For backpackers looking to get to Colombia from Panama, there are three options… If you have the time, and can afford a guide, some explorers are now reporting successful crossings of the Darien Gap – no doubt this will continue to get easier with time but there are still some dangers. You can also fly but if you do, you’re missing out. The best way to get from Panama to Colombia? By boat via the San Blas Islands. Multiple boat companies now offer passage from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands with trips ranging from three to five days and starting at around $500… This may seem like a hell of a lot of money, and it is, but if you need to travel between Panama and Colombia, this is definitely one of the best value ways to make the trip. The San Blas Islands are simply stunning…
There was four of them. They weaved off to the side, surfaced for air and shot back towards the sailboat at lightning speed. I was in the wrong place, I slipped past the captain, his drunken gaze fixed upon something on the horizon and ducked into the bowels of the ship. I was still learning my way around but I knew time was running out. I shoved past Chase, a large, tattooed American with a cigarette dangling from his lip and hopped up a small flight of stairs. Grabbing a rope, I heaved myself to my feet, the deck was wet, I stepped carefully yet quickly, jumping over the padded areas where, already, my fellow passengers were sunbathing with a couple of beers. I sprinted the last five metres and, suddenly, I was at the bow of the ship. The wind whipped through my hair, salt spray covered my face, I clung to the thick wires ringing the ship and looked down. There they were!
Just ahead of the boat, perhaps two metres from my outstretched hand, four dolphins escorted us as we left Panama and began to head out deeper, into the open ocean towards the San Blas Islands. Up ahead, I could see nothing. The only sign of life was the dolphins and after a few minutes, they decided to leave us, to find something more engaging I suppose or perhaps to hunt for fish. The sailboat continued upon it’s course, bounding over small waves, smashing through the big ones. It was rocky already. I headed to one of the padded chill-out areas, this boat was truly huge, to join the other passengers. They were an eclectic bunch, we were 26 in all, there were Aussies, Germans, Canadians, Brits, Americans and a handful from truly sporadic destinations. To spend five days on a crowded boat with 30 people (including the crew) was to be an intense experience, of that I was sure, I just hoped that everybody was, for the most part, relatively easy to get on with.
I lay there, rum and Fresca to hand, as I got to know everybody. Time passed, perhaps two hours and then a shout went up from the crew. I looked up, in the distance, emerging from the horizon, I could make out green and yellow splotches of land. They quickly grew as we approached. The San Blas Islands… The kind of thing you see on postcards, they were everywhere. I looked around me, I could see at least a dozen. Some were one tree atolls, lonely places, the kind of place inhabited by crabs and little else. Others, were truly stunning to behold. Soaring palm trees rippling in the crisp sea breeze, sapphire blue waters rushing up to meet soft golden sand.
I wasted no time, I ducked below, others were still messing around but I was determined to be first to step foot upon the islands. I grabbed my home-made dry-bag, shrugged the rough hempen straps over my shoulders, stumbled out of my quarters and up the stairs. I did not hesitate, I strode to the edge of the boat, looked down and stepped out into nothing. The water rushed up to envelop me like a lover. I have always felt comfortable in water, safer than on dry land if truth be told. I plunged into the sea, I allowed my momentum to carry me deep, perhaps a couple of metres, I opened my eyes, looked around, the surface shimmered brightly above me. Bubbles drifted past my face. To my side, I was aware of the magnificent size of the sailboat, it’s anchor chain winding down into the depths. I kicked and came up for air, looking around I spotted a few of my fellow passengers getting ready to explore. One was in a huge blue kayak. I began to swim, long, strong strokes towards the most inviting of the San Blas islands.
I arrived faster than expected, there was perhaps only thirty metres of deep water between the island and the boat. I hit the shallows. I strode through waist deep water, stumbling over huge conch shells half-buried in the sand. I spotted a bright red starfish, perhaps a foot wide and bent to examine her properly. On the island itself, coconuts hung heavy from the trees, waiting to be claimed, to be split with a machete and devoured. A small Kuna boy, perhaps 10% of this island’s entire population, smiled at me and kicked a football in my direction. I lingered, I wanted to soak in all that my senses could absorb. This was my first time on a tropical island.
All to soon, it was time to leave, this was to be just the first of many islands we would visit. We sailed again and slowly became accustomed to the bucking, bounding motion of the boat as it crested the waves and slipped into the troughs. Eventually, we arrived at our main stop for the night, Elephentine island. As a group, we headed to the island together and spent the evening acting out our own version of the olympics; handstand-holds, tree-climbs, coconut shot-puts, continuous cartwheels, cartwheel races; it as a truly perfect way to end our first day upon the high seas.
