Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Why take a boat?
We timed our trip to Panama City so we could get on the largest boat regularly doing trips between Panama and Colombia departing on 26th of April. The boat is called The Independence and would spend the first 3 days touring the San Blas Islands before 2 days on open water to arrive in Cartagena, Colombia. Rodora gets sea sick and motion sick fairly easily and wanted the biggest boat to minimise the effects of the open sea.
Most long term travellers in and around Central and South America would be aware the only ways between South America and Central America are:
We did end up rushing the last little bits of Panama to make it in time for this boat, but as it was the start of wet season we decided we probably weren’t missing too much.
Getting to the boat
We were picked up bright and early at 5.30am by a 4WD outside the Mamallena Hostel for our 2 hour trip to the Port town of Port Carti where the boat was waiting for us. This transfer cost us $30 per person, which we had to pay as there is no public transport to the port town.
The journey was quite bumpy for the last section and it was obvious why we needed a 4WD as a regular car wouldn’t have made it. We had to pay a Kuna access fee of $10ea and $3ea for the small boat from port to our big boat docked nearby.
Getting on board
After about 15 minutes through calm waters we got our first sight of the Independence. Rodora was instantly wondering why the boat looked so small and if this is the biggest boat, what do the smaller boat looks like. We waited a while for all the other passengers to arrive on board and sat around introducing ourselves. It was then time to allocate cabins at which point Majo (the captains wife) showed us to our room. At first glance our cabin for three looked tiny. The two of us would be on the top double bed and Adrian (a random other traveller) on the bottom single bunk. When we saw the other options, we were happy with the room we were assigned.
After we were assigned our room, the captain gave us a safety speech. It was at this point, we gathered he was a little crazy but his priority was to make sure you were happy. The thing that most of us remembered in his speech was about how other boats were ruining the reef because they were getting stuck in it. More on that a little later.
Let the trip begin
Then it was time to depart. Rodora was nervous due to the potential for sea sickness. When we departed it started raining heavily. Here we were in paradise and it was pouring rain. We anchored after a few hours near an island and had lunch (most of us starving as we hadn’t eaten breakfast). Lunch consisted of chicken, potatoes and salad which was absolutely delicious and above the standard I was expecting. As budget travellers, our dietary choices are not always delightful or delicious. What was even better is they always asked if we wanted more to eat and they’d put more on your plate.
There were 26 passengers on the boat and 5 crew which was over the quoted online capacity of 24 passengers, but everyone had a place to sleep. It was an awesome mix of people from all over the world with representation from Australia, Germany, Dutch, Canada, US, Swiss and French. It was a mix of ages, couples with singles and even a fairly even split of guys and girls.
Sun and island hopping
After lunch and a swim, we headed off to our next island in a taxi boat. The island was built for tourism with a dock, restaurant, bar, volleyball court and blaring music. The music perhaps wasn’t so necessary in such a picturesque place.
We both swam around in the water and relaxed on the dock while waiting for dinner. Unfortunately, this was a long wait and we didn’t end up eating until 9pm. The rumour was that some of the meal had been burnt or overcooked and had to be started again. It was worth the wait because it was steamed fish (over the bonfire) with sweet rice and beets salad, so delicious.
After dinner we went back to the boat and nearly everyone went straight to bed as it had been such a long day. Our first night in our cabin was so hot. It felt like a sauna and even with a fan pointed on you it was fairly uncomfortable. A lot of the other passengers ended up sleeping outside as they couldn’t stand the heat.
Second day with clear blue skies
The next morning we woke up fairly early to the amazing smelling of breakfast (scrambled eggs, onion, tomato, toast and fruit). This is a lifestyle we could definitely get used to.
We were told we had the morning here to snorkel, swim and do whatever we felt like. When the sun comes out, the water is an amazing bright clear blue colour. Most people were in the water as quickly as possible. We swam to a nearby tiny island for some snorkelling and sunbaking. Some of the others had been told of a ship wreck, so we went for a closer look. It was a fairly modern boat but it had obviously been there for many years and was shallow enough to see clearly while snorkelling.
Shipwrecked on a reef
After lunch we spent a few hours getting to our new island for our overnight stay. This is when we got stuck! Yes we got stuck on the reef (after the Captain made jokes about getting stuck on the reef). We had made it so close to the island we had planned on staying at that we could swim there in about 10 minutes. Initially we didn’t think it was stuck all that badly. The initial impact was fairly soft and we didn’t abruptly stop. The problem seemed to be with the tide going out at the time. The Captain wanted the boat to be lighter so he asked for all of us to jump out and swim to the island. This was a fairly long swim for some who were extremely exhausted after arriving at the island.
After an hour or so we were all getting stir crazy so a few of the boys swam back to the boat and got some rum supplies. In the meantime we turned one of the girls into a mermaid, and then started a sand fight.
Finally after about two hours of various boats assisting to pull our boat free they got lucky and got it to move. We did think for a while we were going to be the famous backpackers stuck on an island, but to be honest it wasn’t a bad place to be stuck. We then had dinner back on the boat, and took a dingy back to our island for a bonfire afterwards. However, the captain didn’t tell us how to get their attention to be picked up again and yet again we were stuck on the same island for more hours then we hoped.
The San Blas islands were absolutely breathtaking and definitely worth going to if you have a chance. You can do day trips from Panama City or other cities on the Caribbean side of Panama, but they can be quite expensive. We wanted to do San Blas and get to Colombia, so this is definitely the best way to do it.
Final day in San Blas – time for Lobster
On our final day before heading into open water we were ready for our long awaited lobster dinner. At breakfast time we saw the local fisherman arrive to deliver their shipment of fresh lobster. With 26 people on the boat and only a couple of vegetarians there was a lot of Lobsters coming on board.
After dinner the captain said to we should probably stop drinking as we were going to go to open water at midnight. I think this was reverse psychology as it was one of the biggest parties we had on the boat. We took it as we need to drink all our alcohol before we head to open water and it turned into a massive dance party on deck.
When we got into open water, the boat started swaying, but when you’re asleep you don’t feel too much. A few that drank way too much were not feeling too well the next day, but Rodora luckily felt fine due to the Dramamine sea sickness tablets. The only side effect of these tablets is it makes you sleepy so it was quite funny for our 30 hours of open water as everyone was heavily sedated and sleeping up on deck. I don’t think I’ve slept so much in my life. Luckily according to the captain it was the calmest it had been in quite a while (the boat still did sway so it’s hard to imagine when it gets bad). The boat arrived into Cartagena early at around 5am a number of hours ahead of schedule due to the calm seas.
In summary the 5 day cruise with the Independence was absolutely amazing as not only do you get to sail through untouched paradise but you also get to experience this with new friends from around the world.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/