Determining How to Get From Panama to Colombia
To this point we had successfully made it all the way from Mexico to Panama completely overland aside from a few small stints overwater to some islands. Using buses, cars, boats, and a train, our journey took us the entirety of Central America from Mexico, to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and finally to Panama. But the Pan-American Highway stops here and we had planned to make our way down to Colombia. With no roads we needed to figure out how to travel from Panama to Colombia. We now had the following three options:
1) Blaze a trail with a machete through the Darian Gap past FARC terrorists. (We’re pretty adventurous but we have to draw the line somewhere); or
2) Take a flight the short distance from Panama to Colombia. (Although Panama and Colombia are neighbors on a map, the least expensive flight had a long layover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and a $600 price tag. This just didn’t make sense); or
3) Take a sailboat on a 6-day voyage including stops in Panama’s San Blas islands.
Weighing out these options, the decision became an easy choice. But upon further research we came across horror stories of dirty & crowded conditions, bags getting wet/damaged, coked-up captains, and even sailboats sinking and wrecking onto reefs. Ultimately we learned that the boat you choose would make or break your trip.
Sailing From Panama to Colombia on the Mintaka
We chose to sail on a vessel named the Mintaka, run by a German couple that’s been sailing the seas for over the past 30 years. Other reviews seemed to indicate a safe, pleasant voyage, and highlighted great food. So we knew this was our ship. Captain Manfred and his wife/first mate/chef would be taking us on the voyage between two continents. Another six people would join us for this grand adventure. Together, the ten of us would share the tight but comfortable quarters of this 47-foot sailboat for the next six days. We lucked out in having some great crewmates with a mix of nationalities: two mates from Australia, an Irish guy, two German girls, a doctor from Montreal, and the two of us. We got to the dock in Portobello, Panama in the late afternoon and two and three at a time boarded a dinghy with Captain Manfred, who took us to the Mintaka.
Day 1: Sailing to the San Blas Islands
We boarded the sailboat in the late afternoon and were shown to our birth, which was a nice little private room in the bow of the ship. After Manfred provided a very long and thorough yet extremely humorous demonstration of how to operate the toilet, it was time for dinner. Petra doubles as chef aboard the Mintaka and whipped up a fantastically saucy Coq a Vin. It was delicious and I wasn’t going to shy away from seconds. Night had fallen and it was soon time to get the mast up and set sail into the open ocean. We had picked up some Guinness to enjoy during our sail away. But this was not regular Guinness; rather it was a God-awful Panamanian rendition of the stout that went down horribly on an already very full stomach. Leaving the harbor, the seas became quite rough. This was not good for a stomach full of Coq a Vin and faux-Guinness. Okay, you can see where this is going. Lets just say its going to be a long time before I can have either Guinness or Coq a Vin again, two things I formerly liked very much.
It was definitely time for bed. Catching wind from the sail, the boat was consistently leaning at what seemed like a 45-degree angle. This made sleep quite challenging. It only took us a few hours of constantly rolling on top of each other to realize the key was to sleep along the width of the bed instead of the length. At times the boat was leaning so much that it felt as if we were standing rather than lying. There was also the constant up and down, including some really hard, fast drops that would almost take us airborne at times. We were getting thrown around all over the place. Every 30 minutes or so, it would be time to sit up to puke some more in the bucket, or “bucky” as the German girls affectionately called their companion, as they were battling the same problem. Sometimes in the process we’d get a face full of the prickly pineapples that swung back and forth above the bed. Needless to say, it was a very long night with no sleeping. This was our first time on an overnight sailing trip and it was as if the seas were putting us through a hazing of sorts to break us in.
Day 2: Sailing in San Blas: El Porvenir Island
Finally the morning light began to peak through and we could feel the seas subsiding. We had reached the San Blas islands and entered a protected harbor. Thank goodness! Both the seas and our stomachs had finally calmed. But as soon as we were able to nod off, it was time to get off the boat onto an island to go through immigration.
Now, a little background about the San Blas and the Kuna people who inhabit them: The San Blas islands are a group of remote islands located off of the southeastern coastline of the Panama isthmus. The indigenous Kuna people reside on the islands and although these islands are technically part of Panama, they are self-governing by the Kunas. These indigenous people have their own language, which is only a spoken language and not written. The seclusion of the San Blas islands have helped to keep their culture isolated from the modern world, yet many of the islands graciously welcome the few tourists which come on the handful of backpacker sailboats making the journey between Panama and Colombia. There are literally hundreds of islands in this chain and roughly 50 are said to be inhabited. During our upcoming few days we would even see some islands that were no more than a few dozen feet long and a few dozen feet wide, with only a couple sparse palm trees and a single thatched-roof hut on it, occupied by a fisherman. Pretty amazing. Extremely basic, but he sure does have some nice waterfront property.
