Sailing the San Blas Islands; Paradise Found Between Colombia and Panama

A 5 day sailing trip across the Caribbean Sea and hopping between the picture-perfect San Blas Islands  …

… This was always going to be one of the ultimate highlights of the trip!

The thing is with the San Blas Islands I that they are just too perfect and picturesque to even begin to describe, so believe me when I say that this must be where they take those pictures that end up as everyone’s computer screen savers!

Take a look for yourself…

The sailing trip was one of our biggest expenses at $550 (or £300) however, for that money you get 5 days and nights on board the boat, all food and water, some extras like snorkel gear and fishing lines and an experienced island guide (your captain and crew).

You can check out my last post, how to book your San Blas sailing trip, for a more detailed fact sheet, but here is where you can glimpse an insight into how our week sailing across the Caribbean Sea went.

As instructed, we arrived at Cartagena’s marina at 8pm ready to meet the captain and crew, our fellow travellers and to board the Amande.

With the inevitable space limitations on the boat we had been advised to split our stuff into a main bag which would be put in the hold and our small bag of things that we needed for the week – literally a book, bikini, towel, sun cream and a toothbrush.

In addition to our small bag for the week we also had a couple of snacks and some beers – what we underestimated though was the generosity of everyone else – by the time we were boarding the boat we had a wheel barrow (not even joking) overflowing with booze – mainly beers and dark rum, how very Caribbean.

It is always a little nerve-wracking when your meeting a group of travellers that you going to be under taking an experience with, this is obviously for a number of reasons from obvious obstacles such as a crucial language barrier to the more subtle of personality differences.

Ideally you want a group of like-minded people that you can relax around and who will add to the overall experience.

On paper we sounded like a hilarious group, aged 18-40 and a mix of Dutch, German, Aussie, Irish and us Brits – however, the group could not have worked better. Instantly we were joking and laughing, comparing travel routes and experiences and most importantly of all super excited to be undertaking this incredible opportunity to island hop the San Blas.

So, here is a brief outline of all the ups and downs and amazing experience that is sailing from Colombia to Panama;

Day 1

8pm Arrive at Cartagena marina, meet group for sailing, captain and crew – load up boat with wheel barrow of booze

9pm Group chat on board – our captain Viktor explains the timetable for the next few days, explains a few boat rules (e.g. only brushing your hair over the back edge of the boat) and we decide on our cabins etc.

11pm Having spent the evening getting to know each other and joking around it is time to try and get some sleep  before we set sail in the middle of the night

Day 2

4am We are woken as the engine comes to life and we chug out of harbour – thinking the steady rocking is easily manageable and actually quite comforting

5am Clearly we were mistaken as once out of the harbour it feels like we are in The Perfect Storm – sleep is off the cards as we struggle not to knock each other out

5:05am Screams from next door indicate that the Dutch couple forgot to close their window and have had and early morning sea shower

9am After 4hrs of churning around in our cabin unable to sleep everyone emerges for some fresh air – the day is spent with people alternating between on deck, in bed and unfortunately in the toilet – conditions are super rough and most people (captain Viktor included) are feeling sick as a dog

2pm A light sandwich lunch gets everyone together for a bit and most stay on deck long enough to see a big tuna being caught

5pm As the sun sets the sea turns the most incredible deep blue colour and we are lucky enough to have a playful group of dolphins follow the boat for 10 minutes

8pm After a long day of the constant lurching and churning of the boat supper doesn’t go down to well but everyone eagerly shares their excitement for our arrival in the islands in the morning. Eventually people slope off to bed hoping to get a couple of hours sleep – many more near-knocking-each-other-out incidents occur!

Day 3

7am With sunrise you can spot the first of the islands emerging on the horizon – the sea is flat calm, the sun is shining and we could not be more excited about getting of the boat and onto the picture perfect beach!

9am A quick breakfast followed by a gathering of snorkels and sun cream and soon enough Cappy Viktor was taking us into the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Crystal clear waters over perfect white sands which led out to an immaculate coral reef all set to a perfect backdrop of coconut-laden palms (WARNING: don’t touch the coconuts – these are the Kuna’s only currency) .

2pm After a full morning of swimming, sunbathing and island exploring it was time to head back on board the boat for some lunch… and what a lunch it was, Sophie, our French crew, had cooked the tuna we caught on yesterday’s crossing, fresh lobster tails bought from the local Kuna people and a selection of yummy salads. Everyone stuffed themselves on the delicious meal and after some lazing in the sun on deck we all decided to go back to the islands.

