The Pan-American Highway stretches from Alaska to Argentina – with the exception of the Darién Gap – a 160km stretch. The Darién Gap is notably the wildest place remaining in the Western Hemisphere – covered in both mountainous rain forest and flat marshland. The area has a known guerrilla and narcrotrafficker presence (and the kidnapping and crimes that go along with it); thus, while it is still possible to cross the gap by land or foot, it is not recommended. With a land crossing out of the question we had the choice of flying or travelling across the Caribbean Sea.
Option 1: Flying
When we initially looked into flights they were expensive (500$ to 600$). Note that we hadn’t yet heard about Viva Colombia which has dirt cheap flights from Bogota to Panama City (approx.150$).
Option 2: Speed boat
Speed boat trips are available from Cartagena through the San Blas and take three days stopping for two nights in the San Blas. There is also an option of leaving from further north in Colombia and taking a ferry/speedboat combination. The price isn’t cheap either (approx. 400$)
*Note there is also a brand-new ferry from Cartagena to Colon (which we were unaware existed when booking)
Option 3: Sailing the Kuna Yala
Lonely Planet travel guide reads “Don’t mind roughing it? Here’s an adventure. Small sailboats can take passengers to Panama via Archipielago de San Blas for the price of a flight. However, these boats are not official charters. Passengers help out in exchange for cheap passage, a few days of sun and sand in the San Blas, and a snorkeling trip or two. Half the trip is the open-sea passage from Cartagena, which can be quite rough.”
Prices for the recommended boats range from 550$ to 700$ per person for the five day voyage; since when this is “cheap” or qualifies as “backpacker-budget” I really don’t know – it was definitely well above our budget.
We read a lot of blogs on sailing from Cartagena to the San Blas Islands in Panama – and a lot of horror stories: over-crowded boats, drunk captains, high captains, captains disappearing in the open ocean, first-mates that off their captains and steal the ship, ships running aground, sea-sickness, storms, and the list goes on. Despite the above, people recommended the trip through paradise cautioning to look into the boat and captain beforehand.
We decided this was something worth spending a bit more money on to have an enjoyable trip (and birthday). After researching various companies (all which advertise the same boats it turns out…) we found a sailboat leaving around our time frame that had great reviews for both the boat and the captain. The Amande, is a 49′ Atoll 6, designed and built in 2000 by Dufour and refurbished in 2011 with two private double cabin with ensuite bathroom (one reserved for crew), two private double cabins and two triple cabins (which are double cabins with an added bunk shoved in near the ceiling). Three weeks before departure (we heard boats fill up), we emailed Blue Sailing and reserved the private with ensuite cabin. The prices we were given were 600$ for a private room and 650$ for private with ensuite.
Knowing we had to be in Caratagena de Indias for our departure date on April 17th – and after extending our stay in Medellín – we didn’t have time to visit Santa Marta or anywhere else on the Caribbean coast. Cartagena is a modern port city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site all wrapped up into one. We looked forward to spending a few nights there; however when we arrived the heat and humidity were unbearable. We were exhausted and hid underneath the fans in our room. Luckily, we were staying at a nice apartment with an ocean view (and a very welcome sea breeze) that was relaxing to hang out in. Of course, we ventured out into the heat everyday but never lasted as long as we thought we might… The old city has quite a few nice restaurants although we never grabbed more than a cocktail and appetizer due to the inflated tourist prices everywhere within the walled city.
The day we had been waiting for arrived and after picking up some snacks and liquor, we headed to meet the rest of the group at Club Nautico at 8PM. In our group there was a Swedish couple, a German couple, an American couple, two girls from Scotland, and two European guys (one each from Switzerland and Austria). Before we were allowed to board the boat we were subjected to a police search. Instead of searching our bags on the well-lit and easily accessible sidewalk we were standing by, they made us walk to the just beside the boat on a dark dock over the water. The officers were not very careful tearing apart our very full bags and almost dropped my phone and a few other things through the cracks in the dock. One of the Scottish girls lost an earring when her toiletries bag was opened and dumped out everywhere. While they looked a little deeper than most police searches, they were clearly just following protocol and not really searching (anything in the bottom 2/3 of our bag wasn’t touched and we were allowed to leave and return to the boat after the search…).
