There are a number of reasons for this. The most practical reason is that most of the border is impenetrable jungle with only one 4WD track that I heard about passing through the Darien Gap. The other reason, also fairly obvious, is that the border and jungle is controlled by drug traffickers because it is the only area of land linking the Americas.
For anyone trying to travel from North America to the bottom of South America solely by land this is a crushing fact but for everyone else it poses a difficult choice. Either fly from Panama City to Colombia or travel by speedboat/yacht from Panama to Cartagena through the San Blas Islands. There is a third option to go through the jungle by 4WD but I’ve only heard about that in rumours. Even then everyone said it’s dangerous to the point of insanity, plus expensive.
This leaves two options. I’m a bit biased on the best way to make the trip, but hear me out. Flying from Panama to anywhere is really expensive and let’s face it if you have travelled a lot you are probably sick of planes. This leaves you with the option of taking a boat through some of the most beautiful and untouched islands in the Caribbean.
Both the speed boats and sailing are good options so it depends on how much time you have and budget. The sailing takes 5 nights. Two of the nights are on the open ocean and the last three nights are in the protected water just off three different islands. The speed boats will do the trip in three nights and all of these are staying on land. The prices also reflect the time; $550 vs $400USD.
So with all of this in mind I chose to take a sailing trip from Cartagena going north to Panama in the middle of July. The boat was called the Wildcard; a 60ft, steel hulled boat made in Australia and sailed around the world to be in the Caribbean today. Doing the trip with me were around 18 others and three crew.
We all met up for the trip late on a Friday afternoon at the Cartagena marina and stocked up on supplies before doing the obligatory customs check. Almost as soon as we boarded the boat a storm started rolling in so we used the time to get to know each other over a couple of drinks and get our sea legs.
One thing that they don’t tell you is that the crossing can get pretty rough at times. July is one of the calmest months to do the journey but as soon as we left the protection of the port the waves began to grow. They kept growing into the night as we sailed through some storms and at times they were washing onto the deck. Down below for most of us it was our first night on the open ocean on anything smaller than a cruise liner.
Some of us were handling the situation a bit better than others with the first people starting to feel bad just after we left port. Luckily for me I didn’t get seasick but during a massive wave I did get rolled out of my bunk in the middle of the night. It’s a pretty rude way to wake.
By the next morning the storms had passed and it was just us on the open ocean. You think of the Caribbean as swarming with ships and yachts but the reality is really different. We went the entire day without seeing another soul and even in this busy part of the ocean the scale of how big it is out there becomes palpable. The time without internet or phones was actually great and we pass the time playing games, reading, listening to old sea tales of the captain and napping.
Waking early after the second night we find that the sea has calmed to being almost glassy and our captain is slowly steering us through a passage of reefs. The water colour has changed from being the dark blue of the ocean to being the light turquoise you see in every picture of a Caribbean island. The horizon is also dotted with dozens of islands; some so tiny they only have one palm tree.
Before we had even reached our first island we could already see that we had arrived in paradise. The best part is that we had it completely to ourselves and there was still no other boats around except for local fisherman.
Everyone had told us that the San Blas Islands are basically unchanged since western occupation and as we dropped anchor at the first island we could see how true they were. The village on the island was built in the traditional way; thatched roofs, timber and simple walls. Apart from some coconut palms and the houses that was all that existed on the island, and every island we visited.
For the next three days we were ferried across to the different islands in our dingy with all of our snorkelling gear and some drinks for bonfires the locals were going to make for us. After meeting the owners of the islands and looking at their craftwork we jump in the water to explore the reefs that that were absolutely everywhere. The reefs are some of the best I have ever seen with good visibility and really good health meaning there is an abundance of different fish and coral to explore.
The islands are also big enough that if you’re feeling like having a castaway moment it’s possible to walk across the island you’re on and find a quiet spot to just take in the tranquillity. It’s surprising how often you find the postcard view of a coconut palm leaning out over impossibly turquoise water.
The only failure of the trip was the state of our bonfires. Sadly because of the wet season every bit of wood was completely soaked and not even fuel could help us light them. It wasn’t really a problem though. When you’re having drinks on island in paradise with good music and good company the failed bonfires are quickly forgotten.
On our last night before arriving in Panama we were all up on deck watching an incredible sunset. Suddenly someone shouted that they could see a pod of dolphins coming towards us. Looking over to the horizon we saw, I’m not exaggerating, hundreds of dolphins coming towards us. They must have seen the boat because they all changed direction to join us. Surrounding our boat like an escort for at least half an hour they all took turns to be up the front leaping out of the water at the bow. I couldn’t think of a better way to end such an incredible week.
You can see the next step of my adventure on my own travel blog here at www.caughterlifecrisis.com