Sailing between the San Blas islands in Panama and the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena in Colombia has become one of the must do sailing journeys of the world. You’ll start your voyage sailing for 3 days amongst Panama’s San Blas islands, some of the most beautiful and undeveloped islands in the world. Hundreds of years ago some of the worlds most notorious pirate sailed the waters of the San Blas islands and they’ve changed little since. You’ll then spend 2 days following their path, sailing from San Blas to Cartagena, one of the most fortified cities in the entire Spanish empire. Cartagena denied entry to these unwanted tourists many times, but things have changed a little in this regard. You’ll feel more than welcome as you’re sailing into Cartagena Harbour and coming in to anchor. You’ll then realise that sailing from Panama to Colombia has been one sailing experience that you’re never going to forget.
Sailing between Panama and Colombia is amazing and well worth the time and expense. It’s a once in a life time sailing adventure to be remembered always. How do you do organise this great sailing trip? Heres a few things to consider:
To many people the most important question is “How much cost will it cost me?”. You may have read or heard you can do these sailing trips for $250-300, but unfortunately that was a few of years ago and prices have increased. Remember that it’s a long way from Panama to Cartagena and costs have gone up. The sailing trips now range between $400 and $525, depending on the yacht and the length of the sailing trip. Of course you may find something cheaper but remember that sometimes you get what you pay for. A voyage that costs below the normal price may be that price for a reason. A group were recently offered a sailing trip from Cartagena to San Blas for $200. They took the offer and within a day regretted it. On there arrival in San Blas the captain fell asleep at the helm and ran the boat against a reef in the middle of the night. they were lucky to escape with their lives. Of course theres always those times when a captain is just looking for some company on the sailing trip, charges way below the norm and everyone has a great trip, but this is rare so take care.
Most of these voyages between Panama and Cartagena are for 5 days, with some being 6. Of this you’ll usually spend 3 days sailing in the San Blas islands and two days at sea sailing to Cartagena. This may change depending on which route your boat takes. The fare includes all meals, a limited amount of water(depends on the boat), departure fees and taxes in San Blas and arrival fees and taxes in Cartagena. The captain of the boat will take care of all immigration requirements as well. Other items such as alcohol, soft drinks you’ll need to supply yourself. It’s often a good idea to buy these in Panama City, shopping in San Blas is limited, although it is possible to buy most things. Just rememebr that there is NO opportunity to get money once you leave Panama City. There are no ATMs nor banks in The San Blas islands. Transport to meet the boat is most often not included either. Don’t forget the sea sick pills, they’re probably not supplied.
MEETING THE BOAT
There are a couple of possible departure points in Panama but the majority of sailboats in Panama are currently leaving from the San Blas islands themselves. It will cost a little more to get to San Blas, but it means that travel time is less and you have more time to actually enjoy sailing the beautiful islands. You’ll need to travel via road to Carti to meet your boat, either in Carti or a little further away in El Porvenir. There are no buses on this route and you’ll need a 4×4 to take you Carti, but this is easily arranged. Departures are at 5-6am each morning from Panama City. It may sound early, but you’ll have more time to lounge on the beach in San Blas.
Travel fees to reach Carti are approx $43. This includes $30 for the jeep to Carti, around $8 in Kuna taxes to be paid along the way and an average of $5 for a small boat to take you to the yacht($10 if departing from El Porvenir). Be aware there are no cash machines in Carti or El Porvenir so all money must be withdrawn in Panama City.
The drop off point at the Carti airport can be very hectic at times, especially during the morning rush, but just be patient as everything works out in the end. Here you will most likely be met by a Kuna boatman who will either take you out to the sailboat anchored just off shore or alternatively take you to El Porvenir on the headland which is about 45 mins away. From the drop off point to the boat if it’s anchored near Carti is around $5, if you need to go to El Porvenir then it’s around $10. Prices can decrease depending on how many people are travelling with you.
You can also fly into El Porvenir. Flights leave each morning from Panama City and cost around $70 plus taxes.
El Porvenir is where you will get your passports stamped, the Captain usually takes care of this and it is very straight forward. Then you’re all set to enjoy the islands and sail to Cartagena!
The other departure points are in Colon and consist of Portobelo and Puerto Lindo, within about 30 mins of each other on the Caribbean coast an hour past Colon City. You can reach these small fishing towns by bus from Panama City at a relatively low cost of around $5. Departure times vary from these points, but will usually either be early in the morning or later at night. In some cases you can travel to meet the boat on the same day, other times you may need to spend one night in Portobelo or Puerto Lindo. Most people traveling to these departure points often have their boats booked in advance. You may turn up in either Portobelo or Puerto lindo and find that wither there is no boat available or there is no boat available that you would feel comfortable spending 5 days on. Remember that Cartagena is a long way away and you have to feel comfortable with who it is you[re sailing. In most cases the best advice is to book a boat either via email or on arrival in Panama City. This means that you’ll have access to all available boats, those leaving from San Blas as well as Portobelo and Puerto lindo. Otherwise you’ll need to head back to Panama City to go to San Blas the next morning.
Just to confuse you, there are actually two routes to get to Cartagena, and one doesn’t actually take you to Cartagena at all. At certain times of the year sea conditions can be rough and sailing to Cartagena is most unpleasant to say the least. As there are still plenty of people who want to sail to Colombia, the route from San Blas to Sapzurro opens up.
