THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS: SAILING PANAMA TO COLOMBIA
Everything you need to know before sailing the San Blas Islands
How to plan your trip, our itinerary, top tips, immigration information, food, drink, safety and everything else you need to know
In the seemingly infinite library of emojis on my phone, there is one that I have found a new love for - The little island of yellow sand with it's solitary leafy palm tree. The type of island you'd draw as a child, straight from the pages of Crusoe. The sort of island you'd be shipwrecked on, be abandoned on by pirates... or crawl around, lamenting the loss of the rum... The exact island that you can find within the San Blas archipelago, 50 miles off the coast of Panama. These tiny islands are marooned by azul water, and are home to the Guna Yala Indigenous group (along with all the coconuts you can shake a snorkel at).
We spent 3 sun-drenched days island hopping during our trip from Puerto Lindo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Sailing across the Caribbean is really the only (fun) option to get between the two countries - you can't cross the border by land due to the 'Darien Gap' - an impenetrable jungle infested with Colombia's not so friendly para-military & the odd drug trafficker, and flying is just a bit of a chore. The other benefit of sailing is the opportunity to meet the people of the Guna Yala, learn & experience a little of their way of life and peruse the unique handicrafts created by the Guna women in their chairs under the palms.
The Guna Yala
The San Blas Islands are unique not just in their incredible serenity & remote respite, but also their governance. Whilst officially belonging to Panama the Islands are wholly governed by the Guna, one of seven indigenous populations in Panama. Of the 365 islands, 68 are inhabited by the Guna, and each community has it's own political organisation led by a 'Saila' who sits on the Guna General Congress. Whilst the heritage & deep traditions are well protected through this system, it does sometimes lend itself to knee-jerk policies & rules that create some tensions & exasperation for skippers & Panamanian Tourism ministers alike - think overnight introduction of Island admission fees (still in place on some islands), banning drones (for fear that the government were spying) and, on occasion, closing the whole area to non-Guna boats without notice. Ask your crew & they'll be full of anecdotes.
This however is far more preferable than the Government of Panama's historical treatment of the Guna. In the early 20th century, many attempts were made to suppress their traditional customs - met with fury & revolt which peaked in 1925 during the 'Dule Revolution'. A treaty was eventually reached in which the Panamanians agreed to give the Guna cultural autonomy leading to the present system of governance.
Guna families are matrilinear, with the men taking the surname of their wives, and moving in with their families. They are famous for intricate textile creations known as Molas, made from different types of applique & used to make panels in clothing. You can buy these throughout Panama, but it's always a lovely thing to buy directly from the maker if you can.
When you arrive on any of the inhabited islands, bear in mind you are in the Guna's land & effectively their back gardens. Have respect, take your litter with you, greet them & speak with them if you have the opportunity. If they are selling drinks, it's advisable to buy them rather than bringing your own from the boat.
Our trip was a total of 5 days for $550 per person (admittedly well over our normal budget but something we'd been keen for so had managed to factor). The broad itinerary - mother nature dependent - was overnight sailing to the San Blas Islands from Puerto Lindo, 3 days of slow island hopping, and finally a 30 hour open ocean crossing to Cartagena. The latter being the bit that strikes the most controversy...
When we first started researching, we came away with some very mixed expectations. From paradise for days, with fresh lobster & seafood over island barbecues, to utter hell on rolling seas, debilitating sea-sickness and drunken crews. Out of some kind of morbid curiosity, the more horror we read, the more we sought - like turning to Google when you have a headache and ending up with a self-diagnosis of hepititus, malaria, all of the cancers & their cousins. It's fair to say we read some absolute corkers.
Not to be deterred, we booked regardless, confident that a positive attitude can surmount the most trying of times and, for those of you on your own researching spree, there is not one jot of us that regrets it.
However, our advice before booking is quite simple; do your research - not just into the company you book with via TripAdvisor or message boards (start here), but into the boat & the crew, especially the captain. The crossing is both popular & lucrative, meaning there is always going to be a spectrum of quality & experience. Whilst we paid towards the higher end of the scale, boats do depart for less, just make sure you know what to expect if you do take a more budget option. Ideally you want a newer boat - preferably a catamaran for the extra stability - and a well seasoned skipper. Whilst we didn't see it, alcoholism is a much reported issue, you don't want to be on the open ocean with a drunk crew.
The two companies we have heard the best things about (and very much in line with our experience) are Blue Sailing, who broker your passage with various vetted skippers & boats dependent on your preferred departure date, and Sailing Koala, who offer a similar service but have a principle captain on their books.
What follows is our experience of the booking, logistics & service provided by Sailing Koala, expertly managed & co-ordinated by Angelica, even in the face of a couple of challenging logistical constraints...
The Hitch (get it?)
The boat we were originally due on with Captain Fabian was cancelled, having hit submerged debris & suffered a damaged hull. We were immediately offered an alternative - a catamaran with Captain Jose - departing the day before originally planned. This would have been fine, had we not had a good friend of ours (hey, Emma!) arriving from Miami the evening of that same day. Not to be hindered, Angelica arranged for the shuttle to the port to pick us all up from the airport as soon as she landed. A couple of hours after that and we were sat on the nets over the bow of the cat, staring up at a blanket of stars. A bumpy start perhaps, but once worked through went off without an issue.
