A quarter century on this planet, what better way to celebrate turning 25 than relaxing on the beautiful islands of San Blas while sailing from Panama to Colombia. Thats right, sailing…cause only bitches fly. I had previously considered sailing from Panama to Colombia but also read horror stories of delayed boats, terrible weather, and problems getting to Cartagena once actually in Colombia. This would really F’ up the scheduling with shipping the van across the gap as I had to be in Colombia by Tuesday to start the process, so initially I wrote this plan off. My container partners mentioned they were thinking of sailing to the islands, and then returning to Panama to then fly to Colombia rather than risk the notoriously rough seas the passage is known for, and asked if I was interested. I entertained the idea of joining them to see the islands, but figured I would just fly to Colombia ahead of them rather than be a third wheel, though the sailing seed was still in the back of my mind. After giving it some more thought and a little time on google I decided I was all in on my original plan, and would sail from Panama to Colombia. I told them about my plan which included a larger ship, and they decided that they would join me. We would sail on “The Independence”, a boat which had good reviews, good food, and less problems with seasickness due to its larger size of 85 feet…though she would take down 2 of our female passengers temporarily. Of course one of them was my shipping partner…sorry! This boat also dropped us off right in the Cartagena harbor, all while taking care of our exit stamps from Panama as well as the entrance stamps into Colombia, an added bonus after the border processes I am used to.
San Blas Islands:
Naturally it would begin with the normal disorganization that Central America provides. I booked the ship online paying a 50USD deposit, and booked the 4x4jeep/boat combo required to get there through Lunas Castle hostel. They required a 5 dollar deposit to book the jeep, I believe the 4×4 is supposed to be 25 through them, but I never got it back as I forgot and payed 25USD to the office later on. I am not sure if I was mistaken on the price or they gypped me, but either way it was 30USD for me, waaah. The jeep was scheduled to leave at 5:30 in the morning, and I was warned not to go in the jeep with 2 girls as there were several jeeps headed headed out that morning. I get down at 5:30 and rather than 2 girls there is a guy and girl packing their things in a jeep so I assume its my jeep, give the driver my name and he tells me to throw my stuff in. Naturally this was not the jeep I was supposed to take, and the other guy was also not supposed to be in it, but eventually it got sorted out, but the drivers have no clue what is going on. We watched the girls jeep depart right at 5:30, while we sat outside and waiting for our jeep to show…finally leaving at 6:30. It was clear that they had paid more than we had due to their prompt departure, but even that would get them in the end as they never stopped at an ATM and had to have the awkward conversation with the captain in the middle of the Caribbean Sea on why they couldnt pay. The jeep took us to pay the remaining 25USD at the office, hit up an ATM, and grab the all important booze, and the less important food for the ship. We then paid 6 USD to enter the Kuna territory, and another 5USD for a tax and boat fee to get us to the ship…so total it cost 41USD for transportation. Later on the ship I paid 450USD, so that, with the previous deposit plus the 41 from above put the total trip at 541USD. Thats a deal when you consider what it costs to visit the Islands for a couple days (roughly 70USD round trip for jeep and boats), stay on them for 3 nights (Hostals start at 20USD a night and skyrocketed from there depending on island), and then fly to Cartegena (about 350USD for a last minute flight)…so I would say if you have the time sailing is the only way to go. I found out ruinedadventures later took the same boat, and it had twice the amount people on board, which would have been terrible.
We arrived at the ship around 11:30, two hours after we were supposed to be there. The South African and I were greeted by captain, “Michele”, who immediately complains to us about the driver and our lateness, as he could have set sail hours ago and we could be swimming right now. Ok buddy, I dont care about any of that as none of it concerns me, just let me on the boat already, I am the one who had to get up at the crack of dawn and deal with 6 hours of travel after being told it would take 3, not you. We are introduced to the rest of the group, 13 of us, plus the 4 crew members, and then set sail…er, motor. Turns out, at least going to Colombia that you motor your way across, there may be more sailing when going the other direction.
