The crossing. Sailing from Panama to Colombia.
Sailing trip from Panama to Colombia on the Gitana III.
My sunburnt arm pressed into the wooden deck of the Gitana III. My head, propped up with a balled up, wet, pink elephant-print sarong I’d purchased in Thailand. My eyes were closed and I breathed in and out with the waves. It was uncomfortable to say the least, but I was just trying to block out the nausea that this boat sailing from Panama to Colombia was causing me.
The sun was setting on my fourth day of what was meant to be a five day sailing trip: we had officially hit open water that afternoon. For the first few hours I did doing nothing but sit, staring at the horizon. “Everything is going to be OK,” I kept telling myself, “you’ll make it.” Sure, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle drinking. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle reading (I can’t even read in a car without feeling like I’m going to barf all over). But I’d been taking a Dramamine every four hours since the trip began, so I hoped that I would at least be able to enjoy…something. Even if all I had to look forward to for the next two days of sailing from Panama to Colombia was an eternal staring contest with the horizon.
Everyone I’d met who had taken the 5-day boat crossing between Panama and Colombia raved about it. “It was one of the highlights of my trip,” every one of them said. And so, while I was nervous because of my intense tendency towards motion-sickness, I wanted to book a trip. I wanted to sail from Panama to Colombia. Sure I could have flown for cheaper than the trip’s $550 price tag, but I thought it might be worth it. Besides, $550 included the transportation, a few days in the San Blas Islands, food, a bed. Really, it added up.
When I was inquiring about the trip at my hostel, the tour agent introduced me to Guillen, the first mate of the Gitana III, which was leaving the following Monday. I had wanted to leave earlier: Thursday, maybe, Saturday at the latest. But all the earlier boats had filled up fast and I was running out of options if I wanted to go.
Guillen showed me some photos of the boat, the trip, the islands. The boat was beautiful, Guillen seemed friendly, the reviews seemed fine, so I decided what the hell, and booked myself on board.
Five days later, on the first morning, everything started off on the wrong foot. Guillen woke me up by pounding on the door to my dorm room and telling me that everyone was waiting for me. I looked at my clock: 4:37, we weren’t meant to leave until 5:30. “It’s only 4:30,” I said. “No, it’s 5:30.” “Shit, I’ll be right down.” Sometime over the course of the day before my phone had decided to reset the time to Guatemala. Probably after I noticed that for the first time in months I was able to pick up a wi-fi signal with it. Luckily I had packed my bag the night before but I didn’t get in that one last shower. I didn’t get in that one last check of Facebook. But they didn’t leave without me. And that is all that matters.
But, from there, the day went downhill. Our first stop was a grocery store to pick up alcohol, snacks, whatever we thought we needed. I bought a bottle of rum, some Doritos, some peanut M&Ms, some extra cough drops. That took all of ten minutes.
But Guillen needed to pick up supplies for the boat: groceries and toilet paper and the like. I’m not sure why, exactly, most of this wasn’t taken care of already, but we sat in the parking lot for two hours as he did his shopping.
Finally we left in our jeep, and finally we arrived at the port and finally we made it to Porvenir, our first island in the San Blas Islands, around 1pm. It was a tiny island, the perimeter walkable in all of twenty minutes, and the sewage line went straight from the outhouse to the water. Not exactly a nice place to swim. Not exactly a happening place. We were meant to stop there to go through immigration, but the immigration officer wasn’t there. And he wouldn’t return until 10am the next day. So not only would we be stuck there for the entire day, we’d have to return the next day to get our passports stamped out of Panama.
Did I mention I’m not a beach person? I mean, I like beaches, I guess. But they kind of bore me. I don’t mind when there’s a restaurant I can sit at or bars with fire twirlers and the like. But just sand and sun? I’m not really into it. I like my shade.
I was already thinking that maybe this whole idea was a mistake. I mean, three days of boring beaches followed by two days trapped on a boat. What the hell was I thinking? But, there was no turning back.
