Saturday, 14 January 2012

San Blas and the boat to North America

The San Blas islands: picture perfect.
The San Blas Islands are not the world’s most famous Caribbean islands, but they are probably the best. They are also practically a necessity for anyone wanting to get from South America to North America without flying, which is just what I wanted to do.

Colombia is in fact connected to Panama by land, but trying to cross this way is inadvisable to say the least. The jungle that straddles the two countries is known as the Darién Gap, home to the only break in the Pan-American Highway, which would otherwise connect Alaska to the very bottom of Argentina. It is also inhabited by FARC communist rebels, on the run from the Colombian army. People have crossed it, but it often took months, owing to the fact that they got taken hostage for periods of months – in some cases years – on the way.

So, having decided that walking was out of the equation, I started looking into boats. It may be possible to go to the last Colombian town on the coast then hitch a ride on a banana boat to an island and on again to Panama, but this too is not recommended due to the amount of drugs that get smuggled that way. You wouldn’t want to be caught on a pile of fruit and cocaine. But plenty of private boats make the trip from Cartagena, Colombia to Portobelo in Panama.

Finding a boat is easy, but finding a decent one is not. Stories abound about dodgy captains who don’t know the first thing about sailing and do a runner in the night, overcrowded boats that don’t have enough beds, wrecks on the reefs, and even murder. (Yes, one captain was recently jailed after having disposed of a number of other captains in order to steal their boats.) Fortunately the internet has been invented and with a bit of research on travel forums one can easily come up with a fairly reliable list of boats that sound like they won’t kill you. After meeting a captain with a gammy leg with a boat that I couldn’t see because it was “still being built”, I found one leaving on the 3rd January, with a captain I warmed to immediately.

The Independence
His name was Michel, a Slovenian who had been on the seas for forty-odd years and acted like it. He is someone about whom the cliché ‘he suffers no fools’ is highly appropriate. Unfortunately most people were fools as far as he was concerned. He was straight down the line from the outset, explaining that he had a good boat, ran a good crew and was not a pirate like all the other captains. “Nothing is perfect,” he said, “but mine is the best boat out there.” He wasn’t wrong. His was The Independence, an 85’ yacht at least 30’ bigger than anything else ploughing this route. He had beds for twenty four passengers, but didn’t want more than fifteen on the boat. He had six crew members and did everything to keep them separate from us the whole time. “Mine is a professional boat,” he repeated. “It’s not a party boat, and you will receive first class food.”

I was sold. The promise of “good food, so much you can eat” was all I needed to hear. I just hoped I would be able to make the most of it, after my experience in the Galapagos with sailing boats. We left in the morning. Actually, we didn’t. We got on the boat and waited for our passports to be stamped. Typically, the Colombian authorities were as sow as ever, probably employing their only official to stamp the passports of everyone on the cruise liner in port first. We spent the day eating, swimming around the boat and getting to know each other.

A cruise liner leaving ahead of us.
Onboard were a couple of German families, a few solo backpackers, a motorcyclist who had just completed a tour from Alaska to Ushuaia, and two Argentinian NGO workers. Also, there were three young Aussies who had turned up looking for a boat at the last minute and were intent on drinking their way through the entire trip. This was the first time I got annoyed at Michel – he had broken his own rule of not allowing more than fifteen people onboard, and not wanting people who just want to get drunk. But they were by far outnumbered by people who actually wanted to have a conversation, so all was well. One was addicted to tranquilisers so he was out of it most of the time anyway.

The most important member of the crew was Ashanti, the guard dog. She maintained a territory on the port side, barking at anything or anyone that came to close. She’s so fierce, Michel explained, that even the customs officials and drug squads wouldn’t dare board. (This was good news for the drugged up Aussie.) Once, Michel told us, smiling widely, a passenger went for a swim in the night and got back on to the boat on the wrong side. He had to spend the night cowering in a cupboard until rescued by the captain in the morning.

Finally, at around 6pm, Michel came speeding up to the boat on his dingy clutching a bag of stamped passports. “We go!” he shouted. The crew pulled up the anchor and we were underway. It was very calm to begin with, and we ate a delicious meal as we coasted out of the harbour. As soon as the plates were put away, however, Michel cranked up the motor and began powering us through the waves. And they were big waves. Even with stabilisers at the back of the boat we were rolling so much that I thought the motorbike on deck might be tipped into the water. I grabbed a bunk on deck and lay down.

Leaving Cartagena, Colombia in the evening.
And there I stayed for the best part of 36 hours, rising only to go to the toilet and even then I would put it off for hours until I could hold it no longer. Below deck the conditions were unbearable, a combination of heat, humidity, diesel fumes and an assault on the balance part of my brain. I had to talk myself through the process then rush back upstairs to my horizontal position, hoping against hope that no-one had claimed it in the meantime. Using this method I prevented myself from vomiting – more than could be said for the majority of people onboard. Throughout those two nights and a day there was a constant soundtrack of frantic footsteps struggling to maintain a straight line, then retching, followed by a desperate moaning as the sickness failed to subside. All the while Michel laughed to himself, no doubt having seen the same scene repeated time and again over the last forty years. The motion didn’t affect him one bit, nor did it affect a few of the others who sat at the table every meal gobbling up everything. They tossed me some pieces of fruit and bread as I asked for them – I was annoyingly hungry as I lay there, a feeling that disappeared with shocking rapidity the moment I tried to sit up at the table.

