When backpacking for any extended length of time, whether from city to city or even country to country, the mode of travel becomes something to think about. It’s likely that you’re moving from place to place by bus, train, car, and boat. As I traveled throughout Central America, I generally took buses to get from one place to the other. There were some small islands you could only access by boat, but the boat rides were always short compared to the long bus journeys. However, when deciding how to get from Panama to Colombia, almost every backpacker chooses between one of two options: flying or taking a boat.
While it is possible to cross from Central into South America by land, not many people attempt to make that trek. Crossing via the Darien Gap is extremely dangerous. Many that attempt it don’t make it out. Not only is the terrain dangerous, but there is a lot of illegal activity that takes place throughout that land as well. Although the boat is pricier than the already expensive flights, my travel partner and I decided to cross by boat.
There are many boats that take travelers from Panama to Colombia. Our boat, as well as many other boats, take travelers on a five-day journey. You start in Panama, spending three nights at sea and two nights on the beautiful San Blas Islands. After booking our trip, we made our way to the port town called Portobelo in Panama, where our boat was set to leave. In the days before leaving, we met some of the people that would also be taking the five-day journey. In total, our boat had 12 passengers and three crew members. Everyone was excited for the trip but also a little bit nervous. We would be traveling in rough season, and we heard it was common for passengers to feel seasick while out at sea. The crew advised everyone to buy pills for motion sickness before the trip.
That first night at sea was rougher than I expected. The 56-foot sail boat rocked from side to side all night.
Nobody knew exactly what to expect but we all planned on having a good time while at sea! We left Portobelo at around 10 PM and after our safety meeting, everyone went to sleep. The cabins were small. I shared a top bunk with a girl I had met the day before and our room for four was basically just a room with three small beds. Of course we made the most of our room, and I was lucky to be sharing such a small space with three really great people. That first night at sea was rougher than I expected. The 56-foot sail boat rocked from side to side all night. The next morning, because of strong currents, we made it to San Blas Islands later than expected. Half of the passengers were getting sick and everyone just wanted to make it to the islands.
Nobody could deny that these remote islands were as close to paradise as it gets. The water was crystal blue and the islands were pristine. We spent two and a half days swimming and snorkeling around different islands. We even got to see two sharks while snorkeling, which was amazing. We slept on the islands two of the nights in hammocks and being out in the middle of nowhere with almost nobody else around was an amazing feeling. The first night on the island was exceptionally special because I was one of four people who decided to sleep on the island. The other passengers went back to sleep on the boat. Being with only a few other people on this island that had nothing on it was amazing. Just looking up at the stars and moon was really something else.
After our time on the islands, it was time for us to make the long trip from San Blas to Cartagena, Colombia. Generally it takes anywhere from 30 to 50 hours to make that journey. Everyone was hoping our time on the open sea would be as short as possible. During the five-day trip, nobody really showered (our boat ran out of fresh water so we had to trade booze for water from another boat) so everyone was feeling dirty and salty. People were taking as many motion sickness pills as possible before hitting the big waves at sea. That fourth night at sea was the worst for me. My clothes were still wet, our cabin was hot, and I kept having nightmares as I felt claustrophobic on the top bunk. I didn’t have space to move so I laid in the same position and just waited until I could catch a glimpse of daylight. Only then would I finally be allowed on deck. We weren’t allowed on deck during dark hours in case someone fell overboard.
We were all happy to be on land again. We talked about our new appreciation for sailors.
At 5:30 AM, I was the first one who made it to the deck. I didn’t want to be in the tiny, hot room anymore. I am so happy that I’d woken up early that morning because as I sat alone on the deck, a group of about 20 dolphins came to play along the boat during sunrise. It was wonderful. I woke up the co-captain to show him and then a few other passengers made it on deck early enough to see them as well. It was so cool to see all of the dolphins so close to the boat, free and enjoying the morning. It was the best start to the day.
Our time at sea ended up being 36 hours total. While almost every passenger spent the entire 36 hours lying on deck or sleeping in their beds, we all bonded. It is impossible not to bond with people when you are falling on top of each other on the moving boat as you try to get from one spot on the boat to the other. Everyone, no matter how seasick they were feeling, was always ready to grab water or crackers for someone feeling worse than themselves, and we couldn’t help but laugh as cold, splashing water always seemed to wake you up right as you were just getting comfortable.
Waking up and getting to Cartagena was the best feeling ever. All anybody wanted to do was get out of the dirty, wet clothes they had been wearing for the past few days and take a proper shower. The boat was an amazing experience. I was lucky to have an awesome captain and crew. I became close with many of the passengers as well, and we all went out in Cartagena. We were all happy to be on land again. We talked about our new appreciation for sailors. It is not easy to spend so much time at sea. It takes a special kind of person to be a sailor.
The boat ride from Panama to Colombia was definitely an experience. It was not luxurious at all, but it was well worth it. I would recommend the trip to anyone who is looking to do something different. I don’t know if I would take the exact same trip again, but I am really happy that I decided to take the sailboat rather than fly. It is a journey that I will never forget!
Top photo by Ben Kucinski (Creative Commons)