The next day, I awoke early, I was one of just a handful who was awake. The others had partied hard, until around six in the morning, and were splayed out all over the boat. I stepped over outstretched legs and arms and grabbed a snorkel mask, lowering myself into the water. Danny, the most enthusiastic of the crew, pointed me in the direction of a sunken boat nearby and I kicked into the depths. The wreck took nearly an hour to find, the waves were choppy and the current noticeably strong but eventually we found it – a seven metre long fishing vessel, perhaps four metres down, pierced by coral and covered in algae. I dived and tried to explore the algae encrusted inside but it was too deep. Exhausted after an hour in the water, fighting the current, I clambered abroad Danny’s sleek little powerboat and got dropped at an island.
I spent the day happily exploring, drinking fresh coconut water, climbing trees and snorkelling above the reefs ringing the sandy beaches. Many of the other passengers did not emerge until the afternoon, where they immediately started to drink. The MS Independence is, after all, a party boat and the captain was pretty much constantly pissed. I abstained from getting drunk and instead made best buddies with the crew on the boat. I boarded an inflatable whale and somehow convinced Danny to tow me behind his powerboat and breakneck speed. Viktor, the constantly smiling chef, slipped me extra portions of food all day. In the evening, the lobsters came out, I was rewarded with seven, yes seven, lobsters. I felt I had made firm friends. Upon the boat itself, relations were friendly but strained. With just four toilets and one fridge, there wasn’t much space to go around. Beers kept going missing from the fridge. Many of the toilets were constantly out of action. I took to finding a quiet spot on an island and relieving myself against a coconut tree. I hid my beers, it was a wise move.
On day three, the crew set up an inflatable ‘drinking island’ for the party crowd. I slipped off to an isolated island which took perhaps fifteen minutes to walk around. I collected shells, I built one hell of a sandcastle. I sat and pondered. The San Blas Islands are stunning, one of the most unforgivingly beautiful places I have ever been. I dreamed of hiding in the small forest in the centre of the island, staying on the San Blas Islands forever. I would live off coconuts and crabs. I would build a shelter out of the hundreds of flip flops that had washed ashore. I would call to my fisherman friends with my perfectly varnished conch horn. I would build fires to keep away the mosquitoes, fashion a loincloth for myself out of palm fronds, I would go native.
In the evening, we set up a bonfire on a nearby island. Danny produced a bag of marshmallows from thin air, I danced around the fire, spear in hand, like a wild man, sporadically toasting marshmellows. Eventually the fire died and the sand flies became bolder. We returned to the ship and the drinking games began as we sat around the deck. I got to know more about my fellow passengers. I was sandwiched between Kit, a tiny Canadian with insane backflip skills and a dazzling array of swimsuits and Rauri, a hilarious Australian with an apparent immunity to liquor. Opposite me, a hard-drinking Irish lad sporadically threw beer cans at a naked hippie (twat), busily smoking a cigarette, nearby. The games had gotten slightly out of hand. I looked out across the water, something caught my eye, I reached for my head torch.
I left the table, stumbled to the back of the boat and scanned the waters. A flash of white, the underbelly of something or perhaps just some passing flotsam? I turned on my torch. Manta rays, three of them, glided through the water towards me. The largest was easily a metre across. A silver fish leapt out of the water and away from his pursuers. The rays closed in. More circled around the boat, I spotted a total of nine. Like celestial spirits, they disappeared into the depths only to rise up in search of pray. I watched them for over an hour, in the background the games turned wilder as more and more people lost clothes and girls covered their breasts with red cups, the kind you see in American frat houses.
The fourth day was a blur. The sea was rough, it was impossible to even stand. We lay, scattered across the deck, the cabins were too hot to bear. The cook was sick, there was to be no food. The captain was exhausted, irritable. “This weather is some of the worst I have seen, I think some ships may not make it” he mentioned, encouragingly. We passed the wreckage of a huge ship, wasted upon the reefs. I took some sea-sickness tablets, I staked out my place on the boat; a sodden plastic mattress at the back. I snarled at all who approached, this was my part of the boat. The sea-sickness tablets, mixed with a couple of valium, made for an odd combination. I slept for perhaps eighteen hours, along with almost all of the other passengers and even the cook who was truly sick. Somehow, Viktor rallied in the evening and produced one of the best meals I have ever had; smoked fish with mashed potatoes. I ate, I slept, the night passed me by as an uncomfortable blur.
I awoke with the sunrise, the chop was bad, even from where I lay I was periodically soaked with spray. I rolled myself in a towel and attempted to sleep again, there was just a few more hours to go. Soon, we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, South America, a brand new continent. It has been the journey of a lifetime, one which I feel I have failed to truly capture in this article. The experiences I had; walking along golden sand, sitting atop palm trees as warm water splashed across my feet, hacking open coconuts to get at the water within; this was the stuff of legend. This was real adventuring. This was what it must have been like to sail around the world hundreds of years ago. To stumble across uninhabited islands. If ever you have the chance to explore the San Blas Islands, do not pass it up, it is the experience of a lifetime.