At the end of the day we returned to the boat. And it was a nice boat. The deck of the 65 feet sailing boat was large, wrought with original wood and brass features. There were beds for all 10 of the guests: welcome because I’d heard many stories of passengers on other boats who had to sleep on the common area floor. Looking around at others nearby I could tell that we were lucky: I wondered where everyone would go on them.
That night we had dinner of pasta with meat sauce. No tomato sauce mind you, just some meat. It wasn’t awful, but not amazing. One of the other guests said earlier in the day, as we were waiting at the grocery store, that many of the reviews of the boat mentioned that the food wasn’t good. It was only then that I recalled that the first day I met Guillen, as he was showing me photos on Facebook, that he had never actually answered me when I asked if the food was good.
After dinner we all sat around the deck. I still had the cough that had been plaguing me since Bocas del Toro, and didn’t trust myself plus alcohol on a boat that night, so while I decided to take the night off, most of the others decided to play a drinking game.
There was another boat anchored across the water that was definitely a party boat. It was blasting loud music, they kept taking their dinghy out for crazy spins around the water. Quite honestly I didn’t want to be on a party boat. I specifically was looking for one that didn’t have that vibe. I just wanted to relax. Of course, everyone else on my boat seemed to want it to be a party boat. One Australian girl complained, a lot, that it wasn’t. And complained when some of us weren’t drinking. And got upset when the drinking game fizzled out (after, of course, she spilled someone’s drink all over the cards). And mentioned multiple times that she wished she was on that other boat.
At some point, after the game stopped, after everyone was too tired or too drunk, I went to bed. It wasn’t a bad little bed, though the room got incredibly hot so it was a bit hard to fall asleep, but eventually I did.
But then, I was woken up when one of the boys shined his flashlight in my eye and shook me awake. I was shocked, scared, thought that maybe something was wrong, thought that maybe I would have to evacuate the ship. “What’s wrong?” I said.
But he said nothing in return, and just sat down at the head of my bed. I shook him and he sat there, saying nothing, doing nothing. I tried to push him away. Nothing. I didn’t really know what to do, so I just laid back down, closed my eyes and tried to return to sleep.
But then he laid down. In my bed. With me in it. On a teeny tiny mattress that was barely big enough for one person in a hot little room.
I shook him, I poked him. I yelled “Hey, what are you doing? Get out?” And nothing. Nothing. He wouldn’t wake up. I couldn’t get him out of my bed.
Eventually I gave up, got out and went to sleep in the dining area. And I cried. A little. Dejected. Annoyed. Mad at myself for not just booking the flight. It was the last straw of an awful day and there was no escaping it: I had four days left. I had no where to escape.
The next morning, in the light, I finally figured out which one of the guys had accosted my bed. It was one of the 19 year old English boys who had been drinking heavily and, after telling everyone the story, I found out he had also tried to enter another room that wasn’t his through the window in the ceiling.
When he finally staggered awake and asked me “was that your bed I fell asleep in?” he apologized, and I said it was OK as long as it didn’t happen again. I just wanted my bed.
After breakfast we went back over to the island to go through immigration. It was about 10am, when we were told the man would be back, but, of course, he wasn’t there. And he wouldn’t be back until 2:30. And that meant that our entire first two days would be spent on this crappy little island with nothing to do that we couldn’t even swim in.
We returned to the boat for lunch.
It’s here that I’ll say what I need to say about the other passengers on the boat. They were lovely people, all of them. There were ten of us in all. Besides me there was an American guy, an Australian girl, a younger Australian couple, two 19 year old English boys, A young English girl, and a couple of girls from Canada. And they were all fine. But I really didn’t mesh with any of them.
I’ll be the first to admit that I just don’t vibe with everyone. I have a strange personality and tend to be reserved right off the bat except in certain circumstances. Sometimes I meet someone and everything just clicks, but sometimes, just no. And I have nothing to say, and they have nothing to say to me. Like any time I tried to say something jokingly I was just met with weird stares or completely being ignored. And I know people sometimes think I’m standoffish when they meet me (I know this because I’ve been told this), but really, I’m not. I just am quiet, introverted. I like to observe. I am who I am. It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that I really can’t think of anything to say to you.
