We last left you in Panama on our way to Colombia. Most of the mainland countries in the Americas are connected by a the Pan-American Highway except for a stretch near the Panama-Colombia border known as the Darien Gap. The gap, which is only about 100 kms long is really dangerous, not only because of the jungle but because of the guerrilla forces that still inhabit this area. To get to Colombia, you have two options; boat or plane. There are a few different tours agencies which offer travel through the islands from day trips to 5 day excursion by either sail boat or speed boat. After hearing stories from other travelers, good and bad, we decided on a 4 day trip by speed boat with San Blas Adventures. Traveling by speed boats would provide more time on the islands and less chances of getting sea sick. With Kik (a.k.a. Wendell from the Simpsons) it was a no brainer. The trip was going to be a huge hit to our budget ($399.00 USD per person, with a few additional costs as well), however we were very excited to get away from the big city.
Day 8 – Boarding the Speed Boats
The day before, San Blas Adventures organized a group meeting. They covered how to prepare our backpacks, highlighting rules, and how to respectfully interact with the native Kuna’s who still inhabit the islands. The guides emphasized that this trip would be an “adventure” and that we were “pirates, not princesses.” Accommodations would be rustic, as in sleeping in hammocks, using drop toilets (literally toilets that ‘drop’ over the sea), and bucket showers. It wasn’t going to be an issue for us as we’re quite used to these conditions when doing back-country camping back home.
The morning of departure you have to get up at 4:00 am to begin the drive out to the docks. Getting up wasn’t pleasant, but even worse was the drive. Our drivers ignored the posted speed limits, racing up winding roads, passing other vehicles in blind-spots, doing all this as if they’re trying to break a personal best record time.
When we finally arrived at the docks and kissed the ground, motion sickness and all, we climbed onto the speed boats which were driven and owned by the Kuna people. The first island we visited was incredible! We had arrived in paradise. The small island was no bigger than half a soccer field with white sand, green palm trees, no evidence of human activity, and surrounded by crystal clear blue water. We spent the afternoon snorkeling around the coral reef, sun bathing, and drinking beers. After we finished eating we headed to a larger island where we would spend the night.
This island was equipped with a beach volleyball court and fire pit. The group consisted of mainly travelers around the age of 24-34, right up our alley. Kik was regarded as a the “game master” among the group. He was ultra competitive at volleyball (of course), tending the fire, teaching everyone how to make s’mores, and explaining a few enjoyable games. You can tell he’s a teacher at heart! At that point, we knew we were in for a few good nights to follow.
Day 9 & 10 – The Party Must Go On!
Over the next two days we ventured off to different islands and visited different Kuna communities. We had great weather and the sun was blaring. One guy forgot to reapply sunscreen and after a day of snorkeling his back looked like a piece of raw meat. We usually spent between 1.5 to 2 hours on the boat per day. One day, our captain spotted some dolphins. He approached the dolphins who weren’t scared by our boat and almost seemed to play along the wake. Luckily Clair had her phone on hand, so she started filming. This was going to be an amazing video! Until she realized she never hit record.
We were held up on one of our days due to a huge storm, it is the rainy season after all. It was clear that safety was priority, so we delayed our departure until the storm had past in afternoon. Looking back on our adventure, we would definitely recommend this tour. The guides were great and the food was primarily made up of fresh seafood. One caveat being that we had great weather, some groups do get 4 days of rain. Also, it wasn’t the windy season which can cause uncomfortable boat rides. We also made an amazing group of friends! We did think that the tour company could’ve done a better job with introducing the Kuna guides and organizing activities involving the Kuna community or the many young children, if they so choose to participate. At times, it felt as though we were peering at them through a camera lens.
Day 11 – Crossing the border
The last part of the tour was crossing into Colombia. The process was really simple and didn’t take too long. Luckily they didn’t have to search our bags, so it was pretty painless. We arrived in a little port town of Carpugana. It was really lively but there are no banks, ATMs, or credit card access (and they are oddly protective of any WiFi access). Also, being Canadian we had to pay a nearly $80 entry fee at the immigration office, so we were flush out of cash. Luckily our lovely Irish friends covered our butts and paid for our boat ticket ($25 CND pp) out of there for the next day. The only way to leave Carpugana is to take a boat to Necocli, there you can board a bus to your next destination – ours was Cartagena. Pro tip: Buy your bus ticket in Necocli as it’s slightly cheaper and you can pay with credit card. Also, be aware that the bank is usually out of money by noon, as we found out. Now we settled into our luxury bus ($35 CND pp) for an 8-9 hour bus ride. Remember to always pack warm clothes on these buses as they CRANK the AC.
At around 9:00 PM we arrived in Cartagena. We jumped in a cab to get to our hostel (Hostel Mamallena) and were told that the city centre was closed as politicians and FARC representatives were meeting regarding the Colombian peace process. As a result, no vehicles were allowed in! We got dropped off on the outskirts of the city and hoofed it in to the hostel. We initially thought that this would overwhelmingly be positive for residents, but have since learned that many locals are opposed to this (as seen by the many Yo voto no – I vote no signs). Here’s a good article explaining the conflict and why some don’t support the peace accords. Colombians will vote in a referendum on Saturday.
Tomorrow morning we are off to Medellin! We will follow up right away on what we thought of Cartagena (Hint – WE LOVED IT.)