Heaven and Hell, Our Cruise from Panama to Colombia

Published: April 29th 2010
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Hi all,

We have ended our previous entry traveling in & around Panama City. Well, today I will take you with us from Panama City to Cartagena in Colombia, a trip on a sail boat!

Yes, we know; A cruise sounds like a very special and romantic journey: Blue ocean, sail boat (yacht, if you'd like), cold beers on deck, partying at moonlight, etc. The truth is far from that, unfortunately, it was not anything like the vision we had in mind - at all - and today we thank (god?) we have literally survived it. Though we were not far from not surviving it.

The sail boat - Awab - was waiting for us in Carti which is the main 'town' in the San Blas Islands, the land of the Kuna people. To get to Carti to encounter the boat, we left with a jeep at 5am in the morning from Panama City and drove about 3 hours with the jeep (+2 hours of stops... road control, breakfast stop, shopping stop etc.). At the end of the way with the jeep, we have reached the point where motor boats arrive to pick up everybody going to the
Kuna ladiesKuna ladiesKuna ladies

Carti, Panama
San Blas Islands - many tourists were going to the different San Blas Islands “resorts” and us, the group going to Carti to meet with our sail boat.

Upon arrival to our sailing boat - we met the the other tourists that will share with us the journey and the 'crew' - we were all in all 11 tourists on the boat + the German captain (52 years old) and his Italian girlfriend (20 years old!!!).

As I said, it was not an easy experience at all, but before I jump into the hell / survival portion of the journey, I will tell you about the heavenly part of the journey - San Blas Islands.

The San Blas islands are a set of about 360 islands along the northern shores of Panama, where the original Indians of the Kuna tribe has a unique autonomy. Many of these islands are inhabitant and others are only occupied by one or two families who are taking care of the island. These islands, are just like the islands you imagine when someone talks about a deserted island in the Caribbean - tiny islands with powdery golden sand beaches and coconut trees surrounded by crystal clear water with colors changing from turquoise to deep blue depending on the depth of the water, plus coral reefs encircling the beaches with a tremendous variety of marine life in all shapes and colors .

According to the original journey itinerary we were informed of in the hostel where we booked the tour, we were about to spend 3 days in these dream-like islands, unfortunately upon embarking the boat, we have learned that we shall only spend a day and a half along these islands (and that was the first flaw in the tour...).

While we were waiting for the boat to receive its fuel we went to stroll in Carti (yes, yes - though the captain knew we are sailing at least at least for one and half days, he did not have enough fuel ready - problems in the cruise we have already said?...). It is amazing to see how simple life these people leave - they have little thatched-roof huts, crowded one against the other, they sleep in these huts in hammocks, they eat what they fish from the sea with some rice or pasta next to it. Maybe some vegetables
The Awab - our sailing boatThe Awab - our sailing boatThe Awab - our sailing boat

The boat name 'Awab' stands for "all women are bitches / beautiful"...
and that is all. The local women are all dressed with their traditional customs: colorful robes in orange and deep red, bids and bracelets adorning their legs and wrists, and all is being worn as a daily tradition, not especially for tourists, as not many tourists actually get to Carti (most of the tourists as I said, are going directly to the little islands around). We have managed to walk Carti from end to end, in not more than 30 minutes. We have spent some time finding the right kids to receive the 3 pairs of used sandals from our kids which we have just replaced in Panama City. Though it seemed like the locals wanted to get them, they did not thank us for the gift - it was very strange for us.

In the afternoon, we finally started sailing. Our first stop was El Porvenir, This Island is where the passport control is located - so our captain took our passports to get them stamped for exiting Panama. Originally, we were supposed to stay there an hour or so, and then continue to another small island were we would spend the night, but since we started late,

San Blas, Panama
we could not continue from Porvenir and spent the night next to this island. It was a nice location, but not exciting - we swam from the boat to the island, then tried to snorkel a bit around the island, but there was not much to see. We ended our stay on the beach playing Frisbee that one of our journey mates have brought. We all swam back for dinner and night sleep on the boat.

