On the tail end of our time in Central America, we started thinking about how we would make our way down into South America. Our criteria was simple, we wanted a safe and affordable route into Colombia. This is the story of our journey.
There are three options available for backpackers when it comes to traveling between Panama and Colombia. Realistically, we were only weighing two options. Passing through the Darién Gap, a swampland and mountainous rainforest connecting the two countries by land, was an option we quickly eliminated as it is home to drug runners, assassinations and kidnappings. That left us with the following:
Option 1 – Fly
Option 2 – Sail
We had heard that the seas are particularly rough this time of year and my predisposition to sea sickness was made blatantly clear during our sail to Montezuma, but flying was only $200 cheaper and didn’t include the trip to the San Blas islands, accommodation, food, or the five day adventure that we decided to embark on. It was the most expensive week of our travels, but our memories remind us that it was well worth the cost.
We stayed at Captain Jack’s for one night in the port city of Portabelo before setting sail on February 5th. Captain Jack was pleasant and helpful enough, but the guy (presumably American) working there belonged in a customer service position about as much as I belong in a coal mine. He wasn’t hospitable, couldn’t answer a question and was an incredibly unpleasant person to be around. The guests (most of whom were on our boat) were great and the town had some charm, but we couldn’t wait to get out of the hostel and set sail the next day.
Considering that our time on the open sea took nine more hours than we anticipated, we probably should have been a little more patient.
I stocked up on Dramamine, I mean really went overboard and bought 72 pills to hold the two of us over for five days. I was concerned that I would sleep through the entire trip but I was determined to not suffer through countless hours at sea.
Our boat was 56 feet and one of the biggest yachts sailing between Portabelo, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia. Her name is Luka and we had read about the captain, Tom, who was in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for circumnavigating the globe nonstop. Unfortunately, the day before we were set to sail, we learned that Tom had passed away six months prior. Tom’s wife, Bea, took over as captain and together with her staff of Ulices (mechanic), Farid (cook) and Wacek (jack russel terrier) she made sure we got to Cartagena safely.
As soon as we got on board, we claimed our beds. Chris and I were among the first to choose where we wanted to sleep. We decided on a bunk in the very front cabin of the boat (a good distance from the engine where we thought we would could avoid the noise and heat). After sunset, we went below deck to enjoy a very light meal of marble pound cake and juice. The 14 people on board (from eight different countries) sat around the table in the saloon getting to know one another. Soon after launch, the drowsy side effects of Dramamine kicked in and the three people sleeping in the saloon were ready to lie down. My memory gets a little hazy between the saloon and the bed in which I was supposed to sleep. Suffice it to say that the Dramamine did not work. I will never eat marble pound cake again.
We quickly learned that the front of the boat is excruciatingly more turbulent than the rest of the boat and our justification for sleeping there was completely asinine. After a couple sick bags, I managed to make my way to the padded plank with sheets and curled into the fetal position for almost 30 seconds before Farid (a saint) was by my side rescuing me from the tumultuous bunk and guiding me to the saloon in the rear of the boat where I could sleep on the floor. However, there was not much sleep to be had that night. I counted sheep until sunrise so I could climb up to the deck and stare at the horizon. During the night, I heard a few others struggling and stepping over me in search of their next sick bag. In the morning, we ran to the deck where we bonded for hours with our heads hanging over the side of the boat. The sea was rough that night, but nothing compared to what was coming. Chris did really well and although he didn’t feel great, he somehow talked himself out of getting sick.
