Secluded Caribbean islands, lobster dinners, $200 coconuts, coral reefs and dolphins … all of this and more in five days of sailing from Panama’s Caribbean Coast to Cartagena, Colombia via sail boat.
Traveling overland from Cancun to Cartagena presented only one problem- Panama’s Darian gap. The thick mosquito (and guerrilla) ridden jungle makes crossing overland from Panama to Colombia an arduous and dangerous ordeal. Aside from flying out of Panama City the other more expensive (but also more adventurous) option is a 5 day sail through the San Blas to Cartagena.
For most people, sailing a yacht through tropical islands is a totally new and unique experience. It offers visitors 3 days of sea(food), sand and sun. At between $530 and $575 USD per person this is a large portion of any backpackers budget however most who’ve done the trip will confidently say the money is absolutely worth it.
THE BOOKING PROCESS
There are many boats traveling this route, both reputable and others not so reputable. Online reviews are helpful but should be taken with a grain of salt. Bad weather and other things (bad group dynamic, rough sea crossing, unprepared passengers) outside the captain/crews control can result in negative reviews they probably didn’t earn. Blue Sailing is a popular company with which to find a boat/captain and can offer advice on a suitable boat for particular experiences.
Contact them through email with your date/s and desired group size/experience (if you have one) and you can choose from the scheduled departures they send through. Once selected Blue Sailing requires a $50 USD per passenger deposit (which comes off the total price) paid via PayPal to secure the booking. Some boats also have their own Facebook pages and websites and are able to manage their own bookings. Alternatively, many hostels in Panama City and Cartagena are able to assist in booking your voyage.
While this all sounds very glamorous there are downsides to the trip to consider such as bucket showers, seasickness and (for some) the boredom of being confined to a boat for two days at open sea. Another factor out of passenger control is the other passengers.
Group dynamic will play a big part of the trip experience. To minimize disappointment for the trip it’s best to ask about the atmosphere on board particular boats, some of which are known for partying while others are more subdued and chilled out. Boat size is also a consideration if you’re a person who prefers small groups or large ones. At a total of 10 passengers plus 4 crew… and one dog, Big Fish 1 was a comfortable mix of relaxed and ‘party’.
The trip begins in Panama City around 5am in the morning. All passengers and their luggage are collected by 4 wheel drives and taken 2 hours on windy roads to the boats departure point (each boat has a different departure point- in this case El Porvenir). Once the captain has taken your passports to immigration you’ll head directly to your first island for breakfast/lunch/snorkeling.
Transfer costs: $20 park tax for the Kunas, $30 for the 4×4 transfer, $20 for the speedboat to the sail boat, $2 ‘docking fee’.
In the case of most boats the next two full days will be spent sailing to two islands a day. Here you can snorkel, sun bathe, play volley ball, buy beer/soft drinks ($1-$2 USD) and buy crafts from the Kunas. Some boats also have bonfire nights on the beach with locals.
The final days are the open sea crossing to Cartagena. This experience varies for many passengers. One side effect to Dramamine is becoming incredibly drowsy, meaning much of the crossing may be spent napping, eating and staring at the endless sea for any sign of dolphins, other boats or land.
Once the boat has arrived in Cartagena the captain will once again take your passports to immigration.
Note: The length of these two days varies, depending on the weather conditions. You may arrive to Cartagena very early in the morning or late at night. In the case of the latter you may not receive your passports back until the following day, after they have been processed by immigration.
WHAT TO BRING
* Dramamine (sea sickness pills)
* Snacks (if you want anything specific)
* A waterproof bag/phone case
* A book/game (something to do in between sleeping on the open sea)
* Wet wipes to freshen up
San Blas Adventures (for San Blas trips without an open sea crossing)