6pm More swimming and snorkelling and soon enough the sun was beginning to set – but Cappy Viktor showed little interest in coming to pick us up… with everyone wishing we had bought some beers to the beach we sat around chatting until the sun had long gone.

8pm Eventually we heard the tiny whirring of the tenders engine coming towards the island, after two trips we were all back on board the Amande. Shower time (a.k.a hosing yourself down off the back off the boat) soon turned into dinner and drinks as everyone reminisced on their first day in paradise.

12am As midnight came our cabins called and we all relished the chance to sleep peacefully anchored in harbour.

Day 4

8am – Rising early with the sun everyone was keen to discuss the plan for the day – it was decided that after a quick brekkie we would up anchor and sail to the next island we were visiting (normally captains prefer to use the engine to manoeuvre between islands as it is quicker and more reliable however we agreed we were in no rush and would enjoy spending the day sailing across the beautiful blue sea that stretched between the islands).

11am As the Amande glided through the perfect sea another friendly group of dolphins came and joined us swimming alongside the boat and jumping through the waves.

1pm – We made it to yet another incredible, picture-perfect island and dropped anchor – the group decided that we could wait to eat so instead we headed for shore. This island was home to the local bar and a volleyball net! Needless to say many competitive UK vs. Holland vs. Panama vs. Rest of World matches ensued! After hours of volleyball we all relaxed under the shade of a palm tree and somehow got around to doing an English-Dutch-German language lesson!

4pm – With tummies rumbling it was back to the boat for a bit of lunch – this was soon followed by some jumping in of the yacht and a visit to another, smaller and quieter island. The small group that had ventured on to the second island of the day was rewarded by a rare opportunity to get to meet and interact with the Kuna people. We met the family who lived there, including their sweet little son, as they personally welcomed us onto the island. We stayed until well after sunset at which point we thought Cappy Viktor and Sophie were coming to pick us up… instead they sped off in the dingy about 1km away from everything, stayed there (doing god knows what… sexy time, sharing a spliff?) until they finally zoomed back to the islands, picked us up and returned us to the boat and the rest of the group.

Late – Another night of back-of-boat showers dinner and drinks followed after which everyone decided to crack on with the Caribbean rum. After a while we were all sat on deck under a sky of thousands of twinkling stars, Allister, our Aussie friend produced a bottle of champagne, declaring he had an announcement to make… it turns out that last night he had proposed to his long-term girlfriend  Michelle… and she had said yes! Inevitably celebrations continued long into the night.

Day 5

9am – Perhaps a slightly more sedate start to the day after last night’s celebrations but after a quick break and a short journey to Dog Island we were ready to dive the ship wreck just off shore and see plenty more tropical fish!

3pm – A long morning of snorkelling the wreck, swimming in the unbelievably clear waters and sun bathing on the island and we were all ready for a regroup back on the boat – we had opted to push lunch later again today as after a morning anchored off Dog Island we were to make our way to the island with the immigration office on it – the beginning of the end of our time in the San Blas.

5pm – Now anchored of the immigration island it was a tense wait to see if all our fake plane tickets had worked… (Panama have recently introduced a $100 entry tax for tourists arriving by boat and planning to stay in the country for more than 72 hours) of the 20 of us, 7 had been advised a fake ticket would work fine, no questions asked…

5:30pm – The tense wait is suspended as Sophie comes back to tell us that they KNOW the tickets are FAKE!! BUT they said they are willing to give us all stamps if we pay them $100 in total… the 7 of us agreed to pay up and shut up feeling as though we had gotten away with it getting a 3 month visa for $14 each!

6pm – Having got Helena (the German) English-Spanish translator, Sophie and Cappy Viktor AND all our passports safely back on board Viktor broke the news that we were to stay anchored off this island for our last night in the San Blas. Whilst, obviously it was as beautiful as ever, this island did have the immigration office and the tiny landing strip on it… not entirely picturesque… we all came together to persuade Viktor to take us to one more beautiful island for our last evening.

7pm – Just a short hop away we were once again in total isolation anchored off yet another beautiful island, we all went on land and ventured around to bag the perfect beach spot and sunset viewpoint. Armed with bags full of beers we sat in the warm water for hours watching the local Kuna kids playing and seeing the sun dip below the horizon… now in darkness we made our way back around the island to try and get a lift back to the boat, however Cappy Viktor obviously wasn’t ready to pick us up so we visited the hut on the island which happened to be a bar, well a hut with a fridge full of beers! This clearly kept us amused until Cappy Viktor came to join us and bought us all another round whilst telling us a bit about his life as a salty sea captain!

