Sailing the San Blas Islands

Or: Getting from Panama to Colombia
Or: Picking a Boat for the San Blas

San Blas

You can’t go overland from Panama to Colombia. This is something we came to realise a couple of months into the trip. Well, let me rephrase that: You can go overland from Panama to Colombia, but it would require passing through the infamous Darien Gap, over 11,000 square kilometres of virtually impassable jungle littered with things and people that will very truly harm you if you stumble upon their path. This leaves two practical ways to get from Panama to Colombia: by air or by sea.

Flights are easy enough and will get you there quickly. A one-way flight from Panama City to Cartagena will run you about $350 (I’m sure this varies with season). Easy, bam, done. Or, you can go by sea, which includes the immeasurable added bonus of seeing the San Blas Islands off of the coast of Panama.

True enough, someone could leave the coast of Panama and head straight to Colombia by boat, and I’ve heard murmurs of land-speedboat-bus combinations that will actually get you to Colombia for a fraction of the price of a San Blas sailing trip, but it’s hardly as much fun that way.

There are two popular ways of doing the Panama-to-Colombia-via-the-San-Blas. There is San Blas Adventures / The Darien Gapster that motors groups to the islands on a four-day, three-night trip and deposits passengers just over the border in Colombia. This trip is cheaper than the sailboat options, at $375 inclusive. However, it also requires travel to Carti on the Panama side (around $60) and to a desirable city – probably Medellin or Cartagena on the Colombian side (around $65), so those costs need to be kept in mind as well.

The other option is to sail. These boats typically leave from either Portobelo or Carti in Panama, spend three nights around the islands, and then make the long, 40-ish hour journey over open seas from the islands to Cartagena. There are a large number of boats that vary considerably in size, crew, and quality, but they basically all come in at the same $550 price tag. The notable difference in price comes from departure point. Boats departing from Portobelo can be accessed by bus from Panama City for around $8. Boats departing from Carti require a jeep/boat transport combination, that comes in around $60.

There are several sites that act as booking agents for different boats doing the trip. Luna’s Castle in Panama City is a great hostel in Casco Viejo that can organise trips. Blue Sailing has most boats on offer as well. Captain Jack’s hostel in Portobelo books boats as well, and offers a free night of accommodation with the booking (try this with other hostels and you’ll probably have luck). However, Captain Jack’s is more of a bar with beds, with less-than-average staff, expensive food, and no real kitchen. There are a couple of local guesthouses to stay at, or a few places out of town, but Jack’s is basically where everyone stays in Portobelo. They will tell you that you need to be there the day before departure for a team meeting, but our team meeting never took place at either of the times we’d been told (7 p.m. or 10 a.m. the next morning) and we didn’t depart until about 4 p.m. the following afternoon.

Mainly because it was the only boat leaving on the day we wanted to, and I’d seen a couple of positive reviews online, we booked our trip on a boat called Wild Card, and got ready to experience the San Blas.

San Blas Island

There’s almost an island for every day of the year. And plenty of them, arguably the best of them, are nothing more than a patch of white sand with a single palm tree. The largest of the islands are home to local Kuna villagers, small shops, basic bars, and immigration offices. We began our journey from Portobelo, Panama in the afternoon. 16 of us boarded Wild Card, in addition to our Captain, Kiwi John, his deckhand, another Kiwi named Blair, and our cook, Gladys. There were also three motorbikes on board. (As a side note, this is a practical option if one is motorbiking this section of the world.) And two cats, Gato and Little One. Cats on a sailboat are an excellent touch.

As would be the case for most of our journey, the winds weren’t particularly in our favour for the majority of the trip out to the islands, and we motored rather than sailed. About half of the people on board didn’t take too well to the rocking seas and suffered from seasickness during the first stretch of our journey. When we woke in the morning, there we were – cruising alongside a smattering of beyond-picture-perfect islands. The weather, as expected at the beginning of the rainy season, wasn’t putting on too spectacular of a show, and we had grey skies and drizzle. It did little to detract from the beauty of the spot, however, and simply made the sea feel even warmer.

