We entered Panama with pretty much one thing on our mind; shipping our car to Colombia. So we headed directly to Panama City to start figuring out the process. Arriving on a Thursday we sent out a lot of emails and made some calls asking for pricing and departure dates. However by Friday we had only received one response and they didn’t seem to have any answers. We feared we were looking at a long drawn out process, in fact the only helpful thing that got done in our first two days was to meet with a possible shipping partner on Friday evening. Saturday and Sunday everything shut down for the weekend so there was nothing more to for us to do there was no point in hanging around the city. We, us and our shipping partner, decided we would show up at the shipping agency office at 9:00am on Monday whether or not we had finally heard back from the company or not. Okay, we have a plan!
We left the city to meet up with the Australians and go in search of somewhere to camp outside of the city. After two hours of stand still traffic leaving the city on a Friday night in the pouring rain we finally made it to this peninsula about an hour away and found this little dirt road that took us out to a beautiful bay with an abandoned cabana. Jackpot! Or so we thought, until the bugs came out! Typically when the bugs get bad we can hide in our camper, but not from these viscous miniatures. They could fly right through. We somehow made it through the night with fits of sleep and ran from the place in the morning looking like we had just survived an epic case of the chicken pox.
This bird was posing for Jed right near our camp
Lucky for us Caitlin was signed up to do a student teaching gig in Panama for the next two weeks and with the gig came an apartment with two bedrooms! They checked in as early as they could and we spent the day in the cool indoors cooking, playing on the internet, watching movies and showering. Ahhh luxury!
Our luxury beach apartment
Come Monday morning we awoke at 5:30 am to get ready to head towards Colon and meet our shipping partner. Luckily I checked the internet right before we walked out the door and we had an email from our “shipping partner” that he had been talking with another couple and that he felt he had to share the container with them. Damnit, down by one! However he also told us that he had heard back from a shipping agency with a great offer and gave us their contact info. We quickly emailed them and…
I will spare you all the details of arranging our shipping to Panama (as there are plenty out there on the internet). I will tell you that the shipping agency was quick to answer emails, hooked us up with a shipping partner, and always showed up to meet us when they said they would. They made the whole process rather easy. This seems to be contradictory to many other’s accounts.
The lovely Aduana inspection lot
All loaded up and ready to go
It turned out there was a whole group of us shipping our cars at the same time, and yet none of us knew how we were going to get ourselves to Panama, but we all had one common goal… to do it cheaply. We decided that as a group we would have higher bargaining power and more ability to hire a boat right away. So the plan was made that after we loaded our cars on our containers the seven of us (plus one dog) would all hop on a bus to a little port town, Portobello, an hour south of Colon.
Once in Portobello we met up with four more backpackers who were going to be making the journey with us, bringing our group to eleven. They had already spent the day inquiring about sail boats or coconut ships heading to Colombia and had found two potential options.
Old Fort to fight off pirates in Portobello
One was a coconut ship (ie. small cargo ship carrying coconuts) offering $80 per person and taking us directly to Cartagena, Colombia, where we were to meet our cars. The other was a sail boat who offered to take us to the border of Colombia and Panama with a stop at the San Blas Islands for $150 per person including food. From the border we would have to make our own way to Cartagena which meant more boats and buses.
Cristo Negro, Portobello’s main attraction
This was a tough decision so went to discuss our options with the Cristo Negro, located conveniently in Portobello, and asked for his guidance…
Of course, we were all initially leaning towards the coconut ship as it was half the cost. However after discussing it further with the captain we learned that it was going to take this ship 7 to 10 days to reach Cartagena because it had to stop along the way and pick up coconuts. This wouldn’t work for us. It was Friday and our car was going to arrive in Cartagena on Monday and we only had three days to pick it up before we had to start paying storage fees.
