When I began thinking about this trip to Latin America a couple years ago, I discovered you couldn't travel overland from Colombia to Panama—you travel through the Darien Gap pretty much only if you are a survival expert or have a death wish—so I had to choose how to get myself from South America to Central America so I could get home eventually. Flying is lame so I found an alternative, something much more interesting and enjoyable in this case—sailing through the Caribbean, from Cartagena to Panama.
You can just show up in Cartagena and go to the marina, asking around, but a better method, based more on reputation and recommendation, is to stay at Casa Viena, a decent hostel in a decent part of town. They know several boat captains and will try to help connect you with those boats. They got me in touch with Mark, captain of Melody, a 44-foot, steel-hulled, sloop.
Mark had married Paola, a lovely woman from Cartagena, 8 years earlier, and she came along with us and helped Mark with all the duties. Aurelia, a nice Panamanian gal, also joined us. She was relatively new hired help, and also assisted with all duties, from keeping watch at night to cooking in the cabin, which became an oven in and of itself during the preparation of the meals.
You never know who's going to be joining you on this type of trip and that can either make or break it. I showed up at about 6:25 A.M. on Thursday, November 13th. I was the first one. I dropped off my things, then walked a half-block from the marina to a store, woke up the owners, and bought Coke, juice, and some cookies. When I got back to the boat, some more folks had shown up, and we waited a while longer for the rest. There were nine of us total: 2 gals from Ireland, a couple from New Zealand, 4 guys from Australia, and yours truly. Everyone was pretty cool, and we all got along just fine.
The plan was to spend the first two days traveling to the San Blas islands. Then, we would drop anchor and just hang out for two more. While there, we would go snorkeling, fishing, swimming, and mostly just do nothing. There was also a small island where we could chill on solid ground. It had nice sand beaches, loads of palm trees, and was your basic island paradise. We could get there in Mark's small RIB (rigid inflatable boat), or for those in good shape or, like me, in bad shape but foolishly not afraid of drowning, or confident in one's floating-on-the-back abilities, you could swim there. On day five, we would go to El Porvenir, Panama, only a few hours away. Then, we would go to Panama City in a 4x4 and get dropped off at our hostel of choice.
When Mark had purchased and rebuilt his boat years earlier, he had gotten a good deal on a great engine. Besides, he was a mechanic, so even if the engine failed, we were in good hands. The entire front third of the boat was his workshop—it was a mess—and he had previously traveled around doing work on other people's boats. These points are important because we actually did hardly any sailing during the entire trip. If we had relied entirely on the wind, it would've taken days longer to arrive at the islands, so we motored almost the entire trip, both from Cartagena to the islands and from the islands to El Porvenir.
Not having the sails up much during the first two days, we were rocking quite a bit due to the waves. I ended up taking two anti-sea-sickness pills during those first days. I think someone else threw up, but the trip went largely without health incident. After anchoring in a lagoon in the San Blas islands, we were able to spend two days in very calm waters. Those two days at anchor were definitely the highlight of the trip.
Several times, Mark took a group of 4 or 5 of us snorkeling on the other side of the reef (we were in a lagoon formed by a coral reef). It was a good experience, although because of my mask not sealing well and the size of the waves (water not infrequently entered my snorkel), it was very tiring and not as enjoyable as it could have been.
Mark also ran people over to a little island probably a quarter mile away on occasion, just so they could relax on dry land. I had been thinking about swimming over to the island and took the plunge one morning when I got up, probably around 7:00. It was a pretty good workout, but by floating on my back occasionally, I made it. Unfortunately, on the way over, I got stung by something. It hurt for a couple hours (after I got back to the boat later, Mark looked at the welts on my arm and figured it had been some chunks of a Portuguese Man O' War). While on the island, I sat, walked, did some thinking, and just enjoyed the quiet and solitude.
After I had been there a while, the sky began to darken, then it began to rain. I figured I'd head back, so I walked back around to the near side of the island and waded out into the water. By this time, the rain was coming down pretty hard. I ended up just hovering in the shallow water with my nose down at water level, enjoying the view of the drops of rain hitting the water like little clear balls bouncing off a big blue table.
