San Blas Islands to Cartagena by sailboat

The million dollar question for travellers toying with a method to get from Panama to Colombia comes down to two options. You can either sail, or you can fly. There is a land border, however this involves trekking your way through the notorious Darien Gap. The danger and hardship in this option makes it unviable for all but the most hardcore of travellers.

In days gone by, the option to sail from the north of Panama around to Cartagena in Colombia was somewhat of a lottery. The independent boats and Captains contained some notoriously unstable characters. Unsafe boats with drunk and stoned captains were all too common. These days however, the decision is a much easier one. Several years ago, a company based in Cartagena called Bluesailing created a website and collected a fleet of 25 or so reliable and safe boats, crewed by reputable Captains and started a service to simply book a suitable boat on the date required online. You can find them at

The idea of 5 days sailing through the idyllic San Blas Islands with a 2 day hop across the open ocean seemed irresistible to me, so a quick perusal on the Bluesea website and before I knew it, I was booked on a large catamaran called the Santana.

The whole process is very straightforward, a $ 25 dollar shuttle collected me and my other fellow intrepid wannabe sailors and delivered us to a small fishing village called Puerto Lindo, where the Santana lay at anchor in the calm waters of the bay.

It was very apparent from the get go, that I had been very lucky and scored a happy and outgoing bunch of boat mates. The stocking up of booze for the first 3 days ( no drinking is allowed on the open water crossing ) provided an inkling of my crew mates nature as Puerto Lindo was pretty much emptied of beer and rum.

The first 3 days of the trip were spent just cruising between the islands with stops for swimming, snorkelling and chilling on the pristine beaches. The San Blas are populated by the indigenous Kuna people and a $ 25 per head tax / toll is paid at the first island. This goes to the locals and enables the boats to stop as and when they like and play, frolic and party on the islands. It seemed a nice balance which preserves the islands from rampant commercial tourism.

The surprising aspect of the trip was soon apparent on the first morning as a small canoe pulled alongside. I peeked over the railing to find the bottom of the canoe was crawling with fresh lobsters. A quick negotiation between Captain Jose and cook Luis and a 5 kg sack of lobsters disappeared into the galley for dinner that night. How on earth Luis managed to turn out scrumptious meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the tiny below deck  galley remains a mystery but he managed to keep everyone extremely happy even with the fact that we had a vegan and a couple of vegetarians on board. The food was a constant delight.



I t was becoming apparent quickly that all on board were happy outgoing types and everyone was hitting off. An eclectic mix of Germans, Austrians, Canadians, Chinese, American, Aussies and English folks all formed quick and lasting friendships.

Captain Jose was a professional and easygoing guy, and even though we became aware that the boat owner frowned upon people jumping from the boat, backflips from the railings soon became the order of the day and 3 days and nights soon whirled by in a flash.



Sunrises and sunsets in particular were truly spectacular and the sinless will be etched in my memory for a long time.


Of course, so much sun, drinks and sea takes it toll and the front deck of the Santana made a perfect relaxing place to chill and enjoy the sea breeze as the boat meandered between the islands.


Of course, there was also some trepidation of the last two days which were to be spent on the open sea. The crossing itself for me was more a a grind than anything for me and I managed to plough through my collection of Wil Andersons ( an Aus comic ) collection of podcasts. I have only recently discovered the value of podcasts. Travelling will never be the same again !!  Combined with a collection of audiobooks and keeping the horizon in sight and a breeze on my face, I had no trouble with seasickness. That can’t be said for everyone though and a 1/2 dozen or so of the previously bubbly types spent the majority of the crossing in a horizontal position 🙂

At sunrise on the 5th day, Captain Jose pointed out land in the distance and the final trip through the inlet to Cartagena as the sun rose was an absolute and welcome delight.


