By Kach Medina
Co-Founder of Two Monkeys Travel Group.
There’s a very good reason why we decided to go on a San Blas sailing trip – For anyone looking to travel from Central to South America via the Pan American Highway will ultimately run into the same barrier – The Darien Gap, a huge area of dense jungle and swamp, 160km long and 50 km wide, separating Panama from Colombia, making conventional road travel between the two countries practically impossible. So, it’s safe to say that this was not going to be the route for us! This left us with the choice between flying, or finding a sailboat to take us on a San Blas sailing trip from Portobello, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia!
San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama
- Fly from Panama City to a city in Colombia. You can find cheap flights on Skyscanner, but you can still expect to pay $200 to USD 300 p/person.
- The most relaxing and enjoyable – Take a private sailing boat for five days across the Caribbean from Panama to Cartagena via the incredible San Blas Islands – $525 to $575 p/person.
We chose number 2!
SAN BLAS SAILING – PANAMA TO CARTAGENA VIA THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS
We had decided that we wanted to experience crossing the Caribbean by sailboat, but most of the boats we found appeared to be ‘backpacker party boats’ with 15 to 20 people crammed in like sardines, sleeping on the deck, on the floor, on each other – Not for us! We’re also not really into the backpacker party scene anymore, so that was another no-no.
Most of the prices for these San Blas sailing trips ranged from $525 to $575 per person, including three meals a day, 4-5 days sailing time, with 2-3 of those days in the San Blas Islands.
There is one company offering a San Blas sailing trip for $375 by speedboat, with basic accommodation on one of the San Blas Islands instead of on a boat, but with a little more research we found that the cost ends up being much the same, as you finish far from Cartagena. The price doesn’t include water, transport to the departure point ($35) or entry charges to some of the areas ($25). You also then need to consider the onward transport to Cartagena ($75), plus several days’ food and accommodation, so the total cost is the same as an all-inclusive San Blas sailboat experience to Cartagena.
WARNING – It’s unfortunately quite common for some agencies and hostels to tell you that a boat you want to book has canceled their trip, is broken, or even to make up bad stories about them, to steer you towards boats that offer them the most commission. Always check for real customer reviews on Trip Advisor, do your research and make up your mind.
We recommend trying to contact individual boats directly. If they are at sea, then you will have to send them an email or Facebook message. Otherwise, use a local phone or Skype to call them.
This left us with privately owned sailboats, catering to smaller numbers of passengers and a more relaxing, personal experience. There are a handful of boats offering a trip like this, but few of those have their website, and it can be hard to contact the owners themselves, as they are often at sea and use travel agents and hostels to get their bookings.
After several days searching for San Blas sailing boats online, in hostels and with various agencies, we came across a picture of a classic looking sailboat, with twin masts, timber deck and trims and sleek, slender lines, anchored in crystal clear turquoise waters between two palm-fringed desert islands. AVE MARIA was etched into the stern in elegant, antique lettering. It was beautiful, and we wanted it! We had found our boat; now we just had to find the captain. Unbelievably, an internet search brought up the website for the boat and its captain, with San Blas sailing trips running between Panama and Cartagena, via the San Blas Islands, including one leaving the next day from Portobello, about 2 hours from Panama City. We called the cell phone number, and they had two spaces available, so we grabbed the opportunity and packed our bags again. Here’s how our amazing San Blas sailing journey went with Ave Maria Sailing.
DAY 1 – PANAMA CITY TO PORTOBELLO – SETTING SAIL TO THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS
So, we just had to get to the port of Portobello by 10 am the following day, 4th of June. Getting to from Panama City to Portobello is relatively cheap and easy – there is a bus from Albrook Station to Colon City which takes less than 2 hours and costs about $5, then another bus to Portobello for about $1. Easy! If you feel like splashing out, then you can get a yellow taxi which could cost you anywhere from $60 to $100, depending on your Spanish and your negotiating skills.
San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama
We arrived at 10 am and met up with Captain Paul, an Australian who has been living in Colombia and offering San Blas sailing trips for the past five years. We gave him our passports to take to the port authority to stamp us out of Panama; then we had a few hours to spend exploring Portobello, which is packed full of history, ruins, and stories of Spanish gold and pirates! We stocked up on beer and wine and extra snacks to take with us and waited until our 4 pm departure time when we jumped in a launch boat to take us out to the Ave Maria. She was just as beautiful as in the pictures, classic and streamlined with a white hull, Teak deck, and wood trimmings. Paul and Sindry helped us up onto the deck, and we stowed our big backpacks into the hold, keeping just a small day bag with a couple of t-shirts and some toiletries.
At 50 feet long the Ave Maria sailing boat has the capacity for eight passengers + plus two crew, with everyone having their bed! Four beds in the bow cabin, two double beds and one single in the mid cabin and the dining area convert to sleeping space for the final person. We only had four people + 2 crew on our trip, ourselves and a young Swiss couple who are also traveling the world. With light wind, Paul fired up the engine and left Portobello for the open Caribbean. Sindry cooked an amazing beef stew dinner, and we all fell asleep pretty early after that. Paul stayed up awake at the wheel, sailing 16 hours through the night to reach the San Blas Islands so that we would have a full days there to enjoy ourselves!
DAY 2 – ARRIVAL AT SAN BLAS ISLANDS – COCO BANDERAS AND OUR FIRST CULO DE POLLO!
We woke early with the rocking motion of the Ave Maria as she glided up, down and across the waves. When we climbed out onto the deck, we could already see an archipelago of small San Blas islands in the distance – clusters of palms hovering on the surface of the shimmering water encircled by white-sand halos, like an epitome of lonely bliss. This was exactly what we had come for! Sindry prepared a fresh and healthy breakfast of muesli, cereal and fresh fruit, which we ate outside in the cleansing salty air. As we arrived at our first stop, Coco Banderas, the weather began to turn.
