The sea route from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia is a historic one. It was once two important ports of call for the famous Spanish treasure fleet. However, there was one major difference – they had always sailed from Cartagena to Portobelo because of the prevailing winds though today, we have the power of an engine to cut across. After clearing immigration, which took all day in the sleepy Portobelo village but was completely painless as the ship handled it all for us, we boarded onto the Wildcard, a 60 foot long, steel hulled sailboat that was to be our home for the next five nights. With 18 passengers and 4 crew including Captain John, we were cozy but comfortable with beds tucked in everywhere on the boat. We sailed through the first night and the ocean was not especially rough but it was certainly not smooth and many of us were sick or fell asleep on the deck under the stars, drowsy from Gravol sea-sickness pills.
We woke up in paradise in the San Blas Islands. The San Blas islands is a long archipelago stretching along the southern Caribbean coast of Panama with approximately 378 picture perfect little islands and cays. This is the territory of the Kuna indigenous people who live on some of the islands in dense little villages in stick and straw homes stretching out over the water. The Panamanian government tried to suppress many of the traditional customs of the Kuna during the early 20th century but was resisted with a short but successful revolt in 1925 when they achieve semi-autonomous self-government. They are fiercely proud and protective of their culture. We were very fortunate to visit one of their islands where the local chief was friends with Captain John. He introduced us to his family and explored the little village. We gave out lots of cookies to the children as girls tried to sell us beautiful bead anklets and bracelets and we played soccer with the kids. Dugout canoes would come up our boat selling us fruit and fresh lobsters.
We went island hopping through beautiful little islands, spearfishing and snorkeling on wonderful pristine reefs. All of these islands are formed by coral reefs. As they grow, parts start peaking out of the water and coconuts wash up onto the shore taking root. Consequently, all of the islands are flat and often surrounded with amazing coral reefs and have beautiful stark white sand made from old pulverized coral. The brilliant white sand creates rings of amazing turquoise waters around the islands. My first thought was that these islands are like out of a story. It is easy to imagine creaking wooden pirate ships hiding in the many cays, old tallships navigating the maze of reefs and islands, or someone being marooned on the beautiful but desolate two palm tree island. However, with the long history of this area, I realized that the stories are from these islands! Often, there would be groups of islands and boats would anchor in the middle of a scenic ring of little islands where it was the safest from storms. We would jump off our boat and swim to our choice of islands, which were small enough to walk around in under 5 minutes. One morning, I snorkeled around two islands between breakfast and lunch.
We were fed well on the boat with four meals a day including first and second breakfast. After cooking out of our pannier pantry, it was kind of nice to be pampered. We would lounge the day away on the deck of the boat. There was the magical hatch on the deck that went down to the galley in the boat. Every now and then, food would be passed up to all of us and dirty dishes would magically disappear back down the hatch. We had a delicious lobster dinner one night where we each got a huge lobster plus mash potatoes with a garlic buttery lobster, octopus and crab topping.
After three days in the San Blas Islands, it was about a two day open ocean crossing to Cartagena. The sea was rough as the wind and waves are against us but me and two German friends made the best of it. We blared music on the deck of the sailboat under the full moon, clung onto the the ropes and jumped and danced as waves rocked the boat, sometimes spraying right onto the deck. It was an extremely uncomfortably hot night that night for Bryan and I as we had a front cabin in the boat and our ventilation hatch had to be closed because waves were washing in. However, the next morning, we sailed into beautiful Cartagena with an impressive skyline of skyscrapers.