thought would be just a few weeks of my life stretched in 8 months and a husband (seriously).

So, if you're interested in learning how to work on the San Blas Islands (future husband optional), I got you covered.

Short on time? Here's the cheat sheet:

🌊The San Blas Islands are a semi-autonomous region on the Caribbean coast of Panama.

🏝️Imagine the stereotypical Carribean island: small, 2 palm trees, white sand, and clear blue water. That's the San Blas experience.

✨Any nationality can be a tour guide in paradise with San Blas Adventures. You just need to speak English, some Spanish, and be ready to get off the grid.

🐠If the idea of living without internet and surrounded by nature beauty and a strong local community sounds amazing, you'll love working on the San Blas Islands.

What Are the San Blas Islands?

The San Blas Islands, also known as Guna Yala/Kuna Yala, is an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Of the 365 islands, 49 of them are inhabited. The Kuna also control the coastline that runs alongside the islands.

What truly makes them special, other than their obvious natural beauty, is their semi-autonomous status. In simple terms, this just means that on an international level, they're part of Panama but within Panama, they're independent and govern themselves.

The islands are ruled by the Kuna chiefs. Their word is law, not the stuff that courts in the city rule.

To get into the Kuna Yala region, you have to go through a border. You're also not allowed to step on any of the islands without permission from the owners (most islands in San Blas are owned by individual Kuna families and are passed down generation to generation).

On the islands, you won't find any chain restaurants or big fancy resorts. Only the Kuna can own the property here and they're strict about how they can and cannot develop it.

To live and work on the San Blas Islands, you have to be invited by the Kuna chiefs, which means very few tour companies can operate in the region.

One of the first, San Blas Adventures, is the tour company I worked for and the one I'd recommend to you, too.

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Working with San Blas Adventures

San Blas Adventures was one of the first tour companies to make a connection with the local people and start offering tours around the islands. While the guides are people like you, the boat drivers and island hosts are locals.

What makes this company unique is that instead of taking you on a day trip or island hopping in one small area of the region from Panama City and back, at the end of the day this tour is really epic transportation.

Getting from Panama to Colombia (or the other way around) is really tough. The Darien Gap makes safe ground transportation nearly impossible so you either need to fly on a really small (usually costly) plane or skip the small towns and fly city to city.

San Blas Adventures takes backpackers (typically) from Panama City to Sapzurro, Colombia and vice versa via 3 nights and 4 days on the islands.

Your job, as a guide, would be to round up the group in one country and take them to the other. From there, you'd stay on the other side for a few days waiting for your new group to arrive and head back up the islands.

Each of the 3 nights on tour you'll sleep on a different island. You'll guide the guests around, teaching them about the Kuna, the surrounding landscape, and ensuring everyone has the trip of a lifetime. Some will be incredibly remote islands, where you'll snorkel, swim, or make your own fun, and others you'll visit are the inhabited islands where you can intermix with the locals.

Requirements to Get Hired

When figuring out how to work on San Blas with San Blas Adventures, you have two real routes: as a guide or as a volunteer.

Guides are paid positions but volunteer roles are not.

Guides have far more responsibility and are in charge of the entire trip and volunteers act as their right hand man, helping to prepare the food or entertain the guests. Both guests and volunteers enjoy the trip and amenities for free and also have free housing on the off days in either Panama City or Sapzurro.

The requirements to get hired as a guide for San Blas Adventures are:

  • Intermediate level of English
  • Sufficient level of Spanish
  • Extroverted or excited by the idea of meeting and bonding with new people
  • Problem-solving skills (while the trip itself is pretty laid back, as a guide, you might have to make quick decisions based on the weather or in case of emergencies)

Do note that there is a minimum period of 5 months for guides and 6 weeks for volunteers. Couples or traveling friends are not suitable for the available roles.

Perks to the Job

San Blas Adventures is a responsible adventure company, offering an ethical way to support the local Kuna community. You'll work with the Kuna families and communities on all aspects of the trip and most of the money from your fare stays in San Blas, distributed among the local people and the different communities you will visit along the way.

Apart from this, guides and volunteers also enjoy:

  • Accommodation in Panama and Colombia
  • Accommodation and food during the trip
  • Bonuses

Guide positions are paid, earning you around $800-1,300 + bonuses. Volunteers can earn tips.