So, really, while I made some idle chitchat throughout the trip, I didn’t really connect with anyone else on the boat, and I mostly kept to myself.
After lunch we returned to the island and, finally, the immigration officer was there. So Guillen took our passports and returned them stamped out. Despite the fact that we weren’t leaving Panama quite yet.
Having gone through immigration, we were finally able to leave that little island and made our way to the next one. The beach there was bigger, cleaner. Some of the boys tried and failed to catch lobster. I drank a coconut.
We barbecued chicken on the beach and ate after 10pm, joking that the crew from Barcelona was trying to get us on the Spanish eating schedule. (It’s true: every night from then on we ate lunch late in the afternoon and dinner around 10pm).
The chicken that night was delicious and served with mashed potatoes and bread (though I knew the mashed potatoes had just come from a box and the bread was simply slices of Bimbo tossed on the grill). I started to think that maybe the food wouldn’t be that bad.
It was dark when we returned to the boat and everyone was tired. I retreated to my bed and fell asleep, this time un-accosted.
The next day we set off for our third island.
The morning was spent on one part of it: a secluded little spot with the absolute clearest water I’ve ever seen, and the afternoon, after a delicious lunch of fresh fish with rice and pineapple, on the other side, watching the sun set and visiting the indigenous village. Although, really, that just meant a couple of huts and a couple of women trying to sell us some ridiculously overpriced souvenirs. We all agreed that we kind of thought there would be more. More of a village, more of a tour, more beaches. More. Something.
That night we ate hot chicken soup that tasted like Campbell’s and was too hot for the heat of the cabin. But I was hungry and ate two bowls full. I spent some of the night on the deck, it was chilly up there, but beautiful.
Since the immigration process had taken so long, we were told that we’d stay an extra day on the islands. But, really, that just meant that we didn’t start sailing until after breakfast on the fourth day. Apparently we were meant to set sail in the afternoon the day before. But we didn’t get to go to a beach or anything again before we left.
And so, on the fourth afternoon, just before 1pm, we officially set sail. I spent the first few hours just sitting, staring at the horizon. I was feeling OK. Nearly everyone else was passed out on the deck but I wanted to reserve the sleeping option for when I was starting to feel queazy. Because I knew that I would start to feel queazy.
After a few hours, while I wasn’t feeling awful, I started feeling something in my stomach, in my head, in my body, and decided to lay down. The deck was hard and I had nothing more with me than my wet sarong to hold up my head. But I just needed to lay there.
Sitting was OK on the boat. Laying down was OK on the boat. But when I stood up I was tossed around, had to cling to anything I could cling to. It felt like an extreme form of drunkenness where I couldn’t keep my balance and gravity didn’t really exist and I banged my body into everything not it’s way.
At one point I decided to go lie in my bed and had to crawl down the deck to get inside.
And once inside everything got worse. My body flung from left to right and there was nothing I could do about it. As I passed the kitchen I saw Guillen cooking hot dogs. And my body, in that state, could not take eating a hot dog. So I fell into my bed. Held onto the sideboard. Closed my eyes. And slept through dinner.
Sleeping was surprisingly easy. But forcing myself out of bed that next morning was hard.
When I woke up I knew I needed to take a pill. Even though I knew that once your already nauseous those motion sickness pills are useless. But my water bottle and my pills were in my backpack. And it was on the floor. And I knew that trying to get to my bag was going to be an exercise in falling the hell all over the place. So I held tight. Finally, though, I mustered the courage to sit up and grab my bag. But as soon as the pill hit my throat I knew it wasn’t going to stay down.
I jumped up, staggered to the bathroom, flew open the door, desperately flushed down the pee that was left in there (really, boys, really?) and threw up.