The 1st three days are traveling around island hopping, where every place you drop anchor is a postcard in the making. This area is full of treacherous coral reefs, which is evident by the many grounded boats that were not so lucky on their trips. The reefs also provide protection from the elements, so the waters are usually calm, and provide some decent snorkeling. Then after a few days of fun, you set out across the Caribbean Sea, usually into the wind which requires a combo of sails and the motor, and often is a very unpleasant ride. We motored the whole way, using the sails when we could for added stability, and it turns out we had very good conditions. I talked to someone once I was in Colombia whos engine broke and they were forced to sail the entire way which was described as horribly slow, so I am glad we had the motor. Another group said that they came in the previous week, and the weather was so bad their boat, as well as several others, could not complete the trip and were forced to let them off wherever they were on land and find their own way to Cartagena, costing them more time and money, ouch.
The food was good, the boat was decent enough, and the group was awesome. We would sail for a few hours, and then stop and setup shop by any number of picturesque islands. Then we would snorkel, swim, explore the small islands, or just hang around relaxing on the boat. The first night we all went to the island with a bar, where we were the only ones there. We made it fun, but it wasnt quite the rager the captain had led us to believe. The two elderly Ecuadorian brothers who were riding their motorcycles from the US to Equator provided some great drunken entertainment. Sadly they burnt themselves out and spent the rest of the journey sleeping in chairs on the boat. The second night was similar, where we were let off on a different island for a bonfire and some drinking. The third day we stopped at another island and did some “shopping” for tourists stuff at a small kiosk in the middle of nowhere selling bracelets, and then some beach yoga from one of the Canadian hippies on the boat. The very first thing we were told was to center ourselves with the earth. You know how I feel about hippies, so at that point I let out a manly laugh which in Canadian apparently translates to giggle, but then shit got real and I was quite the rest of the time, focusing on some difficult moves. Turns out I am a natural and my form was perfect, I even levitated for a bit, and I’m pretty sure I went invisible but my eyes were closed so cannot be sure That night we actually set sail instead of staying at the island, so really we lost a night as we were told it was a 4 night 5 day trip. I am pretty sure the captain just didnt want to sail the last night to Cartagena, as he made it a point to tell us we were lucky to sleep in the harbor and be rested for the next day. I didnt mind as this gave me time to settle into Cartagena on Monday knowing the hellish shipping process would restart Tuesday, but we certainly felt we were getting the short end of the deal. Realistically we would have slept through the night regardless to in the harbor or at sea, so he was the only one benefiting from this.
I suppose most people stuck on a boat together for that long will become close, but I am sure at the same time there are always a few who can easily ruin it. Either way, everyone on our boat was great, and by the time it was over 9 of the original 13 had decided to stay together in the same hostel within the walled city in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. You know how I feel about touristy things, they even talked me into going to the mud volcano, which I would have skipped but ended up being pretty fun. We saw the sights, did some more drinking, and eventually went our separate ways. Once again I was the last out of here, my pace just doesnt line up with most travelers, though part of that was also being worn out after the shipping nonsense, and just wanting to do nothing for a bit, which I am getting pretty good at. After they all left I fell in with another group of “sailors” who had completed the trip. Maybe I was biased but as I observed them I came to the conclusion that while they enjoyed their trip, they didnt quite seem to have the “family” vibe that we left with. One of their crew members came out with them though, who was smoking hot. If you have been on her boat you already know who I am talking about. I enjoyed our crew members, they were really cool and the 1st night joined the South African and I for some rum and Spanish/English lessons when everyone else had gone to bed, but those guys had nothing on her. Regardless, I think we got pretty lucky with our group, and everything about the trip made sailing from Panama to Colombia the easy choice. Hmm, you know how much farther I could make it in a boat? If any of you rich old bastards who are hanging onto life by a thread want to live vicariously through me and donate your boat, shoot me an email…otherwise its back to the van!