All around me – nothing but turqoise water. This endless world is only interrupted by small white islands with green palm trees, they carry coconuts which sway in the wind. A light breeze gently rocks my hammock. At the same time I am surrounded by the smell of fresh seafood. I am on board a sail boat that is sailing between the San Blas islands along the Caribbean side of Panama, heading to Columbia.
But let me start from the beginning. Ever since my childhood when various Janosh books were part of the evening reading routine this country has been on my bucket list. According to the tiger and the bear ‘Panama has the sweet smell of bananas’. I had to go investigate that. My plan was to take a land route all the way to Bolivia. To my big surprise I learned that there is no land connection for traveling between Panama and Columbia! It always looks so nice on the map but the reality is jungle and mangroves that make it impossible to move through that area. On top of that there are several guerilla groups which we as Gringos do not want to run into. That left me with two options: flying to Columbia or a cruise. White beaches, palm trees, fresh fish… the decision was quickly made.
San Blas Adventures: Sailing to Columbia via the San Blas Islands
Choosing a boat
I did have to get over a small shock though: the price. 5 days cost around 500-550 USD! And still, I opted for sailing in the end. And this much I can tell you, I don’t regret it and without the blink of an eye I would recommend going on this trip! You often hear that these boats need to be booked a long time in advance and that they usually are fully booked to capacity. Nonsense! I was able to head for the islands the next day. Of course, I also had a bit of luck. Depending on how flexible you are you might consider securing your cruise in advance. There are several online agencies that offer trips on different kinds of sail boats and catamarans. I contacted BlueSailing and the communication and planning with them was super fast and simple.
Baruffa, the boat, set sail the next day. You should definitely get some information about your potential boat in advance as there are major differences. My favourite horror story is that a captain simply left 2 boys behind on a tiny island after a fight. If you happen to be sailing under a captain like that you are in trouble! The two were taken in by another catamaran a little later. Some providers also don’t put much effort into planning for food and portable water. And I personally don’t find drunk captains very amusing. But a quick research on the Baruffa revealed nothing but good news. With that I was able to look forward to the trip the next day with great joy.
Preparing for the sailing cruise
Now I only had to take care of some last preparations, buying snacks to be precise. We were supposed to be taken care of on board but you never know. A few cookies never hurt. Alcohol is also not included on the boat. Since I have a week spot for a good beer in the evening I decided to take along some local Panama lager. Another tip I had read about was to take along garbage bags in which you pack all the things in your backpack. This way everything is well protected on the ride with the Lancha, on the sail boat or wherever. Even after the cruise I stuck to this tactic for long strechtes of the journey. It came in handy straight away when 2 cans of bear burst.
Here a list of the most important must-haves:
⁃ enough cash
⁃ medication for sea sickness (z.B. Dramamine)
⁃ garbage bags
⁃ swimming gear
⁃ more must-have in our packing list
Driving from Porvenir to the Baruffa
There was a catch to the whole thing: departure was at 5 am. Not cool. Especially if it goes like this: just before 5 I am outside the hostel. Nothing happens. I was already getting nervous when a car appears, only 40 minutes late. I had been the last one on the pick up run and thus had to squeeze onto a mini mini mini seat in the very back, pretty much in the trunk. Now we were off to the nest gathering point. There we had to put our names on a list and stand around for another 2 hours. There is nothing like standing at 6 in the morning. Finally the miracle happened, things were supposed to move on. I had already made peace with the idea of a very uncomfortable ride when the American from the passenger seat up front came over and asked me if I wanted to swap seats. Even my warning and double checking could not change his intentions. And so I ended up being ushered through the Panama jungle seated like a king on my passenger seat. I am guessing that the American wanted to get closer to the pretty Argentinian. Unfortunately I cannot follow op with details on this love story as our paths parted shortly after that.