The next day, we sailed to Dog's Island - this was indeed the dream-like San Blas island we had in mind - a small island , with beautiful white sand beach, amazing turquoise waters around it, a lot of coconut trees on it, a few huts of the people watching the island and some other similar small islands in the horizon. Just stunning!!! also snorkeling around this island was great - there is a sunk boat close to the shore, and it serves as a great reef and a hide place for many colorful fish and corals. We spent an hour or so in the water, then went on shore and circled the island. I swam back to the boat and took cameras
The Sapir mermaidesThe Sapir mermaidesThe Sapir mermaides

On the white sand beach of San Blas Islands, Panama
in a water proof bag and swam again to the island, just because we could not leave this place without photos - it was SOOOO damn beautiful!, but unfortunately we had to leave and keep on moving. So, after having lunch (which two of the tourists have prepared!) we sailed to another island, our last on the journey before we would move to open sea to cross over to Colombia. This island was even more remote, and there were no Kuna people watching it or any huts or sign of local people. The only company we had was from a few other sailing boats that were anchoring next to us. This island, a part of 3 more islands, was secluded, lush and silent. You could only hear the waves and the wind. We anchored close enough to swim - again - had cold beers on a coconut rotten trunk lying on the beach, and watched our kids playing, looking for sea-shells, running around, helping feed the fire, bathing, laughing - just happy. We sat there for some time, until the arrival of sunset at background. These were magical moments if I may add. We wish all of you to be
Have we already said? - HeavenHave we already said? - HeavenHave we already said? - Heaven

San Blas Islands, Panama
able to experience this beauty and peacefulness. Honestly!

Next morning, at 7am - Captain is already awaken and he is already making preparations for the long journey of crossing in the open sea to Colombia. We are taking sea-sickness pills, Tal (and the kids next to him) and other guys are helping the captain to arrange the deck, to stretch the sails , tie all things that were loose etc. (excuse me if I'm not correct with the terminology of the sailing... ).

Here is when the real hell started. Well, since it was not a pleasant experience I will save you from the details let's put it in short - all of the tourists along the next 3 days have moved between sleeping, vomiting and being zombies around the boat. It was impossible for anyone to stand in the kitchen and prepare any food, so people hardly ate anything the whole time, as I felt really bad, I choose to be outside on the deck the whole time, where I felt slightly better with the fresh air (In the one time I went down into the boat to go to the toilet, I ended up throwing
No Words Needed!No Words Needed!No Words Needed!

San Blas Islands, Panama
up..) - Nitzan was the only one functioning in our family she was feeling way better than anyone of us. Tal had “fainted” on the bed inside, Shachar and Omer were sleeping most of the time, though they could move a little between outside and inside, but not too much. I chose to stay out on the deck even for the night “sleep” and Nitzan came to spend the night with me outside on the deck, and took good care of me. Any way, at around 4am we heard a very strong noise, and we woke up to the sound and feeling that something just fell on us - we have quickly discovered that the mast and attached sail had collapsed right over us, actually Nitzan's head was perhaps 10cm away from the mast - this is a heavy wooden pole that I do not want to even think what kind of injury she could have suffered, if she would only have moved slightly, or be awake and sitting!
We found Tal awake at that moment, apparently he woke up not long before, and sat at the entrance to the lower deck to get some fresh air - he could
Yes - this is real!Yes - this is real!Yes - this is real!

We actually been there, it is not a picture from a tourist magazine! San Blas Islands, Panama
not believe his eyes and was very stressed to see the mast falling on where he knew Nitzan and I were sleeping.

Well, our Captain woke up and after examining the situation for a short while, has determined that there is nothing to be done at the moment, and we should wait for light in 2 hours, in order to be able to pick up all the pieces of the boat that are in the water.

