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;
- We wanted to visit Cartagena anyway
- We wanted to embrace the sailing aspect of sailing across the Caribbean sea
- 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
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;
- The number of people that were on each boat
- Whether it was known as a party boat, a chilled boat, or for fishing or diving etc.
- The boats captain and whether they have crew (which massively effects the type of food you get throughout the trip)
- And of course, the cost (trips vary from $500-$600) and benefits (comfort, food, activities etc.)
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.
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;
- 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)
- 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
- 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
- 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;
- 5 nights accommodation on board (in cabins or open air hammocks dependent on the boat)
- All food (3 meals) and water – and they accommodate for vegetarians!
- Access to snorkel and fishing gear (dependent on boat) and a small tender to take you between boat and island
- 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;
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.