After nine and a half months in South America it’s time to make my way north into Central America. I’ve mainly travelled by bus around the continent, but as the border between Colombia and Panama is said to be controlled by guerrilla groups and dangerous – whether true or not – I decided to look for other options. Because I’m carrying excess baggage I avoid flying so I decided on a 5-day cruise through the Caribbean Sea via the San Blas Islands instead.
The San Blas Islands are to the east of the Panama Canal and of the approximately 378 palm covered, golden sand islands, 49 are inhabited.
The boat I booked was the Luka, a 56’ yacht that has been converted into a cruise vessel. For the 12 passengers and 2 crew there are few rooms and most are crammed. Because I’m a solo traveller I drew the short straw of sleeping in the saloon. While it’s not ideal, the couch like seats are longer than the berths in the rooms, and as I’m 189cm (6’3”) a longer bed is better.
We all arrived at the dock at 8pm and were ferried out to the yacht where we waited in the calm of the harbour. We were due to leave at 10pm but it was closer to midnight before we set off. Eventually we set sail under motor which caused many of the rooms to be rather hot overnight, even with their built-in fans.
Cartagena Harbour at night…
No-one slept well and two of our number suffered major seasickness overnight, spending the night on the deck throwing up. I woke very hot and tired after 9 hours sleep. With the motion of the sea and the heat of the cabin, I couldn’t stomach breakfast. Standing up also caused me to feel sick, so I went back to sleep until the early afternoon. When I awoke I also couldn’t stomach lunch so went on deck where the cool wind made me feel a lot better. There wasn’t much to see though, no sea birds or land, only the waters of the Caribbean sea and the very occasional dolphin – too quick for the cameras.
I stayed on the deck for much of the rest of the day enjoying the sun and the cool of the wind. While it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and I’m told it’s snowing in parts of the US, I’m spending most of my time in just shorts, even late into the evening. And though I slept for most of the day, without anything else to do I was ready for bed at 10pm. With the flashes of lightning on the horizon we prepared for a rainy night.
It did rain overnight, while not heavy it meant we had to close the hatches which increased the heat of the rooms below deck. I woke early, not surprisingly, and just hung out in the galley until breakfast was served. After breakfast I went on the deck and enjoyed the breeze on the overcast day. Along one side we could make out the mainland as the San Blas islands came into view.
The smaller San Blas islands reminded me of the islands of the Pacific – beautiful golden beaches, palm trees and not much else, all surrounded by reefs that keep out the heavy seas. We were ferried across to one of the islands, known as Turtle Island because sea turtles are known to lay eggs here in September.
The day was spent hanging out in hammocks on the beach, swimming, eating and drinking. What else is there to do on a virtually deserted island in the Caribbean sea?
In the evening, we cooked beef skewers over an open fire as we continued to take in the surroundings. After dinner, the weather turned against us and it began to rain. After the first shower, several of us headed back to the yacht. We’d only just made it when the clouds opened and it poured, drenching those still on the island.
In the morning, the captain went to pick up the three passengers that had chosen to stay on the island for the night. While there was a hut where the locals lived, it was not the best in rain, so the three slept little as they shivered in the cold and wet.
After breakfast, we set sail for the next group of islands. While we were told it was only 45 minutes away, it took us nearly 2 and a half hours to get there in the heavy cross winds. When we arrived, most of us couldn’t wait to get over the side and into the clear warm water.
Then after lunch, we were dropped off at one of the islands and left to our own devices. While it had been gorgeous weather when we’d arrived, it turned sour after an hour or so, so we headed back to the boat where we hung out for the afternoon swimming between showers.
While we were on the island, the captain had brought a bucket of Lobsters to the boat that was to be our dinner. This was to be our only taste of seafood on the trip.
In the morning we sailed for another set of islands. These islands were actually only 45 minutes from where we had anchored the previous day. We were ferried to one of the larger islands and hung out on the beach drinking beer in the sun while a bronzed blonde girl kite-surfed back and forth along the beach.
After midday we were ferried back to the boat for lunch before many of us swum out to a small desert island not far from the boat. I made it to the island without issue, but because of an old sports injury, on the return trip my shoulder locked up and I had to be collected by the crew. A little embarrassing, but you get that.
In the afternoon the captain changed his plan and instead of sailing overnight for Portobelo harbour, our end point, we set sail at 3pm instead. Most of us slept through the rocky 8-hour journey as it was difficult to sit on deck. We were woken for an early dinner, then it was back to sleep again until morning.
We woke on our last day to the dirty brown waters of Portobelo harbour and waited while the captain took our passports to immigration.
Panama has recently passed a law requiring travellers to show proof of onward travel out of Panama or suffer a US$105 tax. Onward travel must be in the form of airline tickets. This has resulted in most travellers creating false flight tickets to avoid this absurd tax. While the rest of my boat mates had copies of real or fake tickets, I did not. As it turns out it didn’t matter and we finally got to land without any further fees.
A Not So Good Cruise
While I’ve painted a fairly positive picture of this cruise, it wasn’t all happy travels. Beyond the rough seas, rainy afternoons and the chap who was sea sick for the entire 5 days – none of which could be helped – the cruise was particularly badly organised. The Owner didn’t come with us on this cruise, so the two Panamanian crew had free rein. The captain spoke english well but the chef did not. Briefings were non-existent, so for the most part we had no idea what we were doing each day unless we pestered the captain, who gave us information that changed regularly. Sure, trying to estimate travel times when winds go against you is hit and miss, but the different between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours is vast even for an experienced captain in the region. Then dumping us on an island and disappearing while the locals on the island hound us for the US$2 per person entry fee is poor form.
The cruise was not cheap, but having hot dogs for meals 4 times was not acceptable. In fact, beyond the BBQ Crayfish and the beef skewers on the beach (which we made ourselves), most of the meals were sub par, including stale breakfast cereals, stale bread and potato slush.
Overall, the trip was an experience and while the location was great with the beautiful islands, pristine beaches and seas, the cruise itself was a great let down.
Next I explore Panama City…
The World Wanderer