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One of the first islands we visited was home to a small local village. The children flocked around us as we arrived, mainly due to the supply of cookies we’d been given by the captain to hand out – one at a time – to the kids. For such a small place it seemed as though there were an incredible amount of children all hovering around the same age and height. We walked most of the way through the village in a matter of minutes. It had been raining and the dirt paths had become small rivers. Everyone was in bare feet, our shoes stored in the cargo hold, somewhere in the boat. The Kuna women approached, persistent but not aggressive, selling local crafts and wares. Beaded bracelets adorn the legs and arms of most of the local women. As the one souvenir I’ve been picking up consistently on this trip, I couldn’t resist the urge to own such a unique and prevalent part of the local dress. When I picked out my bracelet from the many on offer, I was surprised to see it unravel to be several feet long – it was simply a long piece of string with tiny beads that, when tied in the intricate fashion that is custom, forms a nice, symmetrical pattern. The woman I purchased the bracelet from took a few minutes to tie it onto my arm, and I walked away happy with my piece of the islands.

Bracelet San Blas

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

It didn’t take long for Connor, an Irishman from our boat, to join in with the young boys’ game of football. A few of the other guys joined in, but as the rain started again and most of us ran for cover, Connor remained out in the mud, spraying kids with spatters of wet earth as the ball went flying around the clearing in the village.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

It was some time later when a tentative game of volleyball began with a few of the older girls from the village and some of us from the boat. The girls were much more reserved and they giggled behind their hands as they asked us questions about our lives and tried to teach us words in Kuna.

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

There is a level of sensitivity with taking photos of Kuna people, particularly children. The rule of thumb is to always ask, and sometimes pay. Tim payed one of the main men from the village the posted $2, though we were unclear whether this was meant to be per photo or per camera, and we didn’t delve too deeply to try to find out.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

After rain and fun and games and playing, we headed back to our boat. We travelled through the islands to our next destination, a small island occupied by a family or two. We settled on the price of $1 per person for the use and enjoyment of their island, and whiled away the better part of the afternoon playing beach volleyball and slacklining. It felt completely surreal and far beyond the realm of my reality to be lounging amongst these incredibly beautiful islands. Luckily the sun tended to make appearances at the most crucial moments – much of our travelling was done in rain but most of our time on the islands was fine weather.

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San Blas Beauty

In the morning of our second day of the islands, we went to – quite possibly – the most beautiful place we visited during the trip. There was quite good snorkelling in the reefs alongside the island, and on land things just got better. The sand was flawless, soft, white and tinged with pink, dusted fragments of coral.

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We saw a hammock and the remains of a couple of fires. There wasn’t much else on the island, apart from countless palm trees and their coconut droppings. In the islands, the coconuts are viewed as Kuna property, even if they are lying seemingly unwanted on the ground. It is a large income source for the community, and they will charge you $1 for them to fetch you a coconut from a tree and prepare it for you. Even when no one is around, tourists aren’t supposed to take the coconuts (I’ve heard there is actually a fine if you are found doing this). 20140516-IMG_1706

I could have happily stayed on this island for quite some time (provided, of course, I was allowed to eat the coconuts as sustenance). Again, the reality of what we were doing hit me as I wandered the outstanding beach and stole glances at our waiting boat, anchored at sea. This archipelago of islands truly is a gem, and I presume to never come across such perfection much again in life.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Once everyone had made their way back to the boat, dragging themselves away from this bit of a paradise we had been lucky enough to grace, we ate a light lunch en route to our next island. Here was where we fulfilled all hidden fantasies akin to Pirates of the Caribbean – I jumped off of the boat, quickly followed by my massive bottle of rum (which, incidentally, floats when half-full) and swam over to a deserted island. Here we drank rum from the bottle, scrounged wood for a bonfire, and participated in general merriment.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