So I guess the big question is, would I recommend sailing between Panama and Colombia ? The answer for me is an emphatic yes, however there may be those who are turned off by the crossing. For those people, there are other options. One is to take another option of a speedboat that stops overnight on the islands ( no sleeping on the boat ), and does a much shorter crossing, hugging the coast and ending in the small village of Sapzurro, just over the Colombian border. You can then find you way to Cartagena ( another blog post on this amazing place will be forthcoming ). The website is

The third option is also a good one. The San Blas Islands boat trips are available for a 2 or 3 day trip from Panama City. You can simply enjoy the beauty of the islands without the sea crossing and then fly direct to Cartagena from Panama City.

The were few disappointments for me on the trip. Though the boat is a sail boat and the trip is advertised as a sailing trip, very little sailing is actually done. The boat simply motors most of the way. if the winds are strong enough and in the right direction the Captain will supplement with wind power. In their defence, I guess that are on a schedule to deliver us to Cartagena at a certain time and wind speed and direction vagaries would make that difficult. A few hours of sail power only in the islands would have been nice however.

All in all, I have no regrets and have made some long term friends on this trip who I have subsequently spent quality time with in other parts of Colombia.

So there you have it, get your swimmers on and get to it !!!!!!

Colombia is a wonderful country to visit. Its diversity is breathtaking. Caribbean and Pacific coastline, jungles, mountains, lost cities and ruins along with its wonderful cities and people, not to mention the Amazon.

This is my kinda place !!!!!!!!



As I now sit in a hot & humid, fly infested room in Cuba, wondering why I decided to travel during the hottest month of the year and the month when Cubans decide to have their holidays, my mind has been wandering back to the cooler climes of the Guatemalan Western Highlands and wishing I had written a blog post when it was fresher in my mind. Maybe I was too busy enjoying myself.


Guatemala was the first step in my Central American adventure and I really did not know what to expect. First stop was the colonial town of Antigua. I had been warned that Antigua was not really the “ real “ Guatemala but my experience was different. Perhaps the fact that I visited in the low season was the reason. There were travellers about but they were certainly not in the numbers I had been warned about. Antigua reminds me a lot of Trinidad in Cuba, complete with colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, a nice mix of locals and travellers and plenty to see if you want to get out and about. I was also lucky enough to bump into the colorful folks at Café No Se on my first day in town and subsequently had some great nights there, chatting with the staff and travellers and listening to some great live music.

                                                               Typical street scenes



The main attraction in Antigua though, is the opportunity to climb the extinct volcano Acatenango, camp the night there and head for the summit in the morning complete with ( hopefully ) views down upon the erupting and very active volcano, Fuego.

The trek up the mountain was not really my cup of tea but I did manage to view the Fuegos fireworks display from the terrace of a nearby hostel, maybe not quite the same view, but certainly a lot less effort !!! J

Antigua is also well known for its Spanish Schools and I decided to give that a go for a week or so. Lets just say though that after 16 hours of card games guessing different types of fruit, my Spanish was totally still useless but at least I am now ok at the food markets !!

Despite what I had been told about Antigua and its touristic nature, I really loved it and would go back in a heartbeat.

                                        Lake Atitlan 

I had been forewarned of the deceptive beauty of Lake Atitlan and the small towns that line its shores and after 2 weeks in the little village of San Pedro, I was fully aware that it would be a very easy place to just stay and stay.

The waters of the Lake have no inlet or outlet and rise and fall due to rainfall and evaporation and human uses. This disused building used to be well above the Lake levels and is now flooded and derelict. makes for some nice reflections though 🙂


After a few days getting in the groove of San Pedro village, I thought I might try my luck with another Spanish School ( after the waste of time in Antigua ) and see if I could learn more than the names of fruit. I stumbled upon the San Pedro Spanish Speaking School that nestles beside the lake and arranged a week of tuition with a Mr Francisco. Through no fault of his own, Francisco had his work cut out as the distractions of Hummingbirds, Woodpeckers, Monarch Butterflies and other sundry birds and animals kept me distracted, not to mention the simple beauty of the garden and the Lake itself. Francisco seemed happy that I had actually moved beyond fruit. It’s all about little steps.


