From Panama to Colombia, sailing the San Blas Islands

Once we got Vida tucked away safe and sound in a shipping container on Thursday, it was time to get ourselves from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia.  Of course we opted for a sailboat with George being the sailor he is and me being a wannabe sailor who is determined to nip her chronic seasickness in the bud.  Our shipping partner Eric ( worked some magic and managed to get us on the 85 foot (18 meters) Independence sailboat on Friday morning (originally the Independence was set to leave on Thursday).  We would sail through the San Blas islands populated by the native Kuna people.  Incidentally, the Kuna won independence from Panama in 1925 to govern themselves.  They are ranked as some of the happiest people in the world and have managed to find a balance between maintaining their traditional ways and supporting their people through entrepreneurial efforts.

A jeep picked us up at 5:30 am on Friday morning from a hostel in Panama City.  We would drive to Carti, a very small port on the Caribbean Sea and from there take a water taxi out to the Independence.  We had heard the road out to Carti was terrible, but it turned out to be a much shorter ride than we were anticipating.  They didn’t spare us from some carsickness on the windy steep road though.  Soon enough we were off weaving through the river and then out into the open water to hop aboard.  After the anxiety of shipping the car, we were all ready to kick up our feet and relax.

Being a large boat, the Independence had ample room to whittle your hours.  The captain was a character, which seems like a job requirement to be a sailboat captain.  He was originally from Slovenia, and had been sailing for the last 30 years.  He took to the G very quickly as they swapped sailing stories and dirty jokes.  After months in the car with me, G finally had an audience that appreciated his material.  I tried to ignore the captain’s conspiracy theory rants, but was entertained by his sailing stories.  There was talk of a mutiny once on his ship that he forcibly crushed and some funny stories about an all female Swedish crew.  You can use your imaginations.  The food included a lot of fresh seafood and the small crew did their best to prepare vegetarian meals for me. George and I had our own cabin, but really limited our time there.  It was dirty and run down, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see any cockroaches.  I quickly dubbed it the roach motel.  We ended up sleeping on deck every night, which worked out well with the fresh sea breeze.

The next few days we swam, snorkeled, and visited a small number of the Kuna islands.  Many of the tiny islands are occupied by a single Kuna family.  We had the pleasure of enjoying a bonfire on one such island.  Two young sisters played around the edges of our circle, the best of friends and not a care in the world.   It’s not difficult to understand why the Kuna people are so content with life.

On Monday evening, we anchored in front of Cartagena.  In the morning, we would depart on the next leg of our journey. All things considered, our little shipping party had an amazing time touring the San Blas islands and getting introduced to the Kuna people.



A tour of Panama City

As we drove over the Panama Canal, I could sense G’s excitement and anticipation rising.  He’s been talking about the canal for ages.  Before retiring, G’s dad was a chief engineer on several huge tanker ships and consequently crossed through the canal a number of times.

Panama city rolls out the red carpet for you almost immediately.  You catch your first glimpses of the city crossing the canal from the north.  It truly looks metropolitan with a skyline to match.  It was a bit of a shock after traveling south through Central America.

We soon found the way to our chosen camp spot, an area around Bolboa Yacht Club.  It’s famous for overlanders because of the guard, police patrol, safe streets, laundry and showers.  We were the only overlanders on the first night, but didn’t expect that to last very long.  After getting our bearings, we headed out to end of Avenue Amador, enjoying the views and walkway along the water.  Later that night, George made friendly with the local cops.  We had secured bribes in the form of cans of coke, but the bike cops didn’t want any.  They would keep an eye on the truck because they are nice fellas and it’s their job. Sweet.

The following days involved a lot of driving around Panama City, getting ourselves and the truck ready for the journey to Columbia. George was at the helm considering my no city driving policy. Driving around Panama City is like being in traffic purgatory.  You spend a lot of time and get nowhere.  Using your blinker is like a beacon for fellow drivers to speedup and block you in.  The entire city is one big construction project due to a subway line that is set to be complete sometime in the next year or two.  This is the first subway in Central America.  It’s actually pretty remarkable for a country with under 4 million people.