After dinner, we returned to the island where – depending who you speak to – things quickly went downhill. Whether a bit of a lightweight when encountered by rum or whether there were drugs involved, we aren’t entirely sure. What is certain is that the inner pyromaniac emerged from one of our fellow boat-ers, and he proceeded to burn everything within reach. It was first time a little bit of dissention, which had been felt at times amongst the group, really came to light. Many abandoned the fire and gave up on attempts to speak rationally to the instigators. Even more frustrating, for me at least, was the attitude of the boats’ crew. Both the captain and deckhand expressed dissatisfaction with how the fire-starters were acting and cited concern for the Kuna as a major contributing factor. This was their land, their trees, and wood that they would undoubtably use at some point that was now needlessly being burnt. However, there was no attempt to stop or control the fire. At one point, the captain joined in the frenzy and began dragging logs towards the fire and tossing them on. This is about when a few of us gave up and headed back to the boat.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The next day, we woke up, once again, to the rain. This time, things got a little bit more hectic. With the stronger winds, the captain put of the sails and we had some of the only sailing on our trip. Unfortunately, the weather came in stronger than expected, the winds picked up, and the main sail of the boat couldn’t handle it. It was apparently quite old, and it shredded from the stress of the conditions. As Tim and Blair struggled in the rain to bring down the sail, conditions got worse. The lightning that had been flashing on the horizon was getting increasingly near, and our huge metal mast was by far the tallest thing for miles around. The San Blas are generally entirely flat islands, and there is nothing larger than a palm tree gracing hardly any of them. A lightning strike would have fried all of the electronics on board, and we would have been very poor off in that instance. With the storm, the GPS navigation was lost, and it wasn’t long before visibility went as well – you could scarcely see the end of the boat from the cabin. Due to the numerous islands and plentiful reef in the San Blas, the captain was left to do circles almost in place, for fear of running aground.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

As the weather cleared, spirits lifted, and we anchored next to our last island stop. There was a small shop on land where Tim and I bought one of the unique embroidery works done by the locals. There was more of what we enjoyed for so long – swimming and jumping off of the boat, snorkelling and lounging in the sun. We finished our time in the San Blas with a locally caught lobster dinner (of which I tried to enjoy some of – I have yet to develop a taste for ocean-creatures found in shells). After a stunning sunset, we were off. The point of this trip, of course, was as a mode of transport to get us to Colombia. Now all that lay between us and Cartagena was 40 hours of open seas.

We began in the evening, and most people assumed their go-to poses to ward off seasickness. Generally, this involves being flat on deck, with as minimal movement as possible. We headed to bed early, Tim and I assuming our sideways positions in bed to avoid rolling from side to side too much. We woke up to open seas. It was a full day on the ocean, and some people did better than others. I remained sickness-free from a conscious effort of doing little more than napping for the better part of the day. As soon as it was dark enough, I headed to bed, popped a seasickness tablet for the drowsy effects, and slept for about 12 hours. By morning, it was only four hours or so until land, and the sea got increasingly calm as we neared the Colombian coast. The skyscrapers of Cartagena rose in the distance, and we saw our destination for hours before we finally anchored in the harbour.

 

Thoughts on the San Blas trip, and Review of Wild Card

Deciding to journey through the San Blas as a way of getting between Panama and Colombia is a big decision – mainly due to the high price tag. Here are some things to think about when deciding whether or not to book the trip.