                      Old guys sit and chat under the local school verandah in San Pedro


A view down a typical San Pedro street with the famous Indians Nose mountain in the background


                 The ubiquitous ” Chicken Bus ” legendary throughout Latin America


But as always, all good things must come to an end and so it was with San Pedro. After 2 fabulous weeks and a round of long winded goodbyes to the local travellers making it their home, I had to drag myself away and on to the wonderful, isolated pools at Semuc Champey.

                                   Semuc Champey 

 I was in two minds about heading to Semuc. It seemed to be a difficult place to reach in a small uncomfortable shuttle but the word on the trail was it was really a sweet spot and worth the trouble. I decided to bite the bullet and give it a go.

My fellow travellers were right on both counts, it’s a long uncomfortable trip over some seriously rocky roads, it’s also particularly beautiful.

Semuc is reached via the small village of Lanquin and is a further 40 minutes very uncomfortable minutes or so along a rocky and windy track ( as you hang on for dear life in the back of a pickup ).

                                          Limestone pools at Semuc Champey


Semuc Champey is a series of limestone pools that have formed naturally as a 300m bridge over the Cahabon River. The river basically filters into the pools and then gushes from under the pools downstream. I really is an unusual natural feature and well worth the trouble getting there.

Adding to my already happy decision to visit was arriving at the totally unexpected and very groovy hostel known as Utopia. This chilled out place was down by the river, walking ( a long one ) to the pools and also had tire tubes to float away a relaxing day on the river. Maybe it was the remoteness or the chilled vibe of the place but I was happy to meet some interesting travellers here who were beating to their own drum and away from the well worn backpacker trail.

                                                                Hannah & Danielle

 Hannah and Danielle arrived at Utopia about the same time as me. I expected them to have the same sort of story as most the other travellers as to where they had been and were going. I was however, very wrong.

Hannah is a small 25ish year old Englishwoman who was hitchhiking her way through the Americas. She seemed fearless and had found her way alone through some very dangerous and potentially hostile places. Her method was very simple, pick a destination, hang out her “ Norte “ ( north ) sign, wait for a ride and see where you end up. This, apparently ranged from orchards and parks, to ambulance stations, fire stations, schools and homes. She carried a tiny backpack and small hammock. She was regularly taken in by strangers who were fearful for her safety. When I met her, she had the princely sum of $ 35 USD to her name and had not eaten for 2 days. She was getting by making small beads and bracelets etc etc. I admit to being both impressed and scared for Hannah. If she gets to the end ok, I am sure a book and a movie should await.

Danielle was on a similar tack to Hannah, but instead of hitching, she was riding her bike. She had a small tent to pitch where she landed and made use of her trusty ukulele to barter for a meal and a beer or two from the hostel owners.

I mention these two ( and I have met many others ) simply because I have always admired folks who beat to their own drum and are doing things in their own way. I really liked them both.

                                            Hannah & Danielle, the offbeat travellers


                             Hannah the hobo heads off to who knows where !!!!!!


                                           Rio Dulce

The riverside wonderland of Rio Dulce butts up against the border of southern Belize. The series of waterways here actually reminded me a little of the Kerala Backwaters in southern India. Just some nice quiet backwater canals adjoining the Rio Dulce river as winds its way through a steep canyon and on into the Bay of Honduras at Livingston.

Rio Dulce has a lot of wildlife in the area and trips to see Howler and Spider Monkeys, Manatees and a plethora of bird speices are easily arranged. It was also here that I first experienced the great Central American collectivo, basically a shared old banger of a car or van which operates as a hop on / hop off system. You just hail it down. It’s a fun and cheap way to get around the smaller places. My record was 19 people in a small minivan !!!!

             Kids inventing the latest in floatation devices in a  canyon at Rio Dulce.