Although there was a lot to prep, we still managed to squeeze in some sight seeing.  On Monday after doing all we could that day for shipping, we went to check out Casco Viejo (old town) which turned out to be a work in progress.  Half the buildings are boarded up and the other half have been turned into hip flats and restaurants.  Surprisingly, there were so many things to indulge in that it was easy to pass over the boarded up buildings.

That evening we spotted 3 Mercedes vans parked near the yacht club (our camp spot): five adventurous friends traveling together, all northwest US and western Canada natives.  I fell in love with their rigs.  G and I immediately started to scheme about buying and outfitting a similar one once we were back in the land of jobs and weekend trips.

We finally met our shipping partners Tuesday evening.  They came over to the camp spot for an introductory drink which of course turned into many introductory drinks.  George and I had the good fortune to pair up with Karen and Eric (, traveling journalists who have been on the road for 6+ years.  It has taken them that long to work their way through North America to Columbia and South America.

On Wednesday, George and I went to the canal locks for our last bit of sightseeing.  There is a theater which shows a brief history of the canal (the conveniently gloss over the less savory parts), a 3-story museum and viewing areas.  The largest boats coming through the locks have literally a foot to spare on the sides.  They are maneuvered by tugs in the water and trains that run along the sides of the locks.  I was impressed by the size of the container ships and tankers.  George quickly informed me that these were small (and unimpressive) compared to the ships his dad worked on.  Too late George.  I was impressed.

Thursday would be spent getting the trucks into a container, and we were set to leave for a sailboat headed for Columbia early Friday morning.



Diving at Isla Coiba, Panama

One of the days at Santa Catalina we went for a diving trip at Isla Coiba.  The marine park is absolutely fantastic and I would highly recommend it if you are into diving.  Enjoy.


Santa Catalina: the end of another road…

We meet lots of people on the road, and everyone has an opinion.  The question in Panama was which coastal town is better, Santa Catalina or Bocas.  We consulted with locals and foreigners alike and decided we shall visit both.  After a quick visit to Bocas, we hopped in Vida for an easy-breezy eight-hour coast-to-coast drive.  If anybody is keeping track, this is +1 for two oceans one day.

The two-minute research we did for camping spots in town told us to drive to ‘the end of the road’ and look for Oasis Surf Camp.  I vaguely remembered reading something about a water crossing but didn’t make much of it.  Turned out to be a small river, which fortunately wasn’t much of a problem for Vida.

We set camp on the beach thanks to some help from our friendly Italian host David. Our initial plan was to spend only two days here, but we liked the place enough to stay 5 days/4 nights.  We did some walks around town, found an awesome bakery and I did some surfing.  It wasn’t Internet surfing for a change… The highlight of our Santa Catalina visit was a scuba/snorkeling trip to the largest and most remote marine reserve in Panama – Isla Coiba.

Coiba National Park is a World Heritage Site.  The island used to be Panama’s Alcatraz until ten years ago.  The prison was known for torture and murder of some of the inmates, so the locals avoided the place.  This helped preserve the park’s amazing marine life and also the island itself.  According to Wikipedia, over 75% of the island is forested where the majority of this is ancient forest.  Let me just tell you, the island is huge and it is far off the coast …  We explored only a tiny smidge of the marine park, and it was fantastic.  We saw tons of really large fish including white tip and bull sharks, large rays, dolphins, turtles, stonefish and a massive schools of barracudas.  The coral was in very good shape as well.

I did three dives and Teresa snorkeled.  Can you believe Teresa saw three bull sharks while snorkeling and did not freak out?! Oh, and she successfully retrieved her snorkel after dropping it off the boat and diving right after to get it … The snorkel was well on his way down to the bottom, some thirty meters below.  That was some impressive stuff T!