When we looked into transportation options from Panama City to Colombia, we were originally planning on taking a bus. After further investigation, we learned that was not feasible due to the Darien Gap, an impassable section of land between Panama and Colombia. This left us with 2 options: fly or sail. While flying would be a cheaper option, it would not be the experience of sailing through the open water. We chose the adventurous route – sailing.
Finding Our Boat
When I began researching boats, I read a lot of horror stories of ships manned by horrible captains. While I am sure some people say “It’ll be fine” and take whatever ship is cheaper and more convenient, we are not that way, especially when it comes to safety.
One of the ships which had consistently good reviews was the Sailing Koala. The food was consistently raved over and articles noted that this was more of a chill boat vs. a party boat. The captain was very experienced, having sailed the Panama to Colombia route for over 20 years. I knew that the Sailing Koala was our ship.
I contacted Blue Sailing who coordinates all of the passenger logistics for the ships, something that would be very difficult for the captains who are out at sea for days at a time. My Blue Sailing contact Laurel was extremely responsive, getting back to any questions that I had very promptly, something that I appreciated greatly. I connected with her on timing that the Sailing Koala was leaving Panama and backed the timing of our trip to fit accordingly.
Once I confirmed that we could make the timing of the ship work, I paid a $50 per person deposit to Blue Sailing via Paypal and provided our passport information. We were officially booked on the Sailing Koala with our own private double room.
Getting to the Coast
To get to the boat, we had to get on the Caribbean coast, a 3 hour drive from Panama City which is located on the Pacific coast. Since this is not accessible via bus, Blue Sailing coordinated transportation via a 4×4 vehicle.
We were told to be ready between 5-5:30am. Since the front desk of our hostal, Entre 2 Aguas, was closed during that time, we grabbed all of our gear and waited downstairs. We had locked our keys in our room and crossed our fingers that the vehicle would show up when it was supposed to. Fortunately for us, about 10 minutes after we headed down the 4×4 arrived.
There was a single girl in the vehicle when it arrived. The 4×4 was not what we expected – it was run down to the point that the side panel on the door was duct taped, my window button was completely missing and the ceiling was really dirty. I told myself all that we had to do was get to the coast.
We expected to pick up another 2 people and be on our way. That was wishful thinking though as this is Central America and a trip for backpackers. By the time we were done we had a total of 8 people in the Landcruiser – 1 driver and 7 passengers. The trunk was completely jammed with luggage and several people had to keep their bags on their laps. I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate we were to get picked up early so we could get seats in the 2nd row. The 3rd row seat had very little leg room and had a higher floor which would make for a very uncomfortable ride.
We briefly chatted with the others in our vehicle and learned that they were doing several days in the San Blas Islands only, not the full ocean crossing to Colombia like us. We were secretly both relieved as the people in our jeep were not the type of people that we wanted to spend time with on our boat.
Before we left the city, the driver stopped at a grocery store. The driver told us it was the transportation office and we had to pay for the transit. I was somewhat confused why this was done in a grocery store and opted to send Andy up to the office and stay by the vehicle. For some reason the driver was going to leave the vehicle unlocked with open windows and no passengers. Nobody else seemed concerned by it and went upstairs. Everything that we had for the trip was in the 4×4 and I was going to make sure that nothing happened to it. Andy went up to the 3rd floor, just off a parking garage to pay our $30 each transit fee to the coast. We had expected this as Blue Sailing told us about the cost. Once he paid the fee he headed down and we were on our way.
Once we got closer to the coast, the road started getting crazy. It was a very windy road and full of hills. At the bottom of hills, the road would change from paved to dirt. Due to the constant rainfall and collecting of water, there were massive potholes. While I believe that the bottoms of the hills were not paved so there was better drainage, there has to be a better way that allows for vehicles to more quickly and easily get through.
Once we arrived at the Panama Coast, we stopped and paid a $20 park fee as well as a $2 boat docking fee. In hindsight, I think that the boat companies have a tie-in to the park. There has to be a better way to get to the coast which doesn’t require passengers to pay an extra $20, especially when we are just driving through the park, not spending time in it.