Anyhow, back to our voyage: From the immigration stop, it was off to El Porvenir Island, where we’d thankfully stay anchored until the next day. After a nice snorkel and some lunch, we set off to walk around the small island with a Kuna village of what seemed like just a few dozen people. It only took about 15 minutes for a slow walk around the entire island during this overcast afternoon.
The Kuna women would smile or say “hola” as we passed their humble homes made of palms, while the Kuna children and a dog were played nearby.
By dusk it was time to retire back to the Mintaka. After being awake for nearly 40 hours, a few hours of snorkeling/swimming, and another amazing yet coma-inducing dinner by Petra (this time a 3-course steak dinner), we slept like rocks.
Day 3: Sailing the San Blas: Western Hollandes Islands
The third day took us a few hours’ relatively calm sail to Western Hollandes islands. We were well rested and the clouds had cleared up nicely. Dolphins jumped alongside the boat as if to greet us while we spotted small remote islands in the distance. Ahhh, now this was what we signed up for.
Upon reaching the islands we went for another snorkel and the reef there was amazing. Colorful live coral abounded while schools of fish and other marine life swam around. In certain spots wave broke on this shallow reef and you would need to be careful to avoid getting sucked in to the wave. Lifting your head out of the water to clear your mask revealed pristine seclude palm-tree lined beaches. It was hard to determine if the more beautiful site was above or below the water.
After a swim back to the boat, we then went onto the island. We walked around its perimeter and that’s when we came across two Kuna men who had returned from fishing and were trying to hoist their wooden boat back on to land. Myself and the other guys on our sailing trip jumped in to help them out. They were very thankful and appreciative of our assistance.
Meanwhile our captain was searching around the island for the chief and his wife. They all turned back up and after introductions we were seated and treated to fresh coconut water. One of the men who we helped with the boat came back to crack the fresh coconuts for us, one by one.
Captain Manfred had brought some Panamanian rum to spice up the coconuts and turn them into what’s known as “coco locos.” He also presented the chief and his wife with some coffee and chocolate as gifts. Chief Julio and his wife were very friendly and welcoming. The chief spoke some Spanish but his wife only spoke the Kuna language. It was all still enough to make small talk and pleasantries with them as we sipped our coco locos with the island village’s leader. One thing we found out was that due to death and divorce this was actually the chief’s seventh wife! Wow. I think this one’s a keeper but time will tell.
Day 4: Sailing the San Blas Islands: Coco Bandera
Our fourth day took us to yet another San Blas island, Coco Bandera, or as Captain Manfred would joke, “Same shit, different fucking island.” Sure, we would be doing the same routine: snorkel, lunch, relax, walk around an island; but he had saved the best for last. As we cruised up in the morning, we could see that this cluster of islands was absolutely stunning and truly postcard worthy. The waters were magnificent shade of light blue and crystal clear.
I found the snorkeling here to be the best of three destinations. Visibility was probably dozens of feet and fish were everywhere. But it was also enjoyable to just float and relax in the ocean on the side of the boat and relish the amazing water with serine island vistas that surrounded.
See the video below for a peek around the beach and below the water of these majestic islands.
The two of us decided to briefly break away and take a quick swim over to a little nearby island to have a look around. There we ran into a Kuna man who was chopping down coconuts with a machete. He approached us and in Spanish told us this was “mi isla” (his island) and demanded two dollars each for being on it. We were unaware the island carried an entrance fee so we had not brought any cash with us during our swim over. I told him “Su isla es muy bonita pero no tenemos dinero” (that his island was very beautiful but we didn’t have any money). With machete in hand, he told us he would have our heads if we didn’t give him two dollars. Okay, that was our cue to get back in the water and quickly swim to the boat.
Soon after, this pirate-of-sorts, motored his wooden dinghy up to our sailboat and demanded money from each person onboard. He looked as if he might try to board the Mintaka. But our captain sternly told the crazed Kuna man to leave. Much yelling ensued back-and-forth. Apparently this guy was drunk and just acting foolish. But he was very angry, passionate, and had a machete; all of which definitely made us a bit nervous. Nevertheless Captain Manfred firmly stood his ground and after about five minutes of yelling, the drunken Kuna man went off to harass the few other boats anchored in this harbor. Manfred said they’ve never encountered anything like that before as the Kuna people are typically very peaceful and friendly.
After that excitement, we then took Mintaka’s dinghy to the most beautiful island we’ve ever been to. Ever. This island took no more than about three minutes to walk around the entire perimeter, which had pristine beaches and palm tree clusters in the middle. It was truly paradise. It would have been very easy to just waste the entire day away here.
