After Cartagena, we knew we had to get to Costa Rica within two weeks because Jeff’s parents are coming to visit! (t-minus 5 days and we are super excited :)) Several weeks ago, I started to do some research on flights, quickly realizing they are not cheap. Honestly, flights have been biggest expense during our travels. After a few searches, I stumbled upon many sites advertising a 5 day sailing trip from Cartagena to Panama. Panama was not on our list originally, but Jeff has always wanted to see the Panama Canal. I figured this would be perfect, so when I found one departing July 6, I booked it. We love to sail, it’s a new form of transportation for us to try out this trip, and it puts us near Panama City with time for a day or two before moving on to Costa Rica.
Ave Maria is a 50 ft monohaul ketch sail boat built in 1964. She’s old but has character. Original wood in and around the cabin and the deck is composed of wood as well (normally it’s all white fiberglass with new boats, I think) It holds 12 people maximum, but usually the Captain prefers to sail with 10 total including himself and his girlfriend. The inside is an “open floor plan” which is just a nice way of saying no privacy or cabins, lined with beds on both sides. 2 double beds and the rest singles– some above the double beds with less than 2 ft from the ceiling. Luckily, this boat was not booked full and it was only 7 of us total. Jeff and I along with three great gals from Switzerland.
Everyone always wants to know how much things are so I will share 🙂 For $525 per person you get a bed, drinking water, coffee/tea, and 3 meals a day. What you don’t get is a fresh water shower for 5 days. This was a rule communicated during our debrief before departure and is in place to conserve water in the event the trip takes longer than anticipated. This is a typical price for all the boats I looked at. Apparently, about 5 years ago it was only $200-$300 but they have successfully managed the demand from the backpacker crowd, so now it’s double. The main difference between boats is size, # of people, and overall atmosphere. Almost all the ones I researched were monohauls which made Jeff a bit nervous due to sea sickness, but we didn’t have a choice. Some are party boats, where ours was more relaxed. I guess that’s what happens when you’re over 30 and want to sleep by 10 pm. Overall, I think it is a fair price given you get access to the paradise of San Blas islands, and our chef (Captain’s girlfriend) was amazing. We ate really well!
48 hours straight
We departed from Cartagena in the evening at 8 pm and spent the first two days crossing the open water. Unfortunately, what usually takes 36 hours to arrive in San Blas took us just over 48 due to poor winds and rough conditions. I think Jeff and I are bad luck sometimes when it comes to boats. It was pretty rough seas and you feel it 10x in a monohaul vs. a catamaran which is what we are use to. That said, Jeff spent 40 of these hours laying down inside because it was the only place he wasn’t extremely sick. The other girls got a bit sea sick as well. I was OK and am fortunate that it doesn’t effect me at all. I think the first morning I was the only one enjoying the fresh fruit, yoguart and granola breakfast with coffee. Everyone else was a bit green in the face, or if you were Jeff just sleeping.
Weclome to paradise
We finally arrived to San Blas Islands in the evening of the 3rd day. As mentioned above, normally you would arrive in the morning and have three days to enjoy the islands. Ours was cut short to 2 days due to the conditions coming from Cartagena. It’s important the captain sticks to the schedule because they run this trip 2-4 times per month. They need to arrive in Panama in time to pick up the next group headed to Cartagena.
So back to paradise. The islands are amazing. Totally worth the rough 48 hour trip over. There are over 378 islands in total (about 49 are inhabited) and our boat did a great job of taking us to some quiet remote ones with no one else around but 2 or 3 other boats. Once anchored we put on our masks and swim suits and headed for the islands. Just a short swim from the boat and you are greeted with the whitest sand, crystal clear water with 4 shades of blue, private island filled with coconut palm trees that looked like it was right out of the Conde Nast magazine. It was perfect. The weather was great too. Sunny days with a nice breeze at night. During our 2 days here we checked out two groups of islands, the first was called Green Island, and the second set was Cocobandero. Cocobandero had some cool snorkeling spots so Jeff and I spent the day swimming around for hours checking them out. Lots of fish, decent coral, tons and tons of starfish, and one big shark that Jeff saw but somehow I missed!
After two great days in the islands, it was time to depart to Portobelo our port destination in Panama. We left in the evening around sunset and the Captain sailed through the night so that we arrived around 7 am on Saturday morning. Immigration was a bit intersesting because no one that could check us in was at the office in Portobelo so we ended up taking a van with the other girls to Colon where a local friend of the Captain met us to help us check in. It wasn’t your typical airport entrance and the guy did all the talking. At one point the lady asked for $20 from the group because, well I have no idea why, probably because she can and we paid it. Eventually, after going to the atm to show we each had $500 in our accounts, we got our stamps. Funny thing is that on the stamp it notes 72 hours in pen and we will be in Panama for about 92 hours till we arrive Costa Rica… hmm, that will be interesting when we leave!
We had an awesome time, learned a little Swiss German from our new shipmates and friends. I would recommend San Blas – it’s truly the best islands I have seen. If you can stomach the rough seas coming over, no shower for a few days, and need to get from Colombia to Panama. Do this trip.