Having a Blast in the San Blas Islands

Published: April 19th 2009
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Islands like this surrounded usIslands like this surrounded usIslands like this surrounded us

We would just hop off the boat and swim to one of the surrounding islas.
After our adventures in Tayrona, we made the trip from Taganga all the way back to Cartagena, our last substantial bus journey of this 7 month trip. We had already spent 2 days in Cartagena between Medellin and Ciudad Perdida, and would spend one more day walking around the historic and romantic streets of Cartagena waiting for our final big adventure - sailing across the Caribbean from Colombia to Panama via the San Blas Archipelago.

Since we had already taken our photos and explored a satisfactory amount of the city on our first pass, we had nothing on the agenda for our second pass. Nevertheless, we found ourselves wandering the streets of Cartagena's old town, an absolutely beautiful place to take a stroll. The old town is fortified by a beautiful stone wall that once protected the city from pirates, but now adds to the cities unique character. Colorful buildings line Cartagena's streets with bougainvilleas cascading from rooftops and terraces. The old town's many small plazas are filled with vendors, street performers and outdoor cafes, and an ocean breeze makes the relentless heat somewhat more comfortable. We spent our day doing a little last minute shopping in preparation for our boat trip, drinking smoothies (mango/passion fruit in my case), and just enjoying the wonderful walking environment that this city provides.

The next morning we made our way to the Cartagena marina at the designated time to set forth on this much anticipated trip. There are many boats that run this operation, running transfers from Panama to Colombia and back. We wound up signing up with an Austrian captain named Fritz aboard his cleverly named catamaran, Fritz-the-Cat (15m long by 8.5 m wide), for no other reason than that the date of his cruise worked best for us. For such activities as this, uncontrollable factors such as the weather and the other people in your group can make or break a trip like this. Lucky for us, the weather was absolutely perfect and our group, for the most part, was one big happy family. (It's actually quite astonishing as to how lucky we've been with everything on our travels, from the weather, to the people, and even just the timing of being in certain places... And this was no exception!) Fritz picked us up in his dingy and we climbed aboard our would-be home of the next five days. A few hours later, at around noon on April 8th, we lifted the anchor, motored out of the marina's protected waters, and hoisted our sails. Our journey to Panama was underway!

We happened to have substantial wind, which has its pros and cons, for our journey, which was a 48 hour straight shot at a heading of 260º. The good news is that you obviously travel faster, the bad news is that its not as smooth a ride with some larger swells. Because of the strong wind and big swells (big is relative here... I think these were small seas by any sailors' account), the autopilot couldn't maintain our desired heading, and so everybody on the boat had to take a turn at the wheel. While Fritz spent most of his time in the kitchen making our meals on the first day, we all did our best captain imitations (which failed miserably, since every one of us constantly overcompensated in one direction and then the other, creating more of a zig-zag course in the direction of Panama). It was all good though, we certainly were in no rush. We all spent much of the day sitting in one of the boat's two trampolines at the front of the vessel, sunning ourselves and subsequently cooling off with an unsuspecting splash from under the boat. We were on a boat in the middle of the ocean - its not like there was much to do other than be in the moment and enjoy it. To realize where you are, what you're doing and be grateful for it. And that is what we all did. To conclude the day, we were graced with a spectacular open-ocean sunset which gave way to an equally as beautiful full moon sky.

The magnificence of the first 10 hours of our trip called for your typical sailing-to-Panama-under-a-full-moon party, which consists of lots of rum, lots of loud music, and me, singing at the wheel, steering us like the drunken sailor I was. The party was a blast, my first on the open water, but directing the boat certainly became more challenging with every rum and coke, which was clearly evident when Todd, from South Africa, took the wheel for his shift and managed to turn us 180º around by accident. Suddenly we were heading back to Cartagena! We tried to correct things... which we eventually managed
Our Awesome Group!Our Awesome Group!Our Awesome Group!

From Left to Right: Hernan (the one deckhand), Todd, Drew, Eric, Gaby, Michael, Adina, Johnny, Aron, Linn, Clay, Reggie, Amy and Captain Fritz
to do, by means of waking up Captain Fritz and letting him fix the mess. It was quite the comedy of errors.

When the rum ran dry, everybody made their way to their respective cabins. I knew what to expect here since I have slept on a small sailboat before, but you still can't be entirely prepared. The quarters are tight... really tight. Drew and I had to share a bed that was not much bigger than a single, with a ceiling one foot above our faces. We had one hatch window in the room which we were advised to keep closed while we sailed through the night, but it was just too stifling in the tiny room, so I cracked the window for some necessary air flow. We both managed to fall asleep (or pass out rather) without a problem, but only a few hours later we were both awoken as a shower of water flooded through the cracked window. The window was directly above my thighs and I was drenched to the bone, as was the top sheet, the fitted sheet, the mattress pad and the mattress. I don't know how so much water came in so quickly. We were now soaking wet, our bed soaking wet, we obviously closed the window which made things that much more uncomfortable, and to top it off, the dehydrated hungover feeling was setting in. (Drew's edit: I was actually half awake when this happened, and I know exactly how that much water came in so quickly! Our boat caught the side of an oversized breaking wave, hurling a giant maelstrom of water directly through our deck window... I thought it was actually kind of a nice cool down from the hot unbreathable air we were used to, but still not enough for me to say in the cabin.) Somehow I managed to get a few more hours of sleep, but Drew gave up and went upstairs to try and sleep on one of the saloon benches. It was miserable at the time, but we were laughing about it in the morning, especially when we found out that we weren't the only ones who stupidly opened windows only to get drenched in the middle of the night.

