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When I started my trip in Mexico in March of 2009 I started hearing about the option of sailing from Panamá to Cartagena, Colombia, visiting the beautiful San Blas islands (also known as the Kuna Yala) en route. Sounded good to me! More than a year later I have realized that travel goal aboard a boat called the Sacanagem captained by Brazilian/French Federico Layolle.Before getting on with the trip highlights, let me say that choosing a boat can be a bit of a hassle. Having collected tidbits of advice from fellow travelers and online research, I learned the following are key considerations in the success of a sailing journey:
- The quality of the boat
- The quality of the captain
- The quality of the food
- The weather and conditions
- The fellow travelers
Other things I learned:
- It takes a couple of days (30-48 hours) to sail the unprotected open seas part between Cartagena and Panamá
- Seasickness on the open seas is quite common
- It is generally smoother sailing from Cartagena to Panamá due to winds (UPDATE: well, that’s what I learned from reading, but in fact, Federico explained that sometimes it can be more difficult, so I am not sure how often it is true)
- The smoother conditions are offset somewhat by the fact that when starting from Cartagena you immediately are on the open seas part of the journey and thus are still not acclimated to the boat
- There is a “rough” season (undoubtedly not the proper nautical term) between January and April where winds and waves are significantly worse; some captains and boats will avoid doing the full trip during this time
- The larger the boat the less rough should be the passage – apparently anything less than 9-10 meters (30 feet) is a bad choice
- Apparently there around 17-20 boats doing this trip all year, but in better conditions that can double to about 40 boats
Unfortunately, it appears that there are a LOT of bad experiences, mostly due to bad captains and/or bad boats. There is also remarkably little about individual boats and captains online and, human nature being what it is, a disproportionate amount that is written is negative. Of course, even if you find a great boat you still have to have the good fortune of matching your schedule with that of the boat, not so easy since most only do the crossing one or two times each month.
As for me, a friend I first met in Mexico recommended a boat, sailingkoala.com which seems to be excellent and loved by all who have sailed it. There is even a facebook page full of wonderful comments and testimonials, pictures, etc. Another friend recommend the Golden Eagle. Unfortunately, both of these boats were unavailable when I needed to go so I had to scramble and find an alternative. In this regard, the most common source of information are the handful of popular hostels in Panamá (Luna’s Castle, Mamallena, Wunderbar, Zuly’s) and one in particular in Colombia (Casa Viena).
I worked with Stuart and Will at Mamallena and they emailed me a list of the boats they knew about with upcoming trips. They also included basic comments about the reputation of each. Many were doing the trip for the first time (or at least were previously unknown to Stuart and Will). For me, that was an automatic disqualifier. In the end, I was choosing between Sacanagem and Ave Maria (captained by Australian Paul). I managed to meet some of the other travelers taking the Ave Maria and they seemed like a good group. Plus, the Ave Maria is an old-fashioned type of sail boat which seemed like it would provide a possibly more “authentic” experience so I decided to try that boat. Naturally, Murphy’s Law kicked in and a couple booked the last 2 spots 10 minutes before I made my decision. So, on to the more modern yacht styling of the Sacanagem. (UPDATE: I heard from a couple who took the Ave Maria that the skpper and the experience were great – didn’t hear about the food, though)
Cast of Characters
There were eight of us booked to do the trip, though apparently 12 is the normal number (I think it is still considered low season). The eight were:
- Charmaine and Alexis (Lexi), two lovely girls from Australia’s gold coast now residing in Brisbane. I had the chance to meet these two in the hostel before the trip.
- Nick and Jamie, two very clever and funny chaps from England. They had actually only met a few days before the trip, but everyone treated them as though the were lifelong mates.
- Mike and Holly, a couple from Minnesota. Mike had just quit his job and was taking the trip before beginning his new job. Holly, though incredibly humble, was a former US National women’s soccer team member in the 90’s. She now works in marketing for the Minnesota Wild.
- Diann, a girl from Nova Scotia traveling solo. She apparently overheard Nick and Jamie talking with Federico in Luna’s Castle and decided then to join them.