                                     Flores and Tikal

I was initially uncertain of whether to make the trek over to Flores from Rio Dulce or just head straight up into Belize. The famous Mayan ruins at Tikal are however a big ticket item and I thought I should at least try and get there to see them. Thankfully I convinced myself to go. Flores was a totally unexpected delight as were the ruins and National Park at Tikal.

The little town of Flores is basically a small island surrounded by Lake Peten Itza. It makes a nice relaxing base from which to explore Tikal. It also has some really delicious and super cheap street food and is a super chilled out little place.

I had fully expected to find Tikal a tourist laden spot with little to see other than the famous ruins. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of people in the early morning there ( it was low season ), as well as the large amount of nature in the surrounding park.

I had not expected to be able to sit and listen to the roar of two male Howler monkeys as they fought over a female and I was certainly not expecting a Tarantula to emerge from a hole as the guide explained the wonders of Mayan astrology !!!

All in all, Tikal was a very pleasant surprise.

                                                   The very surprised Tarantula


                                                                 The Castillo at Tikal


                                                                   The Tree of Life


Flores unfortunately signalled the end of my time in Guatemala and further adventures in Belize awaited. I would soon come to find that the surrounding countries just didn’t capture my heart as Guatemala had. Its raw beauty and history, Mayan people determinedly clinging to their traditional lifestyle, and oddbod fellow travellers and locals captured my heart in a way that the more developed neighbours did not.

I don’t think Guatemala has seen the last of me just yet !!!!



I first visited Cuba back in 2010 and have treasured the memories from that trip ever since. Since I was heading from Central to South America anyway, a diversionary month back in the land of cigars seemed to make sense. Another enticement was the fact that I was offered the chance to spend some time at a friends place in the sleepy village of Cardenas. A few weeks of putting the bags down and having time to write, photograph and learn some Spanish made a lot of sense.

 This trip was however, much more difficult than I remember as an independent traveller. The infrastructure in Cuba has remained the same, however the number of tourists seems to have increased exponentially. A lot of these trips are totally pre-booked and made trying to book Casas on the fly very very frustrating at times. So much so, that I basically just decided to spend my few weeks only in Havana, Cardenas and Varadero. My plans to travel further south this time were scuppered by the lack of room on any of the buses. Of course there is always the options of the shared cars, which are cheap and can be a lot of fun but I was more than happy to put my feet up and concentrate on things that float my boat, especially with the thought of long journeys to come in South America.


The Havana that I remembered, resplendent with music oozing from every crevice seemed a little tamer this time around. The amount of cafes playing live music seemed to be a lot less. Still, the vibe on the streets was as much fun as always. My time was split between the old town of Havana Vieja and the more leafy and residential part of town, Vedado. My travelling buddy had struck up a friendship with a group of musicians who performed nightly down along Obispo St. I was lucky enough to share a day with one of these guys. That particular day deserves a blog post of its own but it started with a 3 shared car trip to a tiny village out of town, a day spent in his little tiny house and his Mum buying and quickly dispatching a live duck for dinner. Quite a few very well spent hours later, we drank rum, and partied with the musicians and their music down along the fabulous Malecon. Unfortunately, I had no camera that day so you will have to take my word for it.







I confess to having had preconceptions about Varadero. I avoided it like the plague the first time I came to Cuba. Visions of endless all-inclusive resorts, much the same as Cancun and Sharm El Sheikh came to mind. I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised though. Yes, that resort world does exist, but is mainly confined to one end of the peninsular. The actual little town of Varadero itself is quite nice. Certainly not in any spectacular, once in a lifetime travel story type of place, but certainly a nice spot to spend a few chilled out days on the long ( 20k ) Caribbean beach. It is also very leafy which is a blessing in the middle of the steaming hot July afternoons. I found myself a sweet little Casa Particulares and managed to while away a few relaxing days. It was here however that I learned that my future plans to head south were going to be really difficult. The national bus line, Viazul basically had every bus heading my way totally booked up for a week. Rather than throw myself under the said Viazul bus, I decided to head over to my mates place in Cardenas and just hang there for a week or so.



