Sailing through Panama and Colombia

June 21, 2013 by

Beach & Water Adventures, Places to Go, South & Central America, Things to Do

Guna Yala. Photo courtesy of Mónica Mora via Flickr.

Guna Yala. Photo courtesy of Mónica Mora via Flickr.

There are few places in the world that are so remote from ‘civilization’, but yet so accessible, as the pristine natural beauty of the Guna Yala, more commonly known as the San Blas archipelago.

Floating off the Panamanian coast in the Caribbean sea like drifting clumps of lush vegetation, the almost 400 islands are mostly little more than a few scattered palm trees on round droplets of white sand lapped by crystal clear turquoise water. This fiercely independent scattered land is an autonomous region of Panama and home to the Guna people who inhabit a mere 49 of the islands.

The islands are the same now as they have been for centuries. The men fish from canoes dug from a single trunk of wood, they still live in coconut thatched huts often whole families inhabiting a single football field sized island and the women still make their beautiful rainbow colored mola fabrics depicting abstract images from their everyday lives.

Due to being a self-governing region of Panama, the Guna Yala has remained well below the tourist radar, not being in the interest of the Panamanian government to promote the islands. However that is now changing and with there being no hotels, no restaurants, no bars or cars, the Guna Yala really does hold its own in the growing world of eco-tourism.

An overlooked Latin America – Panama and Colombia

Downtown Panama City.

Downtown Panama City.

Often thought of as little more than a bland American backwater with a big canal and lots of hats, Panama finds itself overlooked in favor of its more enticing neighbors.

Colombia likewise hasn’t typically been top of many travel agendas, but most definitely not for accusations of ‘blandness’ being home to the continent’s longest running armed conflict and the infamous FARC rebels (who, thankfully, have been pushed out of the main cities and are now found only in more rural areas).

However, as is so often the case, things are not always what they seem and both countries are well worth visiting. Panama is much more than a canal, boasting a greater diversity of wildlife than any of its Central American neighbors and with almost 60% of the human population living in Panama City, the rest of the country is an eco-travelers paradise. From the cloud forested mountains of Boquete to wildlife watching in the various national parks like La Amistad in the north and Darien in the South.

Keel Billed Toucan in Panama

Keel Billed Toucan in Panama

In fact the Darien national park, which separates Panama from Colombia, and North America from South America, is one of the wildest places in the hemisphere. It is so remote and unchartered that it forms a 159km break in the Pan-American Highway that otherwise runs continuously from the northernmost part of Canada to the bottom of Argentina.

But on the other side is a country that has never before been more welcoming to visitors. With the FARC gradually being pushed ever more into the history books, Colombia is finding its feet and learning how to market all it has to offer. Learn how to salsa in the historic town of Cali, follow in the footsteps of Pablo Escobar in Medellin, experience history in the majestic bougainvillea covered colonial city of Cartagena or hike into the another world to discover Machu Pichu’s rival, the Ciudad Perdida (lost city). Now, according to the Colombian tourist board, ‘the only risk, is wanting to stay’ after visiting Colombia.

Crossing the gap

Going from Panama to Colombia is easy on a boat.

Going from Panama to Colombia is easy on a boat.

Because there is no road crossing, combining both Panama and Colombia into one trip has historically been difficult – the simplest way having been to hop on a plane. However, there is now another way offered by sailing through Panama and Colombia. Signing on as ‘crew’ and hitching your way through the beautiful aquatic world of the Guna Yala archipelago. Not only will you be crossing continents, you will feel like you are traversing time itself.

Only a handful of entrepreneurial captains have discovered this niche in the market and for a small fee of around $500 will happily sign you on as crew and take you on a six-day trip that will etch itself in your memory for the rest of your life. This trip however is not for the faint hearted and most certainly not for the easily sea sick. Choosing the right captain with the right boat is essential, with traffic severely restricted in the area, being rescued from a sinking boat may take some time.

In every youth hostel in Cartagena and Panama City, notice boards advertise captains seeking a ‘crew’ to fill their boat and undertake the journey. The prices vary, then so too does the quality of the boat and the experience on board.

Discovering Paradise

I had been in Panama for a week when I came across an advert in a youth hostel, Colombian born Fabian Arcila, captain of the Sailing Koala was seeking to fill his 12 person catamaran. Having met with his first mate and the other soon-to-be-shipmates at a bar in Panama City, I handed over my fee and set out to buy sun cream, sea sickness tablets and provisions for the six-day voyage.

