Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

February 26th-March 3rd, 2015

Travelling from Panama to Colombia overland is still not a viable option these days thanks to the Darien Gap, a stretch of impassable jungle that connects the two countries.  Twenty some years ago you also had the likely possibility of being kidnapped by FARC or other bandits and some threat still exists today.  So you can fly or take a boat.  Only recently has a passenger ferry service started up but why take a ferry when you can hop on a sailboat?  For between $500-600, a couple hundred more than a flight, you can spend a few days sailing through the paradise like San Blas Islands before making the crossing over to Cartagena in Colombia.  I jumped at this chance as I’ve always wanted to take a multi-day trip on a sailboat, far enough out to sea that no land is visible…one of my bucket items.

My red diablo bus (think of a pimped out old school bus from the States) from Colon rolled into the sleepy, former major harbour town of Portobelo and I caught a glimpse of the sailboat that I had signed up for, the Quest, anchored in the cove.  Looking up a side street I saw “Captain Jack’s”, the hostel where I would be staying and meeting the captain of the Quest, Goeran (pronounced Yor-an) from Sweden that evening.  We had dropped off some people at the previous beach and I figured everyone else would be hopping out at Portobelo since that’s what the front of the bus said but we continued to drive through town and started leaving it.  I was sitting right at the back of the bus and looked at the driver in his big mirror and he was already looking at me and gestured that I probably wanted to get off.  I was the only gringo on the bus and of course he was right.  Nice of him to be that observant.  So I had a bit of a walk back to Captain Jack’s but no biggie.

Inside the Red Diablo:

Standing room only...at least for the gringo:

Rockin' on the bus:

My first glimpse of the Quest, a little to the left of center:

My diablo bus rolling away:

I had read that the hostel was a barebones type place and that description wasn’t too far off, but it was a decent place for a night and had a nice bar/restaurant with a view down towards the water.  Captain Jack is an American in his early 60s who used to be in the corporate world, made his money as the vice-president of a chemical company and then cashed out, bought a sailboat and cruised around the world, hitting some 50 countries.  He’d ended up here, running a few different businesses and enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle than the rat race.

Finding my way to Captain Jack's:

This way...past another diablo bus:

Captain Jack himself, manning the "bridge":

I checked in, put my bags in the dorm and then returned upstairs for a beer, and later lunch with a fellow Victorian who happened to be sitting there.  Fifty-eight year old Walt, who looked a bit like Richard Branson, had done similar to Jack and had slowed down his work life to working only half of the year back in Canada as a coach driver on vacation tours.  We chatted for a few hours and amazingly found out that he had lived two floors directly above my apartment in Victoria, albeit 5-10 years earlier.

The view from Captain Jack's:

Flat Stanley checking out one of Portobelo's old forts:

Another section of the fort:


The locals take advantage of the nice grass in the old battlement for some football action:


That evening I met Goeran and the rest of the passengers for the five day trip to Colombia.  It turned out to be me with 7 Aussies, which was just fine by me.  There was a couple, Jasmine and Mitch with their friend Pat from Sydney.  Another group of three friends were Steve, Dion and Eden all hailing from Melbourne and then a solo traveller, Jeff from close to Perth.  It looked like we were going to have a fun crew as the drinks and laughs were already flowing.  Goeran informed us that we would be meeting at the boat at 5pm the next day, which surprised some of us as we thought we’d be leaving first thing in the morning but we’re on the captain’s schedule now.

Our bags and our supplies were shuttled down to the dock and three trips out to the boat on Goeran’s little dinghy and we were all aboard.  I had seen numerous pictures of the boat on the Internet and it more than lived up to my expectations.  Goeran spent 15 years designing and building the boat to his own custom specifications in order to have a sailboat that doubles as a scuba diving boat.  Every last detail has been thought of.  We met Adriano who was the Italian cook and assistant shipmate, settled in and enjoyed a few sunset bevvies followed by dinner before setting off around 10pm for the San Blas Islands, where we would arrive the next morning.  It turned out to be a bit of a late night for some of us (happy to say I wasn’t the last one up) as we couldn’t contain our excitement of the trip ahead.

