Overland miles: 5387 Bus hours: 166 Empanadar: 3
One of the first things fellow travellers doing a similar trip to us always ask is “How are you getting from Panama to Colombia?”. While it might seem a strange question at first – why single out just Panama and Colombia, why not ask about how we plan to cross the border between Mexico and Guatemala, for example – the reason for the curiosity is that there is no (legal) land border crossing between the two countries. The only way in and out is by air or by sea.
Well, there is one infamous land route: The Darien Gap. The region that marks the border between Panama and Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous areas, its reputation fuelled by stories of the guerrillas and drug gangs that operate there. Covered with thick jungle, sparsely populated by two of Panama’s few remaining indigenous tribes, the Embera and Wounaan, and apparently teeming with wildlife, it’s apparently possible travel safely in the area, but an experienced (i.e. expensive) guide is mandatory and apparently it’s best suited to those who like their travelling as extreme as possible.
As our trip involves no air travel, we were left with option two, booking passage on one of the small sail boats that make the trip from Panama’s Atlantic coast, to the Colombian city of Cartagena. Most of the boats follow a fairly standard itinerary of three days island hopping around the San Blas archipelago, followed by a rather rough two day crossing on open sea to reach their destination. Not being experienced sea dogs, we hooked up with Tiffany, our American travelling companion who we’d persuaded to join us on the trip, and delved into the world of the Internet to find out more. After an exhaustive morning’s research looking at the planned departures over the coming days, we settled on a 43 foot catamaran called Santana, on the basis that it would mean our two days on the open seas were a little less rocky.
Our first challenge was getting to our boat’s departure point. Our captain, a German by the name of Gisbert (Gilberto in Spanish) had sent us a comprehensive email instructing us to meet him with our sailing companions at the port of Puerto Lindo for an evening meal and briefing session, before setting off first thing the next day. Unfortunately, we’d skipped past one of the most important pieces of information early on in the email, which was to leave Panama City by midday. We were having a last lunch in a local Fonda when we decided to re-read the instructions and realised we were running rather late.
Just how late we were going to be only became apparent when we arrived at Sabanitas, the point where we were meant to change buses. Our experience of travelling in Central America so far has been that the bus you want always turns up in ten minutes max. On this occasion however, it wasn’t the case. We waited on the hot, dusty roadside watching services to every other destination except ours pass by with annoying regularity, for an hour and a half. Thankfully, we ended up squeezing onto the last bus of the day, along with about 50 other people and their assorted luggage, and settled in for a bumpy ride.
Ninety minutes later, we arrived at our destination. As Puerto Lindo has very little going on, it wasn’t too difficult to deduce that our meeting place was the only building on the waterfront with any signs of life in it, and we picked our way over the rough stone path, feeling tired and hungry, and mustering up the strength to meet a bunch of strangers. Luckily, it turned out that there were only eight people booked on our crossing, rather than the boat’s full capacity of 16, with a Dutch couple, two Peruvians and an Australian making up the rest of our ship mates.
Life aboard the Santana was tough going. After a spread of eggs, sliced meats, cheese and bread for breakfast, prepared by the Colombian first mate Luis, we were free to swim, snorkel or just soak up the Bounty advert beauty of the islands. Following another spread for lunch (Jovian’s asked me to make special mention of his two favourite meals here; roasted chicken pieces cooked with fresh pineapple and sultanas, served with fluffy rice, and fresh ceviche which he helped to prepare from a mackerel-like fish we caught off the back of the boat) we would generally motor on to another spot for more swimming and sunbathing, followed by early evening beers and another slap up meal.
I should probably explain a little bit more about the San Blas islands and their inhabitants, the Kuna tribe, here. The Kuna are an autonomous indigenous group, and were the first tribe in Latin America to gain independence from a national government. Nearly half of their 70,000 members have made the San Blas islands their home, living in ramshackle bamboo huts built precariously on the sand. Just 40 of the 400 islands are inhabited, and some are only big enough to be home to the odd coconut tree or two.
Because of their independent status, the Kuna exert complete power over all the islands. On some, we were asked to pay a fee to enter their land, on others, a bag of coffee from the mainland (which Jovian and I delivered to a tribal chief, his hut sporting a shiny new satellite dish), was all that was asked for. One crafty group of island residents had even turned their island into a bar, serving cut-price rum and box wine to passing thirsty tourists. Needless to say, Jovian grabbed the ship’s canoe and paddled out to that one with the Peruvians in tow, like men dying of thirst.
Back on the boat, and after three days of island hopping, our days of Robinson Crusoe style living came to an end. On night three, Gisbert fired up the engines again and headed towards open water. Although fun at first, watching the spray hit he deck of the catamaran and a school of dolphins pass by us, after 45 minutes, we were all feeling very green around the gills. Our evening meal of fresh lobster, purchased from an enterprising Kuna tribesman who had pulled up in his dugout canoe alongside our vessel that afternoon, went uneaten.
As the boat continued to lurch from side to side, gradually every passenger felt the pressing need to be horizontal, and took to his bunk bed. Everyone bar Jovian, who believes his stomach to be iron-clad, took sea-sickness pills. As a major side effect of the medicine is drowsiness, the next two days were distinctly more subdued. (Full disclaimer: Jovian was not immune to the motion of the ocean, and much to his chagrin, had to commit a portion of his lobster dinner to the waters.)
On our final morning we awoke to a completely different world. Gone were the rising swells of the Atlantic ocean: instead, we were coasting over smooth water towards the glistening towers of Cartagena’s Bocagrande district, with the honey coloured walls of the old town in the distance. After a final celebratory breakfast, we headed ashore to set foot on South American soil.