Sailing from Panama to Colombia.
There’s three main ways to get from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia. The first requires you to cross over land through the treacherous Darian Gap where you run the risk of encountering drug cartels, guerrilla fighters and hostile tribes. Not really recommended. The second will see you flying from Panama to Cartagena on a regular scheduled flight taking 2 hours and costing around 500 bucks. Fine but a bit generic. The third is by far the most interesting and adventurous – chartering a boat for four days, sailing across the Panama Sea and through the famous paradisaical San Blas Islands.
I’d choose option 3 every day. It’ll end up costing around the same as a plane ticket, plus you’ll avoid being kidnapped and potentially held to ransom in the jungle. And who’s got time for that. We took the journey in August 2016 and it was a huge highlight of our trip so far. It took us a while to figure it all out, so I’ll detail our experience and how we did it here.
The first thing to decide is who is going to take you on this crossing. There’s a heap of cowboys (pirates?) with boats willing to pack in backpackers like sardines and get them across as quickly as possible for a large fee. We’ve heard stories of cramped accommodation, bad food, drunk captains and drug smuggling. All these things could potentially mar your experience. Do your research before you get to Panama City and ensure you pick a reputable operation. I recommend checking the San Blas Sailing website, as they act as an intermediary between backpackers and the captains. There’s a plethora of choice out there from luxury boats with private cabin accommodation ($600) to a hammock slung on the lower deck ($350). It all depends on your level of required comfort and of course budget.
We found a handsome catamaran called Crocodile Rock via a random DIY website about 6 pages into the Google listings. They had a rudimentary about us page with little information, but we liked the look of the Captain from his picture so emailed to find out more. It transpired he’d never taken backpackers before, but was keen to start up a new venture as the guy moored next to him in the marina was making a killing doing so. He’d done the trip himself many times and was familiar with the route. As we’d be his first customers, he was willing to cut us a deal and charge us $300 each – way below anything else we’d managed to find elsewhere.
Three days later we met Captain Richard and his wife Marina at the docks and were loading our bags onto the boat. Both in their late sixties, they’d been living on and off the boat in various parts of the world for many years. Crocodile Rock (he’s a big music fan) had just been given a new lick of paint and was much better looking than the pictures gave it credit for. Seventy feet long, thirty wide and with a generously sized interior, we soon learned were the solo passengers for the crossing. This meant we had our own private area of the boat complete with queen size bed. We felt like we’d hit the jackpot!
It quickly became apparent Richard was an old sea dog raconteur with many tall tales to keep us entertained. We were on board for less than a week and set about making the most of every day. Our first proper sea voyage was from West Lemon Keys to Gunboat Island, where we dropped anchor in crystal blue waters and jumped in right off the bow. The boat came equipped with full snorkel gear and we immediately spotted big shoals of colourful reef fish to keep us entertained for the afternoon.
The San Blas are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people, who are part of Colombia but also retain sovereign rights for themselves. It is not permitted for a Kuna to marry a non Kuna and vice versa. They live in small groups in wooden huts on the many Robinson Crusoe style islands dotted throughout the San Blas archipelago. These vary in size but of the 365 Islands only a few have electricity or any infrastructure beyond a basic habitation. The Kuna people make a living catching seafood (their lobster skills are particularly good) or weaving their traditional cloths (molas) and selling them to the boats passing through. Within minutes of arriving at the first Island an indigenous woman had paddled up to the back of our boat in a small dug out canoe and was busy showing us her many wares. This would be a regular occurrence throughout the San Blas.
From where we usually moored away from rocks and sand banks, it was a short 2 minute swim to get onto an island. Many are uninhabited and you can spend as long as you like wandering along the pristine white sand. It usually only takes a few minutes to circumnavigate even the larger ones. Some inhabited islands may charge a dollar on the beach if you lay there long enough. Word of warning though, don’t take any of the coconuts or gigantic conch shells you may find. Even if they look like they’re just lying about. These belong to the Kuna’s by law and if they catch you they’ll be very unhappy (they don’t get angry, just unhappy which is kind of worse) and may make difficulty for future travelers to San Blas. It’s best to just enjoy the islands as they are and leave as you found them.
