SAN BLAS ISLANDS | Panama to Colombia
Our sail from Panama to Colombia is absolutely one of the highlights of our trip and one of the wildest experiences of our lives. In five days, Santana, a fifty-foot catamaran safely took eighteen of us from El Porvenir, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. The first three days of the trip we spent near the coast of Panama in the San Blas Islands. The final two days were spent in the open water, crossing the Caribbean. It was beautiful, difficult at times, and the experience of a lifetime!!
A Toyota Land Cruiser picked us up from our hotel in Panama City at 5AM. The Land Cruiser’s 4x4 and large tires were definitely necessary to get through the mountains to the port. A two-hour drive north got us there, where we boarded a small lancha that would take us to the deeper water where the catamaran was waiting. When we reached the Santana, we boarded the boat along with fourteen other young travelers. In total there were eighteen of us, including the captain (Fernando) and first mate (Gonzo). After the captain introduced himself and explained the rules of the boat and what to expect, we set sail.
The San Blas Islands are a collection of 365 islands off the coast of Panama. A large reef runs along the east coast, breaking the waves and making the water surrounding the islands calm. Most are uninhabited and some are large, while others are as small as a sandbox. They’re covered in palm trees and fallen coconuts. The islands are technically a part of Panama, but are managed and governed by the locals who inhabit the islands, the Kuna people.
The first three days were absolute tropical bliss. We sailed on calm water through the beautiful chain of islands. We snorkeled the reefs, relaxed on the boat deck, explored the islands on foot, and got to know our fellow travelers from all over the world. Ron and I loved walking around an island, admiring the huts and the beautiful Kuna lifestyle that’s so much different than anything you can imagine. It was rare, but occasionally we’d walk up to a hut with a running generator and cold beer for $1. Fernando and Gonzo prepared three delicious meals for us each day. It was amazing the dishes they cooked in such a small kitchen! One evening they cooked fresh fish they’d bought earlier that day from Kuna fishermen. Another night they set up a beach bonfire for us on one of the islands. If we did the trip again, we wouldn’t do it with anyone but Fernando and Gonzo! They were incredible. Showers were a funny experience. Ever heard of a sailor’s shower? You jump into the salt water, climb onto the boat, lather up with soap, jump back into the salt water, and finally climb back onto the boat to rinse with a little fresh water. Picture sixteen people bathing this way at once! On our final day in the San Blas Islands we all shared an island that was no bigger than half an acre with one palm tree in the center. The guys played soccer, while the girls relaxed in the sun. We had to set sail into open water that afternoon around 5PM to get outside the reef before sunset.
An hour before sunset it was time to set sail and pop any seasickness pills you’d brought (the captain’s recommendation)! Not more than an hour into the trip our fifty-foot catamaran was up against ten-foot swells coming from all directions in the dark. Our feeling of nirvana was long gone and the reality of the next two days set in. We were expected to be in open water for forty-fifty hours with no break. Everyone on board attempted to distract themselves from the rocking vessel by listening to music, reading, and for some- drinking beer (unfortunately this didn’t work for us). Dinner was served, but for the first time during the trip few people rushed to the table. The only thing we started eagerly eating was Dramamine. For us to feel slightly comfortable, our bed was the best spot. Reading was out of the question, so luckily we’d downloaded a couple movies to keep us busy…I think I watched Dirty Grandpa four times in one day! Ron and I were given a bed in the front corner of the left pontoon. We had to climb down a ladder from the deck. It was nice for privacy, but ended up being one of the loudest places to be. There were times we caught air in bed when the boat hit a large swell! Although most people on board had trouble over the next two days, luckily only two people actually got sick. At one point we changed course slightly and veered closer to the coast, as the waves were too large on our original course because of bad weather. It was a crazy experience we wouldn’t trade!
Forty-two hours later Cartagena’s skyline was visible ahead of us! A huge relief! The water was much calmer and we saw life again on the boat as everyone started emerging from his or her beds! Approaching Cartagena was a site! It’s a stunning Caribbean-front city. We thanked Fernando and Gonzo, reminisced with everyone about the five days, and took photos together. In the end, we’re happy we weren’t warned how challenging open water can be because we may have changed our plans, but the experience was unforgettable. And everyone onboard became such close friends!
Not only were we excited to see land, but our three close friends from the states flew into Colombia three days after we arrived in Cartagena! Hefners out!!
Boarding the small boat that took us to the Santana.
The Santana. Our home for five days.
One of the islands where we spent the first afternoon and night.
Fernando dropping us off the first afternoon.
The first night's sunset.
Day two. Approaching the next set of islands.
We spent day two exploring and snorkeling.
Snorkeling the reef.
Fernando and Gonzolo buying fish from the Kuna people.
Second night's sunset.
Day three. Pulling up to the last and smallest islands before setting sail that evening.
The smallest island of them all! We relaxed on this tiny beach all afternoon.
Sunset when we set sail for the open water.
Two days later, approaching Cartagena. Finally!
The group, the captain, and first mate from around the world- the US, Argentina, Canada, Sweden, The Netherlands, England, Germany, and Norway.
All the girls.
And the guys.