Colombia to Panamá via the San Blas Islands

I left Cartagena in a bit of a rush. I had planned to take a sail boat cruise from Cartagena (which lies on the North coast of Colombia) on a tour of the San Blas Islands of Panamá en route to my final destination of Panamá City. However, as I hadn’t seen a cruise leaving to fit my timetable and I didn’t want to risk hanging about in Cartagena for a few days waiting, I decided to do it the DIY way which meant a series of buses, overnight stays in small towns, small boats, and taxis to get to the same destination.

Setting off at mid-day south along the coast from Cartagena it took several hours by bus to reach the small sleepy city of Montería, where I had to stay the night as onward travel was not possible after a certain time. The next day I started very early with the aim of getting to the next town Turbo, which is not an attractive place to stay, in time for an onward boat ride. Again I arrived too late to carry on travelling as there was only one boat a day which left at 8.30am, and again I had to spend a night alone in a pretty dull place. The next day I was finally on the boat and on my way to Capurgana which is the last town before the Panamá border. The boat was really good fun for a while as it was another really bumpy ride over the waves and we were going at quite a speed in a small launch. But soon my bottom was really feeling bruised and it was a relief to pull into the pretty Caribbean port of Capurgana.

Capurgana, which has no roads connected to any other towns and as such is only accessible by boat, is pretty cool with a nice beach and a laid back Caribbean vibe.  My first task was to find out how to get across the border to Panamá as there was no regular boat taxi service between the two countries and from what I’d heard it was just a case of keeping an ear-out for any captains able to offer a ride. Luckily after a quick stroll around the town I was spotted by a group of 2 Swiss guys and an Argentinian girl, who had organised a private charter to take them to one of the San Blas islands (i.e. Panamánian soil) the next day. Although at $80 it was a bit more than I was hoping to pay I felt that as I was slightly pressed for time that it would be a good idea to get across the border so I agreed to join.

I spent what was to be my last day in Colombia doing a bit of snorkelling and reading on the beach in the sun. Having really enjoyed my time in Colombia I was sad to be leaving this great country.

Capurgana beach.  A pretty good place to spend your last day in Colombia, and indeed South America:

The next morning I spent my last Colombian Pesos on what I thought would be some good supplies for the remote islands of San Blas: 4 Hawaiain pastries (ham, cheese and pineapple, yum); but it wasn’t until I met up with the otehrs that I neglected to purchase any bottled water which I was told was sold at a hefty premium by the commmerical conscious indian islanders.  Not a problem, I tohough, I’ll just fill a bottle with the tap water which I have been drinking all around Colombia.  Howver, when I filled the bottle what came out was a opaque yellow liquid.  Not keen on drinking this filth I asked if there was a different tap somewhere, but several locals assured me the ‘water’ was fine to drink and they did it everyday.  So applying absolutely zero common sense I took the water with me…

Once we were all stocked up we boarded what was not much more than a dingy with an outboard motor and set off for the Panamá border where a rigorous search and entry process was awaiting us. Because of the volume of drugs and villains that cross this border from Colombia to Panamá the customs officers insist on you emptying out everything in your bag. Two hours later after a thorough search and lots of red tape we were in Panamá and on our way to the San Blas island of Caledonia.

Arriving at the island was quite a sight. There are 400 San Blas islands but the Kuna Indians have decided to only occupy a handful and cram themselves onto those that are chosen. The Indians huts are built in close proximity to each other (e.g. less than 2m away) and they are built right up to and sometimes overhanging the shore line. We arrived at the island’s hostel which offers hammocks and a traditional Kuna toilet (small shed built on a jetty over the sea). The area we were in was really beautiful: an archipelago of about 10 palm-tree covered islands (ours being the only inhabited one) set in shallow crystal clear water with shorelines of fine white sand. We borrowed one of the traditional canoes from the Indians and set off for the most attractive looking nearby island. I spent the afternoon snorkelling and sunbathing.

Approaching Caledonia:

Arriving at the island:

Caballeros (Gentlemens’) toilet:

Simple but effective:

On the beach:

San Blas nature:


That evening we visited the island’s restaurant and later the guy who was working in the hostel invited us back to the islands only bar which also happened to have the islands only pool table. As it was 9pm on Friday I was a bit surprised when we got there and he had to turn the lights on especially for us. The pool table had seen better days and the white ball looked like someone had been at it with a ice-axe but we still managed to bond over a few games of pool. I was quite shocked when our host turned to me and asked “In England, they have the moon?” realising this wasn’t a joke I responded in the affirmative to which is followed up “And the Sun?”. Just goes to show how isolated the society is. It was really interesting to see how they lived and they made us all really welcome, especially the children who showed quite a bit of intrigue to the strange visitors.

I was hesitant to take any photos of the Indians becasue I had been told it was not a cool thing to do, but I did get this pic of one of the island’s inhabitants, in his waterside quarters:

That night I was attacked by some malicious beastly organism in my stomach which meant three trips to the loo over the sea and me throwing up outside my bedroom door. Having not slept much I was feeling positively atrocious the next day; my stomach was in tatters, I was feeling slightly feverish, I was sandy and salty and the weather was really hot and sticky. I couldn’t even face drinking water which I knew I needed to do. Not the best place to be feeling ill. I wasn’t sure what had caused it but I would wager it was that yellow water I drank in Capurgana which several locals were adamant was safe.  So lesson learned, don’t drink yellow water.

By the afternoon it was a relief to be feeling better and I managed to keep it together as the others navigated the canoe over to another idyllic island where I spent the afternoon snoozing with my ipod on.

The next day we were up at 5am for our onward travel to the Panamá mainland which turned out to be the hairiest of boat trips I had been on. It was supposed to be 3 hours but ended up taking 6 as at the half way point we were hit by a raging storm which meant visibility was minimum and the waves were towering too high for the boat to continue. I must admit to have been slightly worried when the captain cut the engines and decided to sit it out for about 20 minutes – we couldn’t see anything and we were in the middle of the open sea in a fairly small launch, absolutely soaked from the rain lashing down on us.

Luckily it eased up enough for us to set off again and we arrived in Panamá soaked to the bone but safe. After a fairly long wait 13 of us were crammed into a 4 x 4 (7 people would have just about have been comfortable) that drove us the 2 hours to Panamá city where we found a cheap hotel, hung up all our wet clothes and got some well deserved rest after quite an adventure.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. mum
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 18:11:04

    Dom, just read your last three blogs – fantastic. Can’t wait to read your NZ accounts .

    love mum xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


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