We had the entire day ahead of us on open water. And I couldn’t imagine anything getting better. I eventually tumbled to the couch in the dining area, because it was ever so much cooler than my bedroom and ever so closer to the bathroom.
But I needed fresh air. And so I stumbled up the stairs and sat on the floor, burying my head in my lap. And I sat there until breakfast. And for breakfast we were served Bimbo bread with unidentified white cheese and meat slices. I took a slice of cheese between bread, took one bite, threw up in my mouth, ran to the bathroom but when I opened the door there was a naked man inside (the lock wasn’t working), ran to my bedroom, threw up into a plastic bag that then leaked all over me, finally heard the door to the bathroom open, ran in, threw up, and ate the rest of my sandwich over the toilet.
I didn’t want to eat it. It was disgusting. But I needed food inside of me.
I returned to my position outside and didn’t move again until lunch where I had a few bites of pasta salad before needing to get out of the dining area and back into fresh air.
And then I spent the entire day either sitting with my head in my lap, staring at the horizon, or sleeping on the wood floor.
But I didn’t throw up again.
Having that much time on your hands though gives you a lot of time to think, to daydream. Which is nice sometimes, but sometimes not so nice.
I spent most of my hours thinking about my upcoming trip to London. What would happen, how it would go. And it was probably bad because I just wanted to skip Colombia and home and Ireland and the rest of England and get there. And I probably was building up everything way too much in my head to the point that reality will never match up.
The worst thing was I just kept thinking that there was no where to escape. There was not one thing I could do to get out of this situation minus abandoning ship to get lost at sea.
And, people, I actually contemplated that as an option.
I somehow slept through dinner. Or they didn’t serve dinner. One or the other. But eventually it was 11pm and I had literally done nothing for the day but bury my head and daydream and so I decided to trudge to my room and try to fall asleep in bed. It was almost over. The next day we would finally arrive in Colombia.
I’m not quite sure of the events that happened that night. I tried to keep my eyes closed, hold onto my bed. Because if I tried to sit up I would have thrown up all over the place.
But I can tell you that there was a storm. A bad storm.
And I woke up to water dripping on my arm from the window above. And it felt like we hit something. And it felt like we were all going to drown. And someone said the next day that there was a tornado.
But I tried to sleep through it all. Or at least, lay down with my eyes closed because I couldn’t deal with any of that shit. So I can’t really say much of what happened except that water was dripping on me and the boat was rocking so heavily all through the night.
The next morning, I awoke and could stand up without being thrown against the wall. And, when I left the cabin, could see land ahead.
After more than five days of travel, we finally had arrived.
When we got close enough to anchor everyone gathered their belongings and we were boated to shore, followed by our luggage and the copious amounts of un-drunk alcohol. (Everyone had bought a lot but after the first night no one really drank).
I was just excited to be on dry land.
Guillen took our passports to take to immigration and all of us left for a hostel, desperate for our first shower in six days. (And, let me tell you, it was the greatest shower I’ve ever taken.)
It was odd that we could just show up in a country without going through immigration (my passport wasn’t even stamped until the next day). But I suppose it was also odd that I could stamp out of Panama two days before I left while in my bathing suit.
So was the five, neigh six day sailing trip between Panama and Colombia a highlight of my trip? The best thing I’ve ever done? No. Not even close. But, I suppose I’m happy I did it. Sea sickness and drunken 19 year olds in my bed and all.
Because sometimes you have to do something just so you don’t always wonder what it would have been like if you’d done it.
Or changing your path to see about a boy.
Or bungee jumping.
Or any of the dozens of things I force myself to do even though I don’t think I will like it.
Just in case.
Sailing from Panama to Colombia
There are many options for sailing from Panama to Colombia by boat. Trips typically include two to three days visiting the San Blas Islands in Panama followed by 30-45 hours of sailing across the open ocean from Panama City to Cartagena. Prices vary, but cost between $529 and $575, and include transportation and meals. Tours can be booked online or in person through a travel agency or at your hostel in Panama City.