The Darien Gap. Impassable rainforest located on the border between Panama and Colombia. For years this pristine rainforest has been a haven for drug cartels and guerrillas. So when you want to go from Panama to Colombia, how can you cross this impassable “gap”. Every backpacker knows there are two options:
- Fly – get a flight from Panama City to Cartagena or Medellin. This way has gotten a lot cheaper in recent years so expect to pay around $200.
- Sailing Charter Boat – get the famous 5 day sailing boat from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Find a captain and enjoy some stops on the islands but be prepared for the 2 day straight ocean crossing before you arrive in Cartagena. Cost is around $500.
There is a third option on how to get to Colombia however, and its one that not alot of backpackers know about.
3. Get a speedboat from Carti, Panama to Capurgana, Colombia. San Blas Adventures provide this option for $445, staying on the San Blas Islands throughout the 4 days.
Stay on islands like this on the San Blas
Needless to say this was the option we went with. Read about our experience below:
How to book
Booking is really simple, just sign up at www.sanblasadventures.com, read all the FAQ’s to ensure you are up for the adventure and then sign up for the Panama to Colombia trip (note that you can also do this trip from Colombia to Panama). You need to pay $120 deposit there and then, and pay the remaining balance in person the day before the trip (cash only).
What actually is it
This is a speedboat adventure, not a sailing boat trip. That means that you only have 2-3 hours on the boat everyday, the rest of the time you are on the islands! It also means that the infamous sea-sickness inducing 2 day ocean crossing that has long been associated with the sailing boats is not a thing!
You leave from Carti in Panama and arrive in Capurgana, Colombia. Capurgana is literally just over the border from Panama (you can walk back to Panama on a day trip). It is a fascinating town and one we highly recommend you visit, whether you take the San Blas Adventures or not.
The time this takes is normally 4 days. Day 1 is spent arriving in Carti and then the rest of the time on the islands. Day 2 and 3 are on the islands and Day 4 is arriving in Colombia.
What are the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of approximately 365 islands located of the north coast of Panama. The islands are part of the indigenous province of Guna Yala and are exactly what you expect when you think of deserted Caribbean islands.
The San Blas lsands
What to expect
Expect an adventure! We went during the high season and this means that the ocean is very bumpy. We were crashing among the waves everyday, but day 2 was particularly rough, I am surprised more people didn’t get sea sick.
These are the speedboats you will be on!
Staying on the islands is fun, on the first day the island you stay on has a volleyball court and an indigenous family lives there and sells beers and sodas. The island on day 2 has a volleyball court too and it even has a little stretch of sand for relaxing. Day 3 is spent in an indigenous village where you stay in a hostel. This is the only night where you get to stay in a bed, the rest is hammocks.
The hammocks we stayed in on night 1
The food is really, really good. When we went we had delicious and different food everyday, ranging from Chicken Burritos to Fried Fish. Drinks are not included in the price you pay, so bring more money for beers and sodas ($2 each) and bring 1 gallon of water!
Hammocks on Day 2
The official price is $445 but this doesn’t include getting to and from the boats. To get from Panama City to Carti you need to pay an extra $30 each to get a jeep. To get from Capurgana to either Cartagena or Medellin you will have to pay between $50-70 each.
Some locals on a trip between islands
Don’t expect the weather to play ball. The first day we went it rained a little and was cloudy throughout. Dreams of idyllic Caribbean islands quickly faded.
The website states that you will have bonfire/beach parties. I think this depends on your group. We didn’t have any parties, mainly because we knew we had to get up so early the next morning and have to endure a bumpy 2 hour boat journey.
The fee includes snorkel gear and there is plenty of opportunity on each island you stay to snorkel. Just be careful of the coral – I learned that the wrong way!
Small beach to relax on Day 2
With the boat being really, really bumpy you need to wrap your bags in plastic bags. Big and small backpack need to be covered, trust us you will thank us later!
There isn’t much to do on the islands. These islands are literally tiny. All there is to do is volleyball, snorkel, relax and tan. It really is as good as it sounds!
During your day on the indigenous island you will get to go to a school and see a performance the kids have put together. Afterwards you get to play and have fun with the children!
The indigenous Kuna village
Musical performance by the children
Playing football with the kids
What to bring
Small day pack for the boat, your big backpack needs to be thoroughly covered in plastic bags and you wont be able to access anything in it for the rest of the trip.
Pack all important electrical goods in your small backpack. Cover each individual item in a plastic bag and seal it.
For footwear all you need are flip flops. This includes for on the boat too, you are going to get really, really wet on the boat!
There are only so many photos you can take on deserted islands!
The usual – all the cosmetics you need, lots of sunscreen and a hat. Mosquitoes were not an issue when we were there thankfully!
You need to bring your own water, take 1 gallon each.
Take money for beers/sodas. If you want to party bring a bottle of rum!
Some of the islands are so small!
Powerbank for charging stuff, there is no power outlet on the islands.
Don’t bring too many clothes. Daytime wear will be your swimsuit and then take a spare change of clothes for the nightime on the islands and have separate clothes for the boat. Pack a towel and something to keep you warm in the hammocks at night – it gets chilly!
A head torch is recommended!
Some good use of recycling in the indigenous village
Do bring a sense of adventure. This isn’t a luxury cruise. The speedboat is really bumpy and pretty uncomfortable. The toilets don’t have a flush, they are all drop bucket toilets. There are no showers, just bucket showers. Don’t expect 5 star luxury and you wont be disappointed!
There is a meeting in Panama City the day before the trip and the guides will run through everything with you there and then, so don’t panic.
Camera and GoPro – enjoy!
Exploring the islands!
Have you any different experiences of the San Blas Islands? Do you want to do this trip and have more questions? Let us know in the comments below.