Some of the Aussie crew leaving Captain Jack's:

Jeff, Jazmin and Pat on the dinghy over to the ship:

Captain Goeran:

Approaching the Quest:

The new captain...for a few minutes at least...

Our first dinner on board:

It was a bit of a rocky ride as we motored all night to the San Blas Islands and all of us landlubbers did not have a good night’s sleep.  We arrived just after 8am at El Porvenir, the immigration office on a small island complete with a short airstrip, and all of us had to head into the office to show our faces although it seemed like a formality.  An hour later we reached our spot for the next 24 hours, a gorgeous strip of water between two small islands with a reef further out keeping the gorgeous blue waters calm.  Gorgeous spot.

Here's some of the inside of the ship...

The bridge:


The galley:

The dining area, which we didn't use...always ate up on the deck as it was much cooler:

Down the hall to my cabin that I shared with Jeff:

My bunk:


The immigration office at El Porvenir:

Approaching the first of the San Blas Islands:

Note the hut on the left side of the island...full on Robinson Crusoe type stuff!

A little oasis in the sea:

Everyone excited to have arrived:

It wasn’t long before a few of us donned some snorkeling gear and jumped into the warm ocean.  The snorkeling was alright, not a ton of fish but we did find some coral reefs and I did see three small squid.  We walked around the larger of the two islands which only took about ten minutes, if that.  There were numerous huts and tents along the shoreline as the San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna Indians, who have lived in this tropical paradise for hundreds of years.  Their prime industry is fishing but the influx of tourists has provided them with an income from charging landing fees, selling lobster and other seafood and even cold beer.  They sure do lead a simple lifestyle.

Eden trying out his mini Spiderman air mattress:

Our first mooring spot:

Jeff chillin' on deck with Jaz in the background:

After a better night’s sleep (since we were moored in the calm waters), we headed off for another spot in the scattered islands.  On the way Goeran stopped at a tiny island with a shipwreck from the 1950s just offshore.  The snorkeling there was great.  It’s amazing how the sea life flourishes on the ugly hulls of rusting metal ships.

Eden thinks he has something on his line...

Reeling it in...

And it was a monster!

What a whopper!

Steve thought he could do better but with the boat moving at 7 knots, the poor little fish put up a good fight but then lost some teeth and gills.

Approaching the wreck:

Approaching our second mooring spot:

The next spot was one of Goeran’s favourite, another reef sheltered patch of water surrounded by four islands.  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t super with rain once in a while but it was still a pretty spot.  Earlier Goeran had phoned a local Kunan and had ordered some lobster to be delivered to our boat…how cool is that!  Not only did the man in his wooden canoe have lobster but also some ice cold beer!  It was Eden’s 30th birthday so a nice lobster dinner was a great way to finish his day.

A small island near our next stop:

The delivery man:

Pat sizing up our dinner:

Ya, I'm pretty happy about it too!

Eden insisted that we buy some large snail too.

Our bounty:

Mitch heading out to snorkel:

This seemed like a scene from "Lord of the Flies"...Steve and Eden came around the corner to scare the other guys with makeshift spears.

Sunset in a beatiful spot:

Now the Aussies get silly...first up: Dion

Eden flippin' out:

And so is Steve:

And our lobster dinner is finally served.  Happy Birthday Eden!

The forecast wasn’t looking great with strong winds for our major crossing from the San Blas over to the Colombian coast so we set out earlier than expected the following day.  The skies were overcast and the wind continued to build during the day so the yacht bucked up and down on the large 4-6 meter rollers in the ever angrier sea.  Goeran told us to remind him later of a story where he experienced a 30 meter wave, but sensibly he didn’t want to tell us about it at this point.  The ocean did calm down a little later in the afternoon and we saw three little dolphins playing for a short time in our bow wave…very cool.

