Sailing from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands was definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far. Absolute paradise.
After having researched a number of different options, including the cheaper option of the speed boat by San Blas Adventures, and cheap flights from Panama City to Colombia (the cheapest of which was actually with Spirit Airlines flying via Miami…! ‘cos that makes sense!), we decided that the San Blas Islands could not be missed, so we might as well throw in the new experience of sailing in a real sailboat too! Even though I highly expected to be sick…a lot! I was, but here you will see why it was still worth it!
What to expect from your trip:
Most trips seem to have a similar price (around $550 inc food and accommodation) for a 5 day/4 night trip. The length of time can vary depending on the crossing between the San Blas Islands and Colombia (we did it in a record time for our captain – 31 hours! This was definitely long enough for me!) We did the trip from 14th-18th February 2015.
This is what we did, and most boats seem to offer very similar schedules.
Night or morning before departure: Meet the Captain and crew. We got to know who they were, and the got to know who we were, as well as us meeting the other guests on the boat (in our case there were 20 of us! But that is one of the biggest groups).
Day 1: Boarded the boat. We basically had the whole day free so stocked up on booze for the boat (we got in the sailing mood and took rum and mixed it with Tang, this powdered squash stuff which tastes much better than it sounds! Others took tequilla, and lots of beer). We set sail after dinner and sailed through the night so we could wake up in the San Blas Islands. This was the roughest part of our trip, and we hadn’t come close to getting our sea legs yet, although I think usually it is the longer journey that is worse. It was kinda funny as we were all in a bit of a party mood, but within 5 minutes of setting sail, everyone had retired to their beds and it was each man for himself! The sick began, and the boat was certainly rocking, but not in the way we would have liked!!
Days 2-4: We spent this time sailing around the San Blas Islands. We visited a range of islands, some uninhabited, some with a village on, some with a few people or one person living there. The Kuna Yala are the indigenous people on the islands. They take it in turns to manage different islands, sent there by the elders. They fish, and have a strong community spirit, and seemingly a great way of life!
We spent the days sunbathing, snorkeling on the reef (stunning), fishing, exploring the islands, and generally chilling out. We spent the evenings on a different island each night where we watched the sun go down, had bonfires on various islands and drank fresh coconut milk (made into Coco Locos by adding a bit of rum…gotta be done!). On one night some of the group slept in hammocks on the island, but as Alex and I had the best bed in the boat (private cabin!) we decided to make the most of that.
…you get the picture!
Days 4-5: The “real” sailing adventure began! 31 hours to Cartagena, apparently the sea was calm (according to Youyou…I’m not so sure!) Admittedly, it wasn’t as rough as our first night, where the boat was literally at a 45 degree angle or more and atheists were praying for their lives…but it was still a bit of a strain on the old stomach! On the plus side, I lost weight! Haha. Alex did manage to catch a big fish in the deep sea though (over 3000m deep when he looked), and it was an interesting experience as we imagined spending months at sea! You couldn’t see land at all; we had a 360 degree view of the sea, with the occasional big cargo ship.
We arrived in Cartagena at about midnight and awoke to see the city lights and tall sky high buildings. A bit of a change from our starlit sky of the San Blas, but this is the wonder of travel I guess. We went back to sleep in the calm bay, knowing that the sailing was now over…phew! We had to wait around for a while for our visas to get sorted, so we had some breakfast, sorted out our stuff, and eventually were shuttled to the shore at about 10am, ready to explore a new country and continent!
Top tips to sailing in the San Blas:
Do your research about the boat and captain. We did loads of research and chose Wildcard partly because of its size (one of the biggest doing the trip, therefore less movement) but also because of its good reputation. We actually found finding reviews fairly difficult, even on TripAdvisor, so we spent a long time searching the internet and eventually went with our gut instinct and chose Wildcard. We booked through Blue Sailing but also got information from Hostel Mamallena in Panama City. Even when we had decided on a boat and thought we had found out about the captain, it turned out that we had a totally different crew to what we expected (they seem to swap boats around a lot, so we didn’t have the owner who is on the website, or the South African couple we were told about through some information we received!). Fortunately, Captain Youyou (he’s Polish) and his crew were awesome so we were happy. Axel, our amazing French cook, and Oscar, from Honduras, made up a dream team and we felt total trust in them. Alex was keen to get a bit involved in the boat as well and he had a go at the wheel, as well as doing some fishing (feeding all 23 of us on board!) and helping pull up the anchor. Of course, none of this is mandatory!
Consider where the boat is leaving from and arriving to. Most boats seemed to go from El Porvenir, which is one of the San Blas Islands. It seems that you have more boat options from going here, however you should also consider that it costs about US$50 to get here from Panama City by jeep and boat, and you can’t do it yourself. This was once incentive for us to take a boat that left from Portabelo, as we got local buses there for about $5 each (2 changes and about 4 hours from Panama City). If you decide to get a boat from Portabelo, it might be worth considering booking through Captian Jack’s. This is the hostel where you will probably stay in Portabelo and if you book your trip through him, apparently you get a free nights stay! Also, consider that some boats don’t actually arrive in Cartagena, and you have to get buses, boats, taxis etc to get there and do customs/visas. It is worth at least knowing so you can be prepared in advance for these extra costs and/or time.
Pack light! You barely need anything on your trip – we didn’t even wear shoes for the entire time. Your big bag will probably be stowed away somewhere else on the boat so they aren’t all lying around, but you might be able to access it if you ask the captain nicely. We just took small bags with suncream, swimming cozzies, something long for the evenings (light trousers and top), sarong/towel, wetwipes (not much chance of freshwater showers), maybe a book and ipod , (we’ve actually got really into listening to audiobooks, downloaded free from the Library. Hours of fun!), and of course…booze! Although we did find out that you can buy beer on the islands for about $1.50 per can, but it is much cheaper to bring your own!
TAKE SEASICKNESS TABLETS! Not that they actually stopped us from feeling or being sick, but who knows how bad it would have been without them! I was really badly seasick and most of our group were sick too (although I think I broke some sort of record!). After about 5 minutes of sailing on our first night we were all lying down (the best relief from seasickness, better than being outside in the fresh air even), while the boat was rocking its way through the waves (I tried to imagine I was on a rollercoaster! We all had craaaazy dreams too.) Buy more tablets than you think you’ll need, and the strongest you can get! If you don’t use them all, you might become someone’s best friend 🙂
All in all, despite my seasickness problems, (which weren’t helped by a few too many Coco Loco’s one night…oops) this was an amazing experience and I would definitely recommend it! The San Blas Islands are absolute paradise and should not be missed!