Sailing To Cartagena

Because the Pan-American Highway grinds to a halt just past Panama City, there is no road access between North and South America. The would-be traveller has 3 options: flying, which will cost about $US160, sailing, or trekking through the Darien Gap. Since the Gap has become increasingly dangerous due to guerrilla activity and smuggling, the Darien option is not for the faint-hearted. To sail, on the other hand, is not only safer and more comfortable, it is in some ways more economical than flying.

In the late nineties there was a passenger ferry service - the Crucero Express - between Cartagena and Colon that proved to be short-lived. But it is still possible to hitch a lift o­n a cargo ship or pleasure boat. By asking around the two main yacht clubs in Panama, in Colon and Panama City, you might be able to get a lift. Some skippers charge for the trip; others give free passage in exchange for working aboard; while a precious few actually pay the crew for their time and labours. The latter category usually apply o­nly to experienced sailors.

You canconsiderably increase your chances of hitching a lift by pinning a flyer at the notice-boards at either club. A few words about yourself, emphasising any foreign language, mechanical or cooking skills, and a photograph often boost your chances. An email or telephone contact number is essential. Another good tactic is to make photocopies of your notice and spend a full day at either club, handing the notices to every boat owner you meet. Often, if you make informal contact with the owners, they might recommend you to another o­n the basis of your friendly first meeting.

Panamanian law dictates that every boat, no matter how small, must have four "linehandlers" in addition to the Captain, when it makes a crossing of the Panama Canal. Offering your services as an unpaid linehandler is another way to acquaint with the skippers, who later o­n may be sailing to Cartagena. It is also a way to sample the boat and life o­n board in safe, calm conditions: many small craft take two days to do the crossing, anchoring at night in Lake Gatun. Be aware that there is keen competition for these linehandling jobs from the locals, who make a living charging $50 a day for the work, and who will rip down your notice from the noticeboard as soon as no-one is looking. The yachts you will be seeking will be Caribbean-bound, so it makes sense to consider this option o­nly in Panama City.

With the increasing numbers of backpackers seeking this route, you still might be in for a long wait for a lift. In 1999 I met a Frenchman who had been waiting for 3 months. His somewhat scruffy and unkempt appearance probably hindered his chances, since four friends and myself were able to get a berth after o­nly a few days of asking.

Another option is with a cargo ship. They leave from Coco-Solo wharf near Colon. Some of these boats go o­nly a short way into Colombia, others go all the way to Guajira, where they drop off their cargo of contraband whiskey, cigarettes or electronic appliances. Not many are destined for Cartagena, and the price the captains ask is often close to the same as the airfare. You will need to clear immigration, and often they will ask to see a Paz y Salvo, a certificate from the Panamanian government stating that you are a person not leaving behind any unpaid debts or dependants. The certificate is quite easily and cheaply obtained in Panama City, though you will need to be early to avoid the queues. The cargo ship option is often the best o­ne for motorcyclists, since Captains of sailboats are very unlikely to want a heavy item like a bike working its way loose in their fibreglass-hulled yachts, even if you offer to dis-assemble it. Cargo boats also ply the Pacific coast from Panama City to a number of ports in Colombia and Ecuador. The boats come in a range of shapes and sizes, steel-hulled and wooden, and some appear decidedly un-seaworthy. Beware!

Yet another option is to use the "lanchas". These are coast-hugging speedboats that hop their way down the coast stopping at each village along the way. Since you will need to take several different lanchas, and haggle a price with all of them, this is usually the most expensive option. It is also the most uncomfortable and slowest: imagine sitting for hours and hours in the sun and sea-spray getting a sore backside from the hull slapping the waves o­nly to arrive at dusk in a village with no electricity and where a night in a hammock in a mosquito-infested hut costs US$30, o­nly to discover that the next lancha won't be leaving for several days.

There are some 30ft sailboats which do take paying customers o­n sailing trips between the two countries. All-inclusive costs including a stopover at the San Blas Islands, run to $200, or more if you want to stay longer. Their service is not always available, especialy around August, when they are booked out, so it is best to ask at Colon's yacht club or in El Porvenir.

Most yachts stop at Isla Grande, inhabited by Creoles, or the San Blas Islands o­n the way. Here you will see absolutely unspoilt tropical reefs and islands, inhabited by the friendly Kuna Indians. The main town, El Porvenir, has an airport and hotel. This is where the Captain usually gets his zarpe validated and you officially leave the country.

Of course, the reverse of all the above is also possible, not o­nly from Cartagena to Panama, but to many other destinations in the Caribbean. In Cartagena, the place to pin your notice and ask around is Club Nautico in Manga.

Several things are worth bearing in mind for those who have never sailed before. By law, o­nce you have signed o­n to a boat as either crew or passenger, the Captain retains custody of your passport. The Captain has the legal authority of a policeman o­nce you leave port. Some sea-sickness pills, sunglasses and waterproof sun lotion are essential, as is some reading material and perhaps a fishing line. An email to your next-of-kin advising the skipper's and boat's name and expected place and time of arrival would be a good idea. It is not safe to anchor outside Cartagena's main harbour: armed theft by poor fisherman of outbards, anchors and radio gear has been reported in the local newspapers recently. And don't cut your schedule too fine: your arrival is at the mercy of the winds, tides, mechanical breakdowns, and immigration officers. And you might just fall in love with the beautiful San Blas Archipelago enough to want to stay longer.

- written by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat has just been published by Trafford Publishing. Check out the accompanying Odd Odyssey colour slideshow. To read an excerpt from that book, entitled "Death and Thievery on Isla Grande" detailing part of the voyage from Panama to Cartagena, click here.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short