Panama to Colombia: Sailing through the San Blas Islands

In Central America, Colombia, Panama, South America by Dane + PennyLeave a Comment

I came to with the rain pouring down on my bare back. It was dark and the wind gust past as I clutched to the life rails of the boat as it rocked up and down in the large swell. Flashbacks of a sunny skiff ride in the harbour to the sailboat took me away for a moment but not long later I was losing my dinner in the galley with weak sea legs. I stared down at the deep blue sea beneath me while my bare feet dragged in the warm waters every other wave. The captain was still at the helm while everyone else was under the deck trying to sleep through the rough passage to the San Blas Islands. What have I gotten myself into?

It seemed like the best choice for us to take the five day sailing from Panama to Colombia at $550USD each, and just $25 for the pup, instead of flights for the three of us, plus several days accommodations in Colombia while we wait for the van to arrive. While the costs might have worked out about the same, this was an adventure we didn’t want to miss.

Several hours earlier we were being rushed from our hostel in Colon to Puerto Lindo, a small harbour an hour North of town where we would catch a (hopefully seaworthy) sailboat to Colombia. The driver in a white micro-bus drove at mach speed through traffic and along the winding country road stopping only at a tienda for a cigar, ultimately to gut it and roll up a spliff. By noon we arrived at the harbour and headed straight to the Diver’s Cafe to ease our hunger and build a healthy base for our journey out to sea, although the captain had yet to confirm whether we’d sail through the night or leave in the morning. So, we killed some more time after lunch wandering the little fishing village and found some cheap rum. Now, every boat should have some rum but it’s probably not a wise idea to get into it before you even board! Not that I know that from experience or anything.

The hours passed as the constellations dropped into the sea. The waves slowly eased off as the sky lightened up. Light showers came and went with the winds as morning broke. At this time I had moved under the helms bikini cover for shelter. Once there, the dogs snuggled in and we shared the odd salty splash over the starboard side. Some of the other passengers had started to wake and came above deck to sights of the islands with calm seas ahead.. how I wished I had their ride out!

Penny emerged with a sleepy look on her face. She’d barely slept, kept awake from the creaks and crashes of the hull, followed by salty splashes in our bed at the bow of the boat since the hatch above had a generous crack in it and the seas were rough enough to be sending water right over top. As it turns out, the whole group had a pretty rough sleep, regardless of sleeping location, with the creaking and crashing noises inside from the hull. But, with a hot coffee in hand and a view of the islands ahead of us, none of it mattered anymore. We were in paradise. Even if it was raining.

We arrived into a sheltered bay between two palm tree covered islands. Many other sailors were already anchored down and hiding under cover as another shower passed. After my night, I figured there wasn’t a better way to recover and wake up than with a rinse off at the back of the boat. A few others joined me and soon the girls were jumping off the back and everyone was laughing as the rain poured down. The captain set the skiff loose and we loaded the dogs in, heading straight for the larger island so they could do their business. In a few days they’d be naturals with this routine. After breakfast we snorkeled the waters in search of a sunken sailboat nearby. Then we shuttled in to the island to feast on lobster for lunch. A few of the local Kuna people joined us, sharing stories and welcoming us to their island. In the afternoon we poured a couple drinks, played volleyball and wondered if the clouds might roll away for us.

The following day, after one last downpour, the sun came out in full force just as we arrived at our next island ready for more daytime festivities in paradise. The bunch of us couldn’t have felt luckier!

After relaxing in these sheltered islands for three full days, it was time for us to chow down a solid meal and cut the sauce out as we had a 36 hour crossing ahead of us to Colombia. Once dinner was consumed we helped the captain prepare the skiff, and off we went into the sunset. Tonight I was more prepared, but, I still spent most of the night at the helm – this time with the captain as we navigated through the night full of stars. In the very early morning, just as the light was soft and it was still cool, a group of butterflies stayed with us for 30 or 45 minutes. The captain said he had never seen that happen in all his years sailing this stretch of sea. It was incredible to watch while the sea was calm with no land in sight.

The hours slowly passed and, just as Penny came up to the deck, dark clouds surrounded us and we saw funnel clouds forming in the distance. It looked like we were going to pass right between them when all of a sudden a huge gust of wind hit the main sail and things got intense with waves splashing over the deck (probably straight into our cabin)! This was what Mischa, the first mate and ship’s cook, had warned us about: El Culo de Pollo (The Chicken’s Asshole). One by one the rest of the travellers emerged from their cabins, wondering what on earth was going on as the boat violently rocked from side to side. Some stayed a while, others went back downstairs favouring their warm bed over the views of the wild seas.

Meanwhile, Penny and I were having the time of our lives, with huge smiles on our faces in the excitement of the storm, thankful for the rain gear we brought with us that was keeping us at least a little dry. We held onto the dogs and Wyatt even he seemed to be enjoying it! Chica was not as impressed. Then, as quickly as it came, it ended. The clouds dissipated and the sun came out to dry the soaked cushions and towels, some still hanging out on the lines.

At first light I quickly made my way to the deck and watched the morning light grace the horizon. When I saw the city skyline of Cartagena, I knocked on the hatch to wake Penny up. She popped her head up to see the sky in pinks and oranges and the outlines of buildings in the distance. At last we were about to arrive in South America and start part II of our journey through the Americas.

While it was a rough crossing, I don’t believe there is a better way to meet a city for the first time than arriving by sea and we are so glad we chose to sail through the San Blas Islands. The islands have been so carefully protected by the Kuna people, and at the same time they welcomed us whole-heartedly. It really is a special place and a little piece of paradise.

Big thank you to our captain Tote and to Mischa, cook and first mate. Our journey on the Corto II was unforgettable!


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