Our stay in the San Blas Islands broke up our time at sea (coming up), but I was not looking forward to the boat after our two nights on land. Once back on Luka, Chris claimed our assigned bunk in the front and I got comfortable in a sleeping bag in the saloon. Our first night back at sea went better than expected. I didn’t sleep much but I also didn’t get sick. When the sun came up, Laura from Finland, Jane from Australia and I crawled up to the deck where we stayed the entire day without moving. We protected ourselves from the sun with sarongs, avoided the meals being served and got completely dehydrated because drinking water meant going below deck to use the bathroom. Using the boat bathroom took an enormous amount of determination and bravery. There were a few obstacles to consider – a pump, a handlebar, a swaying ship, inevitable bruises and a full length glass mirror which didn’t make it through the trip. There wasn’t much entertainment that day, but from my sarong cocoon, I could feel the ocean waves growing bigger by the minute. We tried to stay above deck as long as we could but once the sun started to set, we were completely drenched by the waves coming onboard. We reluctantly climbed down into our former sleeping arrangements. Things quickly went south, the sea was far from calm. I was sliding around in my sleeping bag between the kitchen and saloon, holding on to cabinets that were flying open around me. A few cups started to drop and Farid jumped up alarmed, made sure I hadn’t been hit, and then laid back down. Things were starting to feel wet and then a massive wave came crashing through the kitchen. Farid jumped up again and closed the window. Meanwhile, Chris was at the front of the boat enduring the worst part of the storm.
Away from the Saloon, the boat was a different animal. There were several issues. First, there was the sea. The ocean was much bigger and meaner than it had been on our previous sailing days. With each wave, I found that I was either flying across the bed or free-falling onto my mattress. Being on the top bunk, I had a great view of the water surging across the window above me. Unfortunately, the boat’s seals had broken in the strong surf and every time a wave hit the boat, a stream of water would come into my cabin. Water dripped from the ceiling onto our bags and, worst of all, there was water running down the walls into my mattress. By midnight, my mattress was a damp sponge. The good news was that I wasn’t cold. With all the water coming in, the wiring for the fans had fried, resulting in a room resembling a sauna. The really big waves that hit our vessel boomed thorough our cabin. Each one suggested that our boat had run into something (those of us in the front assumed the worst). At one point, Henry, who was below me, turned on his red light to see what was going on. For a few frantic moments, I accepted this as an emergency light and began to plot my escape from our sinking ship. The long and sleepless night was brutal, but it gave me a new appreciation for those who sail.
There were no real-time pictures taken during “The Ugly” because we were out of commission. Hopefully the ones you’re about to see will make up for it.
Anchoring at the San Blas Islands, home to the indigenous Kuna tribe, was the eye of our storm. It is a cluster of more than 350 beautiful islands where the self-governing Kuna tribe maintains their old customs and lives a very basic lifestyle. They ride on handmade wooden canoes selling jewelry, lobster, coconuts and molas (textile art) to the tourists. They live in small huts and speak Spanish as well as the unwritten and endangered Tule language. We were lucky enough to spend two nights on these islands, one in a tent and the second in hammocks strung between palm trees lining the beach.
During the day we snorkeled, drank coconut water, laid out on the beach and enjoyed the tranquil, translucent and turquoise blue water. We couldn’t believe how much we could see on the ocean floor just by walking through the water.
There were big starfish
…Even a Jewish starfish!
The first day we saw a few islands and had BBQ kebabs for dinner. The following day, we stayed on Turtle Island, which was my favorite of the four islands we saw. There was a volleyball net set up for us, we had a bonfire and woke up to postcard quality views.
Chris also made friends with all the hermit crabs.
Before leaving, the Kuna family living on the island made us a meal of fresh caught fish, lentils and rice.
Our boat was also a definite plus. Sure, the sea was often not my friend, but I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people or staff. Luka was equipped with everything we needed. For example, the first thing we noticed were the nets in the boat holding more fruit than we had seen in the last three months. Fresh watermelon, pineapple, passion fruit, oranges and bananas made up the majority of my diet on the boat.
While docked, we snorkeled around the boat, jumped in the water and Chris, Eoghen and Tom decided to take a long swim to the closest island.
The people on our boat really made the experience. We were a melting pot from the US, England, Scotland, Australia, Finland, Japan, Belgium and Poland and by the time we got to Cartagena we had a great group of friends to hang out with. A month later, we’re still traveling with our Finnish friend, Laura, that we met on the boat.
The experience was definitely worth it and despite some unavoidable turbulence, we were really glad we didn’t fly. After looking at nothing but blue water and sky for 45 straight hours we were all so happy to set foot on South American Soil. Two steps in and…apparently I get landsick too. Oh well, we made it to Colombia in one piece, ready to see the vibrant city of Cartagena.