I was in awe of the crew, who cooked up feasts and cleaned everything in spite of the conditions. I felt particularly sorry for one of them, an Argentinian girl who had agreed to work on the boat with her boyfriend in return for a cheap ride to Panama. Unfortunately she had had very little experience of boats and was unable to carry out her duties for those 36 hours, instead lying in her bed below deck filling up a bucket beside her (which she then accidentally kicked over.)

At 8am on the 5th January all became still. It was as if someone had flicked a switch, redirecting the power from the wave machine to the passengers. It was like the opening scene to Bag Puss when all the creatures yawn and come alive. People began to talk, to eat and to walk around. And there on the horizon were some islands, poking out of the face of the flat water like green beauty spots. We stood on the front as the sails were lowered (they had been raised at some point in the last day and a half) and grinned with a delighted relief as we dropped anchor just off the shore of one of the islands. I dived straight into the warm, blue water and swam to the soft, white sand. I was alive. I was in paradise.

First sight of San Blas.
The islands are as picture-perfect as one could imagine: golden beaches run around small blobs of palm trees. Some only have one or two trees, some have several hundred, but all can be circumambulated in just a few minutes. They are not all deserted. The islands are home to the Kuna, an indigenous group said to have been in the area for several centuries before the Spanish came in the 16th century (Columbus first arrived here in 1503) they refused to change their traditional ways or cede to the colonialists. As such, they are one of the only remaining indigenous groups in Latin America that still maintain their original culture.

A tiny island in San Blas.
This does not make them weary of tourists. They welcomed us with smiles and greeting of “Nuedi” – ‘hello’ in the Kuna tongue. They live out their days as if shipwrecked on the islands, surviving off the flora and fauna available to them. It’s surely the only place I’ve been in the world where I couldn’t buy a Coca Cola. They own everything in the archipelago, but when we asked them about coconuts they happily hacked some open for us to drink and eat. They have a traditional form of embroidery called mola, whereby several layers of coloured material are stitched over the top of one another and designs cut out of the differing layers in order to reveal patterns and pictures.

A Kuna lady on San Blas.
We spent two days in and around these islands, moving a couple of hours northwest on the second day. We snorkelled and swam, investigating tiny dots of land, coral and even ship wrecks. Yes, there are plenty of wrecks here, what with there being so many reefs and useless captains. We slept on the boat, which was now a very pleasant experience with gentle rocking and a cool breeze. We were fed huge amounts of mouth-watering food including lobster. It was a well-deserved reward after the effort involved in getting here. But we knew it wouldn’t last – we still had a night of sailing ahead of us. On the last day we celebrated one of the passengers’ birthdays, eating cake and coconut on an island, and in the evening we sat around drinking until Michel warned us, “You can stay up as long as you like, but I’m setting sail now.”

Hoisting the sails on The Independence.
With those words everyone disappeared to a flat surface. We had prepared ourselves and knew what to expect, but still the chorus of retching continued throughout the night. At 3am there was shouting from the captain. “Shine it there! There! Show me the boats! Stupid bastards with no lights. Shine the torch there! Come here. You are useless with the torch. Shine it there. Ok, drop the anchor!” We had arrived. As the sun came up breakfast was served and the passports had already been stamped. We were just off the coast of Carti, Panama.

Lobster - one of the many delicious meals served onboard!
We unloaded the motorbike, a serious logistical challenge. Even more of a difficulty was disembarking the dog, which was by this time very, very fed up with being on a boat. Then we sailed on an hour or so to Portobelo, ate some more food, loaded ourselves into the dingy and said goodbye to Michel and his boat. It was an experience I don’t regret, but one that I can safely say I won’t do again. Fortunately I’m done with boats now: it’s dry land from here all the way to the top. North America, the final continent of the trip. Bring it on.

Getting the motorbike to shore again.


  1. We've had a mola hanging on our wall since before you were born, it still hasn't faded in colours!

  2. can you tell me how much you paid for this
    ? this sounds soo good and fun :) Im going with my friend from columbia to pananma in march :)

    1. It was US$450 for the trip, which is about standard. My advice would be to really research the boats - there are many doing the trip, but some have very dodgy captains! There are some real horror stories around. It's worth contacting hostels like Captain Jack's (in Portobelo:, and going along to Casa Viena (in Cartagena: They only deal with reputable captains and boats and can help you out. Also, when you find out the name of a boat, look for reviews online on forums like Thorntree ( and you MUST go along to look at the boat and meet the captain.

      Hope that helps!