There are only 2 ways to safely get to Colombia from Panama: by plane or by boat. Crossing the Darien Gap is not recommended.
While flying to Colombia from Panama may be cheaper, a more popular way to get to Colombia for backpackers is to take a 5-6 day sailing trip, where 2 or 3 of those days are spent in the beautiful San Blas Islands. Doing a separate trip to the San Blas Islands and then flying to Colombia might actually turn out to be more expensive, so if you want to do San Blas and need to go to Colombia, then the sailing trip is definitely worth it. It also includes 3 meals each day.
I was in Bocas del Toro when I finally decided that I’ll definitely do the sailing. I met someone there who came to Panama from Colombia by doing one of these sailing trips and he highly recommended it. I also met a Dutch couple in Nicaragua who did the trip to the San Blas Islands and they gave me very good information as well on how to do this trip. They recommended going to Captain Jack’s in Portobelo to meet the captains and book the trip.
When I got to Portobelo, I decided to head to Captain Jack’s right away and stayed at his hostel, Hostel Portobelo. I found out that there’s a sailing boat, called the Independence, sailing in a couple of days. There were only 2 or 3 other travelers there at the time and there were plenty of spaces left on the Independence so I decided to do a little bit more research and figured I should probably talk to the captain first before reserving a spot.
However, towards the end of the day, more and more people came and a lot of them are going on the Independence. After talking to a bunch of them I decided I probably should reserve a spot now, but it was already full when I made my decision! There was another boat leaving in a few days but that was full as well! I was getting a little worried as I didn’t really want to get stuck in Portobelo for another week waiting for a boat. Luckily, about an hour later, a spot opened up and I was able to secure it.
The Independence is an 85′ boat, which might be the biggest one that offers this trip to Colombia. Most of the sailing boats are between 30′-40′. Its captain, Mitja ‘Michel’ Mehle from Germany, has had this boat for over 20 years. It can take a maximum of 25 passengers, but he usually only takes 15-20 people. Our group was just on the higher end of that, about 20 people. There were just enough beds for everyone.
The trip costs $450, which is actually $100 cheaper than what most captains charge for this trip. The captain also decided to give us an extra day of sailing, 5 nights and 6 days instead of the usual 4/5 so we could have 3 full days in the San Blas Islands. The trip started on Thursday, May 3, 2012 and ended on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Our group met at one of the docks in Portobelo near one of the forts at 9 in the morning. If you want to get one of the better cabins and beds, you better get there earlier as it’s first come first serve. From the dock, we took a small boat to take us to the Independence for boarding. I was one of the last ones on board so I didn’t have much option for the bed, I ended up in the cabin at the front of the boat which is probably the worst one.
Before we started moving, Captain Michel recommended to take a motion sickness pill, which most of us did. Our first stop was Isla Grande, we spent a few hours here. Most of the group jumped in to the water to swim. I just stayed on the boat as the pill I took made me really tired and I pretty much took naps most of the day. When we started moving again most people on the boat, myself included, felt really seasick. After dinner, pretty much everyone didn’t want to move. A few of us slept on the deck.
We were expecting to reach the San Blas Islands the following day, waking up in “paradise.”
We woke up surrounded by these tiny islands. One of the bigger islands was right in front of our boat, inhabited by the Kuna Indians. The captain prepared the dingy to take us to the island.
We felt very welcomed as we walked around this tiny island. The Kunas greeted us with smile, especially the children. They also tried to sell us handicrafts, which you can negotiate for half the initial offer price. There’s electricity on the island as well, it’s not as undeveloped at I thought it would be. You can buy cold beer and soda on the island.
The schoolchildren also performed a dance for us. But the younger kids pretty much stole the show. They loved posing for the camera and kept trying to get our attention to take pictures of them. They loved playing with the cameras as well and took pictures themselves.
Our boat moved to another spot afterwards where we spent the rest of the day, swimming and snorkeling around the nearby islands. It was cloudy most of the day and it rained quite a bit, so it wasn’t as nice as it could’ve been but it was still a great day.
We moved to another spot in San Blas again. The weather was much better this time. We spent a good portion of the day hanging out in one of the uninhabited islands. Only problem was the sand flies, we were getting bitten quite a bit so most of us stayed in the water.
Later in the day, the captain asked us whether we wanted to go back to that island to make a bonfire and cook sausages there or just have a party on the boat. Most of us voted for the bonfire, despite the sand flies. We figured insect repellent, long pants and long sleeve shirts, and the bonfire would keep them away. We were wrong.
While we we were having a great time hanging out by the fire, a bunch of us decided to go back to the boat early as we just kept getting bitten. You can see almost everyone scratching. Shortly after we returned to the boat, it started pouring so the rest of the group had to come back and just continued the party on the boat.
We moved again to another spot, even better than the last one. The weather was also better than the previous day. It was mostly sunny, making the views picture perfect. We spent the entire day here. We swam, kayaked, snorkeled, walked around the islands, and just chilled, making the most out of our last day in the San Blas Islands.
As the sun sets, we started getting ready for the long 2 days of sailing to Cartagena. Some already secured spots in the back of the upper deck of the boat, where it feels most stable. Books and Kindles, iPods, tablets/laptops, and playing cards were placed nearby to keep us entertained for the long trip ahead.
Day 5 and 6
It’s pretty much just sailing the entire time in the open sea. It actually wasn’t as rough as we expected. It looked like everyone handled it quite well compared to the first day of sailing. At this point, though, I was pretty much ready to be on land again.
When I woke up on the 6th day, we were already in Cartagena. I went to the deck and was surprised to see all these tall buildings, reminds me a little of Panama City.
I walked around the city pretty much the entire day. Beautiful city and way better than I expected.
It takes some time for our passports to get stamped so the captain told us to meet him somewhere near the dock either later in the afternoon or the following day to pick up our passports.
Captain Michel seemed very experienced and we felt very safe during the entire journey. He checks up on us quite often to make sure we were having a great time.
The Independence has an awesome crew. Everyone’s really friendly.
We had a big group, about 20 people. Fortunately, everyone got along quite well. You’re pretty much stuck with each other for 6 days, so this could really make or break the trip. Everyone was very nice and considerate.
Food and Water
We had 3 meals a day and the food was just delicious! Except for breakfast, each meal was usually different. We even had fresh lobsters for dinner one night. Plenty of food for everyone, big portions, I probably gained weight during this trip.
The ship can make more than enough drinking water each day that you can pretty drink as much as you want. However, it doesn’t taste that great, especially when it’s warm. What I did was fill up my water bottle and put it in the fridge. It tastes much better when it’s cold. I wish I brought plenty sodas and beer on board, though. There’s also enough water to take showers.
There are 2 toilets available for everyone to use. You have to pump to flush. One is inside one of the cabins and the other outside. We were warned not to put anything there that could get stuck as it has caused problems before and no one could use the toilet. The generators were also usually turned off between lunch and dinner, making the toilets unavailable during this time.
This is the first time I’ve ever done a multi-day sailing trip. It was a very good experience overall and I’m really glad I did it. I’ve met a lot of great people and really enjoyed spending time with them. Eating together, sharing stories and laughs. Lots of good memories.