After making the convoluted arrangements for shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia on a giant container ship we turned our attention to getting ourselves around the Darien Gap, a swath of jungle that creates a 60 mile (96 km) road less break in the Pan-American Highway between Panama and Colombia. We chose to sail through the San Blas Islands.
Sure we could have flown from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. We even found Copa Airlines flights that were going for 10,000 frequent flier miles (one way, per person). But if our truck had to travel by sea over the most complicated overland border in the Americas then so did we. Plus, we really, really wanted to do some sailing through the San Blas Islands and see the spectacular Kuna Yala.
San Blas Islands sailing adventure
Ask a child to draw a deserted island and, odds are, he or she would produce something that looks a lot like one of the 378 islands that make up the San Blas Archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama: crystal clear water in a dozen shades of blue ringing white sand mounds with perfectly angled palm trees jutting out of them like some sort of festive cocktail garnish.
Welcome to the world of the Kuna people, one of Panama’s seven indigenous groups. The Kuna came to Panama from Colombia and in 1925 they fought for and won autonomy from the Panamanian government. The Kuna people currently inhabit nearly 50 of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, which is also known as Kuna Yala. The rest of the islands–more than 300 of them–are deserted.
Our 4-day sailing trip through the San Blas began as a slow, gentle meander among these islands, each more picturesque than the last. Our days were filled with snorkeling over the reefs that perilously punctuate these waters, swimming around our sailboat and lazing on board listening to music, eating, and getting to know the other passengers and our salty Slovakian captain Michel.
Snorkeling and sailing are the two big activities of any San Blas Islands trip and for good reason as you can see in our video, below.
We were also able to visit a few of the islands for special shore excursions in a small dingy including a campfire with a Kuna family on Chichime Island one night and a grilled fish dinner prepared on Elefante Island where the Kuna inhabitants have built a beach bar with cold drinks, WiFi and a volleyball court (for some reason the Kuna love volleyball – maybe because none of the islands is big enough for a soccer field).
Not so smooth sailing
After three days this lazy rhythm was interrupted and it was time to batten down the hatches, literally and figuratively, for the open water crossing from Coco Bandera island to the port in Cartagena, Colombia. Up until that point it had been smooth sailing as our captain weaved between the islands seeking sheltered water. Now it was time for the inevitable open water crossing to Cartagena.
Depending on weather conditions and the size and speed of your sailboat this trip can be a 50 hour (or more) stomach-churning ordeal or a 25 hour relatively even-keeled jaunt. We, thankfully, had the latter, though Karen still put on her Sea-Bands and took some Dramamine just in case.
The time-lapse video, below, lets you watch us head into open ocean aboard the M/S Independence in footage shot with a GoPro attached to the mast (thanks, Cous Cous). Don’t miss the pod of dolphins that escorted us part of the way. Pop a Dramamine and enjoy!
We sailed into the Cartagena port around 9 pm and we were greeted by the twinkling lights and impressive skyline of Cartagena. In the morning we left the sailboat and took the dingy to shore and caught a taxi to the nearby immigration office where our passports were stamped with our free 90-day tourist visa for Colombia. Our San Blas Islands sailing adventure was officially over and our South America adventure had just begun.
Our advice to you is go now! Global warming and rising sea levels are threatening to submerge many of the San Blas Islands. The problem is so real that the autonomous Kuna Congress has started a program that would give island-dwelling Kuna families plots of land on higher ground on the mainland.
How to choose a San Blas sailboat
There are literally dozens of sailboats offering to take passengers on the 3-5 day trip from Panama’s Caribbean coast to Cartagena in Colombia (or vice versa) or simply on a multi-day trip through the San Blas and back to mainland Panama. However, these services are totally unregulated and not all sailboats are created equally. Stories of insane captains, insufficient safety equipment, starvation rations, and even sinking ships abound.
We chose to make the trip on the M/S Independence for the following reasons:
Sailing dates – The Independence (US$550 per person including the sailing and three meals a day) was scheduled to arrive in Cartagena on the same day that our truck arrived on its container ship which was crucial for us.
Size – At 85 feet (25 meters) long the Independence is the largest sailboat doing regularly scheduled weekly trips and it’s twice the size of some of the smaller sailboats. That provides ample space and shaded areas on deck and means that the boat weathers the sometimes-high seas in the final open water stretch to Cartagena better than smaller boats.
Speed – The Independence is a faster boat than many, which means it can make the open water crossing from the San Blas Islands into Cartagena in 25-36 hours (depending on conditions) vs. up to 50 hours on slower boats.
Showers – The Independence advertises one fresh-water shower per day so passengers can get the salt water off their skin. Sadly, this turned out to be an exaggeration (more on that below).
