Travelling from Panama to Colombia overland is practically impossible, so Ellen and I decided to take the advice of a few people we’d met in Costa Rica, and do that leg of the journey by ocean instead. It was absolutely the right decision for us. Our research for the trip was sketchy at best – I googled it, checked what the Lonely Planet travel forums said, and asked a few people what they thought. Total time invested in research – maybe thirty minutes. We didn’t book anything in advance.

Our hostel in Panama had a list of boats sailing to Colombia along with prices and dates, including one leaving the very next morning, so Ellen arranged the trip while I quickly googled the boat name to check if there were any special instructions we needed to know. There were only the usual instructions – bring your own alcohol, bring snacks if you have a large appetite, bring seasickness pills just in case, and carry enough cash for the entire journey to Colombia plus spending money if you want souvenirs. There are no bank machines or grocery stores in the San Blas Islands, so whatever you think you might like, you have to bring with you.

Coming up with the cash for the trip in 12 hours was a challenge – both of us have withdrawal limits on our debit and credit cards, and the hostel in Panama would also only take cash. Luckily, we met a couple of people in the hostel who wanted to go to Costa Rica and were willing to trade us colones for dollars, so we scraped together a little over a thousand dollars for the two of us. We ended up spending $415 each on the boat trip, including accommodation, meals, and water, plus another $35 for the hostel’s booking fee and $30 for transportation to the San Blas Islands where the boat would meet us. In San Blas we also had to cough up $15 for the motorboat that took us to our sailboat, so we had $80 left over for spending money and emergencies.

Our 4×4 – actually a very clean and modern SUV – picked us up in Panama City at 5:00am Monday morning, and we headed out to the San Blas Islands over a bumpy dirt road. We had to pay cash at a checkpoint when we entered the Kuna’s lands – the Kuna are the local indigenous people who live on the San Blas Islands – and signs told us photography was forbidden on the river or in sacred places. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the river, which was just begging for a photograph – dense tropical jungle overhanging a green-tinted river, with locals in boats puttering up and down carrying cargo, local families, and tourists. A local guy seemed to be in charge, and he checked our boat name, made a few phone calls to find out where it was moored, and put us in a motorboat with a couple of local guys to head out to the appropriate island.

Since we hadn’t been told otherwise, and my google search had indicated the locals didn’t like photography, we took very few pictures as our motorboat zipped between islands. The first island we came across seemed fairly poor – tumble-down shacks hanging out past the land over the water, with few trees and lots of people. We gassed up there and puttered along to a more pleasant island while the two Panamanian passengers told us about the area and we struggled to hear them over the roar of the motor and splash of the waves. Farther from the mouth of the river, the islands became less crowded, and the scenery was dominated by white sand beaches and palm trees, with huts made of reeds rather than the wood and tin of the first island’s structures. We dropped off the other two passengers and continued across open water. Ellen and I couldn’t stop smiling as we bounced over waves in the beautiful blue water, with fish jumping beside us and pelicans flying overhead.

We got to the Trophy Girl, a blue sailboat and our home for the next five to six days, at about 10am. Our captain, Antonio, was from Spain, and the only other passengers were two European girls, who I’ll call Betty and Wilma. Almost as soon as we arrived, Antonio rowed the two of us out to the nearest island, where he bought gas and water and we wandered the beaches and swam in the waves. It was incredible. It was paradise. There were a dozen other boats anchored offshore, and a couple of families of the local Kuna living on the island, but we had the beach to ourselves. We spent that day, like most of our days in San Blas, lounging on top of the boat watching the waves, swimming in the clear water, paddling to the island to wander the beach, writing, and sketching. That evening a Kuna family nearby had caught lobster and fed us a simple and delicious meal of lobster with coconut rice. After eating, we headed over to a makeshift bar where tourists from another boat were having drinks and a bonfire. Not a bad way to spend our first day in paradise!

The next few days are a blur – we went to one island or another, played in the waves, watched the fish jump, saw a sea turtle, almost stepped on a stingray, got our passports stamped to exit Panama, saw a ridiculously high number of shooting stars, went snorkelling, wandered white sand beaches, and sketched palm trees, birds, boats, and reed houses. The weather was mostly sunny, clear, and calm, with blue skies dotted with white clouds all day. At night the winds picked up a little, and the waves occasionally splashed over the boat. Some nights all we could see were stars, and other nights we could see lights from other boats and islands. It was wonderful, and we loved every minute of it.


How can you not consider this paradise?

On the morning of the fourth day, we headed out into open water toward Colombia and Cartagena. Antonio showed Ellen how to signal and had me operate the motor and steering while he manhandled the anchor and sails. I felt amazing steering the boat, at the wheel, as we left Panama for the open sea. Less than an hour into the trip, my stomach had other ideas. Ellen was interested to note that a person’s face actually can turn green when they’re nauseous – I was in no condition to speak, or do anything but stare at the waves and will myself not to throw up. Shortly thereafter, I was down for the count, and I spent the first 24 hours of our open sea adventure in my bunk. Luckily I was able to hold down a motion sickness pill about 16 hours into the journey, and my stomach settled as we started the second day.


Ellen took this delightful image of me sleeping off the seasickness.

Once my stomach was cooperating, sailing over the open sea was amazing. Once again, the weather was beautiful, the sea was calm during the day, and we sat in the shade below the sails and watched the waves. There was not another boat to be seen, and no land in sight. Every ten minutes, we’d look at each other and grin and say “I’m so glad we’re here!” My face started to hurt from smiling so much. It was wonderful.

Unfortunately, the other two passengers were not feeling as enthusiastic about the trip. Wilma was terrified of the open water, and Betty had come down with a urinary tract infection, so they were not happy campers at all. When we saw an island after two days at sea, Wilma begged, cursed, and implored the captain to radio for help, and then flagged down a trio of fishermen in a motorboat. We waited offshore while the two of them were taken to the island for medical treatment (Wilma for a panic attack and Betty for her infection). The two of them decided to stay on the island until a motorboat could take them to Cartagena, which would take only two hours, but which required me and Ellen to go to the island with them to get some proof that they had left the boat for an emergency and that the captain hadn’t just killed them and thrown their bodies overboard.

Finally, after a six-hour delay dealing with Betty and Wilma’s crisis, we were back on the sea sailing toward Cartagena. We thoroughly enjoyed our last 24 hours on the ocean, and agreed that the peaceful speed of sailing was much more pleasant than arriving in two hours in a motorboat, for us, anyway. In the morning, at first light, we started our approach to Cartagena. The motor on the sailboat wasn’t working – the captain guessed that the diesel he’d bought in San Blas was either dirty or contaminated with water – so we sailed into port slowly and carefully. After cautiously manhandling our bags so they didn’t get wet as we rowed the dinghy to shore, the captain arranged for us to go through immigration the following morning, and recommended us an amazing hostel in the old part of Cartagena, where many of the buildings are originals from the 17th century.


The modern part of Cartagena, as viewed from the boat.

We have so much more to tell, about the boat, about Betty and Wilma’s crisis, about Cartagena, and about the trip in general. But we’ve just finished breakfast and have to head over to immigration to show our passports and officially enter Colombia, and besides, we want to wander the old city and take pictures of the architecture. So we’ll type the rest of our journal entries later today. We’ll probably be posting twice a day until we catch up, so if you’re bored over the holidays and need something to read, check back often!