For anyone who harbors a secret desire to play at being “Pirates of the Caribbean”, a boat trip between Panama and Colombia may be just the ticket.
Travel between Panama and Colombia has always been notoriously tricky. The Pan-American Highway, which runs from the top of Alaska to the southern tip of South America, stops abruptly in Panama, making land travel virtually impossible. The swampy expanse known as the Darien Gap, which joins Central America to South America, is a drug traffickers’ and guerrillas’ paradise that few travellers dare to face.
However, enterprising sailors are increasingly running chartered trips between Panama City and the Colombian port of Cartagena. Sailing between the neighboring countries takes four days, and boats anchor for at least one night in Panama’s picturesque San Blas archipelago. With its crystalline waters, virgin beaches and indigenous Kuna Yala culture, visiting the archipelago is the highlight of the voyage.
The archipelago consists of some 365 islands, many uninhabited, and boat captains often have their own favorite island where they like to take their passengers. Adventurers can swim and snorkel in aquamarine water in total seclusion, while a rainbow of fish nibble at their toes. After working up an appetite, swim ashore and tuck into a plump and juicy, just-caught lobster prepared island-style for a few dollars. Then wash it down with agua de pipa – coconut juice – drunk straight from the shell after being hacked from a palm tree by a machete-wielding local.
Climb back aboard the boat to catch some rays, or wade ashore to explore deserted stretches of glaring white sand freckled with palms. Make friends with local Kuna Yala people, but be aware that they may be camera-shy. Enterprising Kuna kids often charge snap-happy tourists a dollar a photo. Kuna women wear “molas,” elaborately woven tapestries and colorful beads wound around their ankles and wrists. They paddle up to tourist boats in dugout canoes to hawk their traditional garb. Bask in the late afternoon sun and embrace your inner pirate with a rum cocktail as you watch the sun sink into the sea.
The crossing between the archipelago and the Colombian mainland can be pretty rough and rocky, so bringing a supply of sea-sickness pills is definitely advisable.
The trip can be made from Panama to Colombia, or in reverse. Hotels and hostels in both Panama City and Cartagena should be able to advise travellers on boat schedules and trip prices. Boats usually leave when all places are filled, so it’s best to have some flexibility in your travel dates. For a four-day trip prices start at around $350, all inclusive. Be aware that this is the type of trip where you really get what you pay for. A cheap trip will probably skimp on “luxuries’ like food, while pricier trips will probably provide better fare and classier amenities on board.