We’d heard stories of pristine white beaches dotted with star fish, deserted islands filled with nothing but palm trees and iridescent waters teeming with fish. Sailing from Panama City to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands had been on my bucket list for some time. This is why it should be on yours…
After researching various companies and boats, we booked a place with Blue Sailing to cross from Panama City to Cartagena on a 50 foot catamaran called Santana. On arrival, our Captain and Chef greeted us and we were shown to our sleeping quarters. Don’t expect private cabins and privacy, the accommodation side of things is pretty basic but the communal sleeping arrangements are intimate and mean you make friends quickly. My cousin and I were essentially sharing a bed with a married couple – separated only by a wooden divider!
Food on the other hand far exceed our expectations. On our first night, we feasted on freshly caught lobster, cooked to perfection and served with coconut curried vegetables. There were two vegans onboard and they were equally well catered for. We were fortunate enough to have a keen fisherman onboard and managed to catch huge Dorada and tun which was immediately carved up into fresh sashimi.
Our days were easy to fill and it was left to us to decide what we wanted to do. For me, it was all about exploring the amazing marine life. I put my face beneath the surface and within a minute had found a beautiful 3 foot nurse shark sleeping on the reef. When we were done with snorkelling, we swam to the shore of deserted islands where the only sign of previous visitors was the occasional footprint in the chalk-white sand.
The evenings were spent talking, playing cards, having dinner together and drinking rum beneath the most dazzling canopy of stars. The sunsets at sea are unbelievable too. You’re obviously expected to pitch in with washing up your own pots and keeping the boat tidy but the crew work extremely hard to make you stay onboard as leisurely and comfortable as possible.
I had dreaded the open sea crossing but we got extremely lucky with the weather. The waters were completely flat and even those with the biggest fear of getting sea-sick didn’t need to take tablets. The downside to the lack of wind was that we didn’t really ‘sail’ at all and ended up motoring across not the boat’s engine. Avid sailors would have been disappointed but for those just wanting a flavour of being at open sea, it was still a pretty magical experience – a cargo ship would occasionally pop up on the horizon but apart from that it was just us and the ‘blue desert’ of the ocean.
TOP TIPS if you’re thinking of crossing from Panama to Colombia or vice versa:
- Research your boat and captain carefully. Blue Sailing are a reputable company but there are others. Just ensure you book a sail boat not San Blas Adventures which is actually a speed boat.
- Enquire about which boat is best for you. Some boats are ‘party boats’ and can be overcrowded, others are more chilled out and some boats have bigger deck space than others. If you’re prone to sea sickness, definitely opt for a catamaran.
- Don’t overpack – you really won’t need much as you’ll mostly be in your swim stuff. Something to cover up in the evening with and a warm jumper is pretty much all you need. Our boat had a fridge for alcohol, power for charging your phone and camera and fresh water to take a very quick shower each day. If you don’t take enough beers, you can always buy them from some inhabited islands.
- Pack sea sickness tablets but I really wouldn’t take them unless you know you need to or the weather has taken a turn for the worse.
- Take plenty of sunscreen and a hat – the strong can get super strong.
NB: We did not receive any discount or complimentary place on Santana. Whilst I do occasionally collaborate with tour companies, hotels and hostels in exchange for writing a blog about my experience, this trip was entirely self-funded.