The second day went much like the first. The winds had let up a bit, and the ride was smoother, but we were already scheduled to arrive almost 12 hours early into the San Blas. Another day passed and with it, another sunset. Around 10 PM on Day 2, we motored between the silhouettes of some other sailboats and dropped anchor. We could clearly see that we were surrounded by several small islands on most sides of the ship, which gave us wind and wave shelter. I think we all slept wonderfully that night, with windows wide open and many sleeping on the deck and trampolines under a cloudless sky. The real gift came when we all woke up the following morning. Rather than motor up to these islands from afar during the day and watch these colorful specs grow into what they are, we arrived at night, pulling right up beside them. There was no gradual immersion into their beauty. We just woke up and were smacked across the face with what we saw. Turquoise waters. Numerous white sand islands. Coconut trees the only things in sight on each. Several of the islands were only a short swim away. The first thing everybody did that morning was jump into the ocean. (Drew's edit: I must admit the San Blas islands far exceeded my expectations, of which I had none, but that's not the point. Coming from Hawaii, there aren't many places that can still give that "Wow" factor, especially a tropical beach scenario, but the small, crystal clear turquoise waters with their blinding white soft sand beaches made me feel all giddy inside. And as being my first real Caribbean locale, I was severely impressed.)

The next three days went pretty much as follows: jump in the ocean, lay in the sun on the boat, jump in the ocean, swim to an island, explore a little, swim back to the boat, sun some more, feast on one of Fritz's exquisite meals, and so on. This was the routine for the duration of the trip and it didn't get old at all. We were living, and especially eating, like kings of the Caribbean. I certainly had little expectations of the food quality on such a trip, but Fritz had his ship stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables, and in addition, he went fishing everyday and bartered with the native inhabitants for other luxuries as well. The highlights were fresh caught crab and lobster, octopus curry, and my favorite of the trip, Morey eel (which we caught with a baited hook) sauteed in garlic and butter. I'm making myself hungry just thinking about it.

The next three days passed uneventfully, but as good as could be. We changed locations a few times, though they all looked the same, and on the afternoon of our last day, we motored to El Porvenir, a tiny island with an airstrip and immigration office in order to get our paperwork in order the following morning before hopping onto the mainland. The trip was over, but not without a bit of unforeseen excitement. An hour or two after we had "anchored," a horrid sound (which I cannot think of how to describe) woke up the captain, who proceeded to then wake up everybody else with his shouts of "All hands on deck!" and "Hernan! Hernan! Esta una problema!" (Hernan was the one deckhand.) I guess we had improperly anchored, because we had drifted 380 meters before dragging along the reef for a few minutes. Everybody had to play a part as we quickly pulled up the anchor, got the navigation system up and running, and motored our way through narrow channels, beside shallow reef, and back to our intended location. Fritz thanked me for my crucial part in reading the depth gauge to him every 3 seconds... yes, I am talented. Fritz bought a round of beers for everybody after we had resolved the situation and we never sank (both good things), so in the end, it was just another memorable moment on the trip.

The next morning, with our passports in order, we were shuttled to the shore and eventually caught a taxi from the Atlantic coast to Panama City on the Pacific side. As our last big adventure before the end of the trip, it was fitting that this should be, of all our adventures, my favorite. We were lucky enough to have a great group on the boat, and especially a great captain. Aside from his perverted jokes directed to the girls, his spandex shorts, and his Austrian accent, I couldn't imagine a better captain. I would think that many captains out there have the potential to be uptight and over protective of their "babies," but Fritz made us really feel that his boat was our home while we were aboard. If you ever find yourself in search of transport from Panama to
My favorite meal of the tripMy favorite meal of the tripMy favorite meal of the trip

Morey eel sauteed in butter and garlic sauce
Colombia or vice versa, don't pass up this trip, and go with Fritz!

Love from Panama City!

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Sitting at the oceanside old city wallSitting at the oceanside old city wall
Sitting at the oceanside old city wall

Built to protect the city from pirates
Aron holding dinner...Aron holding dinner...
Aron holding dinner...

yum... fresh caught lobster and crab

20th April 2009

Awesome! What a great trip... Thank so much for sharing it with us all.
21st April 2009

Bron - I spent some time in the SB islands last year - great place, and spectacular culture. Too much trash washed up on the shores, but oh well. Anyway, check out Boca del Toro.
21st April 2009

San Blas trash
It was discouraging that one side of each island was always tainted with plastic trash. We've heard great things about Bocas among other places, but they'll have to wait for the next trip. Off to the airport in 30 minutes!
19th March 2010

how much?!
Hey!!! I'm planning a trip to south and central america during the summer with 5 of my friends. We are hoping to travel from panama city to Cartagena in July sometime. I'm wondering if you could tell me how much the 5 day trip on the boat cost?! We are on a bit of a budget!

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