The next chapter of our adventure was sailing from Panama to Colombia aboard a sailboat named the Big Fish. We started our journey at 5am when we were picked up from our hostel. We continued on to grab a few more travelers, and then we were then driven across Panama City to the travel agency’s headquarters to sit and wait for some unknown reason for over an hour. A recurring trend on our travels so far is that we get picked up before sunrise only to sit and wait in a nearby location to actually start the journey. From there we were loaded into 4 wheeling vehicles and set off to Porvenir, the jumping off spot for the San Blas Islands. The road was beautiful but incredibly steep and curvy. All 4 of the people in our vehicle decided to start our sea-sickness medication before we ever saw water.
From Porvenir we joined the other 5 backpackers for a water taxi ride out to the sailboat. Interestingly, we had already met 4 of the 7 people in hostels in Costa Rica and Panama. It made us believe that we were destined to be shipmates and that the travel community have similar methods for choosing their lodging…the cheapest possible. Our group consisted of a diverse international mix including 2 Americans (Lisa and Catherine), 2 Brits (Antonie and Jennifer), 1 French (Melissa), 1 Aussie (Trent), 1 Irish (Sarah), 1 Dutch Belgianer (Oliver), and 1 American Brit (Kevin).
The Big Fish is a 40 foot sailboat, run by 3 crew, Sebastian the boat captain, Jose the boat chef, and Jari the crew member who did just about everything. There were 4 small cabins and 2 small bathrooms within the hull of the boat. We shared a room at the bow of the boat. Our bed was a small triangular mattress that meant we had to choose to sleep with out heads or feet very close. Showering consisted of 1) jump in the ocean 2) lather up on the back deck 3) jump back in the salty water from which you are trying to get clean from 4) climb back up on the deck 5) pump the device that closely resembles a pesticide canister which is full of fresh water 6) spray a fine mist on yourself while rubbing vigorously to dillute the salt as much as possible. Repeat daily until land and abundant fresh water is available, allowing you to actually feel clean again.
The first three days of the trip were spent hopping from in paradise from island to island where each resembles the microsoft background image complete with crystal clear turqoise water and white sand beaches. The islands ranged in size from a San Francisco studio apartment to a Texan Ranch and everything in between. The smaller islands could have a single family and larger islands had up to 50. We were told many of the communities would split time between the island and the mainland. One sad reality was that this idyllic region has started to become littered with trash both floating in the water and along the islands. We spent our days relaxing and getting to know one another on the boat, snorkeling, playing volleyball with locals, and swimming between the closely situated islands.
The San Blas islands have a collection of fantastic snorkeling locations, complete with coral reefs of varying depths. We saw a nurse shark, octopus, vibrant coral, blue spotted rays, lion fish, a shipwreck, swim through caves, and schools of thousands of brightly colored fish.
The last 2 days left the protected confines of the San Blas islands and braved the open water making our way for Cartagena. The sea started out a little bit choppy but the entire trip was calm by sailor standards. We should probably take a second here to point out that the majority of our boat were not sailors, especially Kevin. All of the passengers self medicated with a combination of seasickness and anti-nauseua medication to varying degrees of success.
Kevin unfortunately found that his only refuge from the lateral attacking waves was in his sleeping quarters, where he spent the majority of the trip ¨meditating and fasting¨. He did make a surprise appearance on the top deck to enjoy the pod of 20 dolphins that were surfing in front of the bow of the boat. Lisa had a very different sailing adventure: socializing, reading books, sunbathing, and enjoying the soothing sway of the boat.
Mercifully, we arrived in Cartagena after just 30 hours of sailing. Once within the protected bay of Cartagena the rocking subsided and the passengers enjoyed a last lunch together on the boat before disembarking and exploring a new country.