A short while later, we were to the water. The driver pointed us in the direction of the boat that we needed to take. We were only 1 more step away from getting to the Sailing Koala. First we had to each pay $15 to take a speedboat to the sailboat. While I would call it more of a “speed boat” it got us where we needed to go. We tied up to the sailboat that we would be spending the next 5 days on and boarded the boat.
The main reason that I chose the Sailing Koala was because of the crew. Everything that I read about the boat talked about the safety, good food and good fun. I had very high expectations and I have to say not only were they met, they were exceeded.
Fabian, our captain was one of those people that you meet who is very personable and makes you wish that you were more outgoing. He has mastered the balance of interacting with everyone but at the same time, giving everyone space. It’s a very fine line, but he walked it perfectly.
As we talked more with Fabian, he told us stories about being in Colombia in the 90’s when things were really bad due to the drug traffic. He left Colombia for New York City where he worked as a messenger. It was actually a delayed flight that turned him on to sailing. When he learned he had a delay, he headed to a newsstand and picked up a sailing magazine. He was fascinated by it and intrigued that sailing was not just for the wealthy. It was then and there that he decided that he would someday learn how to sail and get his own boat – a dream that was realized several years later.
We also had a cook/second mate, Daniella. She has been sailing the San Blas Islands for the last 2 years on different boats and is studying to become a captain. Fabian was a great mentor for her as he allowed her to captain the boat, taught her a lot about all of the mechanical/electrical systems and pushed her a lot to be the best she could be. I really hope that several years from now I see her listed as one of the captains of the boats sailing the same route. Not only is she a good sailor, she can cook amazing and is extremely personable as well.
We had a 3rd crew member as well, Christina. She was new to the Sailing Koala and it was her first journey from Colombia to Panama and back. While she didn’t seem to love life on the ship, she was still very nice and did her best to do her job well.
There were a total of 13 people on the boat – the 3 crew members, us and 8 other passengers. I had my fingers crossed that the other passengers would be laid back, not young partiers and got my wish.
The rest of the boat passengers were:
- A German/Austrian couple
- Solo Australian traveler
- Solo Scottish traveler
- Trio of Israelis
- Solo South Korean traveler
The passengers ranged in age from 23, the youngest, to Andy at 36, the oldest. English was the universal language on the boat which was both a blessing for us as we could communicate easily, as well as a curse since we weren’t practicing our Spanish for almost a whole week.
We all got along quite well and I think both of us enjoyed having different people to interact with. While we still spent a lot of time together, it was nice to have some small breaks from spending all of our time with just each other.
Living on a Boat for 5 Days
The trip entailed spending 3 days in the San Blas Islands and 2 days at sea.
While we had grand visions of a luxurious trip, that was not the case. We had a great time and will look back with fond memories of our trip. If you are the type that needs your own space, is a picky eater or can’t handle intense heat, I would make alternative accommodations, possibly flying instead of sailing.
While the boat can technically sleep 11, we had 13. During the times we were sailing, there was always someone up, sailing the ship, so we were only 1 over capacity. The nights we were docked in the islands, we had people sleeping everywhere. This was a non-issue for us as we had a private room, the girls that were sleeping in the common area had a constant rotation of crew sleeping wherever they would fit at various times during the day.
Meal time was the only time that I felt extremely crowded on the ship. The outside table would comfortably fit 6, but with 10 of us, the unlucky 4 that weren’t by the table top, had to balance their plates in the hands or laps. Not a huge problem, just a slight annoyance. Fortunately there was no rain when we were dining. If there were, at least half of the passengers would have had to go to the cabin as the awning only covered part of the dining area.
It would be impossible to go hungry on the boat. The very small kitchen pumped out massive amounts of really good food. We would get a hot breakfast, lunch and dinner every day as well as snacks in the afternoon. The food ranged from pancakes and eggs for breakfast to steaks and pasta for lunch and lobster and burritos for dinner.
After the first person finished their plate of food, Fabian or Daniella would ask us if anyone wanted seconds. Whenever anyone wanted more food, there was always more to go around. As Fabian always said “It’s the Sailing Koala, of course there is more food”.
