How do you get from South America to Central America? Well, turns out there is no way to go from Colombia to Panama except by boat or plane because no one has bothered to build a highway (three guesses why – cough, drugs). Sailing Colombia to Panama takes you through the incredible San Blas islands of Panama.
Personally, I think the more interesting option is to hop on a sailboat and get your pirates of the Caribbean moment. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of experience, though it might be cheaper flying. The crossing, no matter which boat you take, is $550 and anyone wanting to make the trip should be careful when selecting a boat — the same goes for sailing the reverse, from Panama to Cartagena. Go see the boat before choosing one. Some boats cram 12 to 30 backpackers on and still charge the same price and others have no GPS or motors — a huge mistake when sailing to San Blas, where shipwrecks seem to be as the coconut coconut palms that cover the 378 islands.
Luckily, the Chufa and its captain are one of the responsible sailboats and since catamarans just stop when they hits reefs instead of capsizing, I felt pretty safe. We set sail after an extended stay in Cartagena, the Chufa having now acquired a group of passengers to set sail for Panama and the San Blas islands.
It all happened quite suddenly and was mostly thanks to one of the craziest people I’ve ever met (I say that with a certain degree of fondness). A Colombian woman by the name of Sara, who has worked as a marinera for some 8 years, and needed a lift to San Blas to meet up with her French lover. When offered a free ride in exchange for finding customers, she set to work and rounded up four people from a hostel in one afternoon. They joined the two that had gone down to the harbor to look for a boat. We set sail on the evening of September 1st, accompanied by three Australians, an Austrian, a Swede and his Danish girlfriend making a grand total of nine people for the four bedrooms (the captain sleeps on the couch while navigating).
Once we hit the open sea I had my first experience with seasickness. Thankfully is wasn’t my own because it seemed like an incredibly miserable experience. A few of the backpackers were sick for just about the entire three day voyage to the islands. If you go, seasick pills are definitely worth the investment.
Other than that the journey was uneventful in the sense that nothing bad happened. It was just people hanging out on the boat, drinking, soaking up the sun, playing games, getting to know each other, and having the time of their lives. These backpackers couldn’t have asked for a more complete ride. Dolphins leapt around the boat, we caught fish, made fresh peruvian-style ceviche, and then the picture-perfect islands themselves.
Fortunately, everyone got over the seasickness to enjoy the magical entrance. An hour or so out from where we were planning to anchor, we could already see the Panama mainland and the water had turned an enchantingly deep blue/purple that I’d never seen before (neither had the captain who’d been sailing around the Caribbean nearly four years).
You can’t enter San Blas by night (because of those shipwrecks) and we arrived at the Islas Hollandeses just an hour or two before sunset, taking the “entrance of adrenaline” while the couple boats that were there watched anxiously, including a French man who zipped out in his dingy to tell us we crazy to enter that way. This shipwreck stuff is serious!
But all’s well that ends well and there was still enough time that evening for people to hop into the blue-green water and do some snorkeling, explore a bit of the islands, get some illegal coconuts (I had to explain to the two crazy Australian guys that they belong to the Kuna Indians), and for us to reunite with our friends from the Cartagena marina — Gabriel, Oswaldo, and Ornella — and have a soiree in the French guy’s boat.
We hung out on the islands for two more days, did the immigration stuff, and left our charter crew in Cartí where they took a car to Panama City, leaving us free to set up camp in paradise.
How do you feel about skyping in the LOTR trivia battle Stephen Colbert? I don’t know if I want to leave…