The ride was more of a roller coaster ride than a car ride. Luckily the car had a four wheel drive. It is not every day that you have to cross through the jungle like that. The next stop was a little river port. All of a sudden there were hoards of tourists mingeling by a bend in the river. Quite a contrast to the quaint surroundings we had been driving through. And they all were waiting for their Lanchas which would take them to the islands or to their boats. At last it was time to get to know my fellow travellers. I had been thinking that my car homies would also be on the boat with me but I quickly realizes that was not how it worked. And so I found myself standing with an American couple and another German guy. That’s it? That’s it! There were 4 of us. For now in any case. After a little more standing around and waiting our luggage was ‘gently’ hoisted into the boat and were were allowed to take seat. These small boats are pretty powerfull and we ploughed through the waves at a good speed. And there it was: paradise’s first island.
Arrival at Rudy’s and the Baruffa
I had never been to a sail boat before and was pretty excited. We were greeted by our captain Rudy. I turns out captain Rudy is an Italian from South Tirolia and looks like a typical Caribbean sailor: tan, shoulder long sun bleached hair, bandana, sun glasses and always a huge grin on his face. He spoke perfect German, Italian, Spanish and decent English and probably bits and pieces of various other languages. He was accompanied by his Columbian wife who at the same time helped out with everything that needed taking care of on board.
And then the good news was broken to us: instead of the usual 8 travellers we would only be 4 this time. That meant that every one of us had their own cabin. Pure luxury. A 3,5 m² cabin might not be everyone’s definition of luxury but if you think about having to share that space then this seems pretty good. But we could not retire to the hammocks just yet. Before departing we first had to get our exit stamps from Panama. The officers there had the nicest border poast I ever laid eyes on. They were sitting all relaxed on a little island with a few houses, palm trees and a white beach and took our passports. Rudy took care of everything so that we could head for the beach and get our bare feet in the sand. After the formalities were settled we could finally set out to explore the other islands.
The first sea miles
The first run with the Baruffa brought us to a small group of islands. This first tour was a wonderful taste of what was to come the next days. Rudy immediately hung the hammocks so that the tiny islands slipped past us while the sun was shining down on our faces. Way to go. When the anchor plunged into the turquoise water we were allowed to help ourselves to snorchels, diving goggels and finns and make a first excursion under water. The destination: a sand bank between the islands. Already on the way there we could see lots of colourful fish and we had a great overview of the reefs in the area. Apparently they are more dangerous than one might think, there was a shipwreck a little further off. Looks like sailor didn’t pay enough attention here. But we did not dare to go all the way out there.
Back on the boat we prepared our first meal. For the main course there was a lobster for each of us. It was my first lobster and boy did it please me. Together with pasta and garlic it was a wonderful start to the trip.
The rest of the day we had time to explore the surrounding islands. We were greeted by a little pig that followed us around the island. The one island was inhabited by some local Kunas, the local tribe, the other was rather touristy with huts, a small shop and even a bar. We preferred spending the evening on the boat though and enjoyed some of the beer we had brought along. Life is good.
San Blas Life
We spent the next few days in a similar fashion. Another snorcheling trip even ended with a bloody wound for me. All of a sudden a small, particularly cheeky fish appeared and swam around me. I was thrilled and got a few great shots with the underwater camera. The blue and grey fish kept circling me and even nudged my goggles, then he disappeared from my view. Autsch! I had found him again, or, he had found me and mistaken my big toe for a dinner. The fins really only leave a small open gap for the toes but the fish knew exactly where to go and took a hearty bite. I quickly had to get back on board to examine the wound. The captain was shocked at first when I told him I had been bit by a fish. But when I described the fish he calmed down and we treated the injury. In the end it was no big deal and pretty funny actually.
Other highlights of the under water world were a small ray and the very poisonous lion fish. After my previous experience I kept a respectful distance to them. We also got to see a lobster. Of course we thought about catching it and bringing it home for dinner but we had misjudged the lobster. He did not approve of our plan and used the advantage of his knowledge of the area to hide under a rock. Too bad. But our captain had taken proper precautions and even without the lobster we did not have to go hungry.
