With no road connection between Colombia and Panama, travellers wishing to get from one country to the other are left with two options: a plane or a boat. Given that the boat option affords travellers the opportunity to sail through the San Blas (a chain of 360 Caribbean islands), for us, the boat was a no brainer.
With the assistance of Mamallena Hostel in Cartagena, we booked a five day / four night sailing trip from Cartagena to Carti in Panama on board the African Queen (a catamaran). We had done a little bit of research about some of the various boats and had read nothing but positive things about the African Queen. Moreover, we knew that a catamaran would be a less rocky than a mono-haul sailboat.
Our first day began at the marina in Cartagena where we met our captain Rudy and the eight other passengers. Rudy was great from the start and all of the other passengers were younger backpackers as well – we knew right away that this would be a fun five days. The catamaran itself was plenty big for everyone, but some of the cabins had to be retrofitted to fit more passengers and two people had to sleep on a couch in the main galley (which we understood was standard for this type of trip). We all agreed that we would each take a night on the couch, but the group never ended up rotating around, so we ended up in the only double cabin for the whole trip. While it sounds luxurious, the bed wasn’t made for taller people and our cabin seemed to heat up much more than the others. We didn’t really care though, this trip was always promoted as a backpacker voyage – no frills, but we were more than comfortable (we paid $550 USD per person by the way).
The sailing trip began with a 30 hour open sea crossing from Cartagena to the San Blas Islands. Unfortunately, the seas tend to be a little rougher this time of year so there wasn’t a whole lot of “socializing” during the first day and a half. Fortunately, the sea sickness medication we bought in Cartagena worked great! We fished during the entire crossing and in one day brought in a tuna, a massive wahoo, and a colourful dorada.
Just as the sun was setting on day 2, we sailed into the tropical waters of the San Blas. The entire archipelago is protected by a reef so the waters are calmer – perfect conditions for swimming, sleeping and “socializing” on the boat.
Over the next three days, we sailed to a different island for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Impossibly, every island had a beautiful white sand beach framed by palm trees and turquoise waters. With the exception of a handful of Kuna (the indigenous population), the islands were sparsely inhabited and were relatively void of other tourists (no all- inclusive resorts here!). The San Blas Islands were the most impressive Caribbean scenery we had ever seen. We swam and we snorkeled; we paddled around in the kayak; we walked around the islands; we caught up on some reading; and we made conversation with our new friends.
On some nights we ate dinner on the boat and on others we ate on an island (and had a fire). Our captain Rudy and his partner Amelia were great cooks – Rudy, an Italian, made a mean pasta and Amelia, a Colombian, did a terrific ceviche. Every meal included fresh fish, prawns, lobster or crab which we either caught or bought from the Kuna. Most importantly, the beer was cold and the rum was plentiful.
In the end all of the great things we had read about the African Queen turned out to be true. The boat itself was spacious and comfortable. Rudy and Amelia were great cooks and always did the dishes (at some points the trip felt like a luxury cruise). And the boat had a great atmosphere – all of the other passengers were so much fun and Amelia was a sweetheart. Rudy, however, wins the award as the most entertaining soul on the boat, he was the perfect blend between responsible and crazy captain. On our last night Rudy was so eager to keep the party going that he yelled “the African Queen is not a sleeping boat!” after we had all turned in. Rudy had an incredibly boisterous and infectious laugh and we’re pretty sure he simply laughed anytime he didn’t understand something (a trick that we will be sure to try). Definitely an incredible and unforgettable five days.
On the evening of the fifth day, we were driven to Panama City where we spent three nights. During our two full days in the city, we explored the sea side promenade (which offered great views of the skyline), toured the UNESCO colonial centre (which has a blend of restored and dilapidated buildings, but appears to be in the midst of a massive rehabilitation project), and, of course, visited the world-famous canal (which has a pretty decent interpretation centre at the Miraflores Locks).
All in all, we had a good time in Panama City which we found friendly, clean and safe.