The captain of the sailboat came to talk with us about his offer. He laid out the plan of leaving Friday evening and sailing through the night and arriving in the San Blas Islands early morning. We would spend approximately 6 hours in San Blas, snorkeling and exploring the islands and leave to sail again through the night around 4pm. From there we were to sail for 24+ hours straight to where he would drop us at a beach just above the border and there would be another boat that he had called ahead and arranged to take us directly to the borders. Then we could spend the night in the beachside village/border and catch the early morning bus (which only leaves in the morning) to the mainland where we would catch a 6 hour bus to a town, spend the night and then catch another 6hr bus the next morning to Cartagena. This put us in town Tuesday. Perfect timing to get started on the process of retrieving our car which we were told took two days and had to be done by Thursday. It would cost $50 a day for our cars to be at port after that.
This sounded pretty good and it was cheap for sailing to Colombia. We asked a couple more questions of the captain;
“Was there space for eleven people to sleep on the boat?”
“Yes, there are eleven beds”
“Was there enough lifejackets for everyone?”
We negotiated a deal of $130 per person to compensate for having to pay for the other boats and buses and we were ready to set sail come 6pm that evening. I was excited! I had never been sailing before.
Native handcrafts for sale in Portobello
Little did we know we had willingly thrown ourselves in to the making of a bad reality tv show…
Eleven seasoned travelers (four Germans, two Argentineans, two Canadians, two Americans, and an Italian with a Spanish dog) who are used to doing and going wherever they please, whenever they please are stripped of their cars and forced to travel 40 hours by sailboat. But not just any sailboat, a sailboat with a maximum capacity for 6 people, a Brazilian captain who is on his own schedule, and a cabin full of bugs.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! After the sail boat drops them off on an empty beach on the southern end of the Darien Gap with no roads in site, these ‘life on a whim’ travelers must make a series of group decisions in order find their way across the borders and all the way to Cartagena within a day and a half to receive their cars back. Will they make it??
Okay, I may be being a bit dramatic. Maybe.
We set sail around 8pm Friday evening, realizing once I set foot on the boat that there was definitely not room for eleven people to sleep. We all commented on how we would have to take turns with the beds so it wouldn’t become a problem, and then too excited to grab one right away we all took seats on the deck.
I think we made it about an hour out before the rocking sea claimed it’s first victim. The sounds of vomiting only instigated others and choir of gags pursued throughout the night from all various corners of the boat deck. I somehow managed to control myself and Jed and I even made it down to one of the (all) unoccupied beds to try and claim a good night’s sleep.
At this point I am barely holding on to my dinner. My only hope is if I can remain very still. So it wasn’t very helpful that soon after falling asleep we were slowly awoken to the fact that the mattress we were sleeping on was crawling with bugs, and they were biting. I swatted them off, which involved movement, which in turn involved choking back my vomit and lied back down. And so our night continued; pass out, wake up, swat bugs, get nauseous, lie back down, pass out…
Somehow when the sky began to grow light I woke feeling pretty well. My nausea level was down. I had slept some. So I decided that I would go and watch the sun rise over the ocean. But first, I had held my pee long enough and I felt I could now handle going to the bathroom. The bathroom was tiny, foul and rank, not a place you wanted to be for long. Lucky for me, while inside it, the sails caught wind and turned the boat on it’s side, bathroom side down. You have to understand that walking in general on this boat was laborious, but trying to climb from a tiolet, dress yourself, open a latched door and crawl your way out of a foul bathroom and around the door in to the two foot hallway while the boat was rocking on it’s side was more than I could handle. I was done. I spent the final hours of our trip to San Blas Islands curled up in a ball with my head over the edge.
Jed, of course, was fine.
At last….San Blas
We reached the San Blas Islands around 7:30am and we were all anxious to get off the boat for a bit. We dove into the crystal blue waters to swim for the nearest island with the promise to return to the boat in an hour for the breakfast our captain was making us (the one and only meal he would make us).
