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How (Not to) Sail from San Blas to Colombia

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Awakened with a jolt, my body crashed violently against the side of the cabin. Sea water flooded through the roof. My eyes sprung open and scanned the room for our inebriated captain as his puppy nested in and ate my hair. They adjusted to the darkness and I spotted him across from me, rolling a joint.

 

Who was sailing the ship?

 

We were twelve hours into our fifty-hour crossing to Colombia and I was more nauseous than I had ever been in my life. My patience had worn as thin as the cushion that separated me from the steel boat frame.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

“Sebastian! Sebastian!” my whisper released more like a shout.

 

He looked my way for a moment before the cabin swayed and water swept his midnight delight to unknown territory. I watched as his headlamp moved frantically in an attempt to recover some of its loosely packed herbs.

 

My watch revealed that it was 3am.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

I shifted my gaze to the small opening between the kitchen and the deck and saw that Carlos, one of five other passengers aboard, was manning the boat. He was on his honeymoon and had never sailed before.

 

Perhaps I should have heeded my many warnings.

 

san blas chichimae

 

Sailing the Caribbean from the Southern coast of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia or the reverse route, has become the predictable pathway for backpackers between Central and South America. But many travelers, like myself, have no idea how unpredictable their journey will be.

 

First of all, traveling overland is essentially impossible.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

If you manage to escape the machine gun packing guerillas you’ll be faced with deep unmarked rainforest trails covered in poisonous snakes and jaguars.

 

I am rarely one to discount adventure but the common sense side of my brain still functions from time to time. So, overland was out.

 

Considering that flights cost about the same as a five-day sailing excursion, which includes three days in the I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven San Blas Islands, for most backpackers the decision to sail is a no brainer.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Some have the experience of a lifetime aboard a luxury catamaran.

Others have one closer mine.

 

I’ve heard tales of four course meals with chilled wine, private bathrooms with hot showers, and luxury decks with saunas.

More often I’m told about capsized vessels, drunk captains, tight quarters, and debilitating seasickness.

 

For this reason I was urged to choose my boat wisely. Antsy to reach Cartagena and with little information to go on, I hopped aboard the first available boat.

 

Rookie mistake.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

As we approached the technicolor water surrounding the mythically beautiful San Blas Islands our boat came into view. My amazement over the utter magnificence of my surroundings became momentarily halted by complete shock. The six of us would be spending the next five nights on the smallest sailboat I had ever seen.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The two couples slept in the back and front compartments of the boat on pieces of foam next to their bursting packs. Myself and a twenty something Swiss girl slept head to foot on a bench in the cabin next to the kitchen table opposite the captain.

 

A natural spooner I struggled to stick to my side and awoke occasionally to the sensation of Sebastian’s tri color Chihuahua, Chico, crawling across my belly.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

We had no shower.

No refrigeration.

And Sebastian forgot to purchase ice.

 

But really, it didn’t matter.

We were in San Blas.

 

San blas islands beaches

 

I spent the next three days lazing on powder white sand, snorkeling in clear turquoise water, and eating fresh lobster prepared by the Kuna Yala Indians.

 

I woke with the sunrise and swam to the nearest island for my self guided morning yoga practice. My feet sunk deep into the bleached grains as the tide rushed over my grounded soles.

 

San Blas Waysaddalup

 

I napped for hours under a noni tree until its sun-ripened aroma awoke me.

 

I wandered the palm covered island perimeters and explored the offshore sunken ships.

 

I bathed in the ocean with handmade coconut lavender soap.

At night I watched the stars and shared stories while Sebastian drank his body weight in Panamanian Rum.

 

San Blas Sunset

 

Then the time came to sail.

 

“I forgot to retrieve your passports from the maritime border patrol,” Sebastian informed us.

 

“We can take a risk and enter ambiguous territory for the next two days without passports, or we can wait until tomorrow.”

 

Never mind the fact that earlier that day he asked who would like to join him in an acid trip.

 

San Blas Moon

 

That night I stayed on land until after the sun set, apprehensive to discover what kind of sea legs I might have when we started moving. I snorkeled back to the boat in the moonlight.

 

The following day I discovered just how weak my legs were.

