Thursday 2 July 2020

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

This post was originally written in 2012

The pieces of information that you pick up from other travellers can be invaluable. Sometimes it's a recommendation on which town to visit and which to avoid, where to stay, or in this case how to get from one place to another. During my trip to Central America in 2010, I was given the name of a hostel that organises sailing trips from Panama to Colombia.

The trip leaves from Portobelo on the Caribbean side of Panama and goes through the San Blas islands before 2 days on open sea to get to Cartagena. It turns out there are two hostels in Panama City that can organise the sailing trips to Colombia, Luna's Castle which was the one recommended to me and Mamallena where I ended up staying.

In November last year, I left Panama City for Puerto Lindo to sail on the Perla del Caribe. I met up with a friend who was on the trip in 2010, and we were both pretty excited having been anticipating this for about a year. The trip was 5 nights in total, including 3 nights in San Blas. Our captain's name was Sebastian, and he along with his girlfriend Brenda and their dog would be taking us to Cartagena.
We arrived in Puerto Lindo around 11 am after getting a lift from the owners of Mamallena. The night before they had taken us to a Pearl Jam concert - definitely a highly recommended hostel! In true evidence of "Latino Time", we spent the entire day hanging around in Puerto Lindo waiting for Sebastian to be ready to leave, and made the best of the time by drinking just about all of the beer available in pretty much the only restaurant in the town.

When we finally made it on the boat, our first night was spent having dinner at twilight in the harbour, before starting what would be become our favourite (and only) night time activity for the next 5 days, Uno. We sailed overnight to our first stop in the San Blas. I was in no hurry to head inside and ended up falling asleep on the deck. It wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep, but the cool air, clear sky covered with stars (I was trying to locate the Southern Cross on the horizon) and gentle rocking of the boat made it a perfect night.

The next morning we woke up to paradise, we had stopped next to a small, uninhabited island which was our stop for the day. After breakfast, we had a short moment of "now what?" before we realised that we didn't need to do anything other than swim, relax and enjoy the island. Consisting of just under 400 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited, scattered in the Caribbean waters along the Panamanian coast, San Blas is a haven of stunning beauty. Over the next 3 days, we visited 4 different islands. The first day was spent snorkeling, jumping off the boat and sun baking. On the second afternoon we were visited by some Kuna people living on a nearby island who were selling handmade bracelets. After we bought a few things, we also realised they were selling our dinner - fresh lobster. With all our meals prepared for us on the boat, we were definitely spoiled!

Our final day in San Blas, Sebastian brought us to a quiet location and stopped in the middle of 3 islands, all within swimming distance of the boat. The hot nights we had on the boat were made worthwhile with perfect weather during the day. I decided it was time to get a tan, but if you ask me if I got sunburnt my answer will probably be less than the truth. We headed for the closest island first and spent the morning lying in the shallow water and discussing plans for when we got to Colombia. Looking back now, I'm not really sure it was necessary to be doing anything that involved forward thinking!

In the afternoon we swam to a different island, and things got interesting one of the guys on the boat mentioned that he felt like running around the island. We tried to guess how far it was, and I volunteered to run with him to find out. We could tell he was quietly competitive, and I didn't mention that I'm a runner. The aftermath of me beating him gave us some alternate entertainment to Uno! (For the record, it took me about 1 min and 5 seconds to run, some of these islands are tiny!).

That night it was time to sail to Colombia, and we woke up the following morning surrounded by nothing but open sea. By about half way through the day we were really missing San Blas. It was extremely hot, but that problem was easily solved when the boat was stationary by jumping into the water. When someone on the boat accidentally dropped a cushion into the water and we had to go back and get it, we were all fighting to volunteer to jump in and get it. In the end, we all went swimming, trying not to think about how deep the water was and what could be down there.

Our final night on the Perla del Caribe, we got an epic storm. We were told we would all have to go inside when it started raining, but I didn't realise how bad it was until the next morning. I had been sleeping on one of the chairs in the kitchen section of the boat, and was woken up suddenly when I felt cold water bucketing down on me. The window in the roof above me was open, and in my half-asleep state I didn't give too much thought to how it got inside, instead just dried off, closed the window, ignored everyone laughing at me and went back to sleep. The following morning, Sebastian told me it was the result of a wave crashing over the front of the boat. I'm pretty glad I didn't know!

Making our way into Cartagena was both exciting and sad. It was my first time in South America after 3 times in Central America, and I'd heard so many great things about Colombia. But after 5 days I feeling kind of attached to our boat, the crew and especially their dog. That feeling disappeared pretty quickly when I put my feet back on dry land, and realised that a real shower and bed weren't too far away! I probably shouldn't mention that Sebastian was taking care of our immigration formalities, but since the offices were closed on the day we arrived, we were technically illegal for about 24 hours.. Oops!

Sailing trips can be organised through hostels in Panama City and Cartagena, and cost approx. $450 per person including meals.

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