There is no direct land route from Panama to Colombia. The border between the two countries is characterised by thick jungle and no road has been built through it. In part this is due to the inhospitable terrain, and in part it is due to a lack of political will from the Panamanian government, who feared that a road would cause Colombia´s civil strike to spill over into their own country.
The region is called the Darien Gap and can be hiked with a guide in around 6 days. This is perilous, as the inaccessibility of the area has made it home to bandits, drug dealers, and the Colombian revolutionaries known as FARC who have killed and taken hostages in the area in the past.
So, other than flying, a fairly mundane option, the only other possibility is to sail the three hundred miles or so from the east coat of Panama to the Colombian port of Cartagena. There is no regular ferry service – but many sail boat captains ply this route around the south western corner of the Caribbean Sea, and for a fee are happy to take travellers on board.
The whole trip takes around 5 days, and includes the opportunity to stop off at the San Blas islands, just of the Panamanian coast – which are remote, almost uninhabited, and home to some incredible marine life and reefs. The major risks are storms (which are unpredictable) and pirates (who have been known to raid vessels passing along the route).
I arranged the trip via the accommodation where I was staying in Panama City. I had a couple of days to wait prior to departure, so spent some time around the old town of Panama, as well as watching the tankers pass through the Panama Canal. On the afternoon before setting out, I was surprised to receive a phone message from the captain asking me to pick up 5 gallons of water, some fruit and lots of jam before the trip. He had been unable to arrange last minute supplies where he was moored in Carti, so needed me to collect these from the city.
I was taken, together with several other travellers, to the small town of Carti by 4*4 at 5am the following morning. Around Panama City the road was good, but after half an hour or so as we began climbing into the mountains, this gave way to an unpaved track. At one point we were pulled over at a police check point and asked to produce passports. No problems – just a routine document check.
The morning dawned grey and cloudy. As we were travelling through the mountains, this made for some spectacular scenery, as the lowest clouds drifted and hung around the tree tops in the lush green valleys. We soon came to a river, where the bridge was still a work under construction. So, the jeep turned straight into the water, making the hundred yard crossing with the brown muddy waters splashing up above the wheel arches.
From the top of the mountain range, it was possible to see the Caribbean coast glittering below us, as the last of the clouds began to clear. It took a further 30 minutes to descend the winding road to the water´s edge. There was no town here, merely a small hut serving as a ferry terminal, and a couple of ramshackle wooden jetties splashed by the incoming waves.
The ferry which took us across to the island of Porvenir was a small dugout canoe with an outboard motor attached. The driver, together with all the inhabitants of the San Blas islands, was a member of one of the indigenous tribes of the region – the Kuna. They live only on these islands, and have been granted the right by the Panamanian government to administer them mostly as they wish. As a result, the islands have remained largely undeveloped and untouched by tourist development as the Kunas continue to live their traditional ways of life.
The boat took us to the vessel which was to carry us to Cartagena. It was a 40ft sail boat called The Dawn Treader. This was taken from a novel by CS Lewis, as part of the Narnia Chronicles. I hoped that the name suggested a calm a peaceful voyage, rather than an allegorical battle between the forces of good and evil which was the theme of Lewis´s original work.
We were met by our captain, who was called Tom. He was a tall, blond man from Belgium, who had been sailing for several years. He also introduced us to his girlfriend Kim, who had arrived on the boat from Alabama the week before. He invited us all to relax, take off our shoes and stow all the luggage in the hold.
So, there were seven of us in total on the boat. The other members of the voyage were Jason (a young trainer teacher from Hong Kong), a tall, rather serious German called Norman, and two Americans called John and Adam.
There was not a great deal of cabin space for everyone, but we all managed to find sleeping space somewhere. Tom assured us that this would not be a great problem, since while the boat was anchored around the islands it would be warm enough to sleep on deck under the stars; and that while the boat was sailing, one or other of us would be steering the boat – so there would be plenty of room.
He advised us of the schedule for the trip. The first day would be spent in Porvenir, the second and third days stopping at various islands to snorkel, swim around shipwrecks, and watch for sharks, while the four and fifth days would be on open water crossing the Caribbean, with the intention of arriving in Cartagena on the early morning of the sixth day.
It was only a short distance from the boat to the island of Porvenir, so it was easily possible to swim – just taking care to avoid the reef near to the beach. It was easily possible to walk around the island in fifteen minutes or so – just enjoying the clear blue waters, the white sunbleached sand and the shade of numerous palm trees. The island also had the one airstrip on San Blas, though the state of the runway made it appear as though it had been derelict for years. But flights arrived and left the island everyday for the capital some 45 minutes away.