We swam around and explored the shores. The sand was sun bleached white and just off shore the ocean bottom was littered with the biggest star fish I have ever seen. There were a couple indigenous families still that lived on the islands in little hand built camps under the palm trees. As you looked out over the ocean you could see some of the hundred or so other tiny islands scattered in the distance. It was truly a remarkable place.
swimming to shore
Back on the boat the captain dished out our egg sandwiches and told us that there would be a change in plans. He was too exhausted to continue on that day and needed to rest. Instead of leaving that afternoon we would stay the night, get a good night’s rest and leave a 5am the next morning. This wasn’t optimal as we were on a tight time schedule to reach our cars and a little frustration was expressed, but what could we do really? We were on this man’s boat, anchored offshore of a tiny island, miles off the Panama coast in the Atlantic ocean and he was tired!
Leaving at 5 am made the schedule tight but still possible. We should arrive around 5am the next morning and as long as the borders were open we could cross and still make the 8am boat across the bay. Otherwise we would be potentially stuck there until the following morning putting us a day behind and $50 in debt to the docks Either way there was no point worrying about it then, we were there for the day so we might as well enjoy it.
Everyone was exhausted from the long night and spent most of the day relaxing under the, thankfully, cloud covered sky. Jed and I swam to the island, found a nice little nook under a palm tree and laid down for a nap in the sand. Just about the time we were dozing off a private helicopter decided the open beach right next to us would make a nice landing spot, in turn flinging sand in to every orifice of our body.
Fully awake then, after our mad dash from the sand pellets, we swam back to the boat for some lunch and to see if we could scrounge up some more snorkeling gear. Zee Germans agreed to let us borrow their mask and Jed and I set out with Hawaiian sling/spear in hand in search of some dinner. We only spotted a couple fish worthy of killing, but had no luck at chasing them down. Nevertheless swimming around and hunting with a spear just makes you feel like a badass, and we did find live reef off the northern tip of the island so the snorkeling in itself was amazing. There was even a sunken ship that had crashed into the reef to explore.
Back to the boat just before sunset, we rinsed off and joined the group for a delicious spaghetti dinner nicely prepared by Cecelia, our new Argentinean friend. Jed dug the box of wine out of his backpack, which we realized had half exploded throughout the bag, and we shared with the rest with the group. We all sat around and enjoyed each other’s company, attempting conversations in broken Spanish and English. It was a nice day!
Since we would be sailing out at 5am we all chose to sleep on the boat instead of the island, besides without the dingy our captain had chosen to leave behind it was hard to make it to shore with anything dry. We settled in to various corners of the boat as the captain set out to hang out with some friends and sleep comfortably on their boat. He told us we should be ready at 4:30 to leave.
Jed and I grabbed some pads from the cabin, beat the bugs off them, and laid them out at the nose of the boat where there was just enough room for each of us to fit with our heads together and our bodies down opposite sides of the boat like an upside down V. There were no blankets for us to use, but Jed found one small tarp that he lovingly gave to me to cover up with while he went without. The tarp wasn’t necessary until the wind picked up and it began to spit rain on us. Sure that the cabin space had already been claimed, I invited Jed to try to squeeze in with me under the tarp. And so we attempted more sleep in the remarkably small space for two people, pinned on our sides between the uplifted cabin and the thin rails preventing us from falling in to the ocean. It was one of those moments where it wasn’t that funny at the time but we wish someone had taken a picture.
Waking up at 4:30 wasn’t all that hard, maybe because we weren’t really sleeping anyway, and we went straight to preparing to leave, packing away our bed and securing everything. Ready to go by 5, there was no sign of the captain. 6:00, no sign. Finally at 7:00, Jed swam over to the boat he was sleeping on and told him we were ready to leave. “One more hour” was the gist of what he got from the Spanish flung at him. So we all sat on his sailboat peering over the sea towards the other sailboat where our captain sat seeming to be studying navigational courses or a book on “how to sail for dummies” , who knows?
In about an hour his buddy finally picks him up in a dingy. “Finally!”, we all thought. However this guy only takes him to another boat right next to ours where he sits and has breakfast with some friends. “Well, at least he’s getting closer.”, someone joked. He yells over that we should go ahead and make some breakfast and that we will leave soon. “Hey, good idea! Only we already made breakfast two hours ago.”
