Well, the time had come to say Adios to Central America and cross into Colombia. As you probably already know, there are no roads connecting Panama and Colombia, and the dense mountainous jungles in between are known as the Darien Gap. Crossing on foot is a near suicidal mission that will most likely leave you dead or kidnapped by the drug cartels that control the area. Hard pass. That leaves the following options:
1. Airplanes – quick, cheapest option for around $100 using Viva Colombia airlines. If you’re on a tight budget and prone to sea sickness, this is your best bet. But you will miss out on experiencing the San Blas Islands.
2. Speed boats – Cost is around $375 for a 4 day passage. The boats buzz you from one island to the next and you spend 3 nights in tents or hammocks on the islands as well. These are a good option for visiting the islands and are slightly more budget friendly than the sailboats. You “avoid” the open sea crossing which can be a daunting few days for people prone to motion sickness. These boats take you just past the Darien to a town called Capurgana where a string of busses can safely take you to Cartagena, Medellin, or Bogotá. Note: from the looks and a few murmurs, it also seems possible that these boats could leave you and your gear completely soaked and the included meals consist of hotdogs on the beach… food for thought…
3. Sailboat charter. Most of the boats advertised online cost $550 for a 4 – 5 day passage which includes 2 nights on the open sea. Do your research. Although the cost seems the same across the board, boats, captains, and fellow passengers are not created equally. Try to find out about the condition of the boat and the track record of your captain before committing if possible.
4. Private Sailboat – you can’t count on it, but it’s possible to arrange trips on private sailboats if chance puts you at the right place at the right time. Usually cheaper than the charters.
As luck would have it, while we visited Portobelo before our home stay, we met Glenn, a Canadian sailboat owner and captain. Glenn takes backpackers to Cartagena on his sailboat for $375 and tries to let the passengers control the itinerary. Thus, it’s up to us and nature whether the trip is 4 days or 10. Obviously, this was our best bet so through an exchange of emails while staying in Ishq, we reserved our spots and eagerly awaited our departure to Cartagena, Colombia.
We arrived in Portobelo on Saturday morning, got sucked into the black hole of the internet cafe, had lunch, and then, grabbed beers at Captain Jack’s. As if on cue, Glenn walked into Jack’s and gave us a loose itinerary and an explanation of rules and safety procedures on board. Although we weren’t setting sail until Monday, Glenn graciously offered us our cabin to sleep in thereby avoiding a hostel fee.
We grabbed our gear and took the dingy out to the boat. There, we met Eva and Nuvi, two Colombian cousins, who would be making the passage with us. Glenn made us dinner, and we spent the night chatting and star gazing.
The next day we were joined by Juan, a Spaniard, who is making his way through Central and South America on his bike. Glenn, Juan, Claudia, and I made the hour bus ride to Sabanitas to get food and provisions for the crossing. We came back by taxi and took the dingy, booty in hand, back out to the boat. (Sorry, not sorry. Sailor talk is hilarious.)
Soon enough, it was Monday morning, and we prepared to set sail. Glenn took care of the immigration formalities, readied the boat, and we were off! We sailed for about 6 hours into Green Turtle Marina and docked for the night. In the morning, we topped off the fuel and water tanks and hit the sea once more.
Tuesday, we sailed for about 10 hours and were all pretty happy to anchor when we did. None of us experienced sea sickness, but we were all a little uncomfortable adjusting to life on the water. Our anchor point put us in the western beginning on the San Blas Archipelago.
When we woke up Wednesday morning, despite the cloudy conditions, we were greeted with stunning views of the islands. It’s said that there is an island in San Blas for every day of the year. Some of the islands are homes to the indigenous Kuna tribe. Others have hostels, camp sites, and even bars. There are others yet that are uninhabited and desolate.
We took the dingy over and visited one of the inhabited islands. Visiting the islands is one thing, but imagining life there is hard to comprehend. The Kuna people survive by charging tourists to visit their island, selling art, and selling fish and lobster.
We paid the Kuna family and enjoyed their island. Later, we returned to the boat and Eva used her bait acquired on shore to catch us dinner. Bonefish, rice, and plantains it is!
Thursday, we stayed anchored at the same location. Glenn’s sailor friend gave us great advice on where to do some “seriously sexy snorkeling.” Thanks to Glenn’s gear and Captain Mike’s advice, we headed out to do just that. We first went to a reef and were marveled at the sight of thousands of fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors in the crystal clear Caribbean. For my first time snorkeling, I got quite a show. We moved locations to a sunken tree branch and saw hundreds more fish, a small octopus, huge star fish, and a line of ten lobsters all in defense mode. We made our way back to the boat and relaxed for the night. Eva, again, caught us a meal which we would enjoy the next day.
Friday, we made our way to a different location in the San Blas Archipelago. This anchorage was near Dog Island which hosts a sunken ship about 60 years old very close to shore. We donned the snorkeling gear once more and headed out to explore the wreck. The bow of the boat stuck out of the water with the stern completely submerged. We were again dazzled by the countless fish and active sea life below the surface. That evening, Glenn allowed us to choose if we wanted another night among the islands or if we were ready to cross the open sea to Cartagena. We opted for the additional night, and in the morning, we made our way to our final anchoring point.
It was Saturday already, and we were blessed, for the first time during the passage, with sunshine and blue skies. The sun radiates the colors of the water and brings to life the gradient of blues and greens. Almost immediately after anchoring, we were greeted by a Kuna fishing boat that was selling the day’s lobster catch. Glenn seized the opportunity and bought us dinner. Life is good.
While dinner was being prepared, Claudia, Juan, and I put on the snorkeling gear and swam to an uninhabited island. Though the beauty of the San Blas is undeniable, the heart breaking truth is that these islands are completely covered in trash. Styrofoam bits and pieces, glass liquor bottles and medicine bottles, all shapes and sizes of plastic bottles and containers, shoes (which we used while walking around); you name it, it’s there (except abandoned wallets full of cash, I looked.) The landfill of the Caribbean.
We made our way back to the boat and were able to see the sun set over the water for the first time. We enjoyed our lobster dinner and watched the yellows fade to oranges, the oranges to pinks, the pinks to purples, and the purples to blues unfolding into a beautiful night sky illuminated by innumerable sparkling stars.
Sunday, we were blessed with sunshine again as we pulled up the anchor and headed out to sea. We left the San Blas Islands behind, and after a few hours of sailing, we were unable to see the coast of Panama. We were on open sea before we knew it with no land in sight. The crossing from the end of the archipelago takes anywhere from 35 – 45 hours depending on the wind.
We passed the time reading books, day dreaming, cat napping, taking turns cooking meals for the group, and informal daily Spanish lessons. Glenn only speaks English and Eva, Nuvi, and Juan only speak Spanish. Many times Claudia and I got to play translator and were grateful for the chance to expand our Spanish vocabulary.
Monday evening we were again granted a magnificent display of colors painted across the sky at sunset.
The sky faded into starlight, then came the storms. While sailing through the night, we experienced strong storms that seriously rocked the boat. Captain steered us safely through them, though, and we reached Cartagena early Tuesday morning.
What a trip! Bienvenido a America del Sur!