Like all of the most memorable experiences on my trip, sailing from Panama to Colombia was simultaneously one of the best and worst things I’ve ever done. One day I would look around to find myself in literal paradise and the next I was suffering a 30-hour journey across the ocean, struggling to keep down food and stay on my feet. Our battle cry was “vale la pena,” which literally means “worth the pain.” And boy was it ever.
I hadn’t even known about the popular option of sailing from one continent to the next until I reached Guatemala. While sitting in Cafe No Se, two Aussies asked me how I was planning to get from Panama to Colombia. I shrugged. According to them (and all other sources I looked into after), there are really only two options for getting to Colombia from Panama: either you fly or you sail. Going by land is pretty much accepted to not be a feasible way to reach the country as you’re forced to traverse through dense, un-policed jungle, lawlessly under the control of drug cartels. I’m all about adventure, but not the kind that is gonna get me shot.
Unbeknownst to me, sailing is actually quite dangerous as well. Somewhere between 15-20 boats sink during the crossing each year, while many more are stalled/marooned for days. Ignorance really is bliss. Luckily, I had done SOME research and heeded the advice that selecting a good boat with a good crew was crucial to enjoying (and surviving) the trip. Because of this, I had my heart set on the Nacar II, which had received some of the best reviews on Trip Advisor. However, Nacar II was setting sail on May 14 – about a week sooner than I was hoping to leave Panama.
In order to make the boat, I blew through Panama, ending up in Panama City for just one awful day. Now, to be fair, Panama City actually seemed pretty cool. Especially the old part of the city where my hostel was located. I had hoped to enjoy the city a bit and see the canal, but it was not to be. Because my debit card had been hacked – and thus cancelled – I spent the day arguing with two women in Spanish at Western Union as I was cashless and solo. As it turns out it was NOT their fault and Krogers of Monticello, Indiana wisely sent my money to Panama City, Florida, forcing me to walk out of Western Union with my money and my tail between my legs. Bright side of the day: two wonderful men from Texas chatted me up and paid for my pity-party gin and tonics at a bar later in the day. God Bless Texas.
After a hot, sleepless night, I was picked up from my hostel in Panama City around 5am and was joined by three others – all of whom would be with me on the boat for the next five days. We then joined forces with another van of four people – mistakenly thinking our group of 8 would be the extent of it. Luckily, this was not the case. In the end, our little group was made up of the following:
- 4 Americans (including yours truly)
- 3 Germans
- 3 Aussies
- 2 Swiss
- 1 Dutchie
- 1 French
In addition, we had our captain, the first mate (Mono) – both of whom were Colombia – and then the cook/hostess – another sexy-talking French woman.
Typically the first three days are meant to be sailing bliss, island hoping through the San Blas. This came eventually, but not the first day. Because of immigration issues/changes, we sailed from a different port, putting us straight into open water for a solid 6-7 hours right off the bat. Within the first three hours, two Americans and the two Swiss had shown us their stomaches (which was a creamy pasta that I’m still confused about why exactly it was the cuisine of choice).
It was a bit of a rough day, but that night we reached the safe, calm waters of the islands where our stomachs (and our attitudes) began to lighten. Waking up in the morning was like a dream. We had arrived in the dark the previous night, but coming out of our beds we found ourselves anchored in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, surrounded by picturesque islands, virtually deserted save for one to two small huts and perfect, fake-looking palms. The palms gave way to white sand so fine it felt like flour. The water was so perfectly clear you’d swear you could touch the bottom – as it was clearly visible – when in fact it was at least 20 feet away.
Our boat – the *Nacar II – was a 50-foot catamaran. We spent the majority of our time towards the front on the deck, which was small, but two netted beds that straddled the hulls made for great hangout/lounging areas. When we weren’t there, we were on the back of the boat in the small dining area. “Dining area” is too generous. There was a table and some wooden benches as well as two beds where people slept at night. But it was home.
We spent the next two days island hoping like yaht-owning millionaires. The days were filled with jumping off the boat, snorkeling among reefs and shipwrecks, fishing, listening to music, and toasting our luck at having found the very epitome of paradise.
At night we feasted on fish caught that day or, on one glorious occasion, fresh-caught lobsters. We were utterly spoiled in the food department, which makes just about everything in life much more bearable.
The morning of the fourth day it was time for the inevitable: crossing open-water for Colombia. This means facing rocky waters with 5-meter high waves for 30 hours with no anchoring, no stopping, no swimming. In short: no relief.
Preparing for open-water was akin to preparing for battle. We readied ourselves with water, sea sickness pills, and small bags of all necessities which we kept outside to eliminate the need to go inside (which is a death-wish). We found comfortable positions where we could lie down, and braced ourselves for the journey.
While no one threw up this time around (a miracle in and of itself), we were like tired, weak, babies – moving around only to use the bathroom and eat some bland food from time to time. The rest of the time we slept… the only talking occurred when we traded secrets at the front of the boat, which was an excellent distraction from our tender tummies.
But come the afternoon of the 18th, we finally caught of glimpse of land and the past day (even the awful, hot, wet night I spent in my bed that was essential a puddle of seawater from the waves that came crashing over me in the front of the boat) was just a memory… a story to tell.
Like most trying experiences, you develop a certain amount of solidarity with your comrades. Such was the case with us. As it turned out we had great chemistry, continuing the party in Cartagena when we eventually arrived, covered in sweat, salt water, sunscreen, and donning some very well-worn clothes. We were a sight to see and land was a sight for our sore eyes.
Once on solid ground (which didn’t stop moving like the ocean for another two full days), we all retreated to our various corners for showers, naps and phone calls to loved ones. Later that evening we met up to collect our passports from the crew (who had kindly handled immigration for us) and to toast our successful voyage. This toast turned into a fairly full night of drinks and dancing in the sweltering streets of colorful Cartagena.
I loved my adventure across the Caribbean, but would I recommend it? Yes… and no. It really would depend who I was talking to. Most wonderful things you do in life require quite a bit of pain to get to (or through), but I guess the question you have to ask yourself is “Is it worth it?” If yes, then buckle down and face those waves, cramped, stinky living quarters, days of no fresh water and hot, stickiness (or whatever your particular “pain” is). Because eventually you’ll get that proverbial drink in your hand while you’re overlooking proverbial paradise and it will all be “vale la pena.”
*NOTE: What happened to Nacar I you ask? It sank. So yeah…