- The Captain, Federico Layolle, is an interesting guy whose mother is French and father Brazilian, though he has lived many years in Colombia. He grew up in Brazil but had dual passports and served in the French navy for a few years. He has apparently been doing this run for 4 years. One excellent thing about Captain Federico is that he balances well the interactivity with the passengers. That is to say if you want to engage him in conversation he is very amiable and forthcoming, but if you are busy reading or relaxing or the group is off on an excursion together, he keeps his distance. He also seems to know a good deal about the history of the Kuna people. He struck us all as an extremely competent and responsible sailor. He had a couple of drinks with us, but not much more, which I found reassuring since his former “partner” seems to have had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Finally, as I had been told by the folks at Mamallena,
Federico’s boat, the Sacanagem, is a 43 foot ATOLL, made by Dufour in France.
Not all boats depart from the same location. Some leave from Puerto Lindo but many (most?) seem to leave from Carti or Porvenir (San Blas capitol). For the latter, the way you get to your boat is by taking a 4×4 from Panama City to a river which serves as the main entrance to the San Blas. From the river you get on a small boat (basically a motorized wooden canoe) which takes you to your boat. In our case, we met Captain Federico at the river and then all the passengers and he went together to the boat, anchored off the coast of Porvenir.
Once on board Federico gave a basic explanation of how things worked on the boat (including the toilet) and explained there would be no shower for the 5 day journey due to the amount of water it would require. The Sacanagem has four double berths and so he paired off the eight of us and assigned us our berths. The couple and the two larger guys were assigned the two larger berths (larger being a relative term). Lexi and Charmaine shared a berth and Diann and I shared a berth. It really would not have been possible for two to sleep comfortably in the smaller berths, but in the end it doesn’t matter much as most people prefer to sleep on the deck under the sky to enjoy being outside and feeling the cool breeze. With 8 passenger there was plenty of room, but with 12 I believe it would be a bit too crowded and uncomfortable. As for the captain, he has a hammock which he usually uses on the front deck.
The plan for the day was to do immigration (exit stamp) on Porvenir and then visit one of the islands to buy some beer and other things (apparently it is cheapest there at only $0.60 per beer). That didn’t work out so well as it was a Sunday and when Federico went to the island it was lunchtime. He found the immigration guy apparently drunk and was told he would be charged extra to do the processing and so he decided we’d just wait until Monday morning.
The trip to the island was also delayed until Monday as the motorized boat we were going to borrow or rent never showed up. So, we basically stayed on the boat all day, swimming, snorkeling and getting to know each other. This is a description of what happened not a criticism. Nobody really minded the change of plans.
As for food, Federico does the cooking and we take turns doing the dishes. Other captains apparently have the passengers share cooking duty. So far Federico seemed to be a pretty good cook, though food on day 1 was fairly basic. Lunch was a mix of vegetables and meat in a sauce. Dinner was spaghetti with a fairly flavorful homemade sauce. Between lunch and dinner we were treated to fresh popcorn, spiced with something delicious, a secret unshared by Federico (blame his grandmother).
After dinner we all shared some rum and talked quite a bit. We all went to bed around 11.
I woke up quite early, around 5 a.m. and caught a beautiful, slow sunrise. After everyone was up and about, Federico went to the island to see when he could get our passports stamped and then returned to cook us some delicious scrambled eggs. Afterwards he went to take care of the passports. According to Diann, who went with him, the immigration guy was wearing swim trunks and flip-flops and seemed to have forgotten that the previous day Federico had paid him. Or, perhaps he just wanted more money. Anyway, after that we went to Wichubwala, the trip we were supposed to make on day 1. We walked around a bit, but principally we went to buy cheap beer and wine. Then we returned to the boat and were off to a small cluster of two idyllic islands (Chichime) where we finally all jumped off the roof into the water and swam to one of the islands to relax. There were copious amounts of starfish, which were spectacular. There was a tiny island (literally 3 small coconut trees and a bit of sand) and we all decided to swim to it, getting some good and, I believe, much needed exercise.