I also met a Spanish woman there travelling with her husband. She was planning to sail with the boat she was on through the Panama Canal and further up into Central America. She also told me that this boat had been attacked by pirates while only 3 miles away from the harbour in Cartagena. She had not been on board at the time, but had learned it from the captain.
When I mentioned this to Tom, he said that pirates often appeared in the waters around Panama and Colombia – though raids were more common on the route between Venezuela and Trinidad. He added that the pirates usually approached in small dug out canoes, similar to those I am sat in when making the crossing from the mainland. Boats often mistook them for one of the itinerant goods selling boats which appeared at most ports so made the error of allowing them to close to the boat too easily.
He advised that for these reasons we would be sailing well away from land (as the pirates rarely ventured more than a few miles from the shore), travel with minimal lighting at night to avoid detection, and that we should advise him immediately of any other boats seen on the horizon.
I spent the rest of the afternoon either relaxing the hammocks slung between the palm trees on the island, or paddling a kayak between the small islands around Porvenir. These were populated by only a dozen or so people, living in the most makeshift timber and reed houses.
We dined on the island, where I had the chance to find out a little more about the people I was travelling with. Adam and John were both keen walkers – and had hiked a great deal in the States, particularly around Washington, Arizona and Minnesota. They were travelling around Central America together for a few weeks, and had known each other since college time.
They were both relaxed and good natured. Adam had something of a poetic streak in him, and would often comment on the beauty of the stars, the shimmering of the water, or the views of the palm trees across the island. As dusk approached and we sat on the beach drinking beer, he remarked; «This evening is amazing, isn´t it. The only thing I need now to make it perfect, is a nice joint to puff on.»
John reminded him that they had not packed anything to smoke other than cigarettes – so he would need to wait at least five days before he could enjoy one of those.
I welcomed the chance to sleep on deck that night – as it was hot and stuffy inside the boat, while a warm balmy breeze was blowing across the bay where the boat was moored. The carbon fibre was not the most comfortable bedding, but this was more than compensated for by the sight of the night sky swaying side to side around the mast as I lay on my back and drifted to sleep.
There were only a few hours of sailing the next day. First to the site of a shipwreck, and then onto one of the more populated islands known as Isla Elephanta. It was possible to snorkel in the waters around the wreck, which was home to many different varieties of tropical fish – most entirely oblivious to human presence.
The boat was moored off Isla Elephanta, and again the group of us swam the couple of hundred yards or so to land. We were planning on swimming back later that evening, but during our stay there we learned that a woman from one of the other boats berthed there had been attacked and bitten by an unidentified creature during the previous night. This had left her with tooth marks on both arms. There was some discussion as to whether this creature could have been a shark, a barracuda, a crocodile or a caiman. A crocodile seemed most likely – though it was impossible to say for sure.
All meals from now on were cooked for us by Tom and Kim. The food was always excellent, although they continually apologised for the fact that it was pasta. Hospitality on board was excellent, and all travellers were offered frequent cups of coffee, glasses of water, and other refreshment throughout the day. Both seemed to go out of their way to ensure that this was a happy and relaxed group of travellers.
There were only a few hours of sailing the following day as we made our way to Isla Perro. The island seemed to be encircled on all sides by reefs, and it was possible to see the waves breaking across them in all directions.
Again this proved an excellent place to snorkel around the reefs, as there was an abundance of creatures in the waters. There were many many colourful tropical fish, which could be seen just by placing the mask into the water. Highlights included a huge shoal are giant blue shining fish tracking across my path, a mean looking barracuda and four large sting rays slowly and effortlessly flapping their way through the water.
We were also able to explore the small island. Although this seemed to be uninhabited, there was a small lean to constructed on the beach, and a small rowing boat stopped at the island for about half an hour before making its way onward once more.
While not in the water exploring or swimming, we just relaxed on the boat – mostly reading. Adam was reading The Silence of the Lambs, and gave the opinion that there was a great deal to admire and relate to in Hannibal Lecter. No one else seemed to share this view – and we rather concerned that they would be spending the next few days confined in close quarters to someone who appeared sympathetic to cannibalism.
We set out for Cartagena early the next day, hoping to reach Cartagena in around 48 hours time. To ensure swift progress the boat was put under outboard engine power rather than sails, since the wind at this time was not particularly strong.
A rota was drawn up, giving each person 2hrs steering during the day and at night time. My afternoon shift between 5 and 7pm was uneventful but gave me an ideal chance to get used to steering the boat. This had to be done entirely by the compass which was attached to the windlass, since by now there was no land visible in any direction.
