You might think that after six months traveling through South America, our ability to be amazed by our surroundings would have diminished. You might think that, but you would be wrong. Our time sailing through the San Blas Islands, crossing from Colombia to Panama, was one of the most amazing experiences of our entire journey and of my 37 years on dry land. The San Blas archipelago is the stuff of dreams, a fantasy land of 365 tiny islands off the coast of Panama set amidst the glowing turquoise Caribbean Sea. There were many times during our voyage when I felt the whole experience to be more like a dream than real.
The morning of our departure from Cartagena was fraught with anticipation. Neither Lex nor I had ever done any sailing, no less on a small boat for five days straight. Were we going to get sea sick? What would the other people on the boat be like? Would the weather hold? What would happen if it didn’t?
We left Cartagena amidst what Gisbert, our Captain, referred to as a “confused” sea. The winds were hitting from multiple directions, giving rise to an unsettled current that heaved the boat up and down. Although I have survived countless Andean bus rides without a trace of motion sickness, the rocking of our catamaran Santana proved to be too much for my central nervous system. After a few hours at sea, I busted out the Colombian Dramamine equivalent, Mareol. Lex had already taken hers and was experiencing the strong sedative effect of the drug, pictured to the side. Within hours of our departure five of the eight passengers, including myself, were lying unconscious on various bunks, benches, and deck-spaces.
The Santana has capacity for up to 15 passengers. Given the expense of fuel alone, it is understandable that all captains sailing this route look to fit in as many people as they are able to. We all felt lucky to be sailing with a little extra room to stretch out, as the boat was only at half-capacity. None of these boats are luxury vessels and the experience is more akin to camping than the type of “cruise” you might find advertised in travel magazines.
Our co-passengers turned out to be a great group and a pleasure to spend the week with. They consisted of Fannie and Fabian, a gentle and warm couple from Lyon, France; Alister, an absolutely hilarious guy from Glascow; and, finally, Felice and Ellen, a pair of nutty Belgian girls working in South America as tour guides. Gisbert, originally from East Germany, made everybody feel quite welcome and comfortable and, as it turns out, he is quite the chef! He went out of his way to accommodate all the vegetarians/pescatarians on board, making us separate meals when needed.
After slowly emerging from the Drama-haze of our first day at sea, everybody convened for lunch and then dinner again in the main cabin of the boat. Throughout the trip we took turns washing dishes, using mostly sea water with just a dash of precious freshwater to rinse. Potable water is like gold at sea. While we had plenty of it to drink, we rationed carefully for all other applications. In case you are wondering, that meant no shower for five days! We had the option of soaping down with saltwater followed by a quick rinse with a hose on board but chose to wait until we docked in Panama. Like I said, a camping mentality prevailed and it didn’t seem like such a major sacrifice given the many opportunities for swimming in the sea.
We left Cartagena at roughly 9 AM Monday and did not arrive in the San Blas Islands until around 7 PM Tuesday. During our first night at sea, Gisbert slept in 20 minute intervals, waking to check the horizon for oncoming boats as we sailed on a nautical form of cruise-control. Save for a few container ships, we did not pass anybody on the open waters. It was simply sky and sea for most of the way until the morning of our second day when we traveled parallel to the coastline of the Darian Gap. After taking another batch of motion pills to help us sleep during our first night at sea, Lex and I woke up better adapted to the water and decided to forgo the pills for the rest of the trip. You might say that we earned our sea-legs.
Although the first 32 hours of non-stop sailing grew a little monotonous at times, we all felt the journey was beyond worth it when we finally arrived at the first few islands in the San Blas chain. Gisbert dropped the anchor between two tiny islands draped with palm trees against the backdrop of a brilliant tropical sunset. The scene was so beautiful, it almost seemed like a parody of itself. It was like some bizarre version of the “Truman Show” where real life merges with the stock footage from a karoake bar. The setting was so idyllic, it just didn’t seem real.
The following morning, the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the water around the coral reefs to a bright turquoise, infusing the day with an intense tropical heat. The hours between roughly 10 and 4 each day were obscenely hot. All of us would take to the sea, cooling ourselves in the virtually body-temperature waters of the Caribbean before climbing back on deck and scurrying to find whatever shade we could. I have to say there is nothing like waking up, having a fresh cup of Salento coffee, and jumping off deck into the water. The whole experience made me wish I could swim a little better!
Lex, Alister, and I generally opted to use the small kayak to shuttle from boat to land, while the other more aquatic passengers swam to shore each time we anchored up to a new set of islands. The San Blas Archipelago is a semi-autonomous zone within Panama, governed by the Kuna Indians. The Kuna have a few small huts on some of the islands, while the rest are uninhabited. Families alternate rotations, living on a communal island outpost for three months before returning to their home in one of the larger Kuna settlements on the mainland. According to Gisbert, the Kuna did not begin using currency until the early 80’s. Even today, a trade can have more value than cash. A few Kuna men paddled up to our catamaran with octopus and lobster, which they would have much rather exchanged for rum than cash.
The Kuna women are talented artisans, adorning themselves in handwoven clothing and beaded jewelry. Although most of them can speak Spanish nowadays, the Kuna language lives on and is used throughout the islands. Lex and I picked up a couple items for home, comforted to finally have an opportunity to purchase directly from the maker. My prize purchase is a shoulder bag featuring Kuna designs woven together from what appears (and smells!) to be used, worn-out clothing. If they only they knew how hip their recycled gear would be in Park Slope!
