Monday, 26 January 2015

The 'ultimate' guide to getting a sail-boat from Cartagena to Panama

Sunset on the boat
Overview
On a map it looks like it would be relatively straightforward to get from Colombia to Panama. The two are linked by land and so you’d think that there must be regular transport between the two.  But you’d be wrong! The Darién Gap is an area of dense jungle and swampland of 160 kilometres in length that links the two countries together and there is no road that goes through it.

The area is also home to drug lords and Colombian guerilla forces (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC). In 2000, two British travellers were kidnapped by suspected FARC rebels while looking for rare orchids in the area. So all in all, land crossing is a bit of a no go! This leaves you with the option of flying, which you might need to go for if you’re short on time, or sailing.

An inhabited San Blas island
The main sailing option takes around 5 days and includes 2 days on the open sea and three days island hoping around the San Blas islands.

Expect to pay around US$500 (September 2014). You may be able to find cheaper flights than this, but the price for the boat includes 5 nights accommodation, all your meals as well as water, some soft drinks and the opportunity to see the beautiful San Blas islands, making it very worth it.

Picking a boat
Pick your boat carefully!
We found that there were two main agencies in Cartagena who liaised with the captains doing the routes between Cartagena and Panama (and vice versa) and who can book you onto a boat. These are the Mamallena Hostel and BlueSailing

We contacted Mamallena and were emailed a list of the boats doing the trip and the dates they were expected to set sail. They also provided short descriptions of the captain and their boat. 


Our boat in the San Blas
It's important to google the names of the captains and their boats to find out more about them and the experiences their passengers have had. This is definitely worth doing, as on a quick search, we discovered one story of a boat that had sank and reports of others that were in a pretty lousy condition.

It’s also useful to find out how many people will be on the boat. We decided to make sure we avoided some of the larger berths, after talking to a couple, who had booked on quite a large boat. They ended up with a big cliquey group of gap year-ers who spent all day, every day, drinking. We’re a little old for that (and I was worried about getting sea sick), so we booked our boat carefully.

It is also useful to check where in Panama the boat arrives and the options for getting from there to your next destination.

Another pretty island!
On reflection, we’d also recommend going through Blue Sailing rather than Mamallena. There was a mixture on our boat of people who’d booked through one of these two agents. Blue Sailing seemed to have been much better at communicating with their guests and giving them an idea of what to expect and take with them.  

The milky Caribbean sea

Who did we go with?
We picked the Sailing Koala with Captain Fabian. 


A smiley Fabian with dinner!
The description of the boat and the captain that we received from Mamallena suggested that we'd be in safe hands in a boat that was not too packed with people. 


Hanging out on the boat
A search on the internet confirmed that Fabian was a good captain and that the boat was in good shape. Post trip, I am happy to confirm that it was a good choice. Fabian was quite the character and kept us entertained with his many stories and we were well looked after on the boat. It was perhaps a little crowded with ten guests, but we all got on really well and we'd pick the Sailing Koala again.

The gang!
Picking your room
From our very initial discussions with Mamallena, we thought we had reserved a private room. However, just as we were about to pay our deposit, they told us the double room, which they had confirmed by email was reserved for us, was no longer available. It was annoying, as by this time, we were quite set on that particular boat, particularly as we'd booked onwards flights from Panama, based on the departure date of that boat. 

So instead of one of the doubles at the back of the boat, we were put in the four bed room at the front. As it turned out, this was not actually a bad deal. We had a large double bed and the couples in the two double rooms at the back later told us that given that the engines were on all night for the two nights we were at sea, they hadn’t had lots of sleep. 

The other two beds in our room looked quite uncomfortable though. They were very narrow raised bunks on either side of the room. 

The other sleeping area was a big bed in the kitchen area, which two guests, who'd not met before, shared with the captain. 

If you're worried about where you might end up sleeping, do try and see if you can look at a plan of the boat before booking, to work out where you might be ending up! And if you get one of the rooms by the engine, take ear plugs!

But remember this is a budget trip, so you're likely to share at least a room with someone you don't know and maybe even a bed!

Packing
Most of your stuff will be stored away for the entire trip, so you need to take a small bag of things that you’ll want for the 5 days. We lived in beachwear the whole time, so you really really don’t need to take very much with you. 

We'd recommend taking:

  • bikini/swimming shorts
  • 2-3 t-shirts/tops
  • 1 shorts/skirt
  • underwear
  • flip flops
  • something to sleep in (as little as possible - it got very warm)
  • toiletries 
  • stuff to do (book, cards, ipod etc)
  • sea sickness pills
  • sun cream
  • alcohol and snacks (NB our captain banned alcohol for the two days we were at sea to help prevent sea sickness, so we took what we thought we'd drink for the three days in the San Blas)


NB It did not get cold!

On the boat


Captain Sarah
From Cartagena to Panama the first two days are spent at sea, reading, sunbathing and trying not to be seasick! We didn't see another boat for the whole two days, just sea for miles and miles! It was quite relaxing and we got to know each other very well.


James getting a shower!
On our third morning, we awoke to find ourselves anchored in a bay, surrounded by deserted, palm tree covered islands. After a swim to shore and a nosy around one of the uninhabited islands, we headed back to the boat for some breakfast, before heading off to another island near a wreck, for a spot of snorkelling (there was equipment on the boat for us to use).


More beautiful islands!
We spent the next three days swimming in the beautiful milky Caribbean sea, snorkelling, sunbathing, exploring the different islands and meeting the Kuna people, who live on the islands.


Walking among the palm trees
While anchored among the San Blas, locals paddled up to our boat to sell us souvenirs and their latest catch, which was enjoyed by the fish eaters in the group.

The San Blas by night
It was a great trip with a lovely bunch of people. The opportunity to explore a very untouched part of the Caribbean is not to be missed and we'd go again if we have the chance.

Other tips and things to be aware of:

Small sandbank with palm tree - not quite an island 

- You might not actually sail for the all or any of the trip. Depending on the weather, there might not be enough wind for you to get the sails out, in which case, your romantic two days sailing on the open sea becomes two days on a motorboat. The upside of this is that if its not windy then the seas are probably calmer too, so less sea sickness!

- You really do need to have some flexibility in your schedule as even when you’ve booked, you might not actually leave the day, you were supposed to leave. We left a day late.

- You need to take dollars with you to buy any souvenirs on the islands, to pay for your transport once you get to shore and of course to pay your captain. The transport will cost you around $40. We spent no more than $30 between us when we were island hopping on drinks and souvenirs. You can change Colombian pesos for dollars for a reasonable rate in the change kiosks in Cartagena. Remember you might have limits on the amount of pesos you can withdraw from Colombian cashpoints, so you may have to change pesos in installments.

- Onwards from Panama. For some reason, when you arrive by boat, you have to pay a massive entry fee of around $100 unless you can show proof that you are leaving the country within 72 hours. We were fine as we were planning to fly out of Panama within that time, so had a print out of our flight details to show to immigration. Other travellers brought 'fake' flight confirmation print-outs, which seemed to work. However, the entry fee seems to be inconsistently applied, so check the latest situation with your captain and booking agent.

- The boats are small! This is definitely a backpacker sailing option. Do not expect luxury! Do expect to getting to know your fellow passengers well.


Sunset at sea



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