There are three ways to get from Panama to Colombia or vice versa. The first is to fly, the second is to brave the wild and dangerous Darien gap and risk a posible kidnapping for ransom. The final and increasingly popular option is by sea via sailboat. There are numerous boats that do the trip back and forth and picking the right one can be a challenge. When I was doing my research I came across a number of reviews detailing how their captain and crew were drunks or crack heads. It’s hard not to start worrying as it’s $550 investment to do so as once you’re on the boat, there will be no escape for the next five nights.
After a few days of emailing around I picked the Ave Maria. I originally tried to get on the Gypsy Moth through some recommendations however it books out months in advance and the last thing I wanted to do was commit to something so far in advance. The best option for me at the time was Ave Maria and the reviews of the boat, captain and crew were mostly positive (I didn’t come across any boats that had no negative reviews). The booking was made through Blue Sailing who act as an agent for the boat. I would recommend using them or a similar service as you can tell them what dates you are interested in and what kind of vibe you’re after and they will do all of the work for you.
The morning started pretty early with a 5am pickup from the hostel in Panama city. From there it’s a 2 hour drive across to the Carribean coast in the San Blas region where a boat takes you off to the boat. With my gear packed and additional supplies of half a dozen beers, a bottle of rum and various snacks purchased I was itching to get going. Fast forward to 6:30am and Im still waiting and feeling slightly concerned. There was another group leaving for a different boat and they had room in the jeep so I make a decision to hitch a ride with them and get dropped off at the Ave Maria via other means.
So what’s an adventure without a crazy bus or car ride? Our driver must have done this trip a thousand times but he was crazily hooning along through the mountain range that splits the two coasts with a 4WD full of backpackers, their gear and supplies and also stopping to help out another 4WD which has broken down. When we finally get there, I pay the driver $35 for the pleasure and a gentleman greets me and asks me where I’m going to and agrees to take me to the Ave Maria. Sorted.
Twenty minutes later and we’re there. The Ave Maria is moored just off one of the islands which also has an airstrip that occupiesthe entire length of the island. I get off the water taxi and load my gear onto the boat, however nobody else is there. The boat is locked up, nothing is set up and the sails are stowed away. I start to wonder if I had my dates mixed up but I wasn’t. I begin to think I’d may as well get stuck into the rum and cokes now and just wait.
A few minutes later a chap rides up in a dinghy. I yell out “Captain Paul?” Turns out he was a captain from another boat looking for Captain Paul. I tell him my predicament and he recommends I hang out on the island as there a place where I can be fed and watered, so I take him up on the offer of a ride over. I only had a brief to him but turns out he’s been sailing various ships, sunk his first ship a few months after taking ownership of it and now sails ships from one position on the globe to the other for their wealthy owners. Tough life!
It’s now 10am so I order some eggs, ham and bread and do my best to explain in Spanglish to the chap running the shop that I’m waiting for the captain. There wasn’t much else I could do and while I’m relaxing in the hammock by the water, I’m thinking of what my plan B would be. Two hours later the shop owner comes out with his phone and Sindry, one of the crew member is on the other end. Turns out the boat departure was delayed and that they would be picking up everybody at midday. Luckily she got my email to Blue Sailing prior to leaving in the morning saying nobody had arrived and that I was making my own way there. So I have a few more hours to burn and for the rest of the day I spend it in the hammock, in the water and making a number of trips back to shop for cold beverages. Eventually everybody arrives and they send a boat to pick me up. As the immigration office had closed by now, we’d have to wait until the next day to depart.
Ave Maria is a fifty foot sailing ketch. In other words, she’s old school and has a hell of alot more sails then the new boats being built now. Although she can have up to 5 sails up at once, it requires more crew so now sails with three sails. Captain Paul has had her for 6 years now and was previously owned by a Mexican. Since then he has been sailing throughout the Caribbean ever since. Paul’s a laid back Aussie who used to build and run hotels in Melbourne but now calls the ocean home along with Sindry who helps out on the boat and in the kitchen. In total for this trip there are 12 people. Two Frenchmen, four Kiwis, two dutch, an Italian, myself and two crew. There’s quite a bit of room to sleep in however as I’m the odd one out I’ll be sleeping outside which I don’t mind seeing that I’ve done it before.
The San Blas area is known as Kuna Yala to the indigenous locals that live there. Although it is technically part of Panama, they live and govern the region independently. Originally, the people were from Colombia but some sources say that they fled the area for the islands when they Spanish came in to crash the party. On previous occasions, the Panamanian government have tried to suppress the Kuna culture and tradition and assimilate them into hispanic culture. However they have been resistant through revolting and eventually were given their independence. To this day they still uphold strong traditional values and matrilinear family structure where the bride rules the house, the men move into the bride’s family home and takes on the name of the bride as well.
The journey over the next five nights would be as follows. Sail around and explore a few of the four hundred islands that make up the the San Blas area, spend some time snorkelling, swimming, sun baking and reading, have an opportunity to visit one of the Kuna Indian villages and then for thirty six hours straight we’d cruise non stop through the open water towards Cartegena, Colombia.
During the research you can’t help but be worried about seasickness. There are numerous ways of dealing with it. Take seasickness pills before you get on the boat then keep eating them them every eight hours or take ginger pills as an alternative. Unfortunately not everybody was immune to seasickness. Of the ten passengers, only myself and the frenchmen did’t get sick. The others suffered with varying degrees of seasickness, especially when we hit the open water where it was rougher.
I highly recommend doing this trip over flying. It’s by far not all chilled out and relaxing. The quarters can be cramped and uncomfortable at times especially when it rains and all of the windows need to be shut. There is limited space for the toilet and also water conservation is a priority so the only way to clean yourself was to use soap and jump into the sea to wash yourself off. While on the 36 hour non stop journey across the open water, those who weren’t sick would take turns in sailing the ship while Paul had a chance to get some shut eye. This I didn’t mind and turned out to be one of the highlights for me. If you have a genuine interest in sailing and how boats work then it would be one of those rare moments where you would have the chance to try your hand. I’ll never forget steering the boat in the evenings to view the early evening sky filled with stars, looking down into the water where the bioluminense plankton would glow in the water like flecks of glowing dust. Later in the evening the moon would moon rise to illuminate the entire sky.
If you’re planning on doing the trip, I’d recommend doing your own research as well. There are plenty of reviews online on Trip Advisor as well as other travel blogs on the various boats. Important things you should consider are:
- Captain and crew: Most important of all as the captain is responsible for the safety of everybody.
- Number of people vs size of boat: 12 people in total for a fifty foot boat was the maximum it would accommodate. Anymore and it would be too cramped.
- Food: You should get three meals a day. Although it’s not a chefs kitchen, it’s not difficult for an average person to knock a decent meal and the meals Sindry cooked up were superb. Bring along any snacks and booze, although you can pick up supplies from some of Kuna people who zip around in boats delivering ice, water and other supplies for the ships that pass through.
- Number of travellers: This could be tricky as you don’t know who you’re going to be going with. Some boats are known as party boats so you should take this into consideration as well as the number of people you’re comfortable travelling with.
- Weather: Check and see if it’s the rainy season as this will affect the comfort levels