With the wind blowing through your hair, the waves splashing in your face and the sun shining down on you, crossing the border from Colombia to Panama is an adventure in itself. Most border crossings throughout Central and South America involve taking a bus to the closest border station, getting your exit and entry stamps and then hopping on a bus on the other side to your destination. The Colombia/Panama border is an exception to this rule as there is no official overland crossing. Tourists are not recommended to try and cross the dense jungle of the Darien Gap as it is patrolled by drug cartels and some tourists who have attempted this crossing in the past have disappeared.
So where does this leave you in terms of transport options? The first and easiest choice is to book a flight from any major city in Colombia into Panama City. Most flights are just over an hour and will set you back about around $500 for a one way flight. If you’re short on time or not a fan of the open ocean this is the route for you.
If you’ve got a few more days to spare and a spirit of adventure, for the same cost as a one hour flight you can embark on a five day sailing trip across the ocean and through the enchanted San Blas Islands. Assuming you’re interested in choosing option #2, here’s what you need to know about booking a sailing trip to Panama from Colombia or vice versa:
Booking your Sailing Trip:
All boats depart from Cartagena, Colombia for the traditional five day sailing trip. There are a number of agencies in town all offering the same trip with boats leaving daily. The cost no matter where you go is $550 US per person, payable in cash or with a 10% surcharge if you pay with credit. We booked with Blue Sailing; one of the more popular agencies located right in the backpacker district and had a very positive experience. As the length of the trip can vary by a day or two depending on wind and ocean conditions, be sure you’ve got a few extra days on the Panama side if you are booking connecting flights to another location. Our boat was delayed a day in leaving and a number of people had to cancel because they wouldn’t have been able to make their onward flights.
The agency will arrange your exit stamps out of Colombia and your captain will arrange your entry stamps into Panama once you’ve arrived to the San Blas Islands. You need to hand over your passport 24 hours before your boat departs and you will receive it back upon arrival in Panama. This is standard procedure for all boats and the paperwork is completed without any additional charges.
What to Look for in a Boat:
There are several types of boating vessels that make the crossing from catamarans to sailboats of varying sizes. Each boat can take anywhere from 8-20 passengers and offers a variety of accommodation styles. Be sure to evaluate your room options, private vs. dorm style and lock it in at the time of booking. Also take a look at the common space and lounge options available on the boat. You will be spending five full days on the boat with only small excursions on the last three days to the islands so you want to make sure there is enough space to be comfortable in. The catamaran option we choose had a good size back deck and table for meals, lots of hull space that was suitable for sitting and two rope areas at the front for sun tanning. With only seven passengers on board we each had ample space to hang out without getting in each other’s way.
What to Expect on the Journey:
The first two days crossing from Colombia to Panama you will be at open sea. Pack seasick medication if you don’t have your sea legs to make it through the first 48 hours. Once you arrive to the San Blas Islands the water will be flat and you can get off the boat at any time for a swim or a snorkel. Food is prepared by the first mate and consists of three meals a day with good sized portions. Breakfast was typically toast, cereal and eggs and lunch and dinners were both a hot cooked meal that varied daily. Our captain even treated us to a lunch of fresh lobster caught and prepared by the local Kuna people of the San Blas Islands. What a treat!
There are NO showers on board. That’s right, no showering. Our bathroom was equipped with a nozzle for showering but with limited fresh water on board only limited rinsing is available. We did take an “ocean shower” on day three which consists of jumping in the ocean, lathering yourself up with shampoo, jumping back in the ocean to rinse off and then a quick final rinse with fresh water afterwards to get the salt off. Better than not showering at all, but by the time you reach Panama City you’ll be ready for a very long, hot shower.
The San Blas Islands:
The highlight of the journey. After two choppy days crossing the ocean, you’ll rejoice at the calm, reef protected waters of this archipelago off the coast of Panama. The islands are inhabited by the local Kuna tribes of Panama who live in small thatched huts and make their living off fishing and the beautiful handmade woven textiles they sell to tourists on passing boats. While there may be a possibility of buying a drink or snack on one of the islands it is better to come fully prepared as resources are limited. Swimming and snorkeling around the islands is great with warm, clear waters and lots of tropical fish to be seen.
Overall Girl Gone Gallivanting Review:
Even with a bout of seasickness the first day, the trip itself was amazing and a highlight of our time in Panama. With the cost of a plane ticket the same as the boat crossing it is better value for your money and a heck of a lot more fun. Don’t forget to pack sunscreen, seasick medication, snacks and baby wipes.