I was absolutely shocked when I first landed in Cardenas. I am not sure what I had expected, maybe a preconceived idea of smiling happy people with music in the air from every door. Well I was in for a surprise. It is a very raw town that basically houses and provides for the thousands of Cubans that work and service the resorts of the great national cash cow, Varadero. As such, a majority of the good citizens of Cardenas are not actually from there at all, but come from other areas of Cuba for the work on offer. As such, it seems to lack some of the community vibes that I experienced in other towns on my previous trip. Having said that, there is something quite satisfying knowing that you are likely the only tourist staying in the entire town. My days in Cardenas were spent going over and editing photos, writing ( or trying to at least ) some mildly interesting blogs posts, practicing ( mostly unsuccessfully it seems, ), my Spanish and generally have some down time after travelling through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico and before heading to South America. To that end it was successful and I gradually came to somewhat enjoy the different spirit to the place.

Cardenas was indeed a prosperous and vibrant town before the revolution. As in most of Cuba, the buildings have deteriorated due to lack of maintenance and with little interest from a tourist perspective, it seems that is the way it will stay in the forseeable future,

( though plans are supposedly in place to develop the waterfront area, and again have cruise ships dock here as they did in days gone by. Hopefully that will go ahead and little old Cardenas will get the injection of money and energy that she so badly needs. )

For the history buffs, Cardenas sported the first railway station in Latin America and was the site where the Cuban flag was first raised back in the mid 1800’s, ( though the few tourists who brave a day trip from Varadero are told that it was raised in a different spot. The state of the actual building where it was raised would be an embarrassment it seems. )




After the initial shock wore off, I came to mostly enjoy my time in Cardenas. It is certainly not on the radar for most visitors to Cuba. The tourist magnets of Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Santa Clara, Santiago De Cuba and Varadero capture the majority of visitors conceptions. There is however, a very different situation in the other cities and rural areas. One where life is difficult and obtaining the basics to sustain yourself are a constant and daily struggle.

To put into some kind of perspective of what I mean, consider the life of my friend Luis. He’s an old guy, lived in Cardenas for a long time. He sleeps in the house my mate is renovating. Luis is a sports teacher at a local high school. His wage is 600 pesos a month. That’s $ 21 USD a month folks. Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists and one for locals. In Varadero it costs 5 CUCs, ( Cuban Convertible Pesos ) or USD $5 ) to get a horse drawn taxi for 5 blocks. That’s a quarter of Luis’ monthly wage. When he retires, he will earn the princely sum of 200 pesos a month, ( so about $ 7 a month ). Without family support, it’s impossible to even feed yourself. So next time you are enjoying a 4 CUC Cuba Libre down on Obispo, consider that you may not be seeing how difficult life is for average Cubans. The game plan for a lot of educated Cubans ( and the free education system provides plenty ), is to somehow earn CUCs as opposed to Pesos. That’s the reason a lot of the tour operaters and drivers are former doctors and lawyers, especially in the tourist hotspots.

I wonder what the local people make of me as I take photos of ruined buildings on a camera worth about 5 years wages for them. I hear them cackling behind me, probably not quite sure why an old white guy would want to be taking photos of derelict buildings in Cardenas I suppose, who knows. I am still not totally sure of what to make of Cardenas, certainly the smiles I was hoping for are at best blank faces, sometimes scowls. Maybe I represent something they long for and cannot have or maybe not. It certainly made me think of the freedoms of choice that we take for granted in Australia. I really don’t know. Maybe my friend having her bike stolen on my last day there maybe summed it up best for me.

So finally my last couple of days in Cuba arrived. I had hoped to spend a couple of fun days down on Obispo, meeting up again with the musicians from the few weeks before, but true to form I quickly learnt it was a two day National Heros holiday, both Friday and Saturday and no music was allowed anywhere. It sort of summed up this trip to Cuba.

For now, Panama and points south beckon, and I can’t wait.