When he finally does make it to the boat and gets everything settled, he goes to get the motor running and it doesn’t turn over. Awesome! Some of his buddies come to help and they get eventually get it going. I am told the problem was just with the starter so it will be fine as long as we don’t turn it off. So here is to hoping we don’t stall!
We also learned a few other tidbits at this time. His friends couldn’t believe that he had sailed us into San Blas through the night in the reef filled waters and that he was initially planning to sail us out of there through the worst section again at night without ever having done it before. And so it seemed that the two real reasons for our delayed departure were; There was a issue with the ruder, which he had worked on and hopefully fixed yesterday. And he needed to wait until full light to better navigate the scattered reefs ahead.
These two reasons made a lot more sense to me than “I need to rest”. I repeat…more sense, but not necessarily more secure. But again, on a boat with no other options we settled in to our nooks as the captain set sail. Luckily this go-round would begin with a nice dosing of dramamine!
Even after the sleapiness of the dramamine wore off I continued to try and nap as much as possible. Unable to read, or walk around, or eat, or well really do much of anything at all I decided that sleep was what made the time go by fastest. Plus it was better than sitting out in this..
When night came around, the sky had cleared and with high hopes Jed and I again set up a bed on the deck. Only, as it turns out, stubbornness and high hopes only get you thoroughly soaked in a torrential down pour and an extremely stiff neck from trying to sleep on a pile of backpacks inside the cabin from 2 am on.
Land! Land! Land!
With the storm, we had made good time through the night and the captain dropped us off at a beach at 7am. What beach? I am still not sure, but it was land and I wasn’t asking questions. There was a fishing village and we could hire a boat and make our own way from there. Of course, there was no pre-organized boat, called ahead by the captain, to deliver us to the borders as promised.
It was a bonding experience
A quick goodbye and the captain was off, back to Panama to pick up his next crew of lucky guests.
Luckily the bargaining power of our group of eleven continued to pay off and we were able to hire a boat with in the hour to take us to the Panama border to check out and then on to the Colombia border to check in. We arrived at the Colombia border around 12pm, only a little late for the 8am boat to the mainland we needed. After grabbing lunch, the first thing most of us had ate in over 24 hours, we contemplated our next step.
Jed, a little strung out, at the border town in Colombia
Our options were to stay there for the night, enjoy the cute little town and the beautiful blue waters for the afternoon and catch the boat the next morning. This would be nice but it would probably put us behind schedule for picking up our cars. Or we could try to hire a boat for a little bit more money that afternoon and possibly catch another bus to Monteria, halfway to Cartagena, that evening, which would put us back on schedule for our car pick up.
In typical cheap fashion, we chose the second option. We hopped on another three hour boat ride across the bay, followed by a six hour bus ride to Monteria, dropping us off at the bus station at 10:30pm to find out the next bus to Cartagena would leave at 5:00 am. Caught a cab to a hotel, showered for the first time in days, slept for about 4 hours, caught a cab back to the bus station at 4:30 and took another death defying 7 hour Clombian bus ride to Cartagena.
Whew! We couldn’t believe we actually made it there by Tuesday afternoon after all the changes and set-backs. It wasn’t easy, 40+ hours on a sailboat, 4+ hours on boats, 13 hours on buses, all with only a few hours break, but we did it! We were ready to get our cars. We called the shipping agency to find out what our first step should be only to find out OUR CARS HAD NOT ARRIVED YET!
Retreiving our cars involved a lot of waiting!
At least Cartagena was a sweet city to hang out in and unwind for a couple days while we waited for our cars and did paperwork. And the extremely hot afternoons gave me time to do things like wash the molded wine out of the one backpack and wash the bugs out of the other infested backpack.
A street in Cartagena
Two days later and we were FREE!! We had our home back! We joked that we had treated Yota better than we treated ourselves, giving her a first class ride while we took the cheap seats.
… And she repaid us with the final blown wheel bearing!
The final bearing change!