By far the most scenic route from Colombia to Panama (or vice versa) is a San Blas tour. They are usually four days of island-hopping in a sailboat/catamaran or a motorboat with nights spent on the islands, and it is a great way to get in some beach time and meet the Kuna people, and indigenous group originally from Colombia hundreds of years ago.
We chose San Blas Adventures, a more commercial endeavor, rather than booking a captain at a hostel or at the docks, because I had heard too many horror stories of picking the wrong captain, and I have very little faith in my captain-picking abilities. SBA seemed more official and had good ratings on Tripadvisor. So we went with them. There were 27 people on the tour (I didn’t realize how commercialized it was until I saw the roster) plus captains and two guides. We began at our meeting point (Capurgana docks) at 6:15 am to get a water taxi to Sapzurro, the next town up the coast. It cost 7,000 pesos a person, and once there we got breakfast (8,000 pesos a person) and hopped in our boats for the four days. All of our bags were wrapped tight in garbage bags and we had split our belongings: one small bag for the trip, the large bag for when we arrive in Carti, Panama.
The border crossing wasn’t terribly unpleasant, but it was unnecessarily long. Puerto Olvidia, the immigration point, was 30 minutes away. We had all “crossed out” of Colombia by visiting the immigration office in Capurgana the day before, so this was just our entrance into Panama. Because this is one of the most common routes the drug traffickers/cartels take for shipping goods to the States, the customs take searching bags very seriously. If caught with anything, you can be thrown in prison for 10 years and there is very little your embassy can or will do about it. So the bag searching took over an hour. And they’re sticklers for paperwork. But in the end we all made it through unscathed.
The boat rides between islands were a little rough at times, but nothing like the disaster we experienced from Turbo. We slept in hammocks mostly, though the second night there were enough beds for everyone. Accomodations are basic throughout: “bucket showers” (and here it really was nice to have a spouse to pour the water on you), squattie-potties half the time, bathrooms without doors, and limited electricity (no outlets or cell service though). But you’re not there for the luxuries of the developed world–you’re there for the sun and the sand and the coral, of which there was plenty. The islands Waginega, Cocovendera and Pelicano were particularly good.
Food was quite good and filling–breakfast was mostly fruit and some oatmeal and things, while lunch on the islands were sandwiches. Dinner was the catch of the day, which usually meant octopus, lobster, or other animals doused in delicious sauce and spread over rice. Jordan and pictured with dinner below (crab). All food (but no drinks, even water) are included on the trip. Drinks were overpriced, being on the islands, but were not as bad as they could have been. A bottle of water ranged between 1 USD to 1.50. A can of coke did as well, while alcohol was a little more expensive. I strongly recommend buying a 5 liter jug of water before the trip (we did it) and mainly drinking that. Even though we bought some drinks and finished off the 5-liter between three people, we were all a little dehydrated by the end of the trip. The sun and salt just do that to you.
The Kuna people, who live on the islands and have a few farms on the mainland, have experienced rapid change in the past 20 years. Five years ago they had no electricity. In fact, it was illegal to cut open coconuts after 7 pm because it was dark and the village leader/shaman was worried people would hurt themselves. Now most families have solar panels, but still no one opens coconuts so late–it has become bad luck. The Kuna have their own language, customs, and clothing, though more and more the young people go to Panama City for college or even study abroad in other countries. They had a lot of strife with the Panamanian government over land and water rights as well as the normal troubles of an small, indigenous group, but those have mostly been worked out now.
San Blas Adventures works very closely with the Kuna people, using them as boat captains, lodging hosts, and restaurant service as well as the obligatory drive from Kuna land all the way to Panama City ($30 per person in a 4×4, about 3 hours one way).
As you can see by the photos, we greatly enjoyed our time. The four days went by quickly (though I hardly slept at all because hammocks are just uncomfortable) and we loved the blue, blue water with all the shades. Snorkeling wasn’t the best we’ve ever done, but it was decent and included in our trip price. On our way to the mainland (the town of Carti) we saw starfish and dolphins, which was a perfect end to the trip.
Once on land we collected our baggage and waited for the 4×4 jeeps. These are pretty much your only option to get out of Kuna land, even though it’s pretty expensive. Our ride back was pretty uneventful, though both Sarah Ann and Jordan got pretty carsick. The road is (mostly) paved, but it rides like a roller coaster for the first hour and a half. There are military checkpoints (again, looking for drugs), but they didn’t bother us. Some days they let people pass without even checking passports, other days they check every pocket in every suitcase. We were lucky, because that can slow groups down by almost two hours. We made it into Panama City by 6:30 pm, which is pretty good timing.
All in all, that was San Blas. More succinct advice follows below.
- Double bag your suitcases, because even though we tied things tightly, garbage bags rip easily and a lot of our clothes got wet
- Choppy water means the bags will bounce and slam on each other. Some friends of ours had their laptop ruined from the jostling
- Bring water and anything else (but nothing in glass bottles! Some people on the tour learned that the hard way) liquid you may want
- Expect very basic accommodations
- Have cash ready to pay for things, like drinks, and the $22 fee to leave Kuna land along with the $30 jeep trip
- Sunscreen and aloe. Bring it