Saturday 9th – Friday 15th March
It is nigh on impossible to cross the border on foot between Colombia and Panama (and indeed South America and Central America) unless you are pretty handy with a machete and fancy your chances in the 160km long swampland that is the Darien Gap. I didn’t…plus I was loathe to get on yet another flight. So, from the comforts of my sofa back in Blighty, blissfully unaware of what I was letting myself in for, the decision was taken to sail across instead. Easy right?
In Cartagena, I meet Captain Jules Garzon Contreras who is to be the man for the job with his 42 foot sail boat the Perla Del Caribe. He spent some time navigating in Chile and Europe before settling into life on the Caribbean and has been plying this route on this vessel, and the Stephanie, for the last four years.
By the time I book the sailing, I have heard all sorts of stories about the crazy captains, oversold cabins, reef crashes and the terrible swell that plagues that route. So, it is unsurprising that when I show up to Club Nautico in Manga at 5.15am to board the Perle, I have packed more than a dash of trepidation in my backpack. As for the vessel, and in the words of Interpol’s Paul Banks ‘You’ve never seen a finer ship in your life’
Somehow, sitting on the jetty watching the sunrise with the gentle clinking noise of the sailboat masts calms me though. I will look back on this as, quite literally, the calm before the storm.
My shipmates start to surface at 6am; German couple Jessi and Hendrik, Chris and Jay from New York, Norwegian pals Magnus and Ask plus Dutch Rob who will also be my cabin mate. I load my bags into our compact bunk bedded cabin and without (much) further ado, we head off, setting sail for pastures new and in turn waving farewell to South America and half of my entire trip.
We motor out of the calm Cartagena bay, and hoist the sail for the first time.
At this point, everything changes and it starts to feel decidedly rougher. My rule during flights is, if the attendants don’t look nervous, then neither should I be. I apply the same logic here. Jules and first mate Jose are so laid back they are practically (and literally at points) horizontal. Here we all are looking fresh faced and hopeful that the sea will look kindly upon us.
Within the first hour, two big waves hit; the first soaking everyone in the boat, the second throwing me from my seat onto the deck. “Disfrutar! Será así durante las próximas 36 horas!” laughs Jules, which basically means we are in for another day and a half of this before we hit Panamanian land. Oh dear.
The first full day and night is brutal, people start to feel decidedly green around the gills (thank Cristo for my seasickness pills) and it’s hard to focus on anything but the power of the waves. After we see a cargo ship outside the port, we don’t pass a single other ship the whole way. We are joined by some bottle nose dolphins though who gracefully speed to the front of our ship to catch the fly fish swimming/flying there. I find a spot in the corner of the deck with a panoramic view of the waves coming towards us and it helps to steel myself for the expected onslaught of each one. Some of them, we are essentially surfing over the top of. Jules insists that this is relatively calm weather…I would NOT like to be out here on a bad day.
We settle into it a little more on the second day, filling the time by idly playing ‘Would You Rather’ (oh yeah Paul Valentine, we’re going global!), the Name Game, Dream Dinner Party and Country Capital Currency. This, at least, takes our mind off the waves and soon enough…land ho! Just as the sun is setting, the stunning, unspoilt and idyllic islands of Panama’s San Blas come invitingly into view.
On the approach however, two very big waves head towards us, we estimate somewhere around the four metre mark, and even Jules has a fearful look in his eyes as the ship bobs around defenceless in their power. With a huge sigh of relief, and some rather nervous laughter, we survive to tell another sailor’s tale.
And with that, we all relax..
Now we have three days to look forward to cavorting in San Blas’ crystal clear turquoise waters, exploring her reefs and devouring her seafood. There are 378 islands and cays in total, but only 49 of these are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.
The first item on the agenda is conquering the smallest island we have ever seen. With only two coconut trees and a makeshift thatch lean-to, it is straight out of Castaway. We paddle out in the zodiac, by we I mean Hendrick and Jay (solid work gents.) Magnus swims across and makes it there ahead of us.
There is little to do here but crack open fresh coconuts…
Drink aforementioned coconuts…
Grin smugly at finding paradise…
Lounge nonchalantly on driftwood
And of course, stare at the sea.