The next morning was an early start, waking up before dawn to make the drive from the skyscraper-filled capital city, which seems to rise from the ocean itself, out into the jungle, which covers more than 40% of the country, towards the Guna Yala territory on the Caribbean coast. From the small village of El Porvenir it was a short motorboat ride out to the boat and my first glimpse of all that lies in wait.

All around were small islands, some no bigger than a park bench with a single palm or two, a sprinkling of snow white sand, surrounded by enticing blue water, perhaps a small dugout canoe being captained by some children or a couple of men out fishing. It was a world away from the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of Panama City.

The next day the boat ferried us through this intricate web of atolls to our first stop, nestled between three picture perfect tropical islands. Once anchored, we dived overboard and spent the day swimming between their shores, walking around, feeling like Robinson Crusoe and exploring our new home, if only for the day. Feeling inspired to discover the world below the water, thanks to a mouthwatering lunch of grilled coconut lobster, we grabbed snorkels and scoured the reefs for rays, lobsters, giant clams and any number of colorful fish.

Snorkeling around the islands.

Snorkeling around the islands.

It’s worth mentioning that on island’s that are inhabited, travelers need to be respectful of the Guna. Travellers are guests in their home, on their land and are only there under the blessing of their chief, who theoretically can change his mind at a moment’s notice. Broadly speaking, they are extremely welcoming and on a number of occasions during our trip, small canoes would row out to our boat with locals holding up enormous crabs and crayfish showing off, and offering to sell, their morning catch.

After a couple of days enjoying the islands, relaxing on their tropical shores, discovering the rainbow colored underworld in their waters and eating fresh fish cooked over glowing palm fronds, it was time to move on towards Colombia and South America. For the next two days we were on open water, not a speck of land in any direction. In fact the only sight we saw, other than the constant blue, was a school of dolphins who followed us for a couple of hours, soaring out of the water at our bow, leading us towards the oldest city in the new world.

Cartagena de las Indias

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

There really can be no better way to enter South America than by boat, just as the sun sets on the horizon, romantically sailing into the harbor of the UNESCO world heritage city of Cartagena.

With its maze like network of small cobbled streets, overlooked by ornate balconies shrouded in bougainvillea of every hue and grand colonial houses, Cartagena de las Indias really has claim to the most beautiful city in all of South America. Days can be spent just wandering round, getting lost and discovering the hidden history of this majestic city.

When the time comes, moving on from Cartagena is simple, busses run all along the Caribbean coast past the lush Tayrona National Park and onto the desolate wilds of the northern tip of the country. Heading south they go to Medellin, the birth place of Pablo Escobar, Cali the self-proclaimed capital of fiestas, Bogota and beyond. Evermore, Colombia is becoming the gateway to South America.

Top tips for Panama

  • Hike up Volcán Barú (volcano) or relax in its thermal springs
  • Savor fresh ceviche at the fish market near Casco Viejo (old town) in Panama City
  • Take a guided tour of the Darien National Park and spot the colorful macaws
  • Watch the tankers pass through the canal at the Gatun or Miraflores locks
  • Sip the country’s best coffee in the mountains of Boquete
  • Live the Caribbean nightlife in Bocas del Toro

Top tips for Colombia

  • Take the Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin and get to know Colombia’s infamous son
  • Trek into the Sierra Nevada to discover the lost city of the Tairona, Ciudad Perdida
  • Revel in the Semana Santa (Easter) celebrations in the colonial town of Popayan
  • Learn how to Salsa in Cali, purportedly the purest form of the dance in the world
  • Lose yourself in the narrow, cobbled alleys of the majestic Cartagena
  • Get back to nature and camp on the Caribbean coast in Park Tayrona

Top tips for the crossing

  • Trust your captain – Fabian Arcila Captain of the Saling Koala for instance
  • Bring essentials such as sun cream, cigarettes, beer, tampons, snacks and money
  • Respect the Guna islands and their people

 -Chris Courth

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2 Responses to “Sailing through Panama and Colombia”

  1. Megan Says:

    I really wanted to do the San Blas trip when I was in Colombia, but unfortunately ran out of time- I do plan on heading back though! Cartagena was wonderful, it really is a jewel. Being there for New Years Eve this past year was a blast (though the city was insanely packed from the influx of people).

  2. Spencer Says:

    I have always wanted to visit Panama and this is definitely the way to do it! It looks like such a wonderful country and I hear the food is amazing.

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