I swam back to Melody with some fear and trepidation. Didn't really want to get stung again. When I finally made it back, the others on the boat said they had been worried about me. Some them had figured I had drowned and they had begun taking dibs on my stuff. One of them wanted my camera gear, another my laptop. I was still in the water when I was informed that breakfast was over. I said I didn't care and that I was just going to fix myself a PBJ. Paola and Mark were in a hammock stretched out over the front deck area. Paola wanted to know what a PBJ was, so I swam toward the front of the boat and explained it. Pretty wiped out, I swam back to the stern and dragged myself up over the transom.
I began to tell the others of my sting and at that point, Mark called me forward. When I got up to the hammock, he asked me in a very serious tone why I was breathing so heavily. I made an unrelated comment, and he repeated his question with a very stern face. I answered that I was breathing hard because I'm fat and out of shape and had just swam a quarter mile! He had been stung by some sea creature before, and that specific animal paralyzes the lungs. I told him I had been stung a couple hours earlier and that eased his fears that my lungs were currently being paralyzed by venom.
Later that day (the second day at anchor) saw some more excitement. Henry was one of the Australians and his life revolved around fishing, kind of like mine and photography. He had been trying and trying to catch fish on this trip with no luck. Around mid-day, however, his luck changed, and with a bang, he began hauling in little fish (don't know what they were) and they were coming in fast. He was going to use them as bait for some of the bigger fish he was really after.
I didn't really care about fishing, but I was pretty excited about the nurse shark in the water. It was suggested that that kind of shark wouldn't attack a swimmer in the water, so I grabbed my Panasonic TZ-3 in its underwater case, a mask and snorkel, and jumped in. This didn't please Henry too much, as he was afraid I would scare his fish away, but I was thinking about taking pictures of sharks, not about Henry's little fishies. He never mentioned it again. I think he got over it, thankfully.
I have to admit that swimming with a shark was extremely exciting. At first, the shark was swimming along the bottom, about 12 to 15 feet below me. I snapped a few pictures. A little while later, I saw the shark much closer to the surface. He was swimming straight at me—right at my nose. When he got within about 2 meters, I got a bit frightened, but kept my camera pointed at him and kept shooting. Then he turned toward the left. I kept shooting. Whew! That made my heart race.
A little about life on the boat. As far as sleeping goes, we were spread out between some beds in the cabin, a few in back by the wheel—that's where I slept—and the hammocks up on the front deck. I didn't sleep too well. The first night, we were motoring and rocking. The other nights, it was just the hard cushions that did it. Not really that comfortable. I think the people down below slept the best—their beds were relatively normal. Those in the hammocks complained of pains in the backs and in the early morning hours of getting cold when the breeze picked up. Nine people was really a pretty tight squeeze in this boat. As I said before, it's really great that we all got along.
The food was quite good. Mark had picked up lots of fruit and we all snacked on that throughout the trip. Paola and Aurelia really worked hard in the kitchen and fixed lots of outstanding meals. From what we heard, food wasn't all that great on many of these boats, but we all agreed that the food aboard Melody was great. Mark was right when he said we wouldn't go hungry on this trip.
Before we left Cartagena, Mark had collected everyone's passports and gotten our exit stamps for us. That was convenient. The last day of the trip, we dropped anchor next to an island near the Panamanian coastline and Mark hopped in his RIB and went ashore with all our passports to get our entry stamps into Panama. Again, nice, simple, and convenient.
We motored on a little farther and dropped anchor again, this time for the last time. A large dugout with an outboard engine pulled up next to us and we offloaded all our things into the canoe. The canoe took us ashore (a dollar a head) where a 4x4 awaited our arrival. This vehicle ($25 a head) took us to Panama City. Initially, the way was quite rough. A non 4x4 would never have made it. Eventually, we hit the Pan-American Highway. We stopped at a nice local restaurant—grass roof and all—and had lunch. There were fewer chickens running around when we left than when we got there.
A one-and-a-half-hour trip—the estimate we were initially given—turned into a seven-hour trek. I was the last one dropped off. It was dark. I had said goodbye to the last of my compatriots and at last felt like the voyage was over. It had been a very nice—and thankfully relatively uneventful—trip.
Need to travel between Panama and Colombia? Take a sailboat. It's a minor adventure, it's fun, it's relaxing, and you may even make some good new friends.
If you want to get a hold of Mark, captain of Melody, you can send him an e-mail.