 

San Blas

 

I was horizontal and motionless on the bench inside the sweltering cabin as my head spun. The reality that this sensation could last for the next fifty hours of sailing, with no reprieve, no shower, and nothing cold to imbibe could have easily driven me to insanity.

 

Instead, I breathed. Deeply. I meditated. I thought a lot about my family and tried not to think about the greasy chorizo I had eaten that morning.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The hours passed in both a standstill and a blur.

 

Sleep was a gift, beautiful and loving in its presence, and my only liberation from the sickness. It came late in the night when darkness overtook the sky and the drunken rants of Sebastian ceased. The two men aboard the ship exchanged turns manning the wheel. I woke often as the boat strived to achieve balance.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The second day when I woke, dripping with perspiration, I bolted for the deck.

I lay there for nearly sixteen hours.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The Swiss girl ate her cereal with the unrefrigerated milk then hurled off the side of the boat.

 

I ate nothing. Drank nothing. I never used the bathroom. I couldn’t risk stepping into the sweat lodge with its hammocks of overly ripened fruit.

 

I remember watching spoiled cucumbers, apples, pears, and tomatoes, thrown overboard.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

I remember the few moments of joy that came with the distraction of an old school ballad that I would belt out of tune with the other passengers.

 

Watching the sun set over the ocean.

 

Then waking to the cold rush of seawater flooding over the side of the deck in a swift crash. I remember finally crawling into the cabin as we rocked uncontrollably.

 

Cartagena street

 

I will never forget the next morning when the skyscrapers composing the Cartagena skyline appeared like a mirage on the horizon.

 

My body suddenly flooded with a familiar feeling.

Energy.

A sensation I had somehow forgotten.

 

The sickness was now a mere memory despite the continual rocking.

 

Cartagena statue

 

When we reached land I walked across the dock with my bulging backpack emulating the sway of the boat with my movement.

 

Looking back at the rickety little boat amid the gleaming white yachts in the harbor, I remembered a favorite quote of mine and I smiled.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible

but they have never found this sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”

– Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

How to Sail from Panama to Cartagena

or Cartagena to Panama

Without Killing Yourself or the Captain

 

So you still want to sail through San Blas to or from Cartagena?

 

I admire your sense of adventure.

 

I recommending reading the info from Blue Sailing, who organizes most of the boat trips, to establish some basic expectations up front. Though the level of quality varies dramatically, most boats follow the same route and cost $475-550.

 

The best piece of advice I can give is this: plan your trip around when a good boat is leaving rather than taking a random one that already fits into a predetermined schedule.

 

Search for your own boat with Blue Sailing 

If you are brave enough, do some research on your own on the many sailboat options on the Blue Sailing website. For some reason traditional review sites do not exist for boats so you will need to look up reviews of boats in forums and on blogs. Depending on the type of trip you would like to have, your idea of a great sailing adventure may differ from mine. However, in my opinion the two most important factors to consider are the size of the boat and the age of the boat. Bigger, newer catamarans will make the open water crossing much more swiftly and you will feel less movement due to their size. They are typically equipped with showers, often hot water, which trust me you will want, and refrigerators ensuring fresh food.

 

Sailing Koala

Sailing Koala, and particularly their Nacar boat, seems to have consistently positive reviews. The boat looks large and new and they offer transport to and from Panama City, which is rarely included.

 

Darien Gapster

If the thought of a long open water crossing makes your stomach turn and you’re not attached to the romanticism of sailing, the Darien Gapster is a great option. Like the sailboats, you spend 3 days on San Blas. However, the boat is not equipped for sleeping, so you camp on the islands themselves. In my opinion this is much more ideal and a better way to connect with the Kuna culture. The crossing is smooth because they follow the shore to isolated coastal towns on the North Caribbean Coast of Colombia. This also enables you to visit some deserted beach towns you would not see otherwise. The cost is significantly lower, $365, however you will need to arrange your own transport from the small town of Capurgana, which usually means taking a boat to Turbo, then a bus to Cartagena.

