If you fly to Colombia, you’ll miss out on a memorable experience of sailing the Caribbean Sea discovering idyllic tiny islands and a unique culture that inhabit them.
There are 3 ways to go from Panama to Colombia. Most people take the cheapest and most convenient way which is to fly. I have heard of one person making the trip mostly by land but it can be dangerous due to guerrillas and bandits in the Darién Gap. The 3rd way is to find yourself a boat that will take you from Colón, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. In Panama City, you will often find notices offering sailing trips, or you can go to Colón marina and ask around. Check the seaworthiness of the boat and competency of the crew prior to committing yourself.
It was exciting to see land fade away in the distance and start sailing in the open ocean. Everyone except for one got seasick on the first day. I was totally incapacitated and had to lie down for hours.
We arrived in El Porvenir on the second day. It is one of over 360 small islands that make up Archipiélago de San Blas (San Blas Archipelago). The archipelago is a part of Comarca Kuna Yala, a special autonomous territory that belongs to the indigenous Kuna people.
On the 3rd day, we went to a nearby small island for some sightseeing. The Kuna people had definitely seen some free spending tourists before and the first thing they did when they saw us coming was to hold up molas for sale. They didn’t show any interest in us other than for commercial reasons. I very much felt I was uninvited and invading their space. The Kuna women wore traditional clothes but I didn’t see any topless woman that you see in tourism promotion pictures.
Below is a picture of mola street vendors in Panama City:
The island was small enough for us to walk around in less than an hour. The houses were made of palm trees; and their bare interior with hammocks and dirt floor, could been seen through the gaps in the walls. The island was fairly ‘built up’ with some houses spilling over onto the water as did the toilets.
Some people spotted a big school of fish causing splashes on the sea surface close to the island. All of a sudden, the entire village went into action and every available man dived into the water or got on a boat as quickly as he could, and surrounded the fish with a net. It was a disorganised affair but exciting to watch due to all the commotion, expectation and a half the village turning up. Eventually, the men pulled up a boatful of fat shiny mackerels. I bought some for US 25 cents each and cooked them for dinner over campfire on the beach.
Despite something breaking on our sailboat everyday (the stereo, drudge pump, fridge, etc.), having diesel and water shortage scares, and the cramped no-privacy lifestyle, sailing was the right choice for me. We sailed with dolphins and saw flying fish changing directions while skimming over the waves. I loved sailing at night under the moonlight on undulating big mounds of thick black shiny water. I got to appreciate the sea, solitude and comradeship better.
After our 6th sunset on the water, we finally spotted some boats then land. While we were carefully navigating round harbour lights, the Colombian marine patrol sped toward us and ordered us over the electronic megaphone to kill the motor. They were heavily armed and after some questioning let us go. It was just another reminder that I was never too far away from the unexpected while travelling in a foreign country.