It’s 5am and the sun is just starting to rise. I woke up groggy and feeling like I had barely slept, but that meant I survived the first night on the open ocean, even with a pretty strong case of seasickness. This was my first sailing journey. But if I would have known how incredible the experience would be, I would have done it much sooner. So based on my experience, here are six reasons to sail from Panama to Colombia.
1) NO PLANNING NEEDED
One month prior to that moment, on a whim, I decided to trek solo through Central America for six weeks. I started in Belize and ended my journey in Colombia. Important to note, there is no road connecting the southern end of Panama and Colombia. This means that a flight or boat journey are your only options.
It was quite pricey for a ‘backpacking’ trip, but at 500 USD I secured myself a bunk bed on the 42-foot sailboat, including five days of three meals per day. I used a sailing company, but you can also book directly from your hostel in Panama City. In fact, a few people on the journey had only booked the trip a few days prior!
I was then picked up from my Panama City hostel by shuttle bus the morning of our departure. The ride to the small town where the boat was docked was also my first time meeting the nine people with whom I would spend the next five days.
2) SEASICKNESS HAS ITS REWARDS
We set sail around midnight and wouldn’t reach the San Blas islands until late morning the next day. We all sat on the deck during those first few hours, listening to the waves crash and talking about the overwhelming sense of adventure we felt. Around 2 am I tried to get sleep. I don’t usually get seasick. But being stuck in that musty cabin with the constant rocking motion of the night time ocean was a struggle.
I woke up with the sunrise the next morning and went up to the deck. I still felt sick, but then the beauty of this journey became clear. A couple of us sat there with the deep blue open ocean beneath us and wind in the sails, as the biggest pod of dolphins I have ever seen came to join our journey. They played at the bow, they jumped next to the boat, and they made me forget all about the discomforts. Little did I know the following four days would be filled with incredible sights like this.
3) THE GUNA YALA IS A TRUE PARADISE
We made it to the Guna Yala or San Blas Islands where the local tribe still resides. They have a long history of international trade with the clothing they make. Interestingly, each family owns an island, some no bigger than a few palms trees and a hut.
There is a tax to visit the islands, covered by the boat captain, and you have then officially arrived in paradise! If you didn’t know any better, you’d guess that this collection of 365 islands is somewhere in the South Pacific. However, you have gone no further than the Caribbean.
We ate the freshest seafood purchased right from their little fishing boats, saw incredible night skies, and had bonfires on the beach. We swam and snorkelled the clear turquoise waters, and watched a thunderstorm roll in from the top deck. And of course, we drank, laughed, formed friendships, and made memories that still live in the top five experiences I’ve ever had. As an added benefit, it was nice to have a break from the open ocean and seasickness for a few days.
4) LIFE ON THE BOAT IS AMAZING
It may seem daunting to spend five days in a confined space with nine strangers, sharing one little bathroom. And it probably doesn’t help that fresh water is very limited so taking a proper shower isn’t an option. However, it somehow just worked! Instead of showers we started our days by jumping into the ocean to feel refreshed. And as we sailed from one beautiful lagoon to the next, the crew of one captain and one cook turned this little sail boat into our home.
I must also add that I have never had such good food three times a day on any other trip! Maybe it was the lingering sense of seasickness, but starting with fresh breakfast of toast and fruit, followed by lunches of octopus & veggie pasta, and on to dinners of freshly caught lobster was total perfection. The food was amazing and seemed never ending.
If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, not to worry, they even catered to vegetarians! I expected this to be a journey where I’d maybe lose a few pounds between the nausea and canned boat food I pictured. In fact, I left with a slight crush on our cook because the food just kept on surprising! After a few days we had become a little family, the crew included, dancing salsa into the night and forming our own band of misfit drunken pirates.
5) THE CROSSING IS OTHER-WORLDLY
I will never forget the 30 hours we spent crossing the ocean to make our way to Cartagena, Colombia. Although I survived the first night, I gave into Dramamine and drugged myself at this point. These 30 hours of rocking waves got to everyone. At one point I think I even fell asleep on a cooler at the back of the boat right next to the designated throw-up ledge!
This was certainly not a glamorous vacation. Yet, all the hardship, struggles, and discomforts paid off. That night on our crossing, mother nature once again dazzled with all her beauty. We saw the milky way as clear as day from one end of the horizon to the other. We saw Jupiter and Mars. And once you looked down from a glistening diamond sky, the waves crashing from the boat were illuminated with bioluminescent plankton. I have never seen a light show as magnificent as that night.
6) THE HIGHS AND LOWS ARE ALL WORTH IT
I would have sat there for hours on that last night, but eventually the Dramamine made it impossible to stay awake. And at that, of the most magnificent adventures and memorable experiences of my life came to an end.
Late the next day we looked out over the horizon and felt such a sense of relief. I imagine the early explorers could relate to that feeling of finally seeing land! We survived the crossing and were about to part ways. It was beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The immigration is handled by the boat captain so you just need to sit and wait in the harbour until you’re cleared to officially set foot back on land. While this seemed to take ages, in hindsight I should have used this time to prepare myself for land sickness! Because yes, that’s a real thing!
AN OPEN SEA ADVENTURE AWAITS YOU
This journey certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is for anyone who wants to feel the sense of adventure you can only find on the open sea. I encourage everyone to take this trip because not only was it one of the most off the beaten path experiences, but you feel like a proper adventurer. You form life-time friendships with strangers over the course of five days, and you share moments with them that can’t be put into words. You’ll also return to land with the refreshing sense of being completely disconnected, because oh yeah, no cell service for five days is an adventure all its own!
Have you been to any a sailing trip? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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