Sailing from Panama to Columbia

by Steve Cram

I was lying in my bunk at the front of the boat trying not to vomit or fall out of my bunk (with only varying levels of success is each) as the waves rocked the 50 foot yacht from side to side when the thought occurred to me – what am I doing here? I'm no sailor. I didn't come to Latin America to spend time at sea. I came to eat lots of great food, see some amazing historical and natural landmarks and meet some great people. So how did I get here?

Spending over four months traveling down through Mexico and Central America a common question asked by other travelers was, “how are are crossing the Darien Gap?”

The Darien Gap is the small stretch of land that is virtually impossible to pass through due to dense jungle and – more importantly – very dangerous people.

I'll admit, due to my lack of research before starting this trip, I didn't actually know this was an issue. Sure I knew that some people – including friends of mine – had chosen to do this trip by sea, I just didn't know it was that or having to fly.

After meeting so many people who were traveling in the other direction and had done the sailing trip from Colombia to Panama who almost universally raved about the experience I started to think that maybe this was something I too could get into.

Lying in the cabin that first night nothing felt further from the truth, but once morning arrived and we'd arrived at the San Blas Islands it was clear they were 100% right.

The San Blas Islands – an archipelago of around 370 islands off the coast of Panama – is truly one of the most beautiful things I've been able to experience.

Once I was able to stop focusing on on how awful I felt (I was one of those annoying people that just assumed I wouldn't get seasick. Don't be that guy) I was able to appreciate the trip for what it was – a once in a lifetime chance to sail through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world in a beautiful old sail boat.

Our vessel for the trip, the beautiful Ave Maria housed myself and 10 other guests for the five day journey including several days slowly drifting around a selection of hundreds of uninhabited islands in scenes you would normally only see in a movie.

Any time you're sharing a small space with 12 strangers for several days how well you get along with them will go a long way to deciding how good a time you have. We were fortunate enough to have a great group, many of whom were of a similar age to me, which made me feel – for the first time in months – like I wasn't the old man of the group.

Our captain for the trip, Paul, an Aussie with many years experience at sea made it clear from the start that this trip is not a luxury cruise and had more in common with camping than anything else. While it was true that luxury would not be the way to describe the trip, Paul and his partner Sindry made every attempt to make sure each of their guests were as comfortable as possible, and Sindry's cooking alone made anything I ever ate camping look like gruel.

Paul was forced to use all of his years of experience on the last night of the trip when a strong wind broke the main mast leaving us bobbing around in the sea while for a while he salvaged the situation as best he could. While I was struggling to keep my dinner down, Paul was struggling to save a vessel that is not only his home but his livelihood. 

The mood the following morning as we cruised into Cartagena port was a little somber, with our battered boat slowly making its way to our final destination, and her Captain contemplating what his next move was. 

For every moment of the journey that was less than ideal, however, there were many more that made the trip one of the best things I've done on this year abroad - and perhaps one of the best I've ever done. 

For anyone deciding whether to sail from Panama to Colombia (or the reverse) or to take the slightly cheaper flight, I say you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to take the rare opportunity to see this beautiful part of the world. The Ave Maria will be back in the water before too long and I'd recommend anyone to jump on board with them for the crossing.

Just remember your sea sick pills! 

Steve Cram is an Aussie travel & sport junkie with a round-the-world ticket on his way to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil - and taking the long way. In the last eight years he's travelled to over 30 countries - including living and working in five - been to hundreds of events and met countless amazing people. And the journey continues!

You can see more of Steve's travels on his blog The Long Road to Rio and you can follow him on twitter @nomancram