Next up, we learned we weren’t actually leaving that evening – we would be leaving at three or four in the morning. And we were not allowed to have any alcohol until we reached the San Blas Islands in 30 to 50 hours. Additionally, some people weren’t aware that dinner wasn’t being served that evening and hadn’t eaten. For having been sent a long orientation email it seemed to have been lacking some important details.
All that was left was the daunting task of room picking. As it turned out, the private room with ensuite bathroom had been double booked by us and the American couple. We drew straws for the room and lost. Needless to say we were extremely upset given the only reason we booked this particular boat was for that room. But nothing could be done now and the captain very kindly gave us each a 100$ refund (turns out other rooms were going for 550$ not the 600$ Blue Sailing had told us). We defaulted to getting one of the private cabins at the bow of the boat and at least didn’t have to share our small room with a third person.
Everyone else was in pairs, with only one private room left – leaving one pair to split up to sleep in the triple rooms with another couple. The Scottish girls and two European guys drew straws for who would have to split up and sleep in the extremely small top bunks – the guys lost. The bunk is too close to the ceiling to sit up in and you have to essentially climb over the double bed to get to your bed. It wouldn’t be so bad if we were allowed to sleep outside or on the deck but, again, until we reached the San Blas Islands this wasn’t allowed.
After our first hour on the boat, we were ranting about how incredibly disappointed we were with the service provided by Blue Sailing. While they were extremely helpful and friendly via email and in person it seemed like a complete façade when we arrived on the boat. In addition to the incidents described above, there were three vegetarians, one gluten-free and one lactose-free person on board who all claimed to have told Blue Sailing who said they would inform the captain (myself included) and the captain and crew had no idea. Somehow our amazing crew managed to make three meals a day for everyone given all the dietary restrictions and already having done the shopping… I guess she predicted there would be some special-foodies because she had a full supply of soy meat, gluten-free bread and lactose-free milk. Blue Sailing claims that prices are set by the captains and don’t change regardless of who you book through – we learned this is not true. Some people paid on board in cash and I believe they got the best deal. I would recommend booking directly through the boat or captain (which is the opposite of what any agency will tell you, obviously wanting your business instead).
Bathrooms… the Blue Sailing website advertises that the Amande has 4 bathrooms but fails to mention one is reserved for the captain and crew (and one for the private ensuite) really only leaving two bathrooms for everyone else. The two bathrooms for the use of 10 people are typical boat toilets with a freshwater sink. On the Amande they were labeled female and male. The main downside to the bathrooms was that they removed the toilet seats. My guess is this was for cleaning reasons (the bathrooms were never cleaned and the garbage got disgustingly full to the point where it was overflowing). Of course, the private room with ensuite bathroom had the toilet seat in place and was a bit larger…
Anyways, you could tell not everyone was overly pleased with the room situation (especially since everyone has to the pay the same, except the one couple in the double private ensuite) but we sucked it up and all went out to grab pizza before trying to fall asleep. Another thing not allowed until we reached the San Blas – showering. Thankfully, the Club had showers which we used to get the sticky sweaty feeling off our bodies one last time until the 19th. The small cramped rooms were hot and humid. Within 5 minutes of lying down we were sticky and sweaty all over again. The pillows in the beds are pretty awful and there is no top sheet (it’s too hot for one anyways). We took a Gravol (Dimenhydrinate) before going to bed mostly to help us sleep. Almost everyone on the boat took one or two in hopes of getting some sleep and not waking up sea-sick.
Our crew consisted of Captain Victor – a middle aged Argentinian man who previously lived in Japan for 15 years before moving to the Caribbean. He owns his own smaller boat docked in the San Blas and was recently hired to Captain the Amande after a few years on other boats. Sofi, a young French girl, and Victor’s girlfriend, served as “the crew.” Her actual title should have been “gourmet chef.” She has been doing the Colombia – Panama route now for almost two years, about 8 months with Victor. Supposedly, when she started she had no cooking experience. This would have been the last thing I excepted after tasting some of her meals. She was beyond fantastic, ensuring all dietary restrictions were accounted for while cooking gourmet-style meals for 14 on a small, moving kitchen inside a hot and humid boat. In between meals, she helps Victor with the boat and relaxes enjoying the sailing lifestyle.
