There are three ways to cross from Central America into South America from Panama to Colombia. The first, and fairly common, is to take a flight from Panama City to Colombia. These flights vary on prices depending on when you book and what deals you may find (usually somewhere between $150-250). The second, is to cross the Darien Gap via driving; however I haven’t come across any regular backpackers who have actually attempted the journey and/or survived doing it, as the Darien Gap is covered with the presence of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who have been known for murders, assassinations, and kidnappings. The third, and obviously the avenue we chose, is to cross the open seas via boat and thru the San Blas islands. There are tons of companies that offer trips and very little information to help you decide which boat to choose. Thankfully, Oscar knows a bit about sailboats and was able to decipher what type of boat would be best for the both of us and honestly chose the captain because he was from Argentina (haha).
4:00am: We woke up, packed our bags, and took the last legit shower that we would have for the next five days.
5:00am: We were picked up from our hostel (Mamallena) and crammed into a 4×4 Jeep with 6 other people (8 total), along with all of our bags.
5:45am: The driver stopped at a grocery store so that we could stock up on water, snacks, and alcohol for the next 5 days. Tip: If you are going on this trip, you really only drink for 2 days because the other days are spent on the high seas, so don’t go too crazy with the alcohol purchases.
8:00am: After a two hour journey thru the hilly and bumpy roads in the mountains of Panama, we enter the Kuna territory and pay the $20 tax that is required for each person. From there, the driver stopped at a hillside for a photo opportunity where we were able to see the many islands of San Blas.
9:00am: We boarded a small boat with the rest of the passengers (13 total) and headed to the sailboat.
9:45am: The small boat arrived to the Amande sailboat. Sophie (from France) and Victor (from Argentina), our crew for the next five days, greeted us upon arrival and helped each of us out of the small boat and onto the sailboat. Once we all were on the sailboat, crowded together with all of our luggage and the rest of the passengers, Victor and Sophie explained a few of the rules of the boats, decided where each person was going to sleep (straws were involved to decide who would be the unlucky individual to sleep outside the first few nights since the boat was over booked by one), and let everyone know that their english was limited.
The boat had six rooms in total. Two rooms at the front of the boat that held two individuals and where the two couples stayed (Oscar and I had a room in the front). There were two rooms in the middle of the boat that housed three people; one full bed and then a smaller bunk overlapping the full bed. The remaining two rooms were at the other end of the boat and each of those rooms had their private bathrooms. Sophie and Victor occupied one of those rooms, and since no one had paid the extra $100 for the private bathroom, straws were drawn once again to see who was the lucky one to stay in the room.
11:00am: We changed into our swimsuits (which then became our permanent clothes for the next few days) and jumped into the dingy to explore the first island of San Blas. The island was small and we easily walked the entire length of the island in under two minutes. There were a few houses on the island constructed from the palm trees on the island. The local Kuna’s were lounging in front of each of their houses and trying to sell their local jewlery and pattern work to each of us. We spent a couple of hours floating in the crystal clear blue water, discovering starfish, sand dollars, and little fishes. We couldn’t believe we were in such a beautiful paradise.
1:00pm: Victor came back to the island to pick up all of us and take us back to the sailboat for lunch. None of us knew what to expect from the meals on the boat, and I for sure was shocked by the cooking skills Sophie had in the little kitchen that the sailboat was equipped with. We were so lucky to have Sophie as our cook because each of the meals were absolutely delicious and some of the best meals we have had on our entire trip.
2:30pm: Oscar and I and some of the other passengers on the boat grabbed some of the snorkeling gear, jumped into the ocean waters and swam for about 12 minutes to a small island (maybe 8 feet long), which literally consisted of a broken plastic pink chair and some driftwood from the ocean. We were told that there was a sunken boat near the tiny island, so we set out on searching for the hidden gem. We spent about two hours snorkeling in the area searching for the boat; however the water was too murky to find it. We had the pleasure of seeing the coral, numerous colorful fishes, and a ton of starfish.
5:00pm: Victor picked us up from the island and took us back to the boat where we all rinsed off with a bit of fresh water and made our way to the top of the boat to relax while we waited for dinner. Dinner for the evening was lobster, which Victor had purchased from the Kuna people earlier in the day. I asked him how much the lobsters were and he said he paid $60 US for about 15 lobsters. Wow, what a deal! We watched as he cracked open each one and handed them to Sophie to prepare. This was one of the best meals we had on this trip!
8:00pm: The dishes were washed off of the back of the boat and we all grabbed a few beers and made our way to the top of the boat once again to relax before we headed to bed.
9:00am: Oscar and I woke up quite late as we were one of the last few people to get up in the morning (oops). Breakfast consisted of toast, coffee, and small muffins. There was some fruit; however it had already been devoured by those who had the sense to get up before 9am.
9:30am: Victor started the engine and we headed to another area of the Kuna island.