Setting off:

Pictures never do it justice...but the sea is big and confused:

In the rough seas:

Everyone had been instructed to take seasick pills for the crossing and although Jeff had been seasick on the first night, everyone was fine on the major crossing.  Sleeping however was another challenge.  With the boat tossing around, rolling back and forth, slamming down on big waves, coupled with the stifling heat in the cabin, it was tough to get shut eye, but we managed.

Thankfully the next day we were greeted to a more chilled out ocean and lovely blue skies.  We continued to motor sail until we reached the Colombian coast, around 4 in the afternoon.  Goeran ducked the boat into a bay for shelter as the winds were picking up.  We were still another 40 nautical miles south of Cartagena but our captain decided that we would stay anchored until midnight before setting off as the forecast was for lighter winds later.  Goeran, Dion and Eden sped off in the dinghy in search of cigarettes and beer but there was nothing nearby so we took the Quest 45 minutes south to a small fishing village to try our luck there but they would not accept American dollars (what a refreshing change from Central America) so we made do with what we had.

Waiting for the coast to appear:

Time to take over the helm.

So now Goeran told of his harrowing tale on the high seas.  He was the chief engineer of a 100 meter cruise boat called the Caledonian Star and in 2001 they were sailing around the tip of South America.  A massive storm brewed up and they were hit by a 30 meter rogue wave which smashed the windows on the bridge and Goeran said he was swimming like he was in an aquarium!  The captain was below deck at the time and amazingly they were able to save the ship and no one died.  He says that he gets emails from passengers on that ship every year on the anniversary of their collective near death experience…pretty crazy.  There was an inquest into the event and Goeran and the captain were cleared of any negligence but those responsible for the weather forecasts were at fault.

Goeran ended up sleeping through his alarm and we did not set off until 4am but that was actually a bonus as that meant we had a lovely morning motoring up to Cartagena under blue skies.  Cartagena has a large bay with a couple of narrow entrances where old stone forts from days gone by sit empty, having finished their duty of guarding the city from marauders.  To the right was the large shipping and industrial area of the city and to the right we could see the skyscrapers of downtown while in between was the old historical centre.  The skyline of the city was not nearly as impressive as Panama City as the buildings here seemed fairly cookie cutter like, all boxy and white.

The last leg to Cartagena:

Some of the old defenses for the bay:

Gotta work the Titanic:

Cartegena's skyline:

Nearing the marina:

We anchored close to the marina which was also near a couple of large container ships that were being unloaded and Jazmin mentioned a funny story that this young woman she knows thought that container ships were all online shopping purchases!  I had a giggle.  Goeran instructed us to go and wander around for a few hours and return to the marina and hopefully we would get our stamped passports back.  The first order of business was to find a bank machine followed by a beer!

Online shopping in action  ;)

Leaving the Quest:

Sure glad I didn't choose this boat for the crossing:

In the distance is the entrance to the Centro Historico of Cartagena:

My first Colombian beer...the Eagle:

The crew on solid ground:

Unfortunately Goeran didn’t have our passports and he said he would meet us at 10pm that night.  Eden really needed his as he was flying off to Bogota early in the morning.  The Aussies waited to catch some taxis with their bags but I decided to walk to my reserved accommodation.  From looking on Google Maps before sailing I knew that I was less than a kilometre away from Steve, Dion and Jeff’s place.  I crossed the bridge into the area called Getsemani and hunted around for my place but after an exhaustive search which took me in a large 3 kilometre circle, I found my room back, just 2 blocks from the marina!  The address on Booking.com had been wrong, it was 19 Carrera not 19 Calle (like mixing up streets and avenues) but also Google Maps shows land where there’s actually water so it wasn’t too surprising that I had a tough time finding it.  I thought it was a small hostel but in fact it was more of a homestay with a woman, Luz, and her 16 and 9 year old sons, Jose and Arturo.  They were super friendly and welcoming and I have to admit, I was happy to have a big bed in my own room…on solid ground!

Our crew:

Good times!
(from back row, left to right: Jeff, Eden, Steve, Dion, Me, Adriano the cook, in the front: Mitch, Pat, Jazmin and el capitan Goeran)

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