Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Backpackers Quest

These last couple of weeks I’ve been getting excited about the journey from Panama to Colombia. This is a border that takes a bit of thought as although 98 years ago man was able to build a canal across Central America, he still has not managed to build a road through the Darien Gap. Nor has a ferry service been able to operate for any significant period of time – despite many attempts.

We decided on taking a sailboat from San Blas in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. It’s a route that’s been operating for a few years and seemed somewhat well travelled. Despite that, it comes with many warning of unscrupulous captains overfilling sailboats which in the worst case scenario can sink. A nasty reminder in the recent case of Fritz the Cat!

We felt pretty secure in the thought of taking the Sacanagem, a boat with a great many good reviews to be found on the internet. Kinda funny really when you consider the boat is, according to its captain Federico, named after a sex act during an orgy! Nice.

Arriving at the boat on a sunny Saturday morning off the coast of Panama among tropical coconut islands surrounded only by shocks of electric blue water, all seemed well.

As our lancha left us on the yacht to return to the mainland, Federico introduced us excited tourists and travellers to the luxury boat and we all settled in. Even as he told us his engine didn’t work and we wouldn’t be going anywhere till it was fixed. An easy job apparently but we were warned about arriving a day late in Colombia. Do you think I cared from the photo below?

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Two days passed where we enjoyed the sun, sea and generally life. Who can really complain when the clear waters are teeming with fish? Strangely however, we hadn’t eaten any of them but we did have some of Federico’s slightly odd but very tasty spaghetti with papaya. Tastes better than it sounds!

Sadly poor Federico was starting to look a little stressed with his attempts to fix his engine. Not a good sign. Even less so when bad weather set in – especially bad for a sailboat with no engine as it means no power from the solar panels.

The diagnosis was not good. We would have to abandon ship. 4 of our group decided to take a refund and return to Panama City. The remaining 4 took a chance and Federico’s kind offer to leave us on a nearby island while he fixed the boat … for “maybe a week”. Oh dear. The weather didn’t help, somehow the tranquil blue Caribbean had turned into a merciless beast of swell and spray. Silly to say but I was more bothered about keeping my electronics dry – the youth of today!

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However, unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the rum was not all gone so we settled in for the long haul. To be honest I still didn’t care.

2 …maybe 3 days passed where we sat in hammocks, played volleyball, read books, ate fish (at last) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3. If Carlsberg did airline delays they’d be this good!

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One day (I’ve genuinely lost count) we were awoken from our hammock slumber by an English accent asking if we knew Federico. This was Alice who had a boat leaving for Cartagena that day with conveninently … 4 spaces! It seemed Federico was still having trouble fixing the engine and had transferred us to Alice’s boat, the Odyssee II.

After 3 more days of island hopping we would set sail for Cartagena. Now when things work out well, they work out well. The Odysee was much more of an old fashioned boat, made of steel with a wooden interior it felt like a proper boat. And for dinner that night? Crab and Lobster. I mean, come on, I am one hell of a lucky sod.

The area itself is governed independently from much of the rest of Panama under the local tribe, the Kuna. The Kuna are a tribe who it is believed fled their homelands in the jungle of Colombia due to incursions by other tribes. They cleared much of the islands of natural mangroves and planted coconut palms to create the idyllic looking islands there today.

Much of their livelihood depends of this as they barter coconuts with passing ships and other Panamanians. Tourists for example are not allowed to touch fallen coconuts. Tourism provides a welcome bonus to the Kuna through a tax levied on entry and relatively high prices of souvenirs etc. From my experiences they are doing relatively well to minimise the impact of tourists on their home, however you can see the incursion of paved roads, new airstrips and US television impacting some of the younger generation.

The Kuna maintain their own law and culture, for example Kuna are not allowed to marry foreigners, minor law breaking is dealt with by their own courts and much of the society is matriarchal. During our (extended) stay in the area we were able to gain a little insight into life here.

Our 3 days on the boat were just incredible, blissful, beautiful, relaxing, the pictures say more than I can put into words. We sailed around the paradise islands of San Blas taking the chance to snorkel, sunbathe, swim and generally just relax.

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With the possible exception of when I took the tiller with a bottle of rum. Arggh me hearties.

Alice and her captain Umberto (it helps to have a Colombian national as captain for entry reasons to Colombia) decided for us to leave for Colombia at sunset, giving us extra time in the islands and helping us get through any seasickness by sleep.

Katrina was especially worried about the crossing as she has felt the onset of seasickness during a couple of boat journeys on this trip. Thankfully, the Caribbean was a great deal tamer than the day of abandoning the Sacanagem and plenty of deck space allowed for fresh air. Nobody chundered.

After our days in the island which on reflection passed by far too quickly, our only full day at sea of the 40 or so hour crossing did drag a little. It’s a bit strange seeing nothing on the horizon all day. My highlight was small pods of dolphins swimming up to the boat, sadly they departed as quickly as they arrived without the chance to take a photo. We did however get an amazing sunset.

After another night on the ocean and with dawn breaking over the southern Caribbean we were greeted with an incredible view of the city of Cartagena and my first glimpse of the South American continent. A perfect way to say hello to a new country and end what has been one the most enjoyable journeys I have ever taken.

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If you’re considering this trip yourself I highly recommend Alice and the Odyssee II. If you decide to take the Sacanagem, then despite the engine trouble it is a very nice boat and Federico is a very friendly and humourous captain. He also has an adorable little Poodle called Reina.

If you decide to take a different boat then read the reviews online. Check you are happy with the boat before you hand over your cash. If you’re fussy over food it may be best to take some of your own as well as any alcohol you may want as it is expensive in the islands.

Further, as we left Panama we heard of a new $100 tax soon to be enforced on all passengers leaving for Colombia. It remains to be see how this will impact the route. I have also heard stories of Colombian authorities looking to take a piece of the action.

The bottom line is this however, if you have the chance to take this trip. Go.

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8 thoughts on “Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Backpackers Quest

  1. Everyone should read this! !! Whether you have traveled to these locations, possibly considering traveling to them, or for those who may never see such beauty or adventure. This story is real and should be enjoyed by all. Fortunately for me I was able to take part in this incredible adventure with these amazing people, though I didn’t have the luxury of having to deal with the Sacanagem, I was on the Odyssee II. Thank you for the memories. Miss you all.

  2. Pretty damn cool! How come in my 64 years on the planet you get the girl, the lobster, blue lagoons and sunshine? Life as an ‘uncle’ sucks! Great photo’s and keep safe! – I may look at Madeira next week in a reviewed enlightenment of what ‘tropical’ really is, but at 64 years I will be one of the younger visitors to the island! The real Ian!!

  3. Pingback: Best of Central America | It's all Michael Palin's fault

  4. Pingback: Top 3 Travel Journeys (so far) | It's all Michael Palin's fault

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