You have been travelling around South America and you want to get to Central or North America but the Darien Gap makes land travel impossible. You could fly: the quick and efficient method.
Or you can cruise the warm waters of the Caribbean.
Which sounds more appealing?
There are plenty of boats operating between Colombia and Panama (and vice versa), many of them taking in a few days on the stunning San Blas archipelago. My last post was about the Stahlratte, the longest running, largest and most reputable of them all. This is the boat that we chose to go on.
As the Stahlratte offers other Caribbean cruises, it does not sail the San Blas on a regular monthly basis like many of the other companies, so we were lucky that it happened to be sailing in January when our trip was coming to an end. We had been in email contact with Captain Ludwig before our trip, and when he arranged a get-together a few days before the trip we were impressed by his efficiency.
Feeling confident about our trip we met at a small jetty near the Nautical Club in Cartagena’s harbour: the sky was blue and the sun was out—perfect conditions for sailing. Once on the boat, Ludwig gathered us around the large table on deck to explain rules and guidelines, mainly concerning our safety aboard the 109 year-old vessel.
We were immediately made to feel like part of the crew, including a small kitchen duty one day of our trip.
Once we had departed Cartagena’s busy harbour Ludwig put up the sails, stripped down to a pair of grey pants (underwear for American readers) that he wore solely for the next few days, and put the boat to work whilst the rest of us milled around either on deck, at the captain’s table, or in the net at the front of the boat. With no shortage of space aboard the Stahlratte, and with only 22 people on-board our trip, there was always a lounger or hammock to sprawl in.
Hours into our voyage the waves began to rise to heights of 4 metres, making some people seasick. Our large vessel cut through the waves with astounding speed but we were grateful to be sailing from Colombia to Panama, the most favourable direction. The night brought even more drama as waves began crashing over onto the decks and even through our cabin roof, drenching us in a tidal wave of cold seawater.
Despite our rough night the crew remained in control, ensuring that those of us with no experience at sea never felt that our safety onboard was compromised. Ludwig had wisely imposed a ‘no getting drunk on the first night’ rule on his passengers (the crew never get drunk on a voyage), which was fully appreciated by all after a night on a rough sea.
After almost 30 hours of straight sailing we laid eyes on the first of the San Blas islands and it was as incredible as any tropical island should be, from the white sand to the lush green palm fronds. Before long we were dropping anchor and diving into clear, blue water. The Stahlratte is fully equipped with snorkelling equipment, noodles and has its own rope swing, so we were all ready to have some fun in paradise, and the crew were finally able to relax after their tough night of sailing.
As the sun went down we swam out to an island to enjoy a barbecue and Caribbean rum punch, the Stahlratte had recently returned from Cuba so was still carrying large supplies of Cuban Rum. One thing is for sure, you will never go hungry aboard the Stahlratte, we had more than enough food for every single meal and the crew operates an ‘open kitchen’, if you are hungry outside of mealtimes (I don’t think anybody ever was), then you can help yourself.
The next day we spent moored between a few islands, most of which were in swimming distance of the boat. The day was spent swimming, snorkelling and enjoying paradise.
It was the perfect way for us to leave South America.
When our trip finally came to an end at noon on the fourth day, we felt like we were saying goodbye to family as we had been made to feel so welcome aboard the Stahlratte. I will most definitely be planning another trip with them in the future.
If you are not yet convinced then check out the video:
If you are planning to sail between Colombia and Panama then you should do your research. Many hostels will advertise trips through the San Blas but not all of the companies are reputable.
Know Before You Go:
- Some boats will delay or even cancel departures, have a flexible schedule if possible.
- You are very likely to experience seasickness so take pills before and during your voyage.
- In January many companies do not make the crossing, check for which ones do if that is when you are travelling.
- The direction from Colombia to Panama is more favourable than Panama to Colombia, not only do you travel in the right direction for the winds but you get the long stretch of straight cruising out of the way and end your trip with the San Blas.
- Read reviews for the boat on which you are travelling. Whilst it might sound loads of fun to be on a full-time party boat, do you really want an intoxicated Captain when the sea gets rough? The best boats will party when it’s safe e.g. on the days in the islands but not when sailing.
- The San Blas is the autonomous region of the Kuna Yala. The Kuna impose a hefty fine and possible imprisonment for stealing coconuts. Don’t do it. Remember: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
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.
Give me some comment love by using the comments section down below. Go on! Even if its just to tell me how beautiful the islands are 🙂