17/02/2014 - 21/02/2014
The plan from the beginning for Panama was to hightail it to Panama City where we could take a small dose of a first world city (think nice restaurants and big shopping malls) before setting sail on our planned crossing to Colombia.
Our entry into Panama was a breeze, except for the crossing of a long and decrepit railway bridge. It was a long drop and the walkway was made of old, unfastened railway sleepers. Amber was unimpressed. Once across, the immigration process was a snack and we began our scenic, but otherwise uneventful journey south to Panama City.
We had chosen to stay at the large Luna’s Castle Hostel in the Casco Viejo part of Panama City. It was a beautiful area that has recently begun a vigorous rejuvenation after years of being a slum that was riddled with crime. Gorgeous colonial architecture abounds, with some fantastic looking hotels, bars and restaurants, all interspersed with ruinous, un-renovated originals.
Around a 10 minute walk from our hostel takes you to Panama City’s famous fish markets, where you can choose from a vast number of stalls selling freshly prepared ceviche and fried fish. It was cheap and delicious, washed down with a cold beer.
A box we needed to tick was a visit to one of the City’s large, world class shopping malls as we both had various items of clothing that needed replacing and we needed rain jackets for our intended hike in Peru. It was an easy way to kill a day, roaming those giant halls of consumerism. One could easily forget you were in Central America…
A visit to Panama City would not be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. The Miraflores lock, only a short cab ride away, has a fantastic museum and large viewing platforms from where to watch the passage of ships.
The museum did a great job on the history of the canal, its construction and the economic benefits it has brought to Panama. It was pretty spectacular seeing a giant container ship pass through the lock too.
Any opportunity for Amber to play Candy Crush
As those travellers planning to cross from Central into South America in the cheapest way will quickly realize, the land crossing through the Darien Gap at the very bottom of the Central American Isthmus is practically impossible. Geographically you read that it is impassable mountains, jungles and swamps. Politically, it is the wild, wild west, or worse.
----I keep an eye on the smarttraveller.gov.au website for specific country’s travel advice and very rarely does the Australian Government flat out recommend “DO NOT TRAVEL”. The Darien Gap is one of these places.
So your options are basically to fly across (generally expensive) or to book passage on a private yacht that sails the Caribbean to Cartagena, Colombia. We opted for this. -----
We heavily researched what boat we wanted to take as there are some true horror stories out there for crappy food and just plain negligence, and taking into account what dates we roughly wanted to depart, we settled on the African Queen. It was a 40t catamaran with space for 10 guests, skippered by an Italian and crewed by his Colombian girlfriend. The group we’d be sharing the voyage with consisted of three Argentinian lads, a Canadian girl, a German girl, a Dutch guy and another Australian couple. They were all fantastic and everyone got along great.
The African Queen
We were collected from our hostel in the wee hours where, bundled bleary eyed into a 4x4, we were to be taken to the coast to meet the boat roughly 2-3hrs away. The itinerary was to spend 3 nights in the San Blas islands before making the 24hr open water crossing to Cartagena, on the north coast of Colombia.
The San Blas islands are a group of 378 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited, and are apart of an autonomous region controlled by the Kuna Indian people. Many of the islands contain a single family, with their income coming from tourism (pay to dock), fishing and coconuts. It was a truly beautiful area, with the stereotypical picture perfect island views.
We motored around to various islands, swam, snorkeled and lay around on the boat getting to know one another better. It was bliss. One afternoon, Rudy, our Captain, took off on the launch with his scuba gear only to return an hour later with catch of huge lobsters and crabs, which made for a delicious lunch and dinner.
Crabs for sale
All of us were completely blown away by the quality of the food on board. Rudy, being Italian, and his girlfriend really understood balance and flavor and it showed in all of the meals. Nothing too complicated but seriously delicious and fresh seafood pastas. Our last night in San Blas was spent on an island no bigger than a soccer pitch, where two families, a bar and a beach volleyball court existed. Drinking beer (albeit warm), playing volleyball with the family and a bonfire was a great way to end the day.
Due to it being the windy season, Rudy changed the itinerary slightly, leaving San Blas a day earlier and stopping the night in the shelter of the Colombian islands of San Bernardo. He assured us it would be easier on everyone and the boat, rather than bashing up wind and heading direct to Cartagena. Once out of the shelter of the San Blas islands it became evident to all that the crossing was going to be rough regardless. The seas were at least 3m with the odd wave that really made the boat seem small. The front deck was off limits and all of the portholes were closed. Seasickness set in quite quickly for some but as Amber and I had been popping Dramamine, we managed to sleep in 4-hour chunks and avoid any bucket time. This also made the time pass rather quickly, which was perfect. The crossing was not uneventful though as during our dinner service, with the boat pitching and tossing and trying to keep plates and cups from sliding away, a huge wave broke over the bow, rushed up the cabin roof and poured into our dining area on the aft deck. Within an instant everyone’s plates were washed clean and all were soaked through. Some even had their smartphone ruined from the soaking. The funniest part was Rudy and his girlfriend giggling, as they were high and dry in the galley cooking and serving. In the many years he has been making this crossing, never has a wave made it that far aft in the boat. Lucky us.
A pod of dolphins paid us a visit
We awoke early the next morning to find the boat at anchor in the shelter of the picture perfect Isla Mucura of the Archipelago de San Bernardo, with the water glass calm. We were now in Colombia!
Another idyllic day of snorkeling and sun bathing, along with a land visit to a colorful community. That night Rudy got everyone into carnival spirit and we had a great night partying under the stars, cranking the music on the boat, drinking rum cocktails.
Rudy in Carnaval spirit
The Argentinian boys
The following day was a simple motor/sail up the coast to our destination, Cartagena, with a stop to explore the Rosario Islands. Some of these beautiful islands were home to some spectacular holiday houses, owned by the rich and famous, and also home to ruinous, discarded mansions once the possessions of drug cartel figures. As we motored into Cartagena, it was cool to see all of the fortifications still standing from Spanish colonial times, for protection against pirates and raiding armadas. Once in port, Rudy disappeared with all of our passports to deliver them to his immigration representative. We were given a meeting time the next day to go and collect them.
And thus ended our sailing trip. It was everything we had hoped it would be and then some. We were really fortunate to have shared the trip with such a wonderful group of fellow travellers, and have found such a great boat with Rudy as our skipper.