Unable to fall into a deep sleep, we woke up to the sound of the engine starting around 4AM as we prepared to leave Cartagena for the open ocean. Too tired to actually get up we dazed off into a half-sleep in the humid cabin until around 6AM. Crawling out of bed, the fresh sea breeze was refreshing against our sweaty skin although we still yearned for a shower (we weren’t even allowed to jump into the ocean to cool off). The rolling waves were relatively small (2-3m) and neither of us felt seasick. We were two of the first people up and sitting on the bow with most of the boat to ourselves when we spotted a pod of dolphins! They chased our boat and easily caught up playing at the bow while we snapped a few photos.
Not long after the dolphins had gotten bored of chasing our boat, the fishing line attached to the stern of the boat started to tug. We raced back to see what all the commotion was about. Victor was reeling in a huge fish fighting back hard. He got the fish into the boat and pinned her down to the zodiac’s floor while Sofi ran to get alcohol to suffocate the fish. After gutting and rinsing the fish, it was stored in the refrigerator until we reached the San Blas (another open-sea rule: no cooking, only cold foods).
Breakfast that morning was a standard coffee, cereal, toast, and fruit salad. Most of the day we spent lazing around, tired from lack of sleep, either on the bow or under the fans in our rooms. For lunch we had a cold rice salad with canned tuna, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables. Dinner was ham or egg sandwiches.
That evening we had the worst sleep of the trip. Once it was dark we were told we were no longer allowed to be upstairs (even in the covered area at the stern of the boat) and had to suffer in our rooms. Having not showered we were now not only sticky and sweaty but also salty from the sea breeze. We wiped our bodies down with damp (fresh water) towels and Dan even slept with a damp towel on him to help keep cool. We left all the hatches in our room open, contrary to what we were told to do and were lucky there was no rain or high waves. I can’t imagine being in there with all the hatches shut.
We woke up early to the sound of a falling anchor around 7AM in Coco Bandero and finally got to jump in the ocean which felt extremely refreshing. The picturesque site of waking up in the middle of a cluster of Caribbean islands with white sand, palm trees and blue waters was pretty amazing in itself.
After cooling down we sat down to breakfast which would be the same everyday plus this morning we got freshly baked cake (delicious). Once everyone had made it out of bed, Victor shuttled us over to one of the islands which was completely deserted. We were all given snorkelling gear (a few people had to share). When I first ventured out to the reef I felt a fish against my leg, shooing him away I kept swimming. Feeling him again and again I started hitting him away and he still wouldn’t leave me alone – sucking on my legs and body whenever I wasn’t swinging at him. Probably the most I have ever been frightened by a fish (especially a small one) I frantically swam back to shore. I made Dan join me the next time hoping that would keep my fish-friend away. No such luck. Within 30 seconds in the water I heard Dan warning me my friend was back. I decided to sit out for a bit tanning in the sun instead. The island heat was almost unbearably hot and after an hour or two we were looking forward to getting back on the boat to a cold drink and some shade. No one really appreciated that Victor anchored too far to swim back (other sailboats were anchored much closer) and only gave us one option for a pick-up time. It felt as though we were not welcome on the boat.
When we were eventually shuttled back to the boat we cracked open our first beers of the trip. For lunch, Sofi cooked the fish we caught in a garlic/onion/ginger/soy sauce with rice on the side. It was delicious!
Our first encounter with the Kuna people was that afternoon when Rosalina and her friend canoed up to our boat and came aboard. We were informed that she was the head of her island – women are always the head of the family and rulers to the point where if a family only has male children, the last child is raised as a female in all aspects. Victor and Sofi made up a bag of dried goods and snacks for Rosalina explaining that food is hard to come by in the islands so they always bring extra for her.
In the afternoon, we went to our second island which was much closer to the boat and inhabited by Rosalina’s family. We purchased coconuts for 1$ and sipped them from the beach. We were warned not to try and cut open a coconut we found on the ground or steal one back to the boat – there is a 300$ fine for doing so as the Kuna run most of the islands as coconut farms.