Departure point – Sailboats to the San Blas Islands leave from the Caribbean coast of Panama from either Portobello (or very nearby) or from Porvenir. The Independence leaves from the latter. The benefit of this is that departing from Porvenir cuts 10 hours of open water sailing off the trip and lets you start your trip in the San Blas Archipelago. The downside is that it’s much cheaper to reach the embarkation points in or near Portobello. Our trip out to the Independence in Porvenir cost US$57 per person for a shared vehicle from Panama City to Carti, Kuna community taxes along the way, and the final small boat ride to the Independence docked in Porvenir.
Safety – Whatever other criteria you’re looking for, be sure to confirm that your
sailboat has enough life jackets and enough properly inspected and certified lifeboats for all passengers. The reefs around the San Blas Islands are littered with the carcasses of sailboats that ran aground. An experienced captain is a must as well.
What to bring on board
Desalinated water is, technically, drinkable but the “drinking” water on the Independence was foul. Drinking water quality on other boats may be better, but to be safe bring enough bottled drinking water with you. Buy what you think you’ll need then double it. It’s hot out there.
Most boats let passengers bring snacks and beverages including water, sodas, and booze onboard, and provide a guest refrigerator to keep them cold. Once on the boat, you will probably need to keep close tabs on any beverages or snacks you’ve brought on board. Most of the beer we put into the shared cooler on board the Independence disappeared down other people’s throats early in the trip. We recommend leaving your food and drinks in bags labeled with your name.
You will also probably need to bring your own towel but bedding should be provided on the boat. Double-check. And speaking of bedding, you will probably want to sleep up on deck where it’s cooler and fresher than down below so if you have a sleeping mat bring it along.
If you have your own snorkeling gear bring that too. Most boats offer snorkel gear but there may be a rental charge and the gear may not be in such great shape.
If you’re prone to seasickness come prepared. Eric is generally unaffected but Karen wore her Sea-Band pressure point wrist bands and took Dramamine. Note that we could not find Scopolamine patches for sale in Panama City. Scopolamine has been used by criminals to drug victims, including tourists, and we figure that’s at least part of the reason why it’s not for sale.
Should you sail on the Independence?
We were generally happy with the Independence. We felt completely safe during the entire journey. There was more than enough safety equipment (life vests and lifeboats) and Captain Michel is an experienced and knowledgeable sailor with nearly half a century and 240,000 miles of ocean under his belt.
Trained in the pre-GPS and LORAN era of sextants, he impressively had all of the coordinates for sailing safely through the reefs and onto Cartagena in his head. Just don’t get him started about red-haired illuminate giants and conspiracy theories…
We truly appreciated the space onboard, including shaded areas though our crossing was only about half full and a full capacity boat would have felt much more cramped. We also appreciated the speed of our open water crossing which we completed in around 24 hours.
We were disappointed, however, by the daily fresh water “shower” which amounted to a minuscule trickle of beige water that required you to fill up a plastic cup, douse, and repeat. Frustrating and unsatisfying to say the least but better than staying salty for four days.
If you have any kind of special dietary needs be sure to ask a lot of questions about what you’re eating and bring snacks. The vegetarian and the two kosher folks on our boat ate a LOT of peanut butter and jelly…
It also has to be said that as of this writing the Independence is a pretty filthy boat with general scum and grime everywhere and a very healthy population of cockroaches. Cleanliness is a common issue on sailboats offering trips through the San Blas (these are hard-working vessels not yachts, after all) so be prepared for it (bring hand sanitizer for starters).
One of the more affordable options (around US$350 per person) that comes highly recommended is the Darien Gapster. We considered taking the Darien Gapster but the sailing dates did not coincide with the arrival of our truck in Cartagena, this service drops you off far from the city because the Gapster is a very small open boat that is not up to the challenges of an open water crossing.
We also hear good things about the Stahlratte which is another large and fast sailboat and overlanding friends who took the Jacqueline (a 56-foot catamaran) had great things to say about the size, speed, and cleanliness of that boa, though we have been advised by more than one sailor not to make the trip on a catamaran because in open water they essentially impact the waves twice – once on each hull.
So that’s how we made the “overland” border crossing from Panama to Colombia. If you know of an even more complicated overland border crossing between two adjoining countries, tell us all about it in the comments section below!
Cartagena travel tip
There are a lot of hotels in all price points in Cartagena. There are also a lot of
travelers and things book up. You will be tired and dirty when you arrive in Cartagena so we recommend making a reservation even if that’s not normally your style. Hotel Villa Colonial, in the fabulous Getsemani neighborhood near the city’s colonial center, is a mid-range budget option that we can highly recommend.
Villa Colonial does not have dorm rooms, but its prices for private rooms (doubles or triples) is the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The famous Viajero Hostel, for example, wanted to charge us 52,000 COP (about US$27 per person per night) in a private room for three people with a fan and a shared bath. At Hotel Villa Colonial three of us got a spotless room with A/C and private bath for 120,000 COP (40,000 COP or US$20 per person per night). Martha, the hotel manager, is a living ray of sunshine and not just because she has a voice like Glenda the Good Witch.
Here’s more about travel in Panama
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about Islands in the Americas
Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the Americas