San Blas: sailing from Panama to Colombia

20 Nov

An early map: Portobelo to Cartagena


My introduction to sailing wasn’t as romantic as I had anticipated. I never guessed as we sailed out of the Bay of Portobelo on Panama’s Caribbean Coast, past its handsome 18th Century forts as the sun set over the old city, that a big, scary storm was just around the corner. As soon as night fell so did heavy rain, accompanied for dramatic effect by roaring wind that rocked the hell out of our little 13 metre-long sailing boat. When things got bad the Captain shouted over the noise of the storm “everyone into the boat! Sit down and don’t move!”. Of course I quickly obliged. So only an hour after leaving Portobelo I found myself sitting with teeth clenched in the dark cabin of a yacht which groaned and lurched and leaned this way and that with such force that I thought I was going to die. All I could think of were scenes from big Hollywood motion pictures of beautiful young boys drowning, especially from Ridley Scott’s White Squall and U Boat – 571. To bring down my blood pressure I reassured myself that the Captain knew exactly what he was doing, that storms like this were normal, and that everything would be okay. Throughout this ordeal Alex wasn’t able to hold my hand and give me a false sense of security since he was outside in the cockpit spewing over the side of the boat in the same directon as the wind as we had been instructed. When my terror gave way to nausea and I joined him. Maybe it’s possible to see something romantic in that, the two of us vomiting in unison. He held my glasses while I took my turn, and tried to hold my feet too, to stop me from falling into the sea. The storm passed before midnight. By sunrise we had arrived in San Blas.

The San Blas archipelago comprises 365 islands located off of coast of Panama (one for every day of the year). The land belongs to the indigenous Kuna people who have exercised autonomy over the Islands and the Kuna Yala territory on Panama’s Caribbean coast. The Kuna own this land collectively and forbid foreigners to buy it from them. We heard a rumor that the outgoing President of Panama was amongst those moneyed-up folk who had tried to purchase an island in San Blas earlier this year, but I haven’t found any evidence to back this up. The majority of the Kuna live on the mainland in Kuna Yala, and some travel to San Blas to harvest coconuts, which they use and sell for profit.

When I climbed out of the cabin that morning I was greeted by postcard-perfect vista of palm tree filled islands sitting in the calm blue waters of the Caribbean. What a privilege it was to admire such a place with my own eyes. Over a breakfast of strong coffee and hot french toast Alex and I got to know our fellow passengers; Arjen and Karen from Holland, Marie from France, and Captain Gwen also from France, his Argentine wife Veronica and their five month old baby Morgan. We were lucky to be on board with a friendly group of people. We were of similar age and had lots to talk about.

After breakfast two Kuna women and a little boy came alongside our boat in a small canoe to sell to us the beaded bracelets and molas they had made. In the Kuna language ‘mola’ means shirt, but with the onset of tourism in the San Blas Islands, the word has come to refer to the colourful patches of material depicting geometric designs or images of animals and flowers which the Kuna women traditionally wear in matching sets on the front and back of their blouses. Kuna women make the designs on the molas by cutting out and sewing together layers of different coloured material. Because so much work goes into the preparation of these handicrafts, and for their beauty, molas are very popular souvenirs amongst visitors of San Blas. We bought several molas from the women. After they left us three fishermen approached the boat in another canoe carrying a small shark they had caught in a net earlier that morning. Our captain bought the animal for $5.00. I am not sure about the ethics of eating sharks; I have no idea what kind of shark it was or whether or not it was an endangered species. But it’s thick white meat that we cut into fillets and ate fried with a salad for lunch tasted delicious, as did the shark curry Veronica prepared later that evening for dinner.

Apart from eating we spent our first day in the San Blas swimming, snorkeling and exploring the islands. To get to shore we had to dive from the boat into the sea and swim to the white sandy beaches at least 50 metres away, so we did get a bit of exercise.

On our second day in San Blas we visited Dog Island where we snorkeled near the wreck of a small boat resting on the floor of a shallow reef. This was a perfect spot for first-time of divers without experience or too much confidence in the water, and we saw lots of tropical fish. We had another great lunch of lobsters sold to us by the fishermen and barracuda caught by our Captain.

On our third day we spent a few hours at another small Island. Late in the afternoon we set out again into the open sea and started in the direction of Colombia. The strong winds meant that our journey was relatively fast; we sailed all of that night, all of the following day and night, and most of the next day before we arrived in Cartagena. The sea was quite rough at times but with the aid of motion sickness tablets we finally adjusted to the movement off the boat. Our fellow travelers pointed out that this part of the trip was a little bit boring. It’s hard to read while the boat is rocking and there is not much else to do, except for sitting in the cockpit and watching the sea. I found it magical to sit in the cockpit at night as the wind pulled the boat through the heavy darkness; with every splash the water surrounding the boat lit up with hundreds of little lights (plankton). We also had a pod of dolphins swim with us one evening.

A surprising effect of being at sea was the land-sickness that struck us as soon as we stepped onto dry land at Cartagena. It took me 24 hours or so to stop feeling dizzy. I actually had to hold onto the bathroom wall while I took my first shower in six days to avoid falling over, as my balance was completely out of whack. I heard that it could take up to 16 days to overcome these symptoms but luckily I was fine after 3 days or so.

Today San Blas is still spouted as one of the earth’s remaining ‘secret’ chains of tropical isands. It certainly feels that way now but I can’t imagine the exclusiveness of San Blas will last very long. Although Panama and Colombia share a land border, it’s incredibly difficult to make the crossing from Central to South America on foot / horseback / motorbike 4WD. Separating the two countries is the Darién Gap, an area over 160 km long and 50 km wide. Much of the Darién Gap remains untamed (read road-less) jungle. Here there is a glaring 87 km hole in the Pan-American Highway that otherwise stretches from Alaska to Chile. Of course the fact that the Darién remains the most untouched parts of the Americas means that it attracts the attention of the world’s most adventurous backpackers and naturalists. But every guide to Central / South America published in the last two decades issues a stern warning against attempts to cross Panama to Colombia or vis versa through the Darién. In addition to the expected potential hazards that may be encountered while trekking through such an isolated, tropical region, the risks of traveling in the Darién include running into FARC guerrillas who in recent years have been pushed further and further into inhospitable jungle terrain by the Colombian military, and infamous Colombian narcotrafficers. Several of those adventurers who had such chance encounters with FARC and Narcos have lived to tell interesting tales about being kidnapped etc, but many others have simply disappeared.

So for most of us there are only two options for crossing from Panama to Colombia; you may fly, or hitch a ride on a sailing boat across the Caribbean. For us and any one with time to spare the decision was fairly easy. The sailing trip costs about $400 USD per person, and flights are not much cheaper. Where as a flight is only a flight, the sailing trip includes on top of transport all meals and accommodation for 4 / 6 nights, plus a few days island-hopping in San Blas.

Hostels such as Luna’s Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City serve as a meeting point between travelers and captains of sailing boats. It is easy to find a boat that suits you, but be prepared to wait around for a few days in Panama. Boats don’t leave before they are full. You could also head straight to Portobelo and sought out a boat from there. Captain Jack’s Hostel is a nice place to stay here but you might get bored if you are stuck here for more than a day or two.

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