The Colombian Crew
Jose: The Skipper
Having sailed for most of his life, and well experienced at the San Blas crossings, Jose now runs the Panama - Colombia route as a part-time skipper. He has two children & lives in Cartagena. Excellent at Salsa.
Jonathan: The Cook
Jonathan has worked along side Jose for most of his sailing life & on many different boats. He is studying part-time at the University in Colombia. A dab hand at cards, table games (to help pass the time) & drinking games (when off duty)… Conveniently also an excellent chef who kept us all happily fed with some of the best food we’ve eaten in Panama or Colombia.
Elgin: The Deckhand
Poor Elgin, the cousin of another captain in the fleet, this was his first time in the role & it’s safe to say that boat life probably isn’t his jam. He spent the majority of the 5 days feeling horribly sea-sick. He still managed to do what was needed though & turned out to be lethal during a 4 day long game of Assassin.
Our itinerary was a little different to most, given the logistics mentioned above, but broadly speaking the trips follow the same format, with the variables being time of departure & which of the 365 desert island paradises you end up visiting.
Getting to Puerto Lindo
Most boats depart from Portobelo or Puerto Lindo, about a 2 hour drive from Panama City on the opposite coast, and most companies should be able to arrange a shuttle to pick you up from your hotel or hostel in Panama City & drive you across. This option is especially useful if you have a lot of stuff (waves sheepishly) and if you've stocked up on beers, rum & snacks in advance of the trip (waves proudly). The private shuttle cost us an extra $35 per person, but was worth it for the ease.
If money is tight however, public transport is also an option but will still set you back around $20:
Take the express bus from Albrook Terminal in Panama City to Sabanitas - buy a pre-loaded travel card in the departure hall. They depart every hour or when full.
On arrival in the bus station in Sabanitas ask for the next departure to Costa Arriba - Portobelo or Puerto Lindo. Connections to Portobelo normally leave every 30 minutes. Busses to Puerto Lindo are much less frequent so give yourselves plenty of time.
You can also get the bus to Colon & change there, however we’ve heard Colon is a little dicey - so be careful.
Depending on the time of your boat departure, it may be necessary to stay overnight in Puerto Lindo or Portobelo. Portobelo is probably your best bet, and gives you opportunity to check out the UNESCO designated fortifications - great examples of 16th & 17th century military architecture. You can browse places to stay nearby here.
We spent our first night sailing (with a bit of help from the motor) from Puerto Lindo, Panama out to the San Blas Islands. I couldn't tell you how long that leg of the journey took as we were both knocked out by a combination of travel exhaustion & dramamine. All I know is that we woke up at 6am, anchored in calm turquoise water. The view from our cabin was utterly surreal.
After a round of sleepy introductions to our fellow passengers (an American couple, a German, a Finn, an American woman travelling to learn Spanish, and finally an Irish lawyer from Verbier who we felt like we'd known for years) we tucked into a breakfast of granola, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with onions & peppers, nutella on toast, and fresh Colombian coffee, naturally.
We hauled anchor soon after and set off for our first island; a small acre of sand, dotted with palms and furnished with a bar, a deck & a sun-bleached wooden cabin that the island's one Guna family called home. Just off shore in warm shallow water, were several hammocks slung between posts of drift wood. A couple of beers, and a rum & coke were rapidly located and we spent the next couple of hours laughing at our own good fortune.
It was on this island that Jose & Jonathan sourced dinner. A Lobster. Each. When we returned to the boat for sunset, we spotted them suspended in their net from the stern - still very much alive & unaware of their fate*. Needless to say, dinner that evening was spectacular
Another day, another desert island. This time much larger (about 3 acres) and home to 2 Guna families who lived at opposite ends. We anchored next to a beautiful blue yacht, but otherwise the bay was empty and ours to explore. We dove off the sides of the boat into glass clear water and swam the 100m to shore - probably the most energetic we were all week.
The afternoon activities (namely good, solid 'island life’ type things: sunbathing, swimming, beach volleyball, collecting conch shells & eating) were continuously accompanied by refreshments - icy cervezas or coconut water fresh from the shell, later livened with rum (coco-locos). Lunch of roasted vegetables & sausage skewers over a make-shift barbecue merged into dinner of a slow, fire roasted joint of beef & foil baked potatoes. More coco-locos around a palm-branch bonfire rounded off the night before we headed back to the boat by moonlight.
Our third and final island felt the most deserted. A single Guna family lived here & the beach held only a solitary cayuco (a rough chiselled canoe, dug out of a palm tree). We walked the shallow waters from one end of the island to the other, sinking into fine white sand & stepping over coconut husks. The breeze, the water, the sunlight filtering through the palms. Not a bad way to spend the day.
