• Sailing the San Blas – Panama to Colombia

    Posted by Loren on February 23, 2011

    The road from Alaska to Argentina is continuous, except for a 160km swath of undeveloped, impassable and dangerous land between Panama and Colombia. There are only two ways to pass it; by boat or by plane. We had organized passage via boat on the 38.5m Stalhratte, or Steel Rat as it is affectionately known. The trip from Puerto Lindo on the Caribbean coast to Cartagena, Colombia via the San Blas Islands would take four days. A break on a sailboat through the Caribbean sounds like a good idea.

    Arriving at the meeting point, we spotted the boat sitting out in the harbour, another boat slightly bigger than a canoe, and other bikes preparing to load into it. No life jackets were supplied to the passengers or the bikes so it was going to be a hairy ride out to the Stahlratte. 4 burly locals effortlessly manhandled the bikes into the small boat and 2 x 2 they were ferried out the waiting yacht. Five minutes of holding my breath gasping only to plead with the crew to be careful, resulted in the bike being hoisted up and onto the deck of the Stahlratte. With ten bikes strapped down and covered up, we were ready to sail.

    The warm weather and near full moon made it a perfect night for sailing. With a full tummy of food, 7 nationalities of 20 travellers settled around the deck enjoying the view and being on the sea. As the wind picked up, and the love died as positions were taken at the railings, and eyes were focussed on the horizon. Consumption of large quantities of spaghetti was being regretted as more than half the passengers though it prudent to feed the fish. Loren sick over the side – 0, Murray – 1.

    Morning dawned to calm seas, settled stomachs and a large German breakfast. A five hour sail found us anchoring 50m off an idyllic Caribbean island, with the requisite dark blue water blending into the white sand, leaning palm trees groaning under the weight of a plethora of coconuts. No sooner had the anchor hit the bottom and we were all diving off into the water before this mirage disappeared. A day and a half of snorkelling, reading, swimming, sleeping, eating BBQ and lobster, jumping off the rope swing, snoozing and lazing around in general, followed. This is what we had been looking forward to for a long time, and it certainly did not disappoint.

    We set sail at 5.30am on Friday morning, and for the next 29 hours, the wind did not let up. Pills were taken, patches were applied, and bodies curled up all around the boat in a attempt to trick the body into thinking we weren’t bouncing our way across the Caribbean Sea. Can we order a helicopter extraction, anyone? Others misery made me quite chipper and made Murray quite sleepy, as I didn’t see him from 4pm until 9am the next day. We both confirmed without any hesitation, that we are motorbike riders, not sailers. The Cartagena harbour was a welcome sight to all, and anticipation of getting back on our bikes was making us giddy. Giddy, that is, until we found out Colombian customs wouldn’t be able to clear our bikes until maybe Monday…. Tuesday….??. Luckily we were planning on staying a few days in Cartagena, and would be catching up with some friends from Australia.

    Our Customs imposed sabbatical was enhanced greatly by good company, good food and a great city. After two months of being away from Australia, it was good to get a good dose of Australian humour from Norman, Elizabeth and Sherri. It was good to be a normal backpacker for a couple days, after which, we were ready to be on our bikes!

    If the loading of the bikes was scary, then unloading was terrifying. A 180kg motorbike balancing in an inflatable zodiac with one side deflated, is truly a test in trusting in the boat crews ability. A very long 5 minute ride and an unconventional lifting of the bike over the deflated wall of the zodiac and onto shore, found our bikes safety on terra firma, no worse for wear, and rust free. A quick visit to customs, and we should be on our way. So we thought. Not so in practice. Arriving at noon , finding another boat of 6 bikes in front of us, and being told customs was on lunch until 2pm, wasn’t boding well for a quick exit from Cartagena. A computers network failure, and an exodus of staff shortly thereafter, brought the realization that not only would there not be a quick exit, there wouldn’t be any at all. We had to park our bikes, along with the other 14 needing to clear, in the customs compound, and come back tomorrow. Tomorrow arrives, and still no power. 4.5 days after arriving and we are still not allowed to ride our bikes in Colombia. This is making Honduras look like a cake walk!

12 Comments | Leave a Reply

  1. Anna B on February 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Stunning scenery, amusing commentary, an unexpected familiar face… Ben and I are really enjoying your blog! Happy trails in South America! :)

    • Murray on March 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks guys, just crossed border into Ecuador today, the scenery is incredible here!!

  2. Mumma Pamma on February 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    That water looks gorgeous…..What an adventure! Beats swimming in the ole Lachlan River anyday……..Photos tell the story very vividly…..Adios..Madra

  3. Jason on February 27, 2011 at 3:02 am

    Wow! Your story is amazing!!!! I met a guy in Panama and he mentioned your website. My wife and I quit our day jobs and are backpacking through Latin America. We just came back from San Blas and had an amazing time. We were going to take a sail boat from Panama to Colombia, but heard that the trip is extremely rough! Your story confirms that our decision to fly was a good one.

    I was wondering how you selected the sailboat that you took? Did you book know about this boat before your trip or just show up at the port in panama and select the best option then? It looks like a really nice boat compared to the other boats that I have seen some other backpackers take.


    • Loren on February 27, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Jason, we had researched it months ago and planned our trip around the sailing times. We originally found it on a motorbike forum, ADV, as it had a very good reputation with other bikers. The boat and crew were exceptional, the only thing they couldn’t control was the swell, but if you are going to do it, you want to do it on a 200+ tonne steel boat. We met up with passengers from another boat who had spray all over their bikes, salt water leaking into their bunks, no air flow, nowhere to sit and no fridge. Sounds like boat people. Ours was positively luxurious in comparison. And we too loved the San Blas.

  4. Jason on February 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Yea, from the picture the boat looks very sturdy, provides plenty of spare room and the deck looks very comfortable with that very nice table and tarp to protect from the sun. The cook out looked amazing as well! Next time we will try to catch this boat for sure!

    Keep on riding brothers!!!!

  5. Ash & Jules on March 3, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Does it get any better than this???? Wow what an amazing looking place and here we were picturing you toughing it out on the bikes eating dust!!!!!
    PS Muz…the beard still looking pretty ‘festy’!

    • Loren on March 4, 2011 at 3:15 am

      We wonder that ourselves most days, about how it can’t get any better, not about how festy Muz’s beard is. I am happy to report it is gone and I no longer have to look at it. The decision to remove was weighed heavily by Carmen’s comment along similar lines to yours.

    • Murray on March 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      Ha ha – yes, have to agree it ‘was’ very unpleasant indeed…. Hence, due to popular requests, it is now a fading memory

  6. Carmen on March 5, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Well, here it says: LEAVE A COMMENT+ (Which one was it exactly that made him change his mind..? Just curious;)

    • Murray on March 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      Hmmm…… I think you know :)

  7. Rodda & Cozza on March 20, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Well that sure looks like a great place to set up camp, why would any one want to leave such a spot? A couple of likely looking Pirates like you blokes should blend in pretty good with a bit more suntan [particularly Loren].
    Good to see Norman’s happy smiling dial.