As you can imagine all of the seafood that we had on the boat was very fresh. The Kuna, locals on the San Blas islands, would canoe over to the boat and sell seafood. We purchased everything from lobsters to octopus to conch.
We were quite fortunate that we sailed in late September/early October. The seas are quite calm during this time which makes for an easier journey, especially for those that are prone to seasickness. In case you’re wondering the worst times, we were told that December and January have the worst sea conditions.
Since the sea was so calm, we didn’t use our sail as much as you would imagine. While it felt a little bit like cheating, in order to keep the schedule of a 5 day trip, something that people are relying on, the captains can’t rely solely on the winds. A good portion of the way we used the motor only or motor in addition to the sail. The first night at open sea we were fortunate enough to get some really favorable winds which brought us further than anticipated.
One of the rules on the Sailing Koala which I didn’t mind at all was no drinking at open sea. As you can imagine, it can be quite dangerous to be at open sea in an intoxicated state, so with safety first, we were not allowed to drink even a single beer.
The less glamorous aspects
While all of our pictures made our trip look amazingly glamorous, that is not the truth. While it was fun, there are a lot of things that you don’t get to see from pictures alone.
For the 5 days we were at sea, our “showers” consisted of jumping in the water, coming to the back of the boat, shampooing/washing our bodies and jumping back in. Once we were “clean” we would spray ourselves down with fresh water to get rid of the salt.
While it was functional, my face went absolutely crazy. I’m not sure if it was the heat, the sunscreen, the salt water or a combination of all of the elements, but I had an oil slick on my face the entire time we were gone. Not only did it look disgusting, but I also broke out worse than I have ever broke out in my life. Luckily it was contained to my chin, but I was not looking glamorous at all during my time on the boat.
The boat was equipped with aqua toilets which meant that not only did you have to allow water into the toilet, you also had to pump your waste out into the water. The low point for me was the second day when I had to use the toilet for a #2. While I had used the pumping method before, it was extremely different pumping out #1 than it was for #2. After pumping and pumping, with nothing going out, I had to call in Andy to help me. Fortunately for me we had a private bathroom right off of our room and he was able to take care of the situation. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation – many short pumps work better than fewer long pumps.
In the mornings I avoided going in the water all together. The toilets let out into the water and we were anchored – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what could possibly go wrong there.
Minimal airflow in our room
While it was nice to have our own room, the air flow situation for any boat is not great. We had 2 small windows (4” x 10” ish), a hatch in the ceiling which was around 10” x 12” and a very small fan. There was potential for breeze in our room, but with both of us in the room and the door closed it got HOT.
Once you add in the plastic covering on a mattress, a necessary evil when you’re on the water, it got even hotter. Needless to say, there was absolutely no cuddling in our tiny bedroom during the trip. We kept as far away from the other as possible to avoid additional body heat which would make us even hotter.
On top of it all, the pillows that we were given had a slightly musty smell to them. I am sure that is just because they are at sea where is extremely humid and they probably don’t get washed as much as they should. The first night it really bothered me, but by the end, I’m not sure if I was just tired or if all smells started to smell less once I got smellier, but it was fine.
Experiencing storms at sea
I like a good storm just as much as the next person, but when you’re at sea, it’s dark and you’re in a tiny cabin, it can get a little scary. Our second night at sea, there was a pretty good storm. We heard thunder, saw lightening, then heard the rain hitting. Since it was night, we were in our room. We were instructed to close our windows, which as you can imagine made the room excessively hot as there was zero airflow. There were also a few drips from the windows which had imperfect seals.
The thing that made me most nervous was the instructions that our captain was giving the crew. Since I don’t understand Spanish very well, I just assumed the worst based on the urgency of the instructions.
While I didn’t love having a storm when we were on the boat, I’m just happy that the storm was at night. I can’t imagine having to sail through a serious storm or lose an entire day in the islands if it had been raining.
When you imagine islands in the Caribbean, you think of abundant sunshine. While we were certainly happy to have sunshine, after having continual sunshine for 5 days, all you want is some shade.
