WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
If you decide to take a boat from Panama to Colombia (or even vice-versa) you’ll have 2-3 days island hopping in the beautiful San Blas islands of Panama, exploring postcard picture perfect islands, snorkelling some of the clearest waters you'll see on earth, sunbathing on the deck of your yacht, eating fresh seafood by night, and experiencing the traditional lifestyle of the Kuna Islanders. Then there's the 30-50 hour journey across the ocean to Cartagena. This can be a love or hate situation for people, who either relish the idea of playing Jack Sparrow, after the rush from their Caribbean island hopping adventure, or just want to it to be over with after the first rocky nights sleep, suffering from seasickness, over sun-exposure and exhaustion.
Most boats go from Panama to Cartagena, but some captains also offer a trip to the Panama/Colombia border which is a 4-5 day trip where you’ll sail through the entire group of islands and finish in the Colombian town of Sapzurro, avoiding the dreaded 2 day open ocean crossing. From there you’ll take a lancha to Carpurgana, a speedboat to Turbo and then buses to Cartagena, Medellin or wherever you’re going. Most prices for this sailing experience are between $450 and $500pp. It’ll then take another day or so and $85pp to reach your destination. The area around Carpurgana is beautiful and known as a secluded Colombian beach resort town. There are very reasonably priced hotels and budget hostels there and transport to Turbo leaves at 7.30am each morning for $25 each and takes 2hrs. This trip actually looked good, but we don't know anyone who took it, probably due to the presumed hassle at the end?!
The actual sailing route through the San Blas islands and where you anchor is totally dependent on the Captains, as they all have their favourite spots and Kuna families that they know. Expect great snorkelling sites, beautiful beaches and meeting local indigeneous tribes. NB. Our friends reported that some islands had issues with trash.
Some trips are also very party-led. Everyone on our boat was aged between 25 - 35. On our first night, our boat polished off every last bottle of rum everyone had brought we them. The second night was the obligatory 'getting know each other' and card games. Then it just turned soar and awkward between everyone when the boat broke down and pleasantries went out the window. However, our friends were on a boat which was much more relaxed and mellow and had an older crowd. They enjoyed it all the same (probably because they didn't have the drama onboard like ours).
We booked through Mamallena hostel. See their site for boat reviews and departure dates. Email to make a reservation (firstname.lastname@example.org). You need to be booking a few weeks before to secure a place, and depending on the high season (December to January) and boat, that maybe up to a month. Everyone on our boat booked less than a week to go, including ourselves. Many people cancelled, despite their $50usd pp deposit, so it's worth checking back if you are after a particular boat.
Prices currently range from $395 to $600 pp, depending on the boat size, quality and the Captain. Please know that a cheaper boat does not mean a lower standard of trip, it just means a captain with lower operating costs. We paid $575 pp with the Maly boat and captain Jules and it was not worth the money, especially considering what other people got for their money, who paid less. The quality of the boats varies - we got a yacht, but our friends were on a Catamaran (the Anapa, which they highly recommend). Despite our experience, we would still recommend the trip, as flight prices are often around $400pp, plus hostels and food costs for 5 days, so if you do the maths, it would probably make the latter option more costly. Research your boat beforehand here.
WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?
The price of the trip includes all meals (it should be breakfast, lunch and dinner), water departure fees and taxes. Food quality and quantity varies boat to boat, and even day to day. For the first 3 days, we had lobster dinners, apertizers, huge breakfast platters, plenty of snacks, then by day 4 it had swindled to only 2 very basic meals a day, no variety and poor quality, and small portions. Not good. We therefore would NOT recommend anyone to go with our boat (Maly) or our Captain (Jules). Our friends had 5 days of fairly consistent meals (nothing lavish, but nothing vile either), so it completely depends on the luck of the draw with the boat, captain and first mate.
All boats accommodate Vegetarians, Kosher, etc, but you will have to let the Captain or booking agent (eg Mamallena hostel) know before you get on, so they can get supplies in Panama City.
For drinks, water, coffee and tea is included, but you'll have to bring your own alcohol (most people brought rum and beers with them) and carbonated drinks. Everyone on our boat didn't bring enough to last 5 days, so it's worth considering how much you actually need. We were rationing coke by day 3. There should be a cooler box onboard to keep drinks cool (but not cold). You're lucky if you get ice. Take a small water bottle to refill on-board or you will probably find drinking hard when it gets bumpy.
