With no road passing through the Darien Gap, land travel between Central and South America is impossible and the only way to pass is to fly or to go by sea. As the route from Colombia to Panama takes boats through the scenic San Blas archipelago, this has become a very popular choice on the Gringo Trail.
Many boats leave from Cartagena where there is no shortage of operators willing to take travellers to the islands but choosing which one to take can be tricky. Horror stories abound of boats operated by drunken Captains leaving the passengers in charge, boats that run out of food before the end of the voyage, and even some passengers who find themselves unwittingly participating in narcotrafficking. The last thing you want is a rum-saturated crew unable to handle the boat if the waves start to rise. Despite its exotic appeal, the Caribbean Sea can be dangerous waters for the small boats that pass through; at the worst times of the year many boat departures are postponed or cancelled. Research quickly showed us that the Stahlratte, a boat operated from Bremen in Germany, is a safe and reliable choice.
The Stahlratte was built in 1903 as a fishing vessel and has seen plenty of action on and around the North Sea before finding a home in the warmer waters of the Caribbean; it has operated on a Greenpeace project in the past and is now owned by a foundation that runs the boat without any commercial interest. The money paid for the trip goes to maintain the boat and to cover costs, not for profit. Ludwig, the Captain, clearly has a strong passion for sailing and his dedicated crew are equally capable.
At 120ft in length, the Stahlratte is the largest of the boats on offer for this trip. It is also one of the only boats that do not overload its capacity. There is no shortage of places to go on the boat for some time alone: the Captain’s table on top deck, the large cabin below, the net suspended from the bow mast, the TV lounge, the Captain’s office, the small private cabin below the Captain’s office, or even the Crow’s Nest—if you are brave enough. When waves reaching almost 15ft rocked the boat violently through the night, we were grateful for the size of our boat and the experience of Ludwig who has had extensive experience on rough seas as a North Sea fisherman.
The Stahlratte does not only cruise this stretch of water, it also takes passengers through Caribbean seas to Cuba or Jamaica so if you wish to cross from Colombia to Panama on the Stahlratte then you will need to research dates. With a reputation such as the Stahlratte has, it books up fast; most people on our cruise had signed up with the Captain a few months in advance.
This post is entirely my own opinion of the Stahlratte based on my experience, I have not been influenced by any promotion, discount or advertising.