While some people are turned off by the idea of limited and even none existent cell service and internet, to me it was one of the biggest perks. You'll get the chance to fully disconnect and be with others who have also put the world on hold and are really, truly living in the moment. Over card games, volleyball, fresh lobster, and rum poured straight into your coconut, you'll make lifelong friends.

I'm not exaggerating here - not only did I meet my husband when working on the islands, I became great friends with fellow guides and am still in contact with some of the guests to this day.

It's not a glamorous lifestyle. Most nights you'll sleep in a hammock, running water will be limited or even non-existent, and you'll kiss make-up and clean, cute clothes goodbye. This job is about the experience, roughness and all, and for those that prefer nature to a sterile resort.

Job Details

I already mentioned the basics, that you'll be guiding travelers from Panama City to Sapzurro or back but there's a little bit more that goes into the job than just that.

As a tour guide, you'll be responsible for the guests the entire time. While you will stay overnight on islands inhabited with either one Kuna family or on one of the island villages, you're in charge. The locals are there to offer you hospitality and often they will help you cook or deliver fresh seafood but that's where their responsibilities end. They aren't there to babysit, you are.

You'll quickly learn that each tour group is different. Some are incredibly chill and want to simply soak up the sea breeze from the relaxing lull of the hammocks and others are there to see just how wild one can get on private islands. You have to be just as excited by both of these types of groups, and everything in the middle, to really enjoy your time as a guide.

Apart from the time on the islands, you'll have some admin to take care of on your off days. During that time, either in Sapzurro or Panama City, you'll need to do some slight admin work at the end of the tour and go grocery shopping and prep for the next one.

Before each tour, you'll also be required to do a short in-person brief with the tour group. This usually happens the day before the trip starts. You'll meet the group and cover the basic flow of the tour and answer their many questions. Most people will need the reminders to get a dry bag, plenty of bottled water, and to remember that you're leaving the world of air conditioning and wifi behind.

How to Apply

Sold on the idea of working on the San Blas Islands? Here's how to apply to extend your beach vacation into your job.

You can apply directly by sending an email to contact@sanblasadventures.com or reaching out via WhatsApp (+507 6391-8035).

While I'd recommend you start off by introducing yourself, also include this information in your message:

  • Your start date availability
  • The languages and levels you speak
  • How long your available to work for
  • How you heard about SBA (from me!) and why you decided to apply
  • What about you would make a good guide
  • Where you're currently located (to plan an interview)

Others Ways to Work on the Islands

I told you I met my husband while working on the San Blas Islands. He was actually a tour guide for a different company, Cacique Cruiser, but we lived in the same hostel in Panama City on our off days and met that way.

San Blas Adventures is the only company that I'm aware of on the islands that does thru trips, from Panama to Colombia and back. Cacique, like other companies working on the islands, instead offer day trips or overnight ones where you sleep on the same island, instead of moving around the archipelago.

Other opportunities you'll find might be working on sailboats or catamarans that offer trips around the islands. Just note that many of these boats don't have the same relationship with the locals and don't spend much time on shore. Since these tend to be private small boats, job opportunities are far and few between and are usually only for those with sailing experience.

The only way to work on the islands themselves is to be invited by the local community. One of my guide friends was invited to live in one of the communities when she took a few months off guiding but instead of offering any paid work, they opened a home for her and she offered some programs for the local kiddos for free.

Visiting the San Blas Islands

Not quite sure if working in San Blas is for you? Visit first to see if this island paradise is right for you.

Living in Panama has a lot to offer, especially when it comes to the natural world, and while I've explored a lot of the country, nothing quite compares to the San Blas Islands. Even in all my travels visiting remote islands in the Philippines and other parts of the Caribbean, it hardly gets better than when you visit San Blas.

There are certainly other ways to visit San Blas but if you're considering working with San Blas Adventures, go with them to really get a feel for what the job entails. I've gone on other island tours before and this one really is incredibly different from the competition.

As an added bonus from my old pals, use the code KatySBA for $25/off your tour! Book it here.

Will You Work in Paradise?

Visiting the San Blas Islands is already an amazing time but working on them and having them as your "office" day in and day out? That's where the real magic happens.

For me, it was constantly a "pinch me" moment as soon as the boat ride started and the first teeny tiny island came into sight. Even after 8 months of working on the islands, I never tired of that view, the crystal clear water, and the warm welcome from the Kuna.

For truly a once in a lifetime experience, you won't want to miss out on your chance to work on the San Blas Islands.

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