three tickets to paradise

Well, I had to get that last post off before this next update because when we left Cartagena, and Colombia, and South America, we paid a pretty penny to do so. Where Panama meets Colombia there is a region called the Darien Gap which is such rough terrain and thick forest that the Pan-American Highway has to come to a screeching halt on both ends.

There is no way to drive from South America into Central America, and if you really want to make the trip without flying (like we did), there are basically 2 choices. First you could hire an experienced local guide and make your way through the gap- I think it’s a combination of hiking and canoeing. This route is supposed to be very dangerous, as the gap is notorious for housing guerilla warriors- it’s the one place where the government can’t touch them. The second option is to take a boat. According to what we read there are freighters that will take you. It apparently takes a few days and doesn’t quite break the bank. But what most travelers we talked to had done was taken a sailboat. Five days in the Carribean and three of those days dedicated to chilling out in the picturesque San Blas islands. Some time to snorkel and kick back on a boat sounded exactly like something our sore, bus-worn bones could get into.

When we got to Cartagena we started searching immediately for a good deal on one of the sailboats we’d heard about. Unfortunately, based on what we had heard and what we found in our search, it looked like the sailboat ride was going to be rather pricey. The number that kept getting thrown around was 450 US Dollars. With a plane ticket costing three hundred and something, we started second guessing the choice to sail. But, with 5 nights accommodation and food included in the trip, we decided it was worth the extra money.

Then we met Eric and Isabella. Eric is a Canadian pilot who traded his dual engine airplane for a sailboat a few years ago. He and his wife (Isabella) have been shuttling tourists between South and Central America for a few months. Usually they take 6 passengers on their 40 foot sailboat, The Flamboyant. This time, they were looking to leave in 2 days, but already had 4 people booked. With us being 3, we’d put them up to 7 and they didn’t know if they would have space. But Eric was willing to cut us a deal: if Karl and I didn’t mind sleeping on top of the boat (yes, under the stars, in the Caribbean), he’d take the 3 of us for $1,000. So we ended up saving about $120 per person. It still wasn’t traveling cheap, but for what we were getting, I’d say it was damn economical.

So, on the 4th of July, 6 months exactly since I had landed in South America, we got on the boat and left the continent for Panama. On board with Karl, Daniela, and me, were Seb and Dean from the UK, South African couple Odette and Clive, and of course the captain and his wife. We spent the first and second days purely at sea and with no land in sight. That was an experience. We got sunburned real quickly with so much sun and so little shade. I think we all got a bit of sea sickness. We got rained on but it was well worth it for the lightning show. Dolphins swam with the boat a few times and I think if we’d tried we could have reached out and touched them. I’ll sum it up by saying that I think it was the most entertaining and exciting way to jump the Darien gap without putting our lives at any unnecessary risk. We were fed well and were very well taken care of by Isabella and Eric the whole time.

Then, our second morning on the boat, we woke up in the San Blas Islands. A collection of hundreds of islands just off the coast of Panama, this place truly is surreal. There’s no real good way to describe it short of turning to calendars and post cards showing pictures of paradise. That is literally what it looked like, paradise (or what calendar makers tell us paradise is supposed to look like). Tiny islands, some of which you could walk across in seconds, covered with palm trees sticking out over the crystal clear water washing up onto bleached white sand beaches. I think the islands were so surreal because they seemed absolutely untouched by the rest of the world. The native Kuna people living on the islands helped that image. Yes, they live in paradise- in huts made of sticks and covered with palm fronds no less. I’m not sure how they make their living or even how they get fresh drinking water out there, but they do. We had the pleasure of meeting a few families on the islands and they were very kind and welcoming. Of course the islands aren’t untouched as I’m sure loads of tourists are always passing through, but the charm was in the fact that it didn’t seem that way.

As it turns out, there isn’t much to do on those islands once you get over the charm and beauty of it. All they are is a pile of white sand with trees coming out and the Caribbean on all sides. So most of our time among the islands was spent on the boat still (which is much easier to sleep on when it’s anchored). We really only went to the islands to eat meals and as a base for snorkeling. The coral growing around these islands made for the most amazing snorkeling I’ll maybe ever get a chance to do. Just booming with brilliantly colored fish and other sea life, and the visibility was of course impeccable. We spent hours snorkeling which didn’t help our badly sunburnt backs. Other than that, we chilled out in hammocks, drank cold beer, and ate fresh lobster (bought from the local fisherman) while on the islands. Not bad, I’d say.

But, like everything eventually does, the islands of paradise soon lost their charm. Sunburnt, bug bitten, and having exhausted some of the most beautiful underwater and sunset views we maybe will ever see, we started hoping to move on, off the boat and into Central America. Our boat was met by some immigration officials while anchored and we ended up getting stamped in before ever even making it to the mainland (for a price). So instead of having to sail the 10 more hours to Portobelo for the immigration office, on our last night Eric took us to one of the much larger and more populated islands. I think that was the most interesting night of my life. To avoid a ridiculously long and incriminating blog post, I’ll have to just summarize here with a few key phrases: a very drunk and finally talkative captain, Kuna puberty festival celebration, cocaine and marijuana drug search, making local-albino-native-friends, buying delicious local rum when we already had too much, a camera falling into the sea, a drunken dingy ride barely making it back to the boat, profane dissertations from the drunk captain, taking drunken dares to get naked and jump off the boat and thereby discovering that our boat was parked on top of a reef, a second drug search in the pouring down thunder storm, and finally about 2 hours of sleep before our ride came at 7 am the next day.

So we said goodbye to our naked, passed out captain and his very patient wife and got on our transport to the mainland. We ended up being forced to pay a hefty sum for the taxi service (and all the hidden taxes and fees we found to be typical of Central America), but we really didn’t have any choice. Although, it was nice that they took us straight to the bus terminal so we could jump right back into our travels.

We love you all, thanks for reading.
Enjoy the pictures, I think we got some gems.
More to come soon.

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