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 http://www.bluesailing.net.
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 http://www.sanblasadventures.com.
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 !!!!!!!!