We had been told that Kuna families only stay on one island for 6 months before destroying the shacks they built and completely rebuilding on another island. I do not know how much of this tradition is still practiced. On the islands, trash is a clearly visible problem and is only getting worse as there is no effective plan for its removal. Cost of removal to the mainland is supposedly too high for the Kuna’s (which makes me wonder where all the tax money we pay for being in the islands goes) and there is no designated site of waste management. Cans are sold back to Panama and the only thing recycled in the area.
Back on the boat we were treated to Passion fruit/Orange Rum Cocktails accompanied by fresh hummus with chips and veggies appetizer. Dinner was sliced roast beef, rice and salad with eggplant for the vegetarians. The food was all delicious and cooked perfectly. While everyone was full after meals, the portions of meat were quite small and large portions of rice.
After dinner, Sofi was kind enough to cook me a birthday cake! It came out, candles and all, and everyone sang Happy Birthday. That evening we stayed up drinking and chatting – even broached the topics of politics and religion which is always either a bad or interesting discussion.
The cooler air that evening and decent breeze as well as a fresh water shower before bed gave us our first decent sleep of the trip.
Breakfast was out early every day and everyone ate whenever they got up (usually somewhere between 6 and 9AM). That morning, the Kuna brought aboard some of their art and jewelry to sell to us tourists. They are most famous for their Molas which are designs cut into cloth with other coloured cloth pulled through the slices and sewn in place. They decorate their legs with beaded anklets tied together and sometimes worn as high as the knees. Similar style bracelets were also for sale.
It turns out Captain Victor’s previous job was a jeweler in Japan. He carried a stash of his own jewelry for sale and brought it up to sell to the Kuna’s. They ended up finding two silver charms they liked and trading for their own work. Dan and I were interested in Victor’s unique jewelry and ended up later purchasing two pieces ourselves. He specialized in men’s jewelry (a rare find) making necklace pieces as well as rings out of clock parts, pieces from old guns, bullets and microchips. Dan bought a silver piece with two clock gears and a skull and I purchased a sliced walnut shell filled with Amethyst.
Shortly after breakfast we headed for another group of islands – Banedup. When we heard the sails being hosted we got excited! We hadn’t moved on sail power alone yet. Unfortunately, we didn’t start here… and we never did get to truly go sailing the entire trip. For those of you who know me, you know I love sailing. And there really is nothing like moving on the sea without the sound of a motor ruining the peacefulness. Supposedly there wasn’t enough wind and it would have taken too long… but who cares?! It was only an hour or two between islands and would have taken two to three with sail power alone – and everyone on board wanted to. We never really mentioned it to the captain (maybe we should have) but quite a few of us were disappointed. It was Dan’s third time on a sailboat and his third time never truly getting to go sailing.
Mid-way between islands we spotted a Panamanian coast guard boat with quadruple 200 HP motors which proceeded to circle us like a shark and eventually pulled up to us and boarded to check passports. We passed with no problems and continued with our journey.
For lunch Sofi grilled us some phenomenal hamburgers with salad and fried potatoes on the side. We were anchored between a group of gorgeous islands surrounded by blue crystal clear water. We got extremely lucky with the weather, cloud cover sheltered us from the smoldering sun for good portions of the day and the sun peaked out long enough for a quick tan and some fantastic photos. The colour of the ocean completely changes with the sun beaming down on to it. Where we were anchored, you could see the bottom of the sea about 10m below. For the afternoon we were dropped off on another island. There was a volleyball court set up and we got a ball off the locals. After playing by ourselves six on six for some time, a few of us dropped out and others continued to play with some local Kuna’s who were surprisingly good considering their short height.
On the islands there is visible evidence that they are shrinking. Rising water levels affect the very low islands quite quickly. It’s a common site to see dead palm trees and other structures now surrounded by water. Some wonder if these islands will even exist in 10 – 20 years.
When we got back to the boat we discovered there were mechanical problems and captain had to change the fuel filter (one group had to clear their belongings from their room). We kept drinking and chatting enjoying the cocktails, olives and nuts Sofi served us and barely noticed the late dinner (a flavourful veggie stew with rice).