All you sun worshipers, hear me out. I like sunshine as much as the next person, but think about what you do after you spend the day at the beach – you go back home, take a shower and enjoy your air conditioning. We had lots of sun and the small covering on the boat didn’t allow much shade to go around. This meant that you either sat crammed in the shade, sat below deck where there was not much air circulation or you braved the sun on the deck of the boat.
3 Days in the San Blas Islands
Now to the best part of our sailing trip, spending a few days on beautiful white sand beaches with crystal clear water.
The San Blas Islands are located off the Caribbean coast of Panama and consist of 365 islands, only 49 of which are inhabited. Every day for 3 days, we would go to one or two different islands. As you can imagine, some were better than others but they all had one thing in common – seclusion. Even though there were a number of boats around the islands, there were never enough people to make the beaches seem crowded and if you wanted complete isolation, you just had to walk further down the beach away from others.
The Kuna, San Blas natives, inhabit these islands and rely on tourism dollars to sustain. They sell seafood, drinks and handicrafts. After spending time on the islands, we learned what they really need to sell are hammocks. While everything was beautiful on the islands, there was one thing that was lacking – seating. All we really wanted to do was lay on a hammock strung up between palm trees or at a minimum, a nice beach chair.
Of all of the things during our trip, the trash on the islands bothered me the most. I was in this beautiful, secluded place and there was quite a bit of trash. I’m not sure if it was from people on the islands, visitors on boats or from Panama’s mainland, but it was sad.
Some of the native people were better than others about cleaning up the trash and raking up the seaweed that comes on shore. I always appreciated visiting the clean islands as I knew that everyone probably got the same amount of trash, but they did something to make their island more pristine and welcoming.
2 days at Open Sea
After our 3rd day on the islands we were ready to head to sea. This was the part of the trip that I was most nervous about because I didn’t know how my body would take to being at sea. I had horrors in my head of getting extremely sick and not being able to feel better for a full 48 hours. Before we left Panama City we got enough Dramamine to get us both through a full 5 days. I was lucky enough that I only needed it when we were at open sea.
There was only 1 time on the trip where I felt seasick. It was the first night we were at sea and having dinner. While I took my Dramamine, I didn’t take it early enough for it to kick in before we took up anchor and started to sail. Sadly, it was the night that we had lobster for dinner and I was so bummed out that I wasn’t able to enjoy the seafood but my body physically would not allow me to eat. The good news was that I felt completely fine the rest of the trip.
When you are at open sea, it can get quite boring. While we really enjoyed everyone that we were traveling with, we had already spent 3 solid days together in close quarters, I believe that we all needed some alone time. There was an afternoon where we decided we would just nap. It was a great feeling to be able to nap, something that I am rarely able to do. My body thanked me for that decision as well since some of the sleep I had at night was not great.
Arriving in Cartagena
We arrived in Cartagena at 3am on our 5th day. The boat anchored and we spent the early morning in the harbor before having breakfast a few hours later. After breakfast everyone packed up and we got all of our gear onto the dingy. Once it was dropped off on the shore with 1 person to watch it, we all rode over in the dingy and waited for our passports to get stamped into Colombia.
I think the best part of sailing instead of taking a bus/train/plane was that the captain was in charge of the immigration. It was so nice to not have to deal with customs both leaving Panama and arriving in Colombia.
While it was bittersweet to leave the boat, Andy and I both had a list of things that we wanted to do when we got to Cartagena:
- Take a long, hot shower
- Sleep in a real bed
- Sit and relax in air conditioning
If I were to do it again, I would absolutely sail instead of taking a flight. It was amazing to see the secluded San Blas Islands, something that not many people are able to see and are not yet destroyed by tourism. It also got us outside of our comfort zone, spending 5 days sailing with complete strangers.
While I thought that the trip would be more glamorous than it was, it was completely sufficient for us. When we look back 5 years from now, we won’t remember how terrible it was to not shower, we’ll only remember the beautiful islands. I do think that someone needs to open a luxury sailing trip that does the same route. I know that there is an untapped market which would do really well.