Sailing in the wake of pirates & drug smugglers

Published: July 24th 2011
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From Panama, there are essentially three ways to get to Colombia, the next stop on our trip. Option one is to fly, but it was going to be a very expensive flight and where there is an alternative, we usually prefer to do that. Option two is to travel overland across the Darien Gap. Downsides of this route are that there are no roads, so it involves days of hacking through jungle with a machete, and the fact that still today there is a high risk of kidnap. As exciting as that sounded, we chose option three, taking a sailboat from northern Panama across to Cartagena on the northern Colombian coast.

Many boats offer trips on this route and are advertised in hostels in Panama City. Choosing the right boat and captain is a little bit of a minefield as plenty of reports exist of captains who are drunk part or all of the way, seriously overloaded and/or leaking sailboats and even one captain who turned out to be a serial killer (Click here!) . Some of the hostels in town try to filter out the good from the bad trips, but there is still an element of seeing what you get when you get
A Kuna person preparing coconutsA Kuna person preparing coconutsA Kuna person preparing coconuts

Small canoes travel between the sailboats selling local products
on the boat, particularly as many of the boats leave from small ports on the northern Panamanian coast, nowhere near Panama City, so it is hard to check them out in advance.

After much fretting and worrying, accompanied by a little internet research, we decided to do the trip with a Spanish captain called Israel de la Asuncion on a 34ft sailboat called La Frederika. And so we travelled from Panama City to the little port of Puerto Lindo to meet sailboat, captain and fellow travellers prior to our departure the following day.

Puerto Lindo is a tiny village forming a crescent around a beautiful bay in which a number of boats were docked. During the day, temperatures would get crazily high, which the locals would deal with by drinking copious amounts of cold beer and then sleeping through until evening. Surrounding the town were lovely green rolling hills, from which the cries of howler monkeys could be heard in the morning.

We met up with the larger than life personality that was Israel, a man who could clearly talk (and indeed smoke) for the whole of Spain, and his first mate Orinson, the Colombian who would help with the sailing and cooking during our voyage, and whose name would regularly get bellowed from the helm when Israel required something. Israel immediately impressed us with his knowledge of the route and the importance he attached to safety at sea. After all, we were going to be embarking on a 5 day voyage with him, 2 days of which were going to be at open sea, a long way from the nearest shore.

We had 5 fellow passengers for the trip, one Aussie and one Canadian girl, one French Canadian and one German guy (both exceptionally tall for a small sailboat!) and another English guy. Immediately we all struck it off fairly well with our mutual love of rum and, well, travelling I suppose. This was good as we were going to be living in a very small space together so like it or not, we were going to get to know each other very well by the end of the trip.

Flexibility is key on a trip like this, and we actually departed a day later than planned from Panama due to some reason that was a little beyond us. However in the early morning light of a Monday morning we set off, through the channels near to Puerto Lindo, following the Panamanian coastline eastwards towards the San Blas islands. This was an initial 8 hour journey over fairly calm waters, helping us to find our sea legs.

San Blas are a chain of 365 islands, some of which are inhabitated by the Kuna people, a fiercely independent indigenous tribe. But many islands remain deserted, solely occupied by palm trees and ringed by perfect white sand beaches, with shallow corals just offshore. As we approached the two islands that we would dock between for the next two nights, it really felt like we had arrived on a tropical paradise, totally unspoilt in every way. A little like a Bounty advertisement.

Once anchored, we didn't waste too much time jumping into the clear, warm, Caribbean waters, the perfect way to cool off after a hot day. There followed a couple of days spent snorkelling in the reefs near to the islands, sunbathing on the boat and drinking rum at night (we could also talk about the night time skinny dipping, but of course what happens on the boat stays on the boat!). It really was the most relaxing way to spend a couple of days, really just eeking out the time between meals, which incidentally were very good throughout due to the skills of Orinson in the small galley.

Sleeping arrangements were fairly tight on the boat, particularly as we had 7 people for 6 beds (due to a bit of a mix up at the hostel). Being the couple on board, we managed to snag the cabin at the front of the boat, but that really gave only marginal additional privacy as the sole bathroom was also in our cabin. But we pretty much expected it to be the case that we would all have to give a little bit for each other.

We stopped at one further pair of islands, just as idyllic as the first set but with even better snorkelling, on the third day of the trip, before we embarked on the open sea portion of the trip. It was at this point that the trip got a little more serious, things on the boat were tied down and we would have to be much more careful when moving about due to the increased movement of the vessel.
Tropical island paradise.....Tropical island paradise.....Tropical island paradise.....

