In which we sail postcard-perfect islands, encounter fascinating locals, and survive a one-sided food fight
Sailing from San Blas Panama to Cartagena, Colombia satisfied a major to-do on our travel bucket list—a border crossing via boat. It was also one of our stranger adventures.
Overland travel between Panama and Colombia is next to impossible. The two countries remain separated by a 99 mile expanse of swampland jungle called the Darien Gap. The undeveloped and reputably lawless divide is the only unlinked gap in the Pan-American Highway between Alaska and Ushuaia, Argentina.
The happy alternative is sailing from San Blas Panama, to Cartagena, Colombia.
You reach San Blas via a four-hour 4-wheel drive trek from Panama City. From there, you hop a taxi barge out to your sailboat.
We joined five other passengers aboard the Corto II. From the moment we stepped on board (or rather the moment Captain Sebastian had our cash in-hand), we wondered if the Darien Gap might have been a safer alternative.
Our crew was like a motley Gilligan’s Island with a Latin soap opera twist. Lone gal Natalie was the default Mary Ann, we had the Millionaire, and Captain Sebastian played The Skipper on a really bad day.
The San Blas Islands are stunning. San Blas is a string of 360 islands on Panama’s Atlantic coast famed for their stark white beaches, Caribbean blue waters, emoji-perfect palms, and fabulously dressed indigenous locals—the autonomous Kuna people.
We’d signed up to spend three days island hopping before a two-day open water sail to Cartagena. Soon after we boarded, Sebastian took a call from a buddy who was going to help him sail. It did not go well. As we ate breakfast, Sebastian broke the news that due to gloom and doom weather reports, we had to nix most of our time in San Blas and sail for Cartagena the following afternoon. Knowing that the ocean is not to be messed with, the group took the bummer news in stride. We just wanted to see as much of the islands as possible; if tomorrow’s forecast left Sebastian uneasy, we’d sail at will.
Then el capitan brought some serious drama to the high seas. As we readied to sail for our first island, Sebastian shouted a bunch of Spanish at us the we clearly did not fully understand. Before we knew it, breakfast items were flying overboard, and he hurled a ceramic plate past one of our comrade’s faces and into the galley. Shards of the martyred plate rattled around the hull for the rest of our trip. Sebastian tried to apologize for his Jerry Springer certified tantrum, but each attempted morphed into a whiny lecture.
With that bitter water under the bridge, we got down to having a very fine San Blas time. Cliff had never snorkeled in the Caribbean, and had his mind justifiably blown by the array of fish, rays, and coral beneath us. We made great friends with our fellow passengers. And although we only got to see one of San Blas’ 360 islands, we had a great poke around, spoke with some local Kuna, found the most incredible collection of giant conch shells, and even received a gift of chewing leaves from a passing group of Kunas. For our one night, we joined another tourist group and made a palm frond bonfire on the beach.
Lesson learned: at sea, the captain is judge, jury and executor. Who you sail with matters as much as where you sail.
If we had it to do again—which at the end of the day, we’d like to do—we’d sail San Blas Panama a little differently. We’ve heard great things about The Darien Gapster which spends more time on the islands (including Kuna home stays and island camping) and then hauls ass to Cartagena in speedboat spurts lasting a couple of hours. Heading north from Colombia to San Blas also seems to have its advantages, namely that at the end of the trip you can spend as much time as you’d like in the San Blas islands.