  • It is, technically, more expensive than flying. However, it doesn’t actually work out too much worse on your daily budget (yes, there may be an element of justification in this argument, but hear me out.) Say a flight costs you $350. With accommodation for a night, transport to and from the airport, and food for a day, let’s assume you spend about $380 that day. For the next four days, you are back on budget at $40/day, so this gives you a total of $540 over five days, or $108/day. A San Blas trip will cost you $550 over five nights. Add in some snacks, alcohol, and souvenirs from the island and guess that you spent about $600 over five days – $120/day. Yes, this is way beyond what any self-respecting budget backpacker would be comfortable spending on a daily basis, even for a short amount of time, but it truly is worth it.
  • Pick your boat wisely. Have a range of dates that could work for your departure, see what boats are leaving on those days, and then do a bit of research. Find reviews online, ask a lot of questions of the booking agent, and make sure you feel comfortable with your choice. We heard horror stories of boats travelling over the same dates as ours (for the same price) with nearly certifiable captains, leaky boats, and terrible food.
  • Find out where your boat is departing from. As mentioned above, Portobelo departures save you a lot on transportation costs over those departing from the islands themselves.
  • You are not going on a luxury sailing trip. Even though us backpackers may choke on the price, these are still budget trips. Expect average food, less-than-outstanding crew, and crowded sleeping quarters.
  • You can see the San Blas without the open sea crossing. Plenty of companies offer trips to the San Blas that depart and return to Panama. If your principal motivation for the trip is the islands, you aren’t intending to travel to Colombia, or money is on your side, you can visit the islands for a few days and return to Panama.
  • Take sea sickness tablets. Even if you have never been sea sick in your life, just bring them. They’re dirt cheap in the pharmacies, and even if you don’t use them other people will probably need them.

Wild Card?

Overall, the boat was, I think, about as good as most. The boat itself is in pretty decent condition and sleeping quarters are adequate. We requested a cabin, which we luckily got and it was very nice. There are two bathrooms on board – one of them is in one of the cabins so it makes for a lack of privacy/barging into other people’s rooms, depending where you are sleeping. The food was decent as well. One person complained they weren’t getting enough, but if you asked for seconds there was always plenty to go around. Tim eats enough for at least two regular people and he never went hungry. A typical days’ menu would be corn flakes and coffee or tea as people woke, followed by a more substantial second breakfast of tortillas with eggs or something like that around 11 a.m. Everyone was always quite hungry by lunch, which tended to be light: ham and cheese on white bread, a salad, etc. Dinners were well done – spaghetti Bolognese, chicken curry, lobster. The vegetarians may have actually eaten better than the meat-eaters on the boat, as I think the veggie curry knocked the chicken curry out of the park.

The only real complaints I heard from people on the boat, and some of these views I shared, were about the captain. And there were completely different opinions on this as well. Tim, who has spent a lot of time on boats, maintains that boat captains tend to be a bit grumpy and hard to get on with, that there tends to be tension between the captain and the deckhand, and that all of the important things were taken care of: namely, the safety of everyone on the boat was never put at risk. Valid points. However, the captain’s very brusque way of dealing with people – everyone from his staff to the guests on the boat – definitely left a few people a bit bothered. I also found he had an apparent disrespect for the Kuna people – this was manifested in everything from his actions at the bonfire to stating he didn’t care if anyone took coconuts – despite it being reasonably common knowledge that this is not seen as suitable by the local people. At the same time, he supported the locals by visiting a number of different islands, and buying large amounts of fish and lobster from the fisherman, which everyone on the boat appreciated. The boat had recently run into some drama that was beyond their control, so it is safe to assume those experiences have put a bit of a downer on running trips. I honestly think, though, that the captain is just over it. He’s been running these trips for seven years and spoke repeatedly about thinking about getting out soon and sailing in Asia or somewhere different. There is little effort on the captain’s part to make the trip an outstanding experience for the passengers, which is unfortunate. As Tim said, however, the truly important thing is that our safety was never compromised and we never doubted that we were in good hands – some of the boats that do this crossing unfortunately do not have that luxury.

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2 thoughts on “Sailing the San Blas Islands

  1. Thank you so much for your thorough and excellent blog! I am trying to decide now whether to sail with Wild Card next week or fly (currently $250 one way) so your blog was very helpful. Someone told me that a couple may be running this boat at the moment, but I’m not sure. Sounded like a real experience!

    • Thanks for the comment! It is definitely an experience, and I would recommend sailing over flying if you have the cash and the time. You meet some amazing people and the islands are absolutely stunning – just be prepared for the fact that it is not a luxury trip. Enjoy your trip!

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