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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had no shower.
And Sebastian forgot to purchase ice.
But really, it didn’t matter.
We were in San Blas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second day when I woke, dripping with perspiration, I bolted for the deck.
I lay there for nearly sixteen hours.
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.
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.
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.
A sensation I had somehow forgotten.
The sickness was now a mere memory despite the continual rocking.
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.
“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, 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.
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.