 

 

 


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Comments

  1. Wow, sounds like a real adventure – not sure I’d be as brave! Hope you’re enjoying Colombia now though, it’s one of my favourite places ever:)

    • I actually went last December and am just writing about it now. Colombia is awesome, though I didn’t have nearly enough time. What were some of your favorite places? I plan to revisit and see more :)

      • I went to Cartagena in November for the Independence Day/Miss Colombia festival which was amazing! Also loved the beaches outside Santa Marta and Salento. Really want to go back one day too:)

  2. Wow, what an adventure! Thanks for sharing the advice. :-)

  3. […] With vertigo after fifty hours of sailing […]

  4. Hi Camille, just wanted to come on a comiserate! After hearing similar sail boat horror stories, my boyfriend and I decided to shirk the san blas and instead cross from Turbo to Capurgana by speedboat, then onto Puerto Obaldia in Panama by another speedboat. Unfortunately we had an equally harrowing experience, that damn ocean, and are still traumatised from it! I would reiterate your warnings about the sea and suggest that the only smart way to do this crossing is to fly. I hope people learn from our woeful experiences!

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 3, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Oh noooo!! So the speed boat isn’t any better huh?? I have heard AMAZING stories about the trip too, so it seems like it’s all such a crapshoot. Do you have a blog post you can share with us about your experience?

  5. Hi Camille, we sailed from Panama to Colombia (Cartagena) in July 2013 aboard the Sailing Koala, a Lagoon catamaran. It was fairly stable but rather slow. The 3 days spent island hopping in San Blas were memorable and the high sea crossing reasonably bearable: good food, cold water and ice, light showers, no hot water, decent cabins. I got some dramamine pills that kept me in pretty good shape. On the last day we saw dolphins swimming ahead of us. The night-time entry into Cartagena harbor was magic. Our captain was a lively and entertaining chap. Overall, a great experience! Serge

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 7, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Excellent Serge thank you so much for sharing your positive experience! Glad to give these guys a recommendation :)

  6. Chris Griffin Says: January 30, 2014 at 4:22 am

    I don’t suppose you have a list of boats that you would recommend or not recommend? I have heard that some are excellent and others are terrible. Its good to know this in advance :) thanks

  7. […] The demise of Fritz the Cat is an extreme example of what can go wrong, but it doesn’t take an expert Googler to scare up horror stories about its competition. Among the boats whose schedules matched with ours were the Ave Maria, which apparently managed to get lost making the trip a few years ago (and, on a more recent crossing, misplaced its mast); and the Corto II, which appears to be the unnamed boat featured in this eye-popping account. […]

  8. Hello!
    Here is the best alternative to see much more of san blas, no ocean crossing, no sea sickness with a companie responsable who works with the kuna people and most of the profit stays in kuna yala san blas.
    Cheers!
    Fabio & Adam
    San Blas Adventures Team

  9. […] With vertigo after fifty hours of sailing […]

  10. Sad to hear you had such a difficult trip. I haven’t done this trip yet but my friend who did it loved it. Also I’m surprised that you slept in the boat. My friend said she slept in hammocks on the islands where they had showers and toilets. Also I’m wondering how it’s possible that flights from panama to Colombia were $450. I’ve looked at flights for next month and they’re around $60-90! If I decide to do it via boat I will definitely choose wisely.

    • Ooohhh realy sad to hear that you didn’t have a great trip, Hey Alex,
      Nice to hear that your friend traveled with us to visit san blas and choosed the best way to do it! If you decide to DON’T sail we’re the alternative to the sailboat!
      Check our website
      sanvlasadventures.com

      Safety first!
      Cheers!

    • Camille Willemain Says: December 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Crazy! It’s def a trip I need a “do-over” of…!

  11. […] tailboat with 7 people and a drunk captain in rough open water for 3 days. Read the complete story here […]

  12. Veronica Says: March 27, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Hey Camille,

    You are an inspiring writer, thanks so much for sharing your journey. I cannot find though who you travelled with, just that the captain was Sebastian, did I miss the name of the boat?

    Anyway, not to worry, I am doing my research now and hope to not be one of the horror stories. One of the Sailing Koala boats is leaving from Panama in 3 days. I only just arrived here and was hoping to stay a couple more days but think I am weighing more on what you said – choose a repuatble boat that is right for you rather than the one that leaves on the day that suits your schedule. So I will just have to do Panama city to the full in 2.5 days.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Veronica

    PS There are fights between Panama city and Bogota on Viva Colombia starting from about $US109. That includes a whole 6kg of carry on luggage. If you have more than that, then you can pay more at the time of booking. But you do not need to book too far in advance to get the cheap flight and probably still only cost up to about $200 if you added all the frills, ie extra bags and other stuff you might add.
    PPS Can not find the apostrophe on this keyboard so please excuse my longhand!

