Sailing Between the Continents
Although Colombia and Panama share a land border, crossing it would have involved a suicidal passage through the Darien Gap: a hundred miles of dense forest and swampland lacking roads but full of mosquitoes spreading malaria, rabid vampire bats, and guerillas with a penchant for kidnapping.
Flying between the two countries is an option, but the most interesting way is to cross by sea. Small sailboats embark on the five day journey between Cartagena, Colombia and Panama almost daily, stopping at the scenic San Blas Islands en route.
Sarah and I talked to a few captains who had been plying the route for years; each was trying to squeeze as many people as possible onto his boat. We were lucky to meet Kris, a Belgian who was two years into a five year sailing trip around the world. His ship, the Donna, was fifty feet long and featured three cabins, two bathrooms, a small kitchen and dining area. Not only was he limiting the number of passengers to six, he was the most interesting and genuine captain we had spoken with. Agreeing to join him in sailing to Portobelo, Panama was an easy decision.
Kris had recently met Svetlana – a 24 year old Russian woman who has to be the most hardcore traveler we have ever encountered. She was also traveling the world, but on a non-existent budget. Having hitchhiked across Africa, volunteered as a crewmate on a different boat crossing the Atlantic, and spent the last year also hitchhiking throughout South America, she was now employed as the first mate on the Donna.
The four of us plus two other passengers – Toby from Germany and Emma from England – sailed off from Cartagena late at night under a full moon. We sat out on the cockpit and watched Kris and Lana at work as they killed the motor, unfurled the sails, and set the course using GPS and compass for the straight path to Panama. They would take turns steering the ship, rotating every few hours throughout the night.
The voyage started out well enough, but as Cartagena’s skyline faded away and we were in the open ocean, the sea became very rough and the ship was tossed about violently enough to knock us to the ground.
Sarah and I had bragged that in all our travels we’ve never been seasick. After a few hours aboard the Donna, we were no longer able to make that claim.
The next thirty six hours were awful.
The night was rough but we managed to sleep despite being awakened by the motion of the boat. The following day we only ate plain bread and tried to sit out in the cockpit, but found the best remedy was to lie down and sleep as much as possible. The ocean did not calm that day or the second night – lying down in our hot tiny cabin we were both wondering what the hell we had got ourselves into.
But it did get better.
Early on our third day we spotted the first of the San Blas islands over the horizon.
Comprised of four hundred islands, the San Blas archipelago is home to two thirds of Panama’s indigenous Kuna Indians and an attractive vacation spot due to its pristine and idyllic beaches. It was here that we would dock for the rest of the day.
Kris and Lana wrapped up the sails, started the motor, and steered into the bay. After turning on the boat’s depth meter, Kris took the wheel from Lana and proceeded slowly around the shallow coral reef, passing an overturned rusting ship that clearly hadn’t been as careful. We dropped anchor a few hundred yards from land, and memories of our rough sea passage immediately began to fade.
Toby was the first to jump off and I followed shortly after in swimming to a deserted island. I wonder if the creator of Gilligan’s Island had based it on the San Blas Islands – both were similar in size and covered with coconut trees. Its beach was empty and the seal we had identified from the boat turned out to be a log. Standing on solid ground for the first time in days was a great feeling.
Kris and Emma swam after us, but Lana just wanted to practice her diving.
Sarah wasn’t up for swimming or diving, instead kayaking next to me around the reef.
We slept on the boat that night close to other sailboats that had docked nearby. With our cabin hatch open and the boat perfectly still, it was relaxing and enjoyable and the opposite of our experience at sea.
After breakfast the next morning, the six of us swam and paddled to the nearby inhabited island where a few Kunas lived in a thatched roof huts.
The Kunas were excited to see us and had no problem with us walking around. The adults even tried to get their shy kids to pose for pictures.
The island was small; we walked all the way around in fifteen minutes.
We then returned to the Donna and prepared to leave. While we were getting ready, two Kunas rowed up asked if we wanted to buy some of their fish. We had been resigned to eating canned meat after two days of an unsuccesful fishing effort by Kris, so of course we agreed.
We continued west, remaining three miles from shore and marking a path parallel to mainland Panama. This was the experience that Sarah and I had signed up for. Watching Kris and Lana work the sails was fascinating – even without wind directly at our back it was amazing to see how fast we could go.
Three hours later we arrived and docked at a second group of San Blas islands. More boats were docked here and the inhabited islands had more infrastructure – we spotted a bar on one and a store selling Kuna handicrafts on another.
A Panamanian boat of immigration officers motored up to stamp us into the country. Feeling empowered, probably because they were so far removed from shore, they took our passports and successfully shook us down for an extra $20 because they were “working on a Saturday”. Corrupt officials notwithstanding, everyone else in the bay was friendly, from the other captains flying flags from all over the world to the Kunas, who were selling handbags instead of fish.
We had another relaxing night on the boat, eating our fresh grilled fish as the sun set.
On day five Kris gave us the option of leaving at the crack of dawn or around lunchtime. We were having a great time were not in a rush to get to Portobelo, so we opted for the latter. Again we swam and paddled to shore after breakfast. This island was even smaller than the one we had visited the previous day, probably fifty yards across with only three huts. The water surrounding it was clear; we could see down to the ocean floor.
After too short a time we swam back to the Donna, pulled anchor and sailed away.
Weak winds made sailing time to Portobelo longer than expected. But it was bright and sunny and time passed quickly out in the cockpit. Everyone but I spent a few hours sleeping downstairs. Sarah came up when the sun wasn’t as strong and said “wow you got really dark”. She was right. And my tan was accompanied by a rare sunburn.
It was dark when we arrived at Portobelo’s harbor. Lana and Kris again carefully navigated their way in and the six of us decided to stay on the boat one more night before we parted ways. Kris and Lana were to cross the Panama Canal on way to the Galapagos Islands while the rest of us landlubbers were off to Panama City.
Sarah and I were already talking about our next sailing adventure.