21-26 July: The boat ride from Panama to Cartagena has become something of a backpackers’ rite of passage in recent years. With the land route through Darien province to Colombia a roadless, jungle wilderness infamous for drug trafficking and general lawlessness, the (sensible) options for getting from Central to South America are limited to plane or boat.
The plane is a bit cheaper than the boat, but takes one hour. Your money goes a lot further on the boat – a five day trip, all meals included with the first three days spent cruising around the San Blas islands on the Caribbean side of Panama. It truly was an unmissable experience.
Deciding which boat to take is by far the most difficult thing. There are around 25 different vessels that make the trip – some good, some the stuff of nightmares (we heard stories about boats going without enough food and water onboard, crazy drunken captains, even crashes onto reefs in the middle of the night). Luckily Captain Frederico and his boat the Sacanagem was a good choice.
Frederico was strict on safety, but totally fine with us enjoying a good stiff tipple of the local strong stuff. He was friendly (but kept a professional distance so that we realised who was boss), and quirky – full of tales of his life on the waves, and informing us that his boat (a 43ft French yacht) was named after a ‘filthy sexual act’ in Portuguese. Nice! His cooking was great, and with French-Brazilian parentage to inspire him he conjured up scrummy (sometimes unusual – papaya and spaghetti springs to mind!) meals for the eight of us in his tiny galley kitchen.
A precarious ride down the river from Carti to El Porvenir and our waiting yacht
The Sacanagem in all her glory, with Captain Frederico awaiting our arrival
The San Blas islands (many of which are little more than discs of sand with a few palm trees) are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. On our first evening we took a wander round one of the villages, and went to buy a few supplies.
Traditional dress of the Kuna women
Traditional transport of the Kuna people. Drinking water and firewood has to be transported from the mainland to the islands - most of this is done with the assistance of engines but the dug-out canoes are relied upon too.
Inside a palm frond house
The islands are crowded - the houses look as though they are about to tip into the ocean at any moment
Sea, sky, sun and sand
Frederico butchers a huge fish that fellow sailor Giovanni caught and kindly offered to share with our motley crew.
Watching and learning from the expert. That night we made a fire on an island and ate fresh octopus with rice, plus fish cooked over the open embers.
Days 3 and 4:
Water the colour of a swimming pool. We spent the days swinging in the hammock, swimming, snorkeling, eating and drinking. Ned and I saw a large shark whilst snorkeling round one of the coral reefs - although Frederico later assured us it was a nurse shark, that has no teeth, the sight of a huge fish coming to check us out underwater was enough to get my heart pumping.
Ned and Frederico fix a tear in the main sail in preparation for our night time departure for Cartagena.
The morning after our first night on the open sea. Looking and feeling great in our tiny cabin!
The early morning approach to Cartagena
Land ahoy! After 36hrs on the rocking and rolling waves we spied our destination on the hazy horizon. South America.
Hello Colombia, a new country, new experiences await...
Exciting new fried foods to try
Scantily clad street performers to watch
And a new national hero - Simon Bolivar, liberator of Latin America
(We would highly recommend Captain Frederico to anyone considering the boat trip to Cartagena. We booked our passage through Hostel Mamallena in Panama City – contact them for more info)