As we sat on this island, no one wanted to leave. The last several days had been very easy sailing, mostly behind protective barrier reefs. But now it would be time to cut across the open ocean from Panama to Colombia. As we took the dinghy past another anchored boat, they were shocked to learn that we were setting sail in the over 3-meter (9+ foot) seas ahead. These other boats were instead waiting it out for the seas to calm before continuing onward. Their comments were not very encouraging but Manfred just shrugged it off. This final portion of our voyage would take about 40 hours total with no more islands to break up the trip along the way. After our awful first night, we were absolutely dreading what was about to take place over the next two nights and day.
But at least this time, we were prepared. We dosed up on seasickness pills, ate a lighter meal, and didn’t touch any booze. As we sailed off towards Colombia, the sun dipped down into the horizon and the seas predictably began churning up. To take our minds off the all the rocking, we played some stupid mind games amongst each other and listened to some of Manfred’s sailing tales, like how he sailed the Mintaka across the Atlantic and that time he thwarted a Somali pirate attack.
Day 5: Sailing to Cartagena, Colombia
It was slightly eerie but also awesome being out in the middle of the ocean with a pitch-black backdrop and nothing else around for miles and miles. But around midnight we saw a dim light that was getting closer and closer. Manfred seemed thrown-off because the colored lights were not in the correct spot for a sailing vessel. In a matter of seconds we realized we were going to be in a collision with this other boat, which seemed to have just sprung up out of nowhere. We made a sharp-left 90-degree turn to avoid hitting the sailboat that appeared to be spinning in place in the middle of the ocean. Manfred had theorized the person at the helm of the other boat had fallen asleep at the wheel. We’ll never know exactly what the heck was going on here, but it sure did jolt in some excitement to the otherwise uneventful night.
It was also a nice diversion to keep our minds away from all the rocking that was taking place. We were going over huge swells. Up and down, several feet, over and over. We all felt pretty nauseous but the seasickness medication seemed to be doing its trick too, as we also were getting sleepy. The seas were even rougher than during our first night. But we were becoming more accustomed to sailing life, prepared ourselves better and managed to get a few hours of broken sleep this time.
Then we had a full day of sailing and bouncing around to look forward to. Some remained hulled up in their births most of the day trying to sleep it off. Others came up to get fresh air and gaze out at the horizon. We mostly just sat around, many of us queasy, tired, and in somewhat of a dazed stupor. I would say that this was a very long day at sea but it somehow managed to go by pretty quickly. Many of us liberally popped seasickness pills to not only help with the nausea but also in an attempt to knock us out. A few folks slept, or at least laid down in bed most of the 40 hours, coming up only to eat a little something or use the bathroom. “Bucky” only made a brief encore appearance. For those of us up on the deck, we kept an eye on the fishing line being trolled behind the boat. We got one bite but the line broke loose upon reeling it in.
So no fresh fish for dinner tonight. Instead Petra used the shark meat from a catch during their last sail and made a delicious green curry out of it. The boat was so rocky and sidewise that I could barely walk through the cabin, so it was a pretty amazing feat to be able to cook a curry dinner with all the motion, but somehow she managed to pull it off and scrumptiously so, even with upset bellies.
During the final night as we approached Cartagena, the seas were probably at their worst. This was the first time in which water was constantly coming over onto the deck. The few of us that remained on top of the deck got soaked. It only got worse from there. As we retreated to our births, Manfred and Petra stayed up to battle the sea. The mighty Mintaka seemed to slice right through some of the swells as water continued to slosh up and over the ship. Other times the boat just pounded and crashed right up and over them. More seasickness pills please!
Day 6: Arriving in Cartagena Colombia from Panama
The morning finally arrived. I popped up top to find flat seas and mercifully sighted land. It was Cartagena! We made had made it! Another hour or so took us into the port and eventually onto dry solid land. I could have kissed the ground.
Yes, the rough seas took a toll on us but ultimately it was very worth it for a fantastic trip overall, particularly three awesomely magical days in the spectacular San Blas islands. This was an undeniably excellent way to get from Panama to Cartagena and a great experience.
If You Go Sailing From Panama to Colombia:
We sailed with the Mintaka. We would definitely recommend them and give them a good review. They run a tight ship, have a nice boat, take small groups, and probably have the best meals of any of the backpacker boats sailing this route. The price of the Mintaka sailing in March 2014 was $529 per person, which is very much inline with the price of other boats. This is all inclusive of meals, water, and entry fees/taxes. If you can’t sail with the Mintaka, there are a number of other reputable sailboats but make sure to vet them out wisely based on their track record and your preferences (e.g., a party boat with a lot of people may be a good or bad thing, depending on your travel preferences). Also, head the warnings of taking seasickness pills. I rarely get seasick but did in this case. Lastly, bring a good attitude. You’re on a boat for six days. Have fun, relax, enjoy the company of others, and help around the boat when you can. It will all make your experience that much better. Enjoy the voyage and feel free to shoot us an email with any questions.