....except for the idiot in the West 4 vest!
Typically the open sea crossing would be in rough seas.

We sailed for 2 days (although we never actually sailed, always having the engine on, using the sails to help speed our passage only). Israel and Orinson would grab what sleep they could out on deck in snatches, giving us the opportunity to have a go at skippering the boat for 1 hour stints. Essentially this involved following a bearing and looking out for any ships on the horizon, in which case we were under strict instructions to wake the captain immediately. As it was, we only saw about three ships throughout, the rest of the time having nothing but 360 degrees of endless blue stretching out as far as the eye could see. Quite something from dawn till dusk - your world is reduced to 11 metres of solidness, in a vast expanse of shifting waves and clouds. It starts to have a strange effect on your mind, creating a very existential, elemental feeling. But it was also a lot of fun being put in charge of the boat for a short period.

We turned out to be incredibly lucky with the crossing, having the calmest seas possible throughout. In fact Israel stated he couldn't remember when the seas had last been this calm, much to the relief of Helen whose sea-sickness tablets could remain in their packet. Each evening we would witness the most incredible sunset off on the flat horizon, the sky being lit a variety of reds, oranges and purples as the huge sun slowly descended.

All too soon, on the fifth morning, we awoke to see the tower blocks of Cartagena in the distance, having made it through unscathed. We had breakfast on deck, as we slowly cruised into the bay, slightly shocked by the scale and modernity of this huge city after two days of seeing nothing but sea. We docked and transferred our gear to shore, ready to start exploring Colombia.

This trip really was a fabulous experience, one that we will remember for a very long time to come and certainly a highlight of the entire year long trip. It is such an amazing way to experience the unspoilt beauty of the San Blas islands and harks back to another era of travelling - back to the times of big, adventurous voyages from one country to another. Being
The good ship La FrederikaThe good ship La FrederikaThe good ship La Frederika

Our home for 5 days from Panama to Cartagena
away from hostel comforts and internet forced us to switch off completely, read lots and get to know fellow travellers really well over card games and rambling conversations. A must do if you are in this part of the world.

Practical tips for choosing a boat

If you are looking for a sailboat for this trip, here are a few tips we picked up from our experiences in Panama City. As we mentioned, it can be a bit mind boggling knowing which boat to choose and we found there was very little solid information available at present.

* There are two main hostels in Panama City that list boats, Mama Llenas and Lunas Castle. Both claim to only recommend boats they get positive feedback on. We stayed at Mama Llenas but felt like they were pushing one particular boat (which was more expensive) very hard over others. It's worth shopping around and speaking to both hostels.

* We booked our boat through Luna's Castle, mainly as they let us speak directly, on the phone, with the boat captains who we could ask questions of. Mama Llenas would only let us question boat captains through
The jolly captainThe jolly captainThe jolly captain

Israel de la Asuncion on board La Frederika
them. If you book in Panama City, you won't see your boat until after you have paid your deposit so this is the time to ask questions.

* It is important to ask about captain's experience, size of boat, number of beds and number of passengers, safety equipment on board, the type of food that will be available, itinerary, whether all immigration fees are included in the price, what is expected of you on the trip (i.e. cooking and washing up, helping out with steering to allow the captain to rest etc.), is drinking water and showering water available?

* On the boat your large bag will be stowed throughout the journey. All you will need with you in the cabin is lots of high factor sunscreen, sunglasses, swimming shorts and T-shirt, rum, a good book, iPod (could be played through speakers on the boat on the Frederika) and sea sickness pills (or more rum!)

* From our experience, we would highly recommend our captain, Israel de la Asuncion who runs La Frederika, based out of Cartagena. Contact him on, Phone: (Colombia) +57 3015238670, (Panama) +507 67464578. He is a highly competent captain who is also very entertaining to chat with, and actually cares that his passengers have a good experience.

Additional photos below
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The sunsets at open sea were pretty spectacularThe sunsets at open sea were pretty spectacular
The sunsets at open sea were pretty spectacular

On the crossing from San Blas to Cartagena
Tropical island paradiseTropical island paradise
Tropical island paradise

San Blas Islands
Double jump from the boatDouble jump from the boat
Double jump from the boat

Phil and Camile jump from the boat
The girls chill out on La FrederikaThe girls chill out on La Frederika
The girls chill out on La Frederika

Camille & Annie take it easy in the San Blas
Sunset over the San BlasSunset over the San Blas
Sunset over the San Blas

Just one of the many amazing sunsets

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