Evening meals were eaten together at the large table in the main cabin. Afterwards we’d get stuck into Richards huge DVD collection of bad action movies or lay out on the front deck watching the stars come to life across the clearly visible milky way. The days were lazy and spent swimming or snorkeling off the boat in pristine untouched bays. Life was good. Over four days we slowly meandered our way through the islands stopping off at several including the ill fated shipwreck at Dog Island. Sunk in the 1970’s by pirates and now home to an abundance of aquatic life, you can swim inside to explore the various chambers, just beware of the sharp coral as it stings if you catch yourself!
Our final push into from Panama to Colombia would be overnight, sailing from 4pm until 5am when we’d arrive into Sapzuro. There we would get our passports stamped and officially be in South America after 3 months travelling through Central. The crossing was rough and a little crazy. I came out for a night shift at 2am to find we’d been engulfed by a swarm of huge black moths. Ten miles out to sea these creatures had flocked in droves to the ships navigation light. Captain Richards solution was to turn off all lights so we plunged forward in complete darkness into the unknown. I was just hoping someone else out there coming in the opposite direction didn’t have the same idea.
We arrived in Sapzuro, a calm tranquil bay with a few shacks and fishing boats dotted around the beach stopped for a few hours sleep. Once rested and with some breakfast inside, Richard informed us that we’d actually entered Colombia illegally by mistake and so we’d need to go back around the coast a few miles to the Panamanian Passport Control at Port Obaldia. This all seemed a bit dodgy as we had to pretend we hadn’t already been to Colombia but it seemed to work out fine and our passports were duly stamped. Phew!
We said our warm goodbyes to Richard and Marina as they sailed off back to Panama via a slightly different route home. Not a bad commute if you can get it. In Sapzuro there is literally nothing in the way of tourist facilities and so we found a fisherman willing to take us to the official Colombian immigration office at Capurgana. He charged $20 for the 30 minute journey down the stunningly untouched jungle coastline. Once in Capurgana we found a hostel and got our passports stamped at the office along the main street. They didn’t even look at our pictures and seemed intent on getting back to doing not-a-lot as quickly as possible.
One night in Capurgana is enough, there’s a small fairly okayish beach and an interesting abandoned Arabic style mansion once owned by a famous drug cartel boss, but that’s about it. We were keen to get a move on up the coast to Cartagena. You can do it in one day if you start early enough. To do this take the 9am fast (and scary) boat to Necocli (1.5 hours, $30) and a bus from there to Cartagena (8 hours, $20). You can book the combined boat and bus ticket from the office at the port. Make sure you have a warm top with you as for some reason they pump the A/C to Arctic temperatures.
You’ll arrive in Cartagena around 8pm where you’ll easily be able to get a taxi into the Old Town or Getsemani where the majority of hostels are located. We recommend Blue Marlin in Getsemani as its cheap, clean as has a kitchen to make your own food. Just ask for a room away from the main road at the back of which there are plenty.
And there you have it – Panama to Colombia on a budget and in (relative) style.
Once in Cartagena there’s tons of awesome places to explore. If you’re still feeling lively after your big journey, head to Cafe Havana just across the road. It goes late and the drinks are strong – try the special house mojitos and watch locals salsa the night away. A great introduction to the rum fuelled late nights of this thrumming hot city.
Our Trip – Useful Info at a Glance.
Cheap and Lively Hostel in Panama City: Luna’s Castle http://lunascastlehostel.com/
Captain Richard & Crocodile Rock: http://www.sanblasexperiencewithus.com Email: email@example.com
Reputable Agency with alternative cruise boat options: http://www.sanblassailing.com/
Linton Bay Marina where many boats depart: http://www.lintonbaymarina.com/
Further Info on the San Blas’ Kuna Indians: http://sanblas-islands.com/kuna-indians/
Hostel in Capurgana, Colombia: Acuali Eco Hostel http://acualiecohostal.com/
Cheap Hostel in Cartagena with kitchen,: Blue Marlin, booking available via Hostelworld.