Everyone took their turns at this during the day. Kim thought it was highly amusing that we all put on a serious, concentrating «game face» whenever we took the wheel: a focussed gaze, stating into the distance, glancing every so often at the compass to ensure that we were still on course.
I went to bed early since I would need to be awake at 5 the following morning to take my turn at the wheel once more. I was looking forward to this, since I thought it would be very enjoyable to sail into the dawn as the sun came up.
However, when I awoke that morning, the prospect of seeing the sun come up seemed very remote, since the whole sky was covered in cloud – and it was possible to see lightning flashing on the horizon on either side of the boat.
In a short while it began raining hard, and Tom threw me a waterproof top to wear. I rather enjoyed the heavy rain since it was warm, and provided a good chance to freshen up after spending a stuffy night belo decks.
The wind began to pick up too, and the lightning moved nearer and became more persistent. I asked Tom if we were going to steer around the oncoming storm, and he replied that this was not possible. The only option was ride straight through it. I also asked what would happen if the lightning struck the mast – and his only response was to say that I should pray that it didn´t.
With the increased winds, Tom decided that it was time to open the sails to speed our progress. While he busied himself on in the bows unwinding the jib sail and bring the main sail to 3/4 open, I remained at the sterm holding onto the wheel, determined to maintain a steady course in the rising winds and choppy seas.
There was a great deal more resistance in the wheel now when steering the boat, and it required a certain amount of force and determination to fight the uneven bouncing of the waves, which were determined to pitch the boat from one side to the other – often 10 to 15 degrees at a time.
Tom then cut the engine, and I asked him whether this was due to the fact that the sails were now in use, so additional power was not necessary. He replied that the engine had been turned off because the suction pump in the tank was broken, so it was only possible to use half the available petrol. He wanted to save the rest until it was no longer possible to use the sails.
He said that there was about 10 hours of petrol left, and about 24 hours left to reach Cartagena. In response to my question concerning what would happen if the wind stopped blowing, he only stated the fact that there was enough food for 5 days as long as everyone was happy with pasta – but that there might be a problem with toilet paper which would run out in 2 days.
The storm, rain and lightning lasted for about an hour or so, after which the weather calmed quite abruptly, though it was still possible to see intense black clouds on the horizon. Fortunately the wind continued so the boat made swift progress through the water.
Once the shift was ended I returned below decks to doze a little more, although it was daylight by now. Throughout the day everyone seemed exhausted and tired due to the uneven sleeping patterns, and energy levels were generally low once a turn at the wheel had been taken. All except Tom, who seemed to have boundless energy – always beside the man at the wheel, adjusting the sails, or working below to try and repair the damaged engine.
I steered again during the afternoon. The weather was still calm, so most the shift was uneventful. However, we had laid out 2 fishing lines behind the back of the boat, and upon reeling them in we discovered that we a caught a fish. It was a large, shining dark blue tuna fish.
Tom produced a knife from the kitchen, struck the fish over the head with the handle, and began filleting it with the blade. There were soon several large fresh tuna steaks prepared, and we ate these raw, marinated with just a little lime juice. Adam, who was still reading about Hannibal Lecter, seemed to find the fish particularly tasty.
As evening turned to night, a small boat was seen close on the port bow. Everyone moved on deck to look, for there was always the risk of pirates in these waters. When I asked Tom what was happening, he replied only that they were coming to get us. When I laughed, his only reply was; «So you think I´m joking.»
The ship, however, proved harmless and we passed on safely by. Adam was at the helm by now, and I stood with him watching the bright green phosporescence below the waters, splashed up every so often by the waves against the sides of the boat. It looked almost like fireflies, hovering just above the surface.
By now, the dull lights of Cartagena could be seen on the horizon, although the city was still about 50 nautical miles or so away. The lights of another boat were again seen in the distance, and almost immediately these were extinguished making the craft entirely invisible.
Again a sharp watch was maintained for some time to try and sight the boat, again wondering if its intentions might be hostile – but it was never encountered again.
After several hours of work, the engine seemed to running smoothly again, and the boat hastened throughout the night to the port of Cartagena. Although not quite as bad as the night before, John still looked wet and weather beaten as he came in from his turn at the helm early in the morning.
But by 7am, we were nearing the harbour at Cartagena, weather, engine troubles and enemy craft successfully negotiated. The journey had been extraordinary and tiring – but certainly an incredible way to arrive back in South America and land in Colombia.