The trip along the San Blas coast to Sapzurro or just a little further along the Colombian coast to Capurgana is usually 5 days. The advantage of this sailing route is that you’re sailing along the coast the entire time, meaning that the seas may not be as rough. You’ll also spend more time amongst the islands and no time out at sea. The disadvantage is that you’re still a long way from Cartagena. Another disadvantage is that there are often less travellers who want to travel this route. Most want to go directly to Cartagena so there is not much demand. many boats do not follow this route at other times of the year. Sapzurro and Carpurgana are actually beautiful Colombian resort towns and have a lot of local tourists. It can be worth spending a few days here before travelling on.
To get from Carpurgana to Cartagena or Medellin isn’t difficult, but it will involve more time and more money. You’ll need to take a boat from Carpurgana to Turbo($20 and 2 hours) and from there a bus to either Cartagena or Medellin(8-10 hours and $25). You’re looking at spending another $50-$75 to complete your voyage.
Sailing directly to Cartagena is much simpler. You’ll spend 3 days in the picture postcard San Blas islands, probably around the Cayos Holandais. Don’t expect too much, just lazing on the beach, snorkelling on coral reefs and shipwrecks, beach BBQs and exploring Kuna villages. If this sounds like too much then we’d say forget the trip! If you can drag yourself away then it’s time to leave. Before reaching Cartagena you’ll be sailing for 2 days across open seas. Hopefully the seas aren’t too high, but theres a chance that they will be. Hope you bought the seasick pills!
ON THE BOAT
Once on the boat the Captain will usually stow away your large bags, leaving you with your day pack with all your essentials, it is a good idea to organize your bags before you depart, this will save on time, space and give you all more time to enjoy the islands. The bags are stowed away so that there is more room for people to enjoy the boat. You should then get a brief tour of the boat and safety instruction in case of emergencies. Make sure you’re comfortable with what you’ve been told and feel free to ask any questions. It’s a long way to Cartagena and you need to feel safe for the entire voyage. If, for whatever reason, you do not feel safe then do not feel afraid to leave the boat. If it’s for a legitimate reason then no captain will have a problem refunding your deposit.
Remember that these are usually budget, backpacker sailing trips. There will be a wide variety of people in a confined space, for days on end. On some boats there will often be more people than actual beds. Some passengers will have cabins, others will sleep in the social areas of the yacht. Be prepared for cramped spaces with not much privacy, and remember if the weather is bad you’ll be spending a lot of time with your fellow passengers.
You’re also not going to be getting breakfast in bed and you’ll probably not be waited on. The most likely cocktail barman is you or one of your fellow passengers. Everyone usually helps out with cleaning and cooking duties and some captains may ask you to help out with running repairs or simply keeping watch on the way to Cartagena. No experience is required and the captain will take care of all sailing operations.
Some Captains are happier than others to show you and teach you some sailing skills, just the same as many passengers are happy to sit back and enjoy San Blas. If you’re interested in sailing then ask if you can assist with the operations of the boat. If it’s not your thing then thats probably fine, theres probably other passengers who are happy to give more of a hand. They’ll be the ones who can say that they did the actual sailing from Panama to Colombia!
The actual sailing route through the San Blas islands and where you anchor is totally dependent on the Captains, they all have their favourite spots and Kuna families that they know. They usually take you to the places where they know you’ll have the best time, both with the beaches and the locals. You can expect barbecues on the beach, great snorkelling sites, fishing where possible, interaction with the local indigenous tribes (Kuna), games, parties and more. It all depends on the captain, your fellow passengers and you. But we’re pretty sure that if you go along with the right attitude then you’re going to have a great time.
If you’d like a different experience of the San Blas islands then it’s possible to go to San Blas a few days before departure and spend more time there.
Some times the captain will need extra supplies that can’t be bought in San Blas. They may ask you to do some shopping for them. They will send you a shopping list and ask that you fill it(buy in Panama City before you leave) and take it to the islands with you. Keep the receipt and it will be deducted off the amount you owe the captain, along with the taxi ride to and from the supermarket. If you want to eat well then it’s a good idea to help out.
Take all the money you might need with you from Panama City as there are no cash machines along the way. Remember to take some extra, maybe you will want to buy some Kuna arts and crafts along the way, or stay a few days in Sapzurro or Capurgana. The next cash machines will either be Cartagena or Turbo depending on your route.
Most Captains expect payment when you arrive at the boat, if you are uneasy about anything this is the time to say so. If you have valid safety concerns then do not stay on the boat. The Captain may not be very happy, but in this situation always put yourselves first.
Remember that this isn’t a game. This is sailing and it can, at times, be dangerous. We’ve heard of one person dying in the last few years, and we don’t want you to be the next. Sailing from Panama to Cartagena can be great fun but there are often stories of storms, damaged boats, boats on reefs, people falling overboard and so on. Go out there for fun but remember that you’re in the hand of the mother nature and the captain. Be safe.
Most importantly go to have fun. Thats what you’re there for. Enjoy the San Blas, you’ll never see anything like it again, but be accepting and keep an open mind with your captain and other passengers. On a sail boat with so many people you can expect that there might be that one person you don’t get along with, but if you make the effort to fit in with them then the experience of sailing between San Blas and Cartagena will be so much more enjoyable for everybody. Yourself included!