    • Camille Willemain Says: March 29, 2015 at 11:21 am

      Hi Veronica, thank you so much! And thank you for sharing about the flights! Perhaps they were so expensive when I was there because it was December. The name of my boat was Nani Moana. Please fill us in on how your voyage goes! I’d love to know so that we can give others the best advice possible :)

      • Veronica Says: July 12, 2015 at 5:51 pm

        Hi Camille,

        I should have written again months ago but better late than never right?! Anyway, I still remember my trip well so will just mention a few things for anyone who’s seeking information for upcoming trips :-)

        I ended up sailing on the boat that left Panama earlier than hoped. It was called the Nacar II and actually wasn’t affiliated with the Sailing Koala but rather the captain had previously worked with that company. It’s very difficult to find reviews and info on the Nacar II online but from what I had found, I was relatively confident that it would be a good choice for me, and it absolutely was.

        The crew were really lovely. Juan David the captain, Kirsten a French chick who has been working the sailing boats a while, and Jet from Sweden, she has just been there a few months. There were also 4 cats! Luna, the mother plus her 3 kittens but they won’t all be staying, he’s probably offloaded at least a couple if not all the kittens by now. They were all professional, informative and friendly and far from party animals (which was my preference). The captain was fond of smoking whacky tobaccy so I’d take that in account if you were considering this boat and it’s not your thing.

        The girls cooked delicious food which varied every meal but always included plenty of variety in meat, vegetables, pasta, rice, salads and for breakfast eggs or pancakes or other cooked delights (bacon one day) plus cereal and bread with a whole range of toppings, including Nutella!! There was plentiful fruit and snacks for the taking too and coolers for keeping your own beer.

        The snorkelling was fantastic and the islands sublime. We anchored probably 6 or 7 times in different places and had plenty of time to swim or explore the islands some of which were populated, others not. We also went to a couple of village islands which was interesting to see how the locals live. We had one extra unexpected day in the islands because mother cat got sick and the captain had to make an emergency trip back to Panama. Worked out well for us because we didn’t have to pay extra and got ourselves a delightful day on a tiny island where we cracked coconuts and lazed about in paradise.

        The journey across the open sea went pretty well. Most people didn’t feel very well when they went under to the beds in the cabins so a lot of people slept in the open communal area up top overnight. Quite a lot of people took tablets but no one got really sick or anything. I think the only person who threw up had a serious hangover from drinking the night before setting sail! Probably wasn’t the best idea.

        Just lastly, about the sleeping arrangements. There were 2 private double cabins at the back of the boat. At the front of the boat there are 2 single berths, or “pods” as we liked to call them. This was the spot I chose for 2 reasons, I had my own room and because it was cheaper! But I knew if it was cheaper then there was something not so glamourous about it! I did ask ahead of time to understand what I was getting myself into. Basically, you just have a couple of wee shelves for your stuff (but most of your stuff is stored under anyway), you can’t stand up in the space and your door is a hatch in the roof (which also provided air flow at night – plus a noisy little fan). This is fine when you’re not sailing. When you are sailing, you’re not allowed to open the hatch in the roof and you must enter/exit through a hatch to the adjoining room. This was the only really crap part about the room, not because it bothered either me or my neighbours that I had to climb through, just because it was positioned quite high such that it made it really awkward to actually climb through. I’m a medium height chick, perhaps someone taller would have less trouble reaching the hatch but have more body to bend to get through!! I had been through the hatch a couple of times when the boat was stationery and that was bad enough, but the one time I tried it when we were sailing, I thought I wasn’t ever going to get out… It took me a good 10-15 minutes of trying before I made it (you’re being thrown about quite a bit). Luckily for me, so many people were sleeping in other places that I found myself a spot to sleep on another bed for that night. I otherwise slept really well in my pod! The other beds were the semi private doubles meaning the room adjoining the pod and a big sleeping space in the shared quarters up top. There was also a guy who slept out on deck (they were happy to overbook the beds) and the crew slept wherever but generally up top under the sails, they set up a camp style bed each night.

        Ok, hope someone somewhere finds this review as I’ve written a novel!!

