If you’re looking to travel from Colombia to Panama you have a few options: by air, by land or by sea. The land option involves crossing the Darian Gap and switching between unreliable boats and buses (which doesn’t tempt me) but is definitely a route for adventure-seekers to consider. The plane option seems a little tame but is certainly the easiest, and the final option is catching a sailboat, going via the San Blas Islands.
The San Blas Islands are relatively unknown out of Central America, possibly because tourism is restricted there. The islands are governed by the Kuna tribe and form an independent territory
Most boats charge between $450-$550 for five days and four nights, with two or three days in the islands.
This was one of the most amazing trips I have ever taken, just because the scenery was so incredible. It was surreal to be in such a spectacular place. But that being said, it was by no means a comfortable five days. I hope the list below will help prepare you for the trip of a lifetime.
1) Do your research
Before you book a boat, decide what type of trip you’re looking for. Do you want to spend the whole time partying in paradise? Are you looking for a more relaxed vibe? Do you want to spend two or three days in San Blas?
Once you’ve decided, go online. A popular site for finding boats is Blue Sailing but you can also find your boat by trawling online forums and travel blogs (like I did). Make sure you read reviews! I heard horror stories of boats that were so packed that people had to sleep on the floor or that the captains were drunk or high. That really didn’t appeal to me so I chose the Ave Maria because she had good reviews and a reputation for being a more relaxed boat.
Find out the pick-up and drop-off points. The Ave Maria docked in Portobelo in Panama so we all had to pay for a shuttle to Panama City. Some boats drop you off even further from Panama City. Find that out and factor it into the cost.
Check whether there are any public holidays or festivals on your day of departure and arrival. You would expect your captain to check this, but ours didn’t and we ended up leaving a day late because of a public holiday in Colombia and driving an hour extra to get our passports stamped because of the Festival of the Black Christ in Panama. Especially remember this when booking flights at your destination. Four people on our boat missed their flights out of Panama City. At the end of the day, despite costing $550, it is a budget backpackers trip and your captain probably won’t sort everything out without a hitch.
2) Boat Living
I can only speak for accommodation on my boat but I imagine many of the boats will be similar. We each had a bunk and one of the couples was able to share. Our captain and his girlfriend also had a double.
My bunk was about a meter wide by was surprisingly comfortable when there was a bit of a breeze. Try to be near a window or a porthole and avoid the cabin at the very back of the boat as you will get almost no airflow.
Don’t expect to shower for the entire duration of the trip. I think I must have been imagining a much larger boat because the no showering situation came as a surprise to me. Pack some shampoo in your day bag and give your hair a little wash in the ocean at some point. You won’t feel clean, but it helps.
The bathroom was hilarious. The toilet looks like one of those ones you would find in a kindergarten bathroom and I think it must have been temperamental because they asked us to do our business overboard instead if we were prone to very large bowel movements. (Which may seem like over share to some – but it may avoid a traumatic experience for others).
I’m not sure whether it has something to do with being surrounded by a body of water or the fact that we spent all day swimming, but it was almost impossible not to get burnt. Pack loads of sunscreen and try buy a 30-50 SPF. The sun in San Blas is strong!
4) Pack light and loose
There isn’t much space on board so it’s likely that you will have to store your main backpack or luggage below deck. If you do have a waterproof cover for your bag I recommend putting it on. When it rained our things got wet!
You can keep a small day bag for your toiletries and clothes for the trip. Pack breezy clothes. I packed a jumper but it was never cold enough to use it and I spent almost all my time in my swim suit. I also packed two t-shirts, a dress, a pair of shorts, a swim towel and a bikini.
5) Seasickness meds
Most people recommend Dramamine or Meclizine. I just went to two pharmacies in Cartagena and asked for the strongest ones they had. The meds will make you drowsy but that’s a fantastic side effect during the 30 hour crossing from Cartagena to the San Blas Islands. When you’re seasick you do not want to be awake.
The amount of alcohol you pack depends on the type of boat you pick. I personally wanted to stay as far away from a hangover as possible while I was living on a boat so I only bought a 6-pack of Smirnoff Storms for the trip and didn’t manage to finish them. Some of the other passengers brought a lot of wine and gin with them but nobody was getting outrageously drunk. It was awesome to have sundowners so I would recommend taking something, but there was no pressure to drink. The cheaper boats will probably have younger passengers so I imagine that would be more of a party.
Check beforehand to see whether your boat provides food and then read reviews to find out about the quality of the meals. Based on the reviews, you can decide how much to bring. On my boat we were given enormous and delicious meals so snacks weren’t really necessary, but it was nice to have some nuts or biscuits to nibble on while having sundowners.
However, on some other boats they either don’t provide food or they don’t provide enough. Do your research!
The Kuna will come up to the boat and you can buy beer, Coca Cola and crisps from them for a dollar each. They also sell lobster and fish and one day we had fresh lobster for dinner. There is also a small shop on Porvenir island. I never went in but apparently you can purchase crisps, biscuits and drinks there.
8) Check the passport procedure
This should be standard procedure but I recommend confirming with your captain that he/she will organize everything to do with stamping you in and out of Colombia and Panama. Obviously if you need a visa for either of those countries it is up to you to sort that out beforehand.
9) Added extra: a handheld fan
I cannot explain how uncomfortably hot a boat with ten people on it is when you’re anchored and there’s no wind… and the oven is on for dinner. Or even worse: when there’s a storm so the windows are all closed, you can’t go up on deck AND you’re seasick. This is a bit over the top, but I definitely would have appreciated a fan.
Quick tip: sleep on deck when you’re anchored around the islands.
All that said, it was an unforgettable trip and an amazing opportunity to see an unspoiled part of the world. Hopefully, armed with the requisite info, you too, could have an amazing journey.