I must say that this did not comfort me, I was stressed that the mast and sail that are in the water, will drag us and roll us over. Tal, brought me some life vests - so that I would have a life vest for Shachar who was also next to me (sleeping on the floor, and thus he was more protected from the falling mast). The captain just went back to sleep. I was left with Nitzan and Shachar outside, unable to even think about closing my eyes. When it light started, the captain and his girlfriend started working on bringing out from the water the sail, the mast and so on, disconnecting cables and reconnecting them etc etc There were times during this process that I really felt it is a matter of seconds and the boat may roll upside and over, and thus forced Shachar to put the life vest on him.

The rest of the time, we were “just” rocking from side to side on the high waves. Eventually after 7 hours or so from the collapsing of the mast, the captain managed to bring on board all the pieces and cables of the mast and sail and to fix the boat motor (which also did not function for some peculiar reason) and he started the engine and so, we could continu on our way. From that moment, we were sailing on motor the whole day, and the whole night. No sails. No fun. Just slow and frustrating and uneasy trip for everyone Nothing of that they tell you in the hostels in Panama City when they recommend of these sails.

During the night, it was really scary and dangerous, as we had no mast and thus no light at its top signaling to other boats that we are out there - we were actually invisible, which is a dangerous thing to be in the open sea. We took turns at the wheel to watch out the boat course and that there are no boats in the surroundings waters that we might bump into.

Eventually we survived the night. After another full day sailing we eventually made it to Cartagena. We were all exhausted from the experience. Though all of us tourists were furious with the captain and his girlfriend behavior (for various reasons I did not even had the power to detail here), we all just wanted to get off the boat and stand on solid land, then get to a hotel and have a decent sweet water shower and a nice dinner.

We have SURVIVED it!!! Colombia - here we come!

Our next entry will be about beautiful colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia and it will be a calm story with no much ups and downs (no more waves)...

If you want to have a look at the rest of our photos from heaven - San Blas Islands, you can click on this link (there are also some photos from Hell - the boat cruise..):

San Blas

Hasta Pronto,



30th April 2010

תודה לאל
תודה לאל שהכל נסתיים בשלום! מקווה שיצאתם מתחושת הזעזוע! ושזאת תהיה החוויה היחידה והאחרונה במסעכם!!! מתגעגעת ללא גבול, נשיקות סבתארעיה
1st May 2010

wow we are so happy!!
Hallo all, we are so happy with the happy ending. We prefer to travel to Israel for meeting you alive instead of going to a funeral. Enjoy Colombia and we are looking forward to more nice stories. Big hug All 4 of us
26th August 2010

Shit happens
I did this trip with my Catamaran (www.fritz-the-cat.com) about 35 times and Your experience is of course breathtaking. Being seasick on top of this makes it even worse- but You have to agree, that You reached safe az Cartagena. Your Captain did the right thing- he waited fore daylight, as the risk while rescuing the mast and sails, cables, ropes in the water at nighttime is a lot bigger than by daylight.To catch a 2 hours sleep in the meantime is the best one can do in this situation. You mentioned, that You had fear of the boat turning upside down- which is maybe Your personal impression but without the mast a monohull (single hull sailyacht) is of course more stable then with the load of mast and sails (wind) on top of it. As I know this construction being a big and comfortable luxourios yacht Your fears were absoloutly unrealistic. You should have done that trip in one of the tiny boats some captains offer, below 13 meters of lenght (44 feet) the movement on this vessels is realy killing- vomiting in this never ends- You were on a 18 meter boat with long keel, that doesn´t move at all comparde to this boats. Peter is a reliable and responsible captain and his girlfriend grew up on a sailyacht and is able to navigate this yacht on her own. Shit happenes- You were just unlucky
7th May 2011

My husband and I have started talking about taking an extended family trip around the world. We have a two year old son and plan to have another child soon. The planning is in the very early stages, as the trip will be in years to come, but I wanted to let you know that your family travels are an inspiration!
19th June 2011

thank you!
We have not made it to be an inspiration, we made it to fulfill our own dreams. But, if by our travels we can help others set goals and dreams and go upon fulfilling them - what a great honor!

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