We brought a few snacks with us, but the first 3 days it was not needed, as our potions were big. However, on days 4-6 (we had an extra day as our boat broken down) it was definitely needed. Everyone was starving.
The captain of the boat will take care of all immigration requirements and these costs are included in the price.
Snorkeling gear is included in every trip, but the quality will vary from captain to captain and quantity will also vary, often one between two people. We brought our own with us and would advise others to do the same, so they aren't waiting around or on a time limit to explore that shipwreck quickly. We can't advise where to purchase a snorkelling set, but they cost about $15usd in Panama. We heard from fellow passengers that they were over-priced and hard to find in Panama City though.
Fishing gear is also included but expect this to be just a line and lure being pulled by the boat as you are sailing.
What the trip does NOT include is the transport costs to reach the boat. There are a couple of departure points but the majority of sailboats in Panama are currently leaving from the San Blas islands themselves. We departed from El Porvenir, which required a 4WD 2 hour journey for $30usd pp, again organised by Mamallena Hostel. We know others who departed from Portobelo and Puerto Lindo and they decided to take buses and taxis (it worked out cheaper, but more hassle). It's about 1.5 hours from Colon City (or 3 hours from Panama City). If you pay direct with Mamamllena, keep hold of the receipt, to prove to the driver you paid.
You will also have to pay the national park entry of $15usd pp and some entrance fee (not entirely sure what that was for) of $2usd pp.
FURTHER MONEY ADVICE:
There is no opportunity to get money once you leave Panama City, or Cartagena, if you're coming from Columbia. As you'd expect, there are also no ATMs on the islands and the ports, so make sure you have enough to carry you through to the other side. We estimate about $100usd pp will cover you until you get to a bank or Bureau de Change. Not every boat goes to the main ports of Cartagena or Turbo, so additional money will probably be needed. Some (seemingly cheaper at first) boat trips camp on the islands and small fees are required here too. Remember to take small dollar bills. Like everyone else on our boat, we just spent money stocking up the beer cooler (which wasn't much, as we brought alcohol with us). We only ended up spending $5usd each in the end, but needed the money for a hostel when we got into the port on the otherside.
Payment for the trip is made in cash only and collected by the Captain once you are on-board. It is advisable to start withdrawing money from ATMs a few days before so that there are no last minute worries, as some banks set withdrawal limits lower than what you need for the trip. Ours (Natwest bank) is capped at $400usd a day for example.
Captains will collect payment and passports when you arrive at the boat, and you will not see your passport again until your hostel in Cartagena. Don ́t worry as this is normal procedure. You should also get a brief tour of the boat and safety instruction in case of emergencies, but we never got one.
Some people have cabins and some people slept in the saloon of the yacht on sofas. I'd recommend clarifying this with the booking agent, so if you know you are in the saloon you can ask for a discount. You'll probably get around $25pp off the original price.
A couple of boats offer daily showers but for most trips the only chance of having some sort of wash is in the sea.
Once on-board, the Captain will stow away your large bags, leaving you with your day pack and all the essentials you will need for the trip. It is better to organise your bags before you depart as this will save on time. You'll likely just need board shorts/bikini, some type of music device, camera, books, sea sickness tablets, sunscreen (a high factor), a couple of t-shirts for the evening.
Inside the boat can get incredibly hot, with no air-con and lack of fans, so expect to be spending a lot of time on deck.
As these are backpacker trips, there's no being waited on and you may have to help out with cleaning and cooking duties, but we didn't have to on our boat.
All boats state that they are anti-drugs, but you'll find most captains smoke pot. It's up to you if you want to risk it, but nobody checks your bags leaving Panama, or when you get into Columbia. You literally get on a boat at one side and get off it at the other. Remember that the Captain takes your passport and gets it stamped, etc and you get it back from Mamallena hostel at the other side, so there's no immigration to pass through. Strange system, I know.
And finally, we really hope you have an epic time sailing through some of the most untouched islands in the Caribbean at a snip of the price those cruises usually offer. The first 3 days for us, was one of the highlights of our Central America leg. Explore, experience, enjoy people.
Email: email@example.com to make a reservation.