After this we returned to the boat where Federico had lunch waiting – a sort of pasta salad with ham, tomatoes, ginger, carrots and papaya. As with the breakfast eggs, we also had soda crackers. After some reading and relaxation the group decided to head off to a small shipwreck (more of a boat run aground a reef). Some of us donned flippers and swam and some took the dinghy. Roles reversed for most on the journey back.
Back on the boat Federico made us some maduro (tajadas) for a snack and we all relaxed for a while. We also did some more swimming and diving from the roof of the boat. Dinner was sausage and mini potatoes. Someone from another boat came by and mentioned there would be a fire on the island and that we should all come. But, in the end it started raining, spoiling those plans. Just as well, as all of us were wiped out from the day and ready for some early shuteye (around 10 p.m.) Unfortunately for some, the rain also precluded the ability to sleep on the roof so we had to re-configure some of the sleeping arrangements.
Another early wake-up for sunrise. Federico had told us that the other side of one of the islands was beautiful and worth a visit but we didn’t make it there on day 2 so we decided to do it early on Day 3 before setting sail for yet another set of islands. With that accomplished, we enjoyed a hotcake breakfast and prepared to move on, but before we could get going, an apparently well-known mola artist named Venancia Restrepo came by in his canoe and showed the group his wares. All of us were duly impressed and Mike and Jamie ended up buying something.
Another slight delay before we could get going occurred when a fellow sailor came by with a dinghy for sale. Federico ended up buying it for $500. Not sure if this had been arranged beforehand or if it was a spur-of-the-moment event.
After this, some local fisherman came by with some Pulpo (octopus). The day before Federico had asked them if they had any and they didn’t but today they did so he bought three for dinner.
With all distractions now removed, we set off at around 10 a.m. for a three hour trip to a different set of islands. Most of us used the time to catch up on reading and/or nap.
Upon arriving we had lunch, which consisted of a mixture of apples, cauliflower, onions,tomatoes in some type of sauce. Charmaine proclaimed it her favorite meal thus far.
Lunch finished it was time to get back in the water. Federico pointed out two reefs good for snorkeling and off several of us went, including myself. The first was OK, but small and not special. The second was larger, farther away and much more impressive. I saw a great number of tropical fish and even a reef shark. Lexi saw a turtle and Diann saw a huge lobster. Back at the boat, Federico had to do some regular maintenance (scraping barnacles, I believe).
Early in the day Federico had told us we would have a bonfire in the evening, so at 4 pm we all went to the closest island to gather wood. We had to do it early to avoid the sand flies which are apparently awful around dusk. After getting the wood, we hopped in the newly purchased dingy and set off for one of the islands where we briefly met the families living there, including two really cute kids, Aisley and Roderick (mother Mariela). One woman we met was making mola and one man gave us a demonstration of how to crack open a coconut. Jamie and Holly even got to give it a try.
With fond memories of the popcorn had on Day 1 a request was made for more and once back on the boat we did indeed enjoy it. This time Federico shared the name of the spice with us (guasimax or something like that). He also made a smaller bowl with powdered sugar, which was not a recipe from his grandmother but actually ended up tasting pretty good.
After the popcorn most of us swam some more and all enjoyed some conversation. Federico started to cook up the evening’s meal, being the fresh pulpo bought earlier along with rice. We all decided to bring it to the beach to enjoy with the bonfire, rather than eating on the boat beforehand. Drinking had already begun on the boat and we brought along some more to enjoy with the fire.
I should say that the group enjoyed some drinks together, but no-one drank excessively and it certainly was no booze cruise we ended up taking. Federico did tell us a story of one group he had of eight people who did indeed make it a booze cruise, consuming 600 beers (!) between them in the five day trip. Since then he has become more strict in his alcohol rules, not allowing someone to get too drunk, and not allowing them to venture to the front of the boat if they are drunk.
We left some of our trash by the fire with the idea we would return the next morning for cleanup before getting under way. We all went to bed eventually around 11:30 or midnight. A late night all things considered.
