If the backpacker trail is getting too crowded, leave the land behind. For the same price as a flight you can sail from Panama to Columbia, visiting the achingly beautiful San Blas islands. Here's how
The Pan-American Highway is one of the most important routes used by most backpackers travelling in Central or South America. It is perfect but for one hugely inconvenient interruption: the route abruptly stops in the town of Yaviza in Panama and surfaces 54 miles later deep into Columbia.
As just about every foreign office in the world advises against travel in this dangerous region known as the Darien Gap, the only real way to get to Columbia is by flying. With flights costing around US$330 if you book in advance, it is a real hit to your daily budget. Our trip was to take us from Mexico City to Rio de Janeiro so money was tight!
Fortunately there is another way that saves you money.
We got speaking to a Colombian who had sailed from the majestic city of Cartagena in Colombia to Panama, he was confident we could do the journey in reverse and said that the hostels in Panama City are the place to find a captain and yacht. We headed to Panama City but it suffers from a dearth of hostels. However, if you head for the Old Town Casco Viejo there a few friendly places that can help with getting your boat, and also have plenty of posters for captains advertising their departure dates.
We found Hospedaje Casco Viejo (dorms US$10 and singles US$16) a great little place to stay if you are on a budget. Most of the rooms have huge shutters that open onto the quiet streets of Casco Viejo with its mix of tumbling dilapidated buildings, slick modern restaurants and art galleries. Round the clock security and a small kitchen make this an ideal place to stay while waiting for your sailing departure. Luna's Castle (US$12 and US$26 doubles) is also a great bet. The staff were really helpful and always willing to translate for those whose Spanish needs a little bit of polishing. The hostel itself is exactly what any traveller needs, huge common areas to relax and meet people with a monstrous book swap to keep you occupied. The kitchen is well equipped and the entire building spotlessly clean while keeping that old charm.
Choosing a captain and boat is a bit of a minefield as the pictures can look wonderful but the way they operate can be far from ideal. We heard horror stories about previous trips but most people we spoke to said that sailing to Colombia was the highlight of their entire trip. Try to meet or speak directly to any captains to ensure you are confident that you could spend five days on a boat with them, also casually checking out to see if they aren't a drug running criminal! Be mercenary with your approach, always have a backup, captains can cancel at any moment and delays are common. Be patient but also flexible, this option is not for those on a tight schedule. The cost of a trip is currently around US$250-300 per person, this will cover all your food, visas, and usually your transport to the Caribbean side of Panama where your boat will be moored.
Our trip began with a bleary eyed early start. We were picked up from our hostel by our driver Junior in his once grand 4x4. We were quite certain that Junior was clinically insane but his skills behind the wheel were unquestionable. He tore through hours of rainforest tracks in deep mud while all the time laughing like a maniac at the two gringos in the back being thrown around wildly. We stopped by a swollen river in flood and were told that the car could go no further so we would have to board a motorised canoe with another handful of confused travellers. My rule for this kind of situation when travelling is to just let it happen so we cruised through the croc filled delta and eventually out into a bay where a few yachts lay at rest.
The yacht we were dropped off at was the dazzling 'Chirissa', a small but beautifully kept yacht captained by the eccentric yet more than capable Salvador from Spain, and our Italian cook, the warm and friendly Daniella. Unfortunately you cannot choose your companions for these voyages unless you get together in a group. We were stuck with an American couple who could only be described as the dullest people on earth. Thankfully we were swept up by Salvador and Daniella's enthusiasm for sailing and hardly noticed the miserable duo. After being shown around the beautiful boat we just had one more formality: passport control. This consisted of Salvador sharing a glass of rum with an immigration officer closely resembling a cast member of the Malibu advert, our passports being duly stamped with humorous disregard and we set off into the San Blas islands.
I have been lucky enough to travel all over the globe but nothing quite prepared me for the beauty of the San Blas islands, the island chain is dotted along the north eastern coast of Panama and many are your quintessential desert islands, complete with white sand, turquoise water and huge drooping palm trees for shade. The majority are uninhabited and you will find it hard to tear yourself away from them each time you set sail. Fortunately they get more magnificent with each nautical mile.
Our days were spent enjoying Daniella's traditional Tuscan cooking along with Salvador's beer and taking in the sights. We would only be on the move for a few hours each day so Salvador would ensure we found a great spot for snorkelling and an area to moor up for an evening BBQ. Highlights for me include snorkelling with rays, canoeing to a monstrous shipwreck, sleeping on an island the size of a tennis court, being woken up by dolphins playing around the boat and seeing my girlfriend's face when I accidently caught a shark when fishing for dinner! The real treat, however, was the chance to see how the indigenous Kuna people lived. The Kuna have lived in the area for centuries after escaping warring tribes and the hoards of mosquitoes on the mainland. They live in real isolation and are very protective of their culture and unique way of life on the islands. It is important to intrude as little as possible; ask before you take any photographs and enjoy what is an extremely rare cultural experience.
When searching for a trip you will find that most boats sail for one or two days in the San Blas Islands then two or three days in open water to Cartagena. As we both get fairly seasick we managed to find a lesser travelled route that avoided the long crossing and gave us more time in the islands by dropping us off just over the Panama/Colombia border in the small village of Capurgana. Very few captains choose this journey as most travellers enjoy the ease of being dropped straight in Cartagena but believe me, the chance to stay longer in the islands along with the opportunity to experience a less visited part of Colombia is a must. On day five, when we dropped anchor in Capurgana, we were truly devastated to be leaving the boat. We would miss both Daniella and Salvador immensely having shared such a fantastic experience with them. I would never forget waking up to the sound of Salvador's infectious laugh.
Arriving in Colombia
Salvador took us through the customs process and got our passports stamped with no difficulty in sleepy Capurgana, where donkey carts rule the cobbled streets. We checked into the extremely basic but pleasant Delfin Inn (just US$7 for a dorm), one of the few places to stay but Hugo will make you feel more than welcome. Capurgana has no ATMs so we haggled for a small boat to take us to the nearest large town of Turbo the next day where busses could then take us anywhere we wanted. We had the whole of Colombia to look forward to with the added bonus of having spent nothing for five days.
If you are travelling in Central America or even planning a longer trip into South America then stay clear of the masses, get yourself on a boat and sail to Colombia, your parents will go crazy!