10:00am: We anchored near another group of islands. I wish I had written down the name of each one of them, but honestly they were hard to remember when you’re surrounded by so much beauty. The majority of those on the boat jumped into the ocean and swam towards one of the islands. This island was not as beautiful as the last one since there was a lot of sea grass right by the beach, which made it rather hard (and honestly just gross) to swim across. We spent the next few hours standing in the warm and clear water, taking photos, and chatting with the rest of the passengers on the boat. As I mentioned before, there was a lot of sea grass near this particular island and what we all found out later, also consisted of a bunch of jelly fish. As we swam back towards the boat, about half of us got stung (myself included).
12:30pm: Lunch consisted of chicken curry and was absolutely delicious. Curry. On a Boat. Who would have imagined?!
1:30pm: Victor packed us all into the dingy and took us to another island near by that houses the only bar in the area. We brought a few bucks with us and ended up purchasing a few drinks. We were surprised to find that the Kuna people have fairly high prices for Central America. One shot of rum and a coke costs $5 and two beers were $4. Other passengers on the boat were smart enough to bring their own beers. This island was beautiful and had a great view of the sailboat, the setting sun, and very picturesque locations on the island.
5:00pm: Victor returns to the island with Sophie in tow and offers to
buy everyone a beer, lucky for him however because th
e bar had just so happened to run out of beer at that very moment (coincidence? haha). We headed back to the boat where we were then informed that any alcohol that was desired to be consumed on the trip needed to happen tonight since we would be hitting the high seas the next day. The captains exact words: Youmust drink all of your alcohol tonight. With a challenge like this, one can only assume what happened.
12:00am: Victor and Sophie come out from their slumber (rather upset) and scolded all of us for still being awake and talking (oops, we all felt like teenagers again).
8:00am: Oscar and I woke up thinking we were once again one of the last rooms to wake up, but it turned out we
were one of the first few this time. Everyone else was fast asleep.
8:30am: After a very light breakfast, the crew pulled out the sails and we headed to another island about 30 minutes away. This is the one and only time that the captain let Oscar help sail (yay tacking) and he was
obviously excited for this. I for one sat at the front of the boat and watched the beauty around me.
8:45am: Four dolphins appeared at the front of the boat, jumping into the air and swam right next to the sailing boat for a few minutes. Wow, what a view!
8:50am: I threw up from sea sickness
9:30am: The captain had us all pile into the dingy and we set out to the island. This island has the clearest water I have ever seen. We spent the afternoon laying on the beach, swimming in the beautiful water, and snorkeling among some of the most beautiful coral I have ever seen! It was such an amazing feeling to be swimming in such beautiful waters and to see the ocean life just swimming around us; we must have seen at least 20 different types of fish. Absolutely a breath taking experience.
7:00pm: We feasted on our last meal together as a boat that did not involve a ton of sick faces and enjoyed the last few hours of fresh air before Amande set out on the high seas.
9:00pm: We all popped our first of many doses of Dramamine and headed to the cabin.
10:00pm: Amande pulled out the sails and set out on the high seas! All passengers were required to be in their cabins while the boat was sailing at night. Oscar and I fell fast asleep as the effects of the Dramamine pill set in very quickly.
9:00am: We woke up and rose out of bed and quickly remembered we were sailing in the middle of the sea. The boat jolted as it went over each wave and from our room we could see water splashing over the window above our bed and from behind the boat. We stumbled out of bed during our first attempt of acquiring our sea legs and sat down at the table to try and eat breakfast.
9:10am: After trying to eat one piece of toast, I quickly realized that I would not be able to sit outside in the boat and would be doomed to stay inside the cabin for the rest of the 40 hours of the sailing trip. Damn you sea sickness!
9:30am: We retreaded back to our bed, popped another Dramamine, laid down, and closed our eyes.
1:00pm: Oscar threw up from sea sickness
1:30pm: Third dose of Dramamine for us both.
2:00pm: Maybe lying on our stomachs will help?
5:00pm: I wanted water as this point, but the possibility of quenching my thirst did not outweigh the feeling in my stomach that I would get by getting up out of bed.
6:00pm: At this point our bed is soaking wet, our pillows had become sponges for the water seeping in from the side windows, and our foreheads were targets from the drops of water from the window above us. We had no idea that a waterbed was included with the price.
8:00pm: God bless Sophie, our kitchen crew, she came into our room holding two ham and cheese sandwiches. I had been so hungry, but once again the option of getting up and being fed while my stomach turned into knots did not outweigh being fed. Sophie saved us both!
2:00am: Now at this time, I had been lying and looking at the ceiling for the past several hours while listening to the smashing of the waves against the boat (in the morning after we had stepped on land, we were told that the waves in the evening were approximately 10 feet high). Every other minute the boat jolted as it jumped over wave after wave which made it impossible to sit up, move around, or do anything but lie on our backs and look at the ceiling.
2:30am: For the 100th time in the evening, I smashed into Oscars back or side after the boat jumped over yet another wave for the evening. Sorry love, I said yet again, as he groaned and tried to get back to sleep.
4:00am: At this point, I am legit becoming frightened for our safety on the boat because the sound of the waves against the boat are so loud and the boat is jumping over the waves at such a rapid point I was scared. My thoughts began to think of all the stranded at sea movies I had seen and I started wondering what I would do first if the boat decided to sink (No joke). I turned over and told Oscar I was scared and he sleepily touched me with one finger and said, its ok babe, and went back to sleep (thanks for the comfort, hubby).