        • Camille Willemain Says: July 13, 2015 at 7:14 pm

          Awesome thank you SO much for this very in depth review, I know we all truly appreciate it! And I’m so glad to hear that you had an awesome time :) I’m going to have to do this trip over again one day 😉

  13. I actually loved and hated our sailing trip from panama to cartagena at the same time. We probably hat the oldest boat arround but people told us that we have had the best captain arround instead. He was called roberto and whas a pretty fun guy.
    The first few days have been amazing. All these small islands with stunning beaches locals selling their lobsters directly from their Dugout and swimming in the middle of the carribean is a memory for a lifetime. But the last 48 hours have been a PITA. We had no wind at all and had to use the motor instead of wind which made the boat floating very unstable. The sickness was terrible and i coudnt get out of my bed at all. In the first night we had a thunderstorm comming and it was scary but amazing too! It felt like i was in the middle of a 90’s techno party with stroboscope all over the place. The worst thing about the thunderstorm was that our engine overheated (the engine was located under my bed!) and allmost started to burn. There was smoke everywhere inside the boat!

    • Camille Willemain Says: June 12, 2015 at 8:28 am

      Hahaha oh my gosh thank you so much for sharing your story, it sounds sooooo familiar! Next time I am definitely taking the luxury catamaran like some of my friends did. Seems like a much much better way to go! Glad to hear you survived 😉

      • to be honest i would take the old boat again! I actually love to tell this story and i will probably never forget it either!

    • Crystal Niedzwiadek Says: April 19, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      oh my, that is so crazy! Thanks for sharing your experience, I get seasick, so I won’t be doing that trek. I’m starting to think the right thing to do is to head out to the San Blas islands for a few days, and then back to Panama City, then fly to Colombia. Does anyone know if this can be done?

  14. The trip sounds amazing! Thanks for the info! Which camera do you have, your pictures are amazing! Also, how many days do you need to stay in Cartagena to retrieve your passports?
    Thanks!

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 4, 2016 at 8:05 am

      Hey love, you receive your passport in Cartagena immediately I believe… In this post I used just a little canon powershot point and shoot :) Enjoy your trip!! xoxo

  15. I feel like I’m reading my journal here! Was “Sebastian” from Bogota and his fathers name is Hernando?? We crossed with them and here’s the unbelievable part. I did this trip with two young children, which looking back at chaos of a terrible captain, no food etc…makes me feel like the worst mother ever! by the time we got to Cartagena, I had an infection that grew so bad on my foot, that we went straight to the hospital form the docks.

    would love to know if this was the same boat!

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 24, 2016 at 11:40 am

      Oh goodness so sorry you had that experience!! No he was from Santa Marta so it sounds like someone else…

  16. Travelling to Colombia from Panama used to be really cheap via boat. These days the boat companies have really jacked up the price. It is definitely a fun experience, but I feel like we are getting taken advantage of.

  17. Entertaining read!
    Highly recommend Ave Maria for this trip. She is a beautiful clasic sailboat offering a 5day 5night trip from Panama to Colombia via remote uninhabited islands of San Blas or Visa Versa. A safe and secur option with great food, comfortable beds and friendly crew.
    For more info see: http://www.avemariasailing.com

  18. Nestor Rodriguez, Says: June 27, 2017 at 4:23 am

    Hi I really enjoy your article because I’m planing a crossing from Panama to Ecuador. I’m a sailor and world traveler I had being in many trips by sea and land and I know is a gamble some time you can made the wrong decisions however, you live to tell the tale. Ahoy and thanks for sharing.

  19. your pictures have convinced me to ditch my plans to fly Panama to Colombia, San Blas looks amazing! so your sail boat as you described cost you $500? I want to sail but cant budget that much for the trip. I leave for Belize in December and travel by land tru Central America to Colombia and will be running out of cash by the time i get to Panama, are there other cheaper options than those you’ve mentioned do you know?

    Very interesting read thanks for the post :)

    • Camille Willemain Says: September 30, 2017 at 11:12 am

      You’re so welcome thanks for reading! I don’t know of any cheap ways to get between Colombia and Panama… If you found an affordable flight between the two you can always go to the San Blas Islands and then return to Panama City. There are plenty of tours that will take you to the islands for a few nights without having to sail to Colombia. Hope you have an amazing trip!! xx