Dark clouds and bickering gusts of cold winds surrounded the islands, and the choppy water pitched the boat up and down. This was nothing to worry about as the Ave Maria can handle massive storms, and we were already anchored down between two islands. The brief yet intense storm, which lasted for about one hour, is known as a Culo de Pollo, or Chicken’s Ass, for its characteristic erratic winds, chasing around in all directions. As soon as the storm was over, the wind died down, the sun broke the clouds, and the sea was restored to shimmering turquoise glass, clear all the way to the sandy floor below. Several other boats had chosen the same spot to shelter, but they continued on their way once all was clear again.
We spent the day diving off the boat into the warm sea, exploring the little islands and snorkeling around the shallow reefs that partially enclose the area. Local Kuna fishermen dive here for crabs, langoustines, and lobsters, which you can buy fresh out of their boats for just several dollars each! While we were snorkeling we saw huge shoals of tiny bait fish and red-nosed pencil fish, then as we swam back around to the beach, we saw a huge manta ray – two meters wide – and a smaller stingray!
For lunch, we had freshly caught fish, which Paul had reeled in from the back of the boat during the night, cooked up with a mixture of other fresh, delicious seafood, all prepared by Sindry! The afternoon was passed with more of the same simple pleasures until we watched the sun set behind the island, casting oranges, reds, and purples across the sky. We spent the night anchored in the same spot, talking amongst ourselves and eating yet another amazing home-cooked dinner.
DAY 3 – SAN BLAS ISLANDS BBQ AND NIGHT TIME SEA TURTLES
The morning was completely peaceful, any other boats that had been in the area had vanished, and we had three whole islands all to ourselves! Sindry made us breakfast with fresh fruit and scrambled eggs on toast. The two best things about a San Blas sailing trip (apart from sailing) are the San Blas Islands and the food, so we swam to the nearest island to gather driftwood for a beach fire BBQ.
The sun had dried everything out pretty quickly, and we had a big fire going just off the beach using nothing but driftwood, palm leaves and dried coconut shells. Sindry prepared everything in the Ave Maria and brought it over to the island in the little dingy; marinated pork chops; avocado salad, potatoes, olive oil and home-made balsamic salad dressing. With a simple hot plate laid on the fire, we had an instant grill for the pork chops, which were some of the best I’ve ever tasted!
Later that afternoon, a local Kuna came by in his boat with some giant langoustines, freshly caught that day, which Paul and Sindry prepared for dinner with pasta and sauce, with crusty bread that evening.
During the night, just as everyone was thinking about sleeping, two massive sea turtles started swimming around the boat, feeding on the algae growing on the underside of the hull, then surfacing to take deep noisy breaths. They stayed around for about 2 hours, and all the while manta rays were jumping out of the water and flying several meters into the air! Paul and Sindry said this was really unusual for this part of the San Blas Islands and they’d never seen this kind of activity before!
DAY 4 – NEW SAN BLAS ISLANDS AND ‘THE BIG QUESTION!’
Our last day in the San Blas Islands before heading back out into the open Caribbean, to end our San Blas sailing trip with a 34 hour non-stop journey to Cartagena.
After breakfast in the morning, we pulled up the anchor and headed deeper into the archipelago to another group of islands, with more reefs and peaceful, warm water. We made the most of the swimming and snorkeling and explored the larger island closest to the boat.
After a burrito and salad lunch, while everyone was chilling out on the boat, I paddled Kach and me out to the island in the dinghy, and we took a walk along the beach to take some photos. We sat down on a big driftwood tree, and that’s when I gave her a ring I had found in Istria, Croatia just a week before and asked her to marry me. Luckily she said yes, and now we’re engaged! Apparently, we are the first engagement on an Ave Maria sailing trip! We all celebrated with some drinks on the deck and chilled out again until we were ready to start the long journey to Cartagena and set sail that night.
DAY 5 – SAN BLAS ISLANDS TO CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
More great food, conversation, reading and episodes of Game of Thrones kept us occupied on the day and a half journey, and we even took shifts steering the boat along the way. The rain came and went, and so did the hours; it’s incredible how time passes when you have no idea what time it is!
We all slept quite early and woke up as we pulled into the Boca Grande port of Cartagena at about 4 am the next day. We were there just in time to see the sunrise over the city, which was one of the most beautiful mornings we’ve ever seen. There was no rush to get off of the boat, we had breakfast and packed our things before piling ourselves and our luggage into the dinghy. With all four of us on dry, Colombian land for the first time, we said goodbye to Captain Paul, Sindry, and the Ave Maria – Our San Blas sailing trip was officially over!
We were so glad that we had chosen the Ave Maria for our San Blas sailing adventure – Great people, great food, great company, beautiful classic sailboat, spectacular San Blas Islands!
You can check their scheduled journeys through their website.
We loved Paul, Sindry, and the Ave Maria so much that we negotiated a special deal for Two Monkeys Travel readers!
Normal Rate: $550/ person but our discounted rate: $525 per person for individuals or $500 per person for groups of 6 people or more (Ask around your dorm!) Bonus; FREE cocktail each sunset in San Blas.
All you need to do is mention Two Monkeys Travel when making your reservation. This offer is available for direct bookings only (not through agencies or hostels)
(All aspects of your trip are the concern of Ave Maria Sailing. We receive no money from this offer, we just really enjoyed our trip with them, and so we wanted to share that with you too!)