Sailing the Deep Blue Sea

I stand under the clocktower–respite from a warm evening rain. I try not to look as uncomfortable as I feel, with $500,000 pesos and my passport hiding in my shoulder bag. It’s just after eight, and I’m scanning the plaza for a stout Austrian and his much younger Turkish Girlfriend. In less than 2 days, that stout Austrian–called Fritz–will be my captain, and his girlfriend Toulie along with their Panamanian helper Jose, will aid in sailing their 60 ft cataraman. That cataraman will be my transportation to Panama.

Around quarter after, I spot two dark figures approaching me. We exchange brief hellos, I quickly hand over my passport and envelope of cash, and in exchange Fritz scribbles on a shred of scrap paper a map of the marina I’m to meet them at in 2 days time. We part ways.

I spend the next two days wandering the antique streets of Cartagena, walking to the dirty local beach to cool off from the sweltering midday heat, eating street food, and tagging along with other travelers from my hostel. I make the irresponsible, though ultimately good, decision to go out with a Swede from my hostel and some Americans I had met previously in Bogota. My evening consists of watching the sunset on the fortified wall, drinking giant Aguilas in a plaza, dancing at a rooftop party in the Getsemani neighborhood. The night may or may not have concluded with a trip to a seedy strip club (I won’t go into details). It was my last night in Colombia–I had to make it count.

Cartagena Sunset

Cartagena Sunset

I return from the night to my hostel 8 am the following morning–a Thursday. From there I hustle to organize my things and catch a cab to the marina. I’m dropped off on a hot sidewalk near a dock, next to 5 other backpacker-looking individuals–a German couple, a Korean girl, a Dutch girl, a French guy. We introduce ourselves before getting ushered into an inflatable boat and taken about 100 meters to where the beautiful and newly bought, Jacqueline is docked.

At this point, having missed a night of sleep, I’m running on fumes and excitement. We are introduced to the rest of our group–another German, a Brazilian, an Irish guy and his Hungarian girlfriend. It’s apparent the groups average age is mid to late twenties. Fritz explains the rules, we pick our beds, then sit down for our first meal together–pasta with veggies.

Enough fruit to feed 14 people for 5 days?

Meal table and card playing spot

Leaving Cartagena on Jacqueline

From that point on, we have 2 days on the open sea before we make it to the San Blas Islands. The cataraman acts like a large, steadily rocking crib, almost immediately turning most of us lethargic. The next two days are a blur of napping, consuming large, satisfying meals; chatting, reading and more sleeping. They are two of the most relaxing days I’ve had in over 4 months of travel.

As we sail our last few hours before San Blas, a small storm hits. The sky turns to slate and the sea to deep sapphire. The wind blows fiercely and rain falls in sheets. Though we have not seen land in over 30 hours, tiny birds fly from nowhere, seeking refuge from the storm. To save them from drowning, we catch and cage them for a later release. Feeling the motion of the sea in their stomach, a few sailers reach for the Dramamine and retreat into their cabins. The rest of us hold onto railings and bars, feel the rocking boat, and ride the storm as Fritz plays lively classical music.

As the sky and sea ease, once again, we go to sleep–knowing that we will awaken in paradise.

riding the storm

Waking up in the San Blas Islands

Waking up in the San Blas Islands

Happy with my decision to sail…

San Blas Islands

More rain clouds

Fritz holding the catch of the day that would feed 15 people

We don’t sail far the next 3 days. We explore the world under the surface–spending hours each day snorkeling and swimming. Fritz uses a harpoon to shoot lobsters and crabs. A German guy aboard becomes semi obsessed with catching a big fish, and spends a good deal of time fishing with a homemade pole and actually joins a boat full of the indigenous Kuno people on a fishing trip. In the evenings we teach each other card games from our countries, drink rum and lemonade, write in our journals, chat.

For five days we are barefoot and seldom not in our bathing suits. I often find myself so content I cannot stop myself from smiling.

One night we venture onto a nearby island occupied by abandon structures made of palms and bamboo–the skeletons of former tourist cabanas. We gather dry wood and fronds, dig a hole and build a fire pit. We return later to ignite it and watch it burn under the stars and palm trees. The flames are the perfect focal point for reflecting on our travels and musing over future plans.

Monday is our final morning and we must sail to an island to pass through Panama Customs. We fill out papers and get our passports stamped. This is the easiest border crossing I’ve ever encountered. We then sail past tiny, crowded Kuno inhabited islands, to the Panama mainland.

Finally, it’s a bittersweet goodbye the crew and Jacqueline, as we are whisked away on a river taxi to Panama, where 4X4 trucks are ready to take us on a roller coaster ride down hilly jungle roads to Panama City. The perfect transition from South to Central America. The perfect ending to part one of my travels.

A Kuno family catches a ride home on Jacqueline

bonfire in San Blas

bonfire on our last night in San Blas

Crowded Kuno islands

Want to do the same?
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See Also:
Why Colombia is Amazing
First Taste of Colombia
Taking the Long Way to Utila
A Stop in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Paradise


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