We moved islands early in the morning around 7 AM and ate breakfast on the go. Our first stop was Chichine where there was some of the best snorkeling in the area including a sunken ship. We were again stranded on the island after being dropped off by Victor and needed to hide from the sun. We bought a few beers (which were ICE cold) from the locals and got to sit in a seating area for people who camp/eat on the island. Most islands charge a fee for use; however we never had to pay – I assume this was all sorted by our captain (very convenient). The bar we bought the beers from had a full list of drinks and we were excited to try Coco Loco’s (a shot of rum in a fresh coconut) but everything except beer (including pop) was available “mas tarde” (later) – I guess not everyone starts drinking before noon.
Back on the boat we had a warm chicken and veggie pasta with salad on the side. I don’t think I need to say, again, it was delicious. Following clean up from lunch – the passengers share in the cleanup duty of washing all the dishes in the sea. Sofi is solely the cook. While I don’t mind washing a few dishes I cringed at using chemical dish soap while anchored within 20m of reefs – or even anywhere in the ocean. I found it ironic we were cautioned to not touch or take anything from the reefs or beaches to ensure their preservation but it was OK to wash our dishes in the ocean with chemical based soap as well as dump all our scrap food and anything paper-based into the water. Sad.
After lunch we motored to El Porvenir, the Immigration Island and only island with a landing strip (which takes up pretty much the whole island). We were asked to stay on the boat while Sofi and Victor were gone with our passports for over an hour and we were wondering what was going on. Turns out we all got 3-month visas for no fee!! Almost everyone on board had fake plane tickets within the next 72 hours to avoid the 100$ Visa fee; however, if leaving Panama later than 72 hours there was a good chance we would have to pay the 100$ fee at that point. Supposedly the border guards laughed and didn’t even want to see the tickets (knowing everyone who comes that route carries fake ones) and must have been in a good mood that day stamping our passports with 3-month passes.
El Porvenir translates roughly to “to go in the future” and was the first island given to the Panamanian comarca (indigenous territory) from Panama after the Kuna Revolution. All of the San Blas Archipelago is now a Panamanian comarca run by themselves.
Once allowed to leave the boat, we went to check out the island and walk down the landing strip. After a short time there we returned to the boat for more cocktails and snacks. For dinner, Sofi served a perfectly roasted pork loin in a mustard-cream sauce with rice and a veggie stir-fry for the others. That night we went to bed early after packing.
Our wake-up call came at 5:30am and the speed boat to pick us left at 6:15 am. After spending 45 minutes on the “speed boat” getting completely soaked with salt water we arrived on the mainland. The next two hours were by far the most frustrating two hours of the trip. We were told we would have to wait until 8:30AM for a truck to take us to Panama City (even though four were parked at the site waiting for guests). 8:30 came and went and in the extremely hot and humid weather we started to get frustrated. Why had the captain arranged for our pickup so early if all we were going to do is wait? Why wouldn’t the trucks there take us (there were 12 of us which worked out to 6 per truck). More and more people arrived, and got into trucks before us. Most groups were clearly shorter tours. The main difference between us and the other groups – we had backpacks and they had luggage. There seems to be a trend that if you have a backpack you are somehow less important than if you have luggage. Possibly this derives from people with luggage tipping or paying more (not bargaining) but I really don’t care – I am not somehow less important because of the type of bag I carry.
Once all the groups with luggage – of four of five – were loaded into the trucks our group was told we would have to split up. Since we were all in pairs we thought this would be fine but we had to split up to groups of 1, 1, 3, and 7. We rightfully complained that our group, who had arrived first and now waited over two ours should not be the one to have to split up down to singles when we are all in pairs. Nobody cared. We finally managed to split up and headed towards are respective trucks. Being backpackers, the back row (which they cram 3 people in when it legally holds 2) was reserved for us on our three hour journey up steep and windy roads. Dan’s legs barely fit when completely sideways and we were sweating our faces off. To make matters worse our driver had completely no idea how to drive a standard. If the gauges had been working (they weren’t) it would have showed him red-lining the RPM’s 90% of the time. Switching gears was not his specialty although he loved to go on and off – on and off – on and off – the gas pedal.
By some miracle our driver understood the address (which is never given as a number, just a street near a street near a shop) and dropped us off right in front of the apartment we were staying at in Panama City. We practically ran inside and jumped in the shower.
*All prices are listed in USD*