Some of us even somersault with glee.
We lift anchor and sail away to the next islands two hours away and make our home there for a couple of nights, spending our hard earned cash at the island’s only bar owned by the delectably named Jonny Maracas. Here we stock up on rum and Balboa beers for the nightly aftershow. We even invent a brand new drink, which is a twist on the Coco Loco. The recipe is complicated but for those of you who want to try it at home:
1, Simply cut off the top of a ripe and juicy Maracuya (passion fruit to you and I)
2, Fill it full of golden rum
3, Eat eagerly with the biggest spoon you can find
Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, the Maroncuya. (Do you see what I did there?)
Hendrik and I are its biggest fans.
It wasn’t long before talk amongst the boys turned to speargunning fish, but Jay was the only one to come up with the goods slaying a huge and ridiculously delicious Red Snapper. Jules was beside himself with glee and set about gutting it for our lunch.
We were also introduced to our dinner before we ate it in some cases. Lobster tails anyone?
Snorkelling was another favourite pastime, the best of which was around a 20 metre shipwreck seconds from the bay which hosted hundreds of colourful fish including my personal favourite the Giant Damselfish (juvenile) The were plenty of shipwrecks in the area serving as a warning to captains navigating the shallow bays and reefs.
And so, the pattern continued. Exploring the islands…
Eating very well and speargunning fish, some of which unfortunately could not be eaten. (Warning: Please do not look at this Angel Fish for too long or you might die inside)
Snorkelling, and larking around on the boat…
Then sunset with a few rums.
All too soon it is time to leave our island paradise behind, and head for Panama City and a brand new stamp on our passports by way of a little skiff boat and an overly air-conditioned 4×4. (Note the maracuya lollipop, Ask and Magnus had us all addicted to these by the time we reached terra firma. I am still twitching now…)
Getting to Panama City is something of a rude awakening. Not only is it a far cry from the San Blas islands, but it is also the most built up capital city I’ve seen in South or Central America. It is beautiful in its own way, but coming to it from La Paz, Lima, Quito and Bogota shows just how Americanised it has become.
It is a whistle stop tour for me, as I have only two nights before flying north to Belize. So, I have to make it count. First things first, transiting the Panama Canal’s famous locks in a boat. It is a 48 mile canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s completion in 1914 meant saving sailors up to four weeks sailing time and allowing them to cross the Isthmus of Panama avoiding the longer Cape Horn route and the dangerous Strait of Magellan. Here is the Isla Morada, the vessel that would take us from ocean to ocean. Thankfully I still had my sea legs on from the sailing.
One careful owner, only the world’s most famous gangster Al Capone! It has also been chartered by Steve McQueen. Wowzers.
Being dropped and raised up 85 feet as you cross the the Pedro Miguel locks and the Miraflores locks is quite something.
It is hard to get across in photography, but look at the water line on the wall in the last shot and it will give you some indication.
There is time only for a night on the town in Panama City.
I meet up with Inca Trail partner in crime Kim Sumner at the hostel, and we scoop up Jessi and Hendrick from our boat trip alongside new pals Lucy, Luca and Brett amongst others and head out for dinner at Lebanese joint Habibi’s complete with belly dancer. Afterwards, we head to the old town for a drink in Relic Bar and Mojito Sin Mojitio (you will never guess what I ordered) The latter provided particularly amusing reading material in the bathroom. Note sexual preference of the quail.
En route, we re-enact what I’m sure is the punch line to a classic gag, how many gringos can you fit in a taxi? This many.
Then it is a fond farewell to Kim, but only until we meet again in Guatemala.
And another fond farewell to yet another country. Thanks Panama, promise I’ll come back and spend more than five days in your slim-hipped lands again. Honourable mentions and special thanks to Jules and Jose…for getting us across those seas in one piece. We salute you.
And the soundtrack was:
Interpol ‘Take You On A Cruise’
Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’
The Clash ‘London Calling’
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
Foo Fighters ‘Pretender’
Mos Def ‘Miss Fat Booty’
Jay Z ‘I Just Wanna Love Ya’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crush’
Kaisers Orchestra Various
The Doors ‘LA Woman’
Steely Dan Various
The Kinks ‘The Kinks’