The final three days of our journey were spent hopping between islands in the San Blas chain. Although some of us were more inclined to head to one of the countless islands that nobody ever visits, the Lonely Planet toters won the day with their preference to see the “famous” islands in the chain. By famous, we are generally referring to islands visited by five other small boats anchored around the open waters. There were people, but it was far from being crowded in any possible sense of the word. Since there is no electricity on any of the islands, we enjoyed a fine view of the stars each evening, paired with the occasional brilliant flashing of nearby electrical storms.
Our last day was predominately spent sailing from the San Blas Islands to Puerto Lindo, a small port town on the Panamanian coast. While trawling the open seas, we brought in a large, beautiful mackerel on the fishing line. Gisbert did the dirty-work of reeling the fish in, but it was I who volunteered to carve up our lunch. For many years, I have enjoyed mackerel in sushi bars and wanted to know what it was like to enjoy a fresh catch. We prepared the most amazing ceviche I have ever had in my life and used the rest for broiled steaks. Although nobody else expressed any interest, I had to know what fresh mackerel sashimi tasted like. As I was cutting away, I sampled different sections of the fish, and, I have to say, it was pretty darn delicious. I am sure this may all sound a little less than appetizing to many, but I am of the mind that you should be as close to the source of your food as possible. If I had my choice, I would only eat fish in this manner and never buy it at a store. I might just try my hand surf-casting on the Rockaways when we get home!
In Puerto Lindo, we arrived with the final moments of daylight and settled into a tranquil cove flanked by jungle on three sides. The hills around the cove lent an ampitheater-like effect to the sounds of the forest. To put this in practical terms, when I awoke in the middle of the night to . . . uhhh . . . “relieve myself” off deck, it sounded like I was surrounded by troupe of deranged howler monkeys who had somehow boarded the catamaran.
Saturday morning, we left the Santana and headed on land to the larger settlement of Portobello to register with the Panamanian authorities. Although we were all quite blissed out from our time at sea, I believe each of us, in our own way, was experiencing a deep and soulful longing for a cold shower in clean water. This bounty was hard won, as it wound up taking another four hours in two steaming hot buses spread between a transfer in the arse-pit that is Colon to finally arrive in Panama City.
Alister, Fannie, Fabian, Lex and I all settled in the run-down, unfriendly, but shower-having respite of Hotel Casco Antiguo in the old town. Panama City is spread out onto different slopes and stretches of land. From the roof of our hotel in the dumpy old town, you could see the shiny modern skyscrapers of the new town, reflecting light between the sky and sea.
Of course, no visit to Panama City would be complete without a tour of the Panama Canal. The following morning, we took off with Alister for a look at the wee lochs, after taking a trip to the mammoth Albrook Mall to re-up on the dirty traveler’s best friend, Clinique face astringent. It was interesting in the way that I imagine the Empire State Building to be interesting for visitors in New York. An iconic piece of engineering known the world over.
Our night with Alister in Panama City was shaded by the knowledge that all of us had a large journey ahead of us. Lex and I bound for Granada, Nicaragua, while Alister was continuing his travels to none other than our hometown, New York City. If anybody back home is reading this and would like to host an awesome guy from Scotland for a night or two, drop us a line! Although we are just a few weeks shy of returning ourselves, we had never looked into short-term rentals until last night with Alister. It turns out that New York City is not exactly kind to the budget traveler.
As for now, I am writing from the back of the TICA bus to San Jose, Costa Rica. We have cleared the border between Panama and Costa Rica are headed north on our old friend the Panamerican Highway. At 2 AM we get dumped off in the capital, waiting for a 6 AM transfer that will land us in Granada around 2pm tomorrow. This is the last super-long haul of our journey, and, hopefully, the last time I will write anything while having a Vin Diesel film blasting in my ear. Despite the trials and tribulations, we are not at all ready to wrap up the grand ATNM adventure. If we had another six months, we’d swallow them up whole. As for now, we’re looking forward to spending time in Nicaragua and have some great stuff lined up for our last few weeks!
Lex looks like she’s ready to be a contender on “Lost”. She’s looking like a hot beach godess. Hugs, Erika
What can I say. Beautiful and so well written. Once again I feel like I am traveling with the two of you. The sky looks incredible. We were just at the beach on Captains Cove. Lovely, but doesn’t hold a candle.
Can’t wait to see you both and hear of your travels first hand.
Why am I heading south when I could be sailing amongst the San Blas islands? Sounds fantastic! Just had a daydream of buying a catamaran and cruising the Caribbean… perhaps not too unrealistic. Maybe now that you guys are seasoned sailors, with, I assume, a working knowledge of tacking, jibbing and triangulation, we can start planning the business venture.
Think I saw a pic of Robinson Crusoe in the slideshow.. ..or some sort of uncivilized barbarian.
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Surpassingly beautiful pictures and writing. Even though the pictures are real they seem like a fantasy. My favorite is the silhouette of the bird (?Pelican) flying through dusk with the island background. It can’t get more beautiful than that!
Really well written — I feel as though I was along on your “fantasy trip”.
Can’t wait to see you both…..in the not too distant future.
I can understand why there would never be enough time…..but you
are certainly doing your best to experience a lot.
love and hugs,
This is a good blog post that gives a good description of the Colombia-Panama crossing. I am the web master of http://www.colombiapanamasailing.com and representing Gisbert and his boat Santana who is mentioned in this blog. I invite all interested parties to visit his web page for more information on his boat and this trip.
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Great post! I’m thinking of doing this sailing trip and this gave me a lot of the info I was looking for – especially about sea sickness (I am definitely prone to it, and it’s the only thing that’s putting me off doing this).
We’re glad you found the post helpful. Let us know how it goes! We’re curious to hear if anything has changed over time.
On 18 August 2014 23:58, Andes Not The Mint dot com wrote: