One of the few bits of planning I did before embarking on the trip (OK, only bit of planning), was trying to establish the first thing I would do after leaving the friends I had been traveling Colombia with. It was during this (short) process that I realized one of the downsides of solo-traveling – no-one to reign you in should you hit upon a stupendously bad idea.
I’d discovered that there was a catch traveling north from Colombia to Panama called the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is essentially a piece of land with such heavy tropical-forest vegetation and inhospitable terrain, it has basically been impossible to build a road between the two countries. Apparently it also provides the perfect hiding place for what is left of FARC, the Colombian guerrilla army. Both of these factors have left travel guides and blogs urging travelers not to try this route by foot … As if this was an option!!!
But backpackers aren’t a group to be put off a route or forced onto an airplane. This is why catching some sort of boat from Cartagena to the Panama coast, sailing in the warm, calm Caribbean and taking in the San Blas islands has become a popular option. My research raised two major concerns – Tripadvisor and similar websites had some seriously mixed reviews of the various trips on offer and the last time I’d spent serious time on a boat was on LAKE Karieba. Who knew how I would actually cope with this whole wave business.
Nevertheless with my time with friends running short and not really being sure what else to do, I booked my passage through the most reputable company I could find (blue sailing in Cartagena) and settled on sailing with the Amande, mainly because it was leaving on a day that suited me.
From what I can tell your trip depends on a few uncontrollable factors, namely the weather, the crew on board and, last but not least, the group of travelers on board. I was amazingly lucky with all three.
We had great weather the whole trip. I think this is especially important for the first two days when you’re still finding your sea legs and have to sail the open sea solidly for two days before reaching the sheltered bays of the San Blas archipelago. While it is inevitably a little rocky for us land-lovers, it is a relief to know you’re getting the worst out of the way up first. I was pretty much all right taking one or two Valoids just to escape some light queasiness and resulting in some awesome naps.
The captain of our ship, Frank, was incredibly accommodating and knowledgable and his right hand woman, Isabel, not only cooked the best, fresh meals but made sure we settled into boat life quickly and easily. I had heard some mixed reports about the quality of the food on some of the boats but we lucked out with a French crew. Even the coffee was good and abundant!
And the company was great and varied with Australians, Canadians, Swedish and of course a South African making up the passengers. Everyone was relaxed, respectful, chatty, ridiculously competitive at UNO and ready to mock any sunburns we may or may not have picked up along the way. Naturally some beer and rum helped to break the ice.
But the highlight of the trip is arriving at the unbelievably beautiful and untouched San Blas Islands.
There are around 300 or so just off the Caribbean coast of Panama. They’re inhabited by the Kuna people who managed to negotiate ownership from the Panamanians backed by the Americans (I am still unsure exactly how they managed to do this but they must be really smart).
The Kuna people are determined to keep their traditional way of life. They refuse to let any foreigners, even Panamanians, own property or businesses on the islands and all decisions about any form of development have to be made communally in meetings, which are held on main islands almost every night. The Kuna are the coconut barons of the Caribbean so have made their money trading their chief export mainly with Colombia for many years (so don’t make the mistake of absent mindedly picking up one of their main commodities when visiting). They now also sell Molases, which are colorful, traditional needlework sewed by the women. One of my favorite things about Kuna life is that lucky families can negotiate with their community to be sent to live on and safeguard an island, aka secluded paradise, for a couple of months at a time.
We were lucky enough to spend 3 days chilling and sailing around San Blas. The beaches are perfect with warm, crystal-clear water and powder-fine, white sand. The snorkeling is brilliant with amazing corals and more species of colorful, tropical fish that you can shake a fin at. Our captain even organized for us to go spear fishing with one of the locals to break up our routine of swimming, reading, napping and tanning. And the sunsets make the most idyllic backdrop for chilled beers and rum.
It is just the most amazing way to get away from it all, disconnect from the world for a little bit and chill out away from the crowds. I am really glad I decided to go ahead with it and cannot recommend the Amande enough.