Late – finally back on the boat we shared our last dinner together and reminisced about the week which somehow ended up in a bit of a drunken sing-song! When asked to sing a ‘typical British song’ our minds went blank… in the end we settled on teaching our multi-national friends several verses of Yogi Bear… (if you know it, then you know…)

Very Late – Fridge almost empty of beers we settled into our cabins for one last night already dreading the 6am wake-up call

Airstrip and Customs island

Day 6

6am – The 1st wakeup call sounds out and a couple of early risers start shuffling about

6:30am – The 2nd wakeup call resounds and everyone is forced out there cabins to pack there bags ready to transfer on the speedboat

7:00am – The speedboat arrives and we load it up with our bags and ourselves – after many thanks were given to Viktor and Sophie it was time to head to mainland Panama.

8:30am – After a beautiful morning ride across the glassy ocean we turn into a creek that winds up through the dense jungle, after a bit of bird-watching we arrived at a break in he jungle which was our welcome to Panama – all unloaded we waited in the heat for the 4×4’s which would take us to Panama City – now we had the sand-flies to contend with!

10am – After about a 100 ‘please, 5 more minutes…’ the little scrub land car park/dock was inundated with hundreds of travellers both arriving and preparing to leave… inevitably madness ensued. The temperature rose as did our impatience as we waited and waited and waited… suddenly the 6am start was seeming a little pointless…

11am Our group got split up and it was everyone for themselves as we all forced our way onto one of the 4×4’s – finally we managed to get 2 spaces in a car and we were making our way along an incredible, windy, impossible steep road through the jungle to Panama City!

Top Tips to get the best out of the San Blas experience;

  1. SWIM, SWIM, SWIM… seriously this water is the most incredible water you will ever see in your life, make the most of it and spend all your time swimming and snorkelling!!
  2. Be prepared to be ill… not ideal but between the sea sickness, constant swimming, drinking water stored on the boat and generally being in an unusual environment you can pretty much guarantee you will be ill at some point during this trip, HOWEVER do not let this put you off, it is the most incredible place and yes, you have to forgo a few luxuries to live in a natural paradise – but you can prevent (in parts) against sea sickness so take the tablets!
  3. Bring your own booze and snacks – it makes the whole time way more sociable and fun and due to variable meal times snacks are sometimes required!
  4. Take plenty of cash – you can buy souvenirs from the Kuna (including fresh coconuts), you will need cash to pay for the 4×4 journey (about $40) and you need that spare $100 just in case the immigration officials are feeling greedy
  5. Go with the flow – yes I offer this advice a lot but it could not be more true in this instance, sharing a boat with strangers, corrupt customs officials and that old classic, island time – there is no point in getting worked up – you are in paradise, what is the rush?

THE GANG!

The Amande


                

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Sailing from Colombia to Panama; How to Book the Best San Blas Sailing Trip

If you are ever lucky enough to be in either Colombia or Panama then it is an absolute MUST that you sail through the unbelievable San Blas islands.

Now, there are many different ways to do this, each of which involve different amounts of time spent at sea and a few different companies.

These include day trips to the islands from El Porvenir, Panama, short trips from Turbo, Colombia (2.5 hrs at sea by speedboat) or from Cartagena, Colombia to El Porvenir (30-40 hrs at sea sailing).

We opted to go for a bit of an adventure and commit to the sailing from Cartagena, on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast.

We chose this option for a number of reasons;

  1. We wanted to visit Cartagena anyway
  2. We wanted to embrace the sailing aspect of sailing across the Caribbean sea
  3. By this point we needed a break from land travel so the thought of having to negotiate our way on an over-complicated bus route through the jungle to another departure port wasn’t ideal

Perfect snorkeling off our first island stop

We hadn’t booked our trip in advance because we had no known ideal departure date and often an unreliable internet connection, furthermore using an iPhone can be tricky when browsing fairly basic websites. With these thoughts in mind we waited until we were in Cartagena and could pop in to the Blue Sailing office ourselves to discuss all options and book our trip on the spot.

Luckily, Blue Sailing’s office sits right in the heart of Getsemani, Cartagena’s old town, right around the corner from where we were staying at Hostel Mamallena. Upon arrival in the city we headed straight there and talked through our options with Laurel, the friendly American girl who runs the office.