6:00am: I opened my eyes, saw the window above our bed open, and finally felt fresh air after 40 hours on the sea. The sails were down, the boat was not rocking as much, and there was no pounding against the boat. We were finally near land. I got out of bed and stood in the kitchen area and watched as the boat neared land. All I could think was THANK GOD.
6:30am: We anchored the boat in the harbor of Cartagena. We had finally arrived, yay!!!
7:00am: All of the passengers on the boat were now out of their cabins and taking in as much fresh air as possible. The captain hopped into the dingy with all of our passports and set off to immigration to get our stamps into Colombia.
8:00am: We made our way back into our cabin and started to pack up our bags. At this point we realized just how much of our stuff was wet. Too much. The room smelled so gross with the lingering smells of wet clothes, vomit, and sea water. I could not wait to get out of there.
8:30am: We loaded our bags and ourselves into the dingy and made our way to dry land.
8:45am: I stepped onto land and kissed the ground. Just kidding, although I thought about it.
10:30am: Arrived at Mamallena, our hostel in Cartagena, and had one of the best showers of my life!
We were not told much about the Kuna people before the trip, and I honestly did not to think to do any research before starting the trip because I had no idea what to expect or that the culture would be so different. The crew on the boat seemed to have a lot of knowledge of the Kuna people, so I tried as much as I could to accumulate the knowledge that they had.
The Kuna people are originally from Colombia and arrived on the San Blas islands many many years ago and pleaded to Panama for them to stay on the islands. There are 378 islands within the San Blas area and
the Kuna people live on the islands for three months and then they move to a different island and into a different home. The only people within the Kuna community who do not move are the eldest couple who live on the last island that we explored. There are a few business’ on the islands and only a few of the Kuna people are allowed to have business and sell products to the tourists that come.
The women in the Kuna culture are the dominant gender in the Kuna culture and are the main providers of the family. They are considered an adult after the arrival of their first period. Once this has happened, the women must make a choice to wear the traditional clothes of the Kuna people for the rest of their lives or they can wear the clothes of the rest of the world until they decide to wear the Kuna clothing. The Kuna women must be covered at all times and they absolutely do not like or respect when women walk around on the islands showing their stomachs or cleavage. The photo to the right here is the first day on the islands and we obviously had not been told that yet.
The San Blas islands are plentiful of coconuts, lobsters, star fish, conch shells, and all the fish that you can imagine; however the Kuna’s are the only ones who are allowed to consume these natural resources. If an outsider wishes to eat any of the for-mentioned items, then they must be purchased off of a Kuna community member. The captain told us that if you touch a coconut on the island and attempt to take or eat it, the Kuna people will fine you for about $125.
Overall thoughts on the trip
Sailing from Panama to Colombia is one of the most exciting things we have done on our trip so far, but also one of the most difficult due to the rough conditions of the sea, which led to feeling like crap the entire time. We saw the most beautiful beaches we have seen in our life in San Blas, snorkeled in the corals, met people of a community that I had no idea existed, made friends for a lifetime, and have a serious story to tell our kids in the future. Would I recommend it: YES, but please please please take Dramamine. No really, take one like every 6 hours.
For those of you who are sailors out there and looking for a bit of information on the sailing aspect, here is a snippet from my hubby the sailor. Amande is an Atoll fixed keel 50 footer and having people over capacity really makes a difference in the overall experience (we had 3 extra people over capacity). Most catamaran’s go beyond 5-8 people extra, so despite having more cabins to sleep, our fixed keels at Amande’s size provided average comfort with space.
It is impossible to plan a trip where the current, waves, and wind will be perfect for this trip to Cartagena. Heading to Panama in Nov-Dec you will be running, if the boat decides to just use the sails. Amande had to use the engine and the sails to reach an average of 12 Knots. Due to the conditions of this trip it would have been 6-8 knots with just the sails. There was no need to tack for most of the trip either, since the wind was steady coming from the west a 10 to 25 knots. Therefore, if you can, avoid sleeping on the bow starboard side if you have the choice. You will feel everything. The windy season starts in mid November, with more consistent conditions, but rougher waves. We were early on the wind season with the currents at our favor, but larger waves for November. Not my ideal conditions for just sailing. Due to the boat’s tight schedule and how fast these trips get booked, it appears most boats use the engine to avoid being at rough seas for too long. I would recommend you ask the agencies for boat information, verify if the captain has recently made the trip, and check if the captain is the owner (usually owners will take better care of their boats better if they sail, but it doesn’t always guarantee that they are good captains). We had a great captain, but the boat needed brand new windows and hatches. This is not very expensive to fix, so it was a major disappointment to get so much water in our beds just from the hatch/windows. The beauty of the islands and the amazing people we met truly made us forget about this (once we were back on dry land of course), but for future trips we hope they will fix this so others have a better (and drier) experience.
Bon Voyage my friends! Happy Sailing