I awoke somewhat later on Day 4 and we all enjoyed a leisurely morning. After breakfast (scrambled eggs with tomatoes and crackers) we helped the captain load up the dinghies and prepare to leave. But first, Federico gave some basic instructions, including a demand to use or discard any drugs (not an issue with our group). He also covered some basic safety information, including the location of life vests and the pleasant statistic that 70% of those who go overboard are never recovered! If someone were to go into the water, a couple should go to the roof and spot said individual and continuously point out their location while the rest throw anything and everything that can float into the water. Other instructions included where we could and couldn’t go on the boat and how to move about with maximum safety. We were also instructed to make Federico aware of any boats that we saw in the event that he did not see them himself. And, with that we set off for the open seas around 10:20 for what is typically 30-48 hours of travel time.
Our open seas journey began with unusually clear seas and we started off making good time, consistently doing about 7 knots. Federico explained some aspects of navigating, the boat, sailing in general, etc. He also explained that he rarely actually sails the route as winds are almost never favorable enough to do a sail only. He also cannot usually use his main sail, but rather only a combination of his front sail and the motor.
During the day, the passengers were faring pretty well on the seasickness front with only some mild symptoms presenting themselves to a few. I believe everyone ate lunch with no problem. By dinner time the same couldn’t be said as a few decided not to eat in order to err on the side of safety.
When dusk arrived, I witnessed the fastest sunset in recent memory. Luckily I caught it just in time.
I guess the combination of heat, motion and prior days activities caught up with everyone as they all went to bed really early, though later I heard some weren’t so much sleeping as relaxing to minimize the effects of the motion. I was actually feeling quite well and not very tired.
I had read that many captains require their passengers to do shifts during the night to watch for other boats. Federico doesn’t do that, but instead sets up a chair and programs the alarm on his mobile phone to go off regularly, thus allowing him to sleep in small increments. Earlier in the day we had all more or less offered to help watch but with everyone asleep that didn’t work out. As I was up and not too tired, I offered to watch for a couple of hours, from 11:30 pm to 1:30 am. I think Lexi and maybe Charmaine ended up watching a bit later while I was asleep.
The night passed uneventfully and I awoke early, despite not sleeping very long. Again I offered to do a watch. Later in the morning as everyone was finally up, Federico made us a delicious, if not a bit unusual, breakfast of ham and egg sandwiches. I believe all but one of us partook.
The morning passed with conversation and reading and then we enjoyed a lunch of seasoned rice with another homemade sauce, some sausage, tomatoes and possibly some other vegetables.
All the time we had been making good time and we calculated arrival around 4 pm. A couple of hours before arriving Federico announced that there were dolphins swimming with us. I had read other accounts of this, but early in the trip Federico had said the fish and dolphins were gone so I didn’t expect them. What a treat.
Finally, around 4 pm we docked in Cartagena. We all packed our gear while Federico readied the boat. He then explained that he would be taking our passports to get stamped and would deliver them to us in the morning wherever we were staying. As he knew we would need money, he brought us to a nearby grocery store and ATM. Mike and Holly were staying in a different hotel and they left in a cab right after getting their cash. The rest of us went to the supermarket and bought supplies to have some drinks and guacamole. After a short cab ride and a failed attempt at getting bed in Casa Viena, we checked into Hotel San Roque for the night. The next morning we got our passports and thus ended our journey.
Final Thought: Alternative to Sailing between Panamá and Colombia
Obviously, if you are just looking for transportation, flying from Panamá to Colombia would be the cheapest, most convenient option. But, San Blas is a destination not to be missed and for those who want that experience, another option exists. Namely, you can visit the San Blas islands and then return to Panama City for a flight. You can either get on a sailboat which only sails the San Blas or you can arrange to stay on one of several islands. This is easily arranged by the hostels and you basically take the same 4×4 described earlier. If you do this, you can just book one night and then decide how long you wish to stay after you arrive (though bring plenty of money as getting to an ATM might be a challenge).
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