Menu on board
We were offered nothing but the finest the sea has to offer. There was kings crab, octopus, crawfish, lobster and fish. Rudys philosophy is to serve only what he likes himself. After all, he lives on the boat and does these trips because he loves the islands and sailing and eating well when doing so. Good for us. There also always was a basket of fresh fruit that we could help ourselves from at any time: be it pineapple, mango, papaya or bananas. Especially the mini bananas really did it to me. This is how bananas should taste, no comparison to the supermarket bananas in Germany. Panama really does smell of bananas.
The days went by in no time:
⁃ exploring islands
⁃ eating well
⁃ marveling at sunsets
⁃ and all over again
Before we embarked on the great passage towards Columbia we had to pick up a few last necessities. We went to one of the main island of the Kunas for that. It is quite a contrast to the other paradise islands because it is fully inhabited and seems more like a swimming city from afar. From the outside it also seems pretty dirty due to garbage floating around. While the captain took care of getting what we needed we were free to look around the island. Somebody immediately came up and offered to guide us. Of course he held out his hand expecting a reward in the end. So decide beforehand if you want to participate in the tour. You can also get around the small city on your own pretty well. Surprisingly the city itself is super clean.
Unfortunately many locals are not aware of the concept of integrating modern amenities like plastic bags with a more close-to-nature lifestyle so the majority of the trash is simply dumped in the water. I hope very much that awareness will grow and they don’t destroy the foundation of their own livelihoods with piles of garbage.
The great crossing
We had already heard a lot about the passage to Columbia. And most of those stories were not very positive. Most people recount pretty bad sea sickness. Since I had never had problems on the water I was not really worried. But after checking the weather we had to change our plans. Ongoing wind had brought on waves of over 6 meters so we could not sail to Cartagena as planned and took the easier route along the coast to Sapzurro. Because of this change in plans we were offered to stay on the boat for another night which we gladly accepted.
As soon as we left the protective reefs of the San Blas islands we could feel the waves. The two Americans got sick first, they retired to the belly of the boat within the first 15 minutes. The German followed shortly after that. I was still going strong and pretty happy about that. But not for long. 10 minutes later my stomach also started to feel funny. I went to my bunk and took a few of the sea sickness pills. The rest of the day passed like a feverish dream. I spent most of the time tossing and turning in my cabin and slept a lot while Rudy sailed on as if nothing ever happened. Drowsiness is a side effect of the pills. I learned later that it is best to take them before it all starts. This way you can prevent nausea from even coming up. By evening I already felt better and was able to enjoy the breeze on deck.
The next morning went on pretty much the same way but this time I could enjoy the ride on deck. Rudy had hung out two fishing rods so I was even treated to the experience of catching a fish. All of a sudden the rod behind me stirred. Since I was sitting closest to it I had to grab it and bring in the fish. Not that easy if you have never done it before. But after a half hour struggle I managed to pull a meter long king fish on board (ok, it was more like 40cm and took no longer than 10 minutes). But I had cought my own fish, pretty cool. In the evening the fish was prepared. Self cought really tastes the best. In the mean time Rudy had pulled in a tuna which was made to ceviche. Ceviche is the Peruvian national dish and consists of raw fish that is ‘cooked’ by the acidic juices of limes. I became a huge ceviche fan in the course of my travels and have to say that it was the greatest culinary highlight of all of South America for me. With this feast we celebrated our last evening on the Baruffa before going on land in Capurganá the next day.
The sailing trip was phenomenal and a great start as well as one of the highlights of my trip to South America. Yes, you will have to pay up for this one but I find that it is worth every dollar you pay. If you want to get in touch with Rudy contact him at CartagenaSailing.
About Nico the guest author:
Nico did a 5 month backpacking tour of South America and started his travel newspaper Alongtheway while traveling. If you are in the mood for more stories from abroad you should also check his Facebook and Instagram.
Have you been to Panama or even done a sailing trip like Nico did? Share your highlights with us in the comments!