We discussed a number of options that were leaving in around 7-10 days time and chose our boat on the following criteria;

  1. The number of people that were on each boat
  2. Whether it was known as a party boat, a chilled boat, or for fishing or diving etc.
  3. The boats captain and whether they have crew (which massively effects the type of food you get throughout the trip)
  4. And of course, the cost (trips vary from $500-$600) and benefits (comfort, food, activities etc.)

The Amande steaming towards the San Blas

Crucially, we found the Blue Sailing office to be really helpful when booking our trip, if I were to repeat the trip I would definitely refrain from booking online and go through the office.

However, this isn’t to say that our whole trip booking experience was entirely problem free… in fact, it would be fair to say that once we thought we had our trip all organised and our departure date settled it was then the issues arose!

The day before departure we woke to an email for which the subject was ‘change in plans’ which isn’t always the best sign. We popped into the office and discovered the issue; we were being moved onto a different boat which postponed our trip by 2 days.

The problem was that a boat had failed to set sail that day due to a lack of people but 4 of the travellers were booked on a flight for the day after the boat arrives – in short, they needed to get on a boat leaving asap. After a lot of discussion with Laurel we resolved the issue, we moved from the Koala 2 to the Amande, leaving 2 days later and in recompense Blue Sailing funded us for 2 return seats on their shuttle to the incredible Playa Blanca.

After an incredible stay on the Rosario Islands (read more here) we returned to Cartagena ready to depart on the Amande that night.

The beyond beautiful San Blas islands

FAQ’s;

Do you have to book months in advance?

Now this is a tricky one – everywhere you look online they recommend booking a few months in advance if travelling in peak season (Jan-May). Whilst this may be advantageous to ensure yourself a spot there are a number of reasons why I would advise against booking so far ahead;

  1. We traveled in Feb and had a pick from every boat leaving in the next month (we were only a 2 though – larger groups may have to think ahead)
  2. When travelling, plans change ALL THE TIME and we wanted to keep as much flexibility as possible therefore avoiding booking our trip too far in advance
  3. The boat trip was a big expense – at $500 we felt more comfortable visiting the office and talking through the options rather than booking on an iPhone with an unreliable WiFi connection
  4. Helena, on our boat booked on the morning of departure!

Isn’t it a bit weird living in such close quarters with total strangers?

Here is the thing – if you put enough thought into which boat you would like to go on (cost, privacy, party, activities etc.) chances are you will end up on a boat of like-minded people. Our crew consisted of 2 Dutch couples, an Australian couple, a German girl and an Irish guy with an age range of 18 to 40… and the group could not have worked better. You are all in paradise and everyone was keen for snorkeling, language lessons, volley ball and a few (too many) all important beers!

What is included in the price?

For around $500 you expect to get a pretty good setup – here is the deal with Blue Sailing;

  1. 5 nights accommodation on board (in cabins or open air hammocks dependent on the boat)
  2. All food (3 meals) and water – and they accommodate for vegetarians!
  3. Access to snorkel and fishing gear (dependent on boat) and a small tender to take you between boat and island
  4. A tour guide (aka captain and crew) who know the islands inside out and will share stories and advice (but only if you ask for it)

And… what isn’t included in the price?

It is worth taking note of these simple things that will improve your experience no end;

  1. Buy booze – the whole experience is so social and evenings are spent eating, drinking and chatting – plenty of on board fridge space ensures everyone can grab a cold one at the end of the day
  2. Take a couple of snacks – these are essential whether its not realising you don’t get dinner on the first night (as we did), not being able to stomach anything but an oreo or a dry cracker due to sea sickness or simply if all that snorkeling makes you ravenous and dinner is still 2 hours away
  3. Sea sickness tablets – the crossing is guaranteed to be choppy no matter when you go (unless you are the very, VERY rare exception) so prevention is key.
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Our multi-national crew

Top tips;

Know what you are looking for – they are so many different ways of seeing the San Blas so before booking it is important to know what is most important to you; partying, food, sailing experience, a private cabin or sleeping on deck in a hammock!

Get stuck in – the more you put in to the trip the more you get out – learn about the history of the islands, engage with your captain and crew, share the experience with the other travellers, snorkel, fish, explore… basically make the most of it!

Take a gazillion pictures because the islands are so stunning you won’t believe your eyes… and no one will believe you just how incredible they are!

Now you know the how-to guide keep reading to find out the ins and outs of our San Blas sailing adventure.