Once back on board in the early evening, the crew gave us the heads up that we'd be hauling anchor in an hour - this was unanimously interpreted as - 'if you need to take anti-sickness medication, now is the time to do it'. We dosed up & braced ourselves.
Sometimes being rocked to sleep is soothing. Sometimes it makes you have to concentrate on not loosing your lunch. We experienced both during the following 30 hours but thanks to the anti-sickness we experienced far more of the former than the latter; for the majority of the open ocean crossing we slept like babes in arms. It's also worth noting here that we were blessed with a relatively calm crossing & favourable tail winds meaning we reached Cartagena about 12 hours ahead of schedule. Not everyone will be as lucky, and we'd only advise that you anchor your expectations accordingly (pun obviously intended).
To help counter any doubts as to whether it’s worth it, take a look at the video from our trip:
5 things to know before you go:
1. Salty Hair & Sandy Toes
You're on a boat which means there are minimal reserves of fresh water. You should not expect to shower beyond a rinse. Your hair will not be conditioned (it might not even get brushed), your legs will not be shaved, you will be constantly sticky with sea-salt, suncream & sweat. Embrace it. This is boat life.
2. Big Bags & Dry Bags
You're surrounded by water all the time. Stuff will get wet, a lot. Pack what you need for 5 days into a dry bag & ask the crew to store the rest. If you're particularly concerned about your bigger bags you can put your waterproof cover on (if you have one), or pop your bag into a bin-liner before storing it. There are more detailed packing lists available but this is what we had in our smaller packs:
Quick dry towel (we’re enamoured of these Sea to Summit Towels we picked up in Sweden)
Sun-cream & after-sun
Toiletries (including hand sanitiser)
2 pairs of shorts & 3 teeshirts (you'll barely be in them)
Sarong / beach wrap / beach dress
Sunglasses & hat
Camera & GoPro (we used footage from our GroPro Hero 7 Black to make our video)
Chargers and a power pack (we use this Ankor PowerCore - great capacity, fast recharge time & reliable)
Playing cards / books / something to pass 30 hours of ocean time
Passport + Photocopies
Small medical kit
USD: $22 for the Guna Island Tax + extra for island drinks & souvenirs
3. Sunshine state of mind
Take enough sun-cream and a hat. If you're on a mono-hull boat there will likely not be enough space in shaded areas for everyone, meaning at points you will have to brave the heat. Catamarans typically have a little more space to spread out, but unless you've booked something particular luxurious be prepared to live in close quarters & see a lot of sunshine.
Most boats will provide food & drinking water, but you have to bring your own alcohol and any extra snacks you want. Bring enough to drink for yourself for the full 5 days... then double it. Bottles of rum, coke, cervezas, juice will undoubtedly end up in a type of drinks kitty & everyone starts drinking much earlier in the day (it's always 5 o’clock somewhere!) Our experience was that it was the Guna lads who joined our boat one evening who helped themselves more so than fellow travellers, but it's all part of the experience. Some islands will sell beers & rum too if you need to replenish the stocks.
5. Don't lose your lunch
Take the anti-sickness tablets + some fresh ginger or sushi ginger for tea if you're particularly worried. We found dramamine to be the most effective, especially with the (in this case) fortunate side-effect of making you a bit drowsy too. Failing that try and stay above deck, and eat little & often. If you do get sick - make sure to throw up off the back of the boat & not over the side (yuck).
Immigration & what happens when you get to Cartagena
It may depend on the company you've booked with but from our experience, and other blogs we've read, immigration is normally entirely dealt with by the skipper.
This is how it went:
Captain Jose asked for our passports around the same time that we had to pay the Guna Yala tax.
He then passed these over to Panamanian immigration (based on one of the islands) who provided us with exit stamps.
We were then given our passports back to check that we'd been stamped out of Panama, before Jose took them back in preparation of Colombian immigration on arrival into Cartagena (the reality here is that you spent 3 days in a kind of no-man’s land - Out of Panama but not yet in Colombia. Stateless!).
Once arrived in Cartagena it is completely normal for the skipper to pack you off to your hotel or hostel whilst they sort your entry into Colombia. The original plan was for us to meet Jose & the crew in a bar later that evening to collect our passports after they'd done the waiting in line for us. Fortunately, because we arrived into port so early, Jose was first in the queue when immigration opened and we were returned our passports before heading into town - complete with brand new Colombian entry stamps - we met the guys at the bar later anyway for farewell drinks.
Once you dock in Cartagena, it is a 10 minute taxi ride from the port to the Old Town or Getsemini. Again - a shuttle should be arranged for you by the company you book with & it's worth checking they offer this - but taxis regularly pass by if this isn't included.
Don't forget to book your first night in a hostel in Cartagena as they get booked up quickly. Try Hostel Mamallena - a place with awesome energy and clean, comfortable dorm beds (around £11 per night), or Republica Hostel if you want a private room, a pool & slightly more chilled vibes.
If you’ve read this for research - Happy Sailing! We hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did. It’s a once in a life-time experience that comes with all the surprises, the ups & downs (literally), and the awesome memories.
Nick, Steph & (guest ft.) Emma x
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