Shortly after deciding that we were going to travel up from Ecuador to Costa Rica, we realised that it is nigh-on impossible to cross the border from Colombia to Panama over land, unless you have a death wish and want to trek for 9 days across the Darien Gap. We met a girl in Montañita who told us about a boat trip she’d done from Panama to Colombia with a company called San Blas Adventures and when we looked it up, we were immediately sold on the idea and paid the USD$120 deposit. Boats, ocean and paradise islands… what’s not to like?
P R E – T R I P P R E P A R A T I O N
While the trip itself is 3 days and 4 nights, our journey actually started a couple of days prior in Cartagena, where we joined some of our group in order to all travel together down to Sapzurro where our boats would depart from. San Blas Adventures organised everything – a guide met us at Hostel Mamallena in Cartagena, gave us a briefing about the journey, sorted and paid for taxis to the bus station (although a large shuttle would have probably been more efficient) and put us on the correct bus, giving us instructions for the remainder of the trip. We probably could have quite easily done this journey ourselves, but it was nice to have the security of travelling with 9 other people and to know that we had easy places to stay at all the stops. First was a 5 hour journey to Montería, where we had a (very quick) stop for some food, then it was back on the same bus for the final 3-4 hours to Necoclí. It was quite a small bus and the roads weren’t great, so it was a pretty bumpy ride and, for what we paid (COP$80,000/USD$25), I wasn’t super impressed with the service, especially compared to some of the other, longer, journeys I’d been on.
So our first stop was Necoclí, a little port town with not much else apart from some restaurants and souvenir shops. We were staying at Hotel Panorama, again organised and booked for us by San Blas Adventures, which was just round the corner from where the bus dropped us off and a short walk to the dock where we would catch the boat to Capurgana the next day. The hotel was COP$30,000/USD$10 for a room with a fan or COP$40,000/USD$12.50 for A/C – pretty standard prices for a perfectly nice place to lay our heads for the night. We found some relatively cheap dinner a couple of blocks away and then spent the evening starting to organise our belongings into plastic/zip-lock bags to protect everything from the water on the boat the following day. We also got the hostel to make us each 3 copies of our passports, which is required for the border crossing.
It was an early start the next morning and we opted to walk to the dock where we would get the boat over to Capurgana. We of course got a little lost and what should have taken us 10 minutes, took us about 25 in the blistering heat, with all our worldly possessions on our backs! But we got there in the end and arrived with about 15 minutes to spare. We had to cover all our bags in bin liners, as we’d been warned they would get very wet on the ride over – I’d bought bags from the supermarket a few days before but there were also people selling them for approx COP$2000/USD$0.63, if you don’t get a chance to buy any.
The boat cost COP$70,000/USD$22, which is what we had been told by San Blas Adventures, but we weren’t aware of the COP$2600/USD$0.81 tax charge or the fact that we had to pay for our bags by the kilo. Most of our bags cost around COP$10,000/USD$3.12, so not a lot, but still an amount none of us had factored in when we’d sorted cash that was supposed to last us until the border crossing into Panama. Necoclí is the last place before Panama City that there are ATMs so it’s definitely important that you get enough cash to last you the next few days from this point – be aware that you’ll probably need more than advised on San Blas Adventures’ FAQs.
The boat ride to Capurgana took about an hour and a half and it was definitely a bit of a rollercoaster, with pretty large waves (meaning big bumps and a sore bum) and a strong wind working against us. But we made it in the end and were soon at the penultimate stop on this mammoth journey. Once we got our bags we headed for the meeting point where we could store our stuff, get free coffee, and order food before the midday briefing with our guide.
T H E B R I E F I N G
We soon met Svea, a wonderful Swiss girl who had been working for the company for 8 months and would be our guide on the islands. She was joined by Val (aka Frenchy) and Chloe, two really awesome volunteers who made up the team that would be taking care of us on the trip. Immediately I knew we’d be in good hands, as Svea seemed super chilled and fun but also commanded respect from the moment she started the briefing. She was thorough in explaining what would happen in the lead up to our departure, and what & how we should pack. She also showed us where to do some last minute money exchanging and shopping for the essentials (i.e. water & alcohol) before we paid the final balance for the trip (USD$289 + $30 for the jeep to take us from Cartí to Panama City + COP$17,000/USD$5.30 for the boat to Sapzurro). I kind of felt that we shouldn’t have had to buy things like water and toilet roll (both made out to be VERY important items) and that for what we had already paid, they were items that should have really been automatically included.
We then all went to the immigration office together to get stamped out of Colombia before hopping on another boat for an easy 15-minute journey over to Sapzurro, where we’d be spending the night.
S A P Z U R R O
Here we stayed at Hotel Doña Triny – this is just a suggested hotel and you can find your own accommodation if you want to, but this where you will meet the following morning to start the trip to the islands. The hotel was nice enough, but we were all crammed into 2 tiny dorm rooms and it was absolutely boiling hot. For COP$25,000/USD$7.80 it would have been nice to have a little more space, purely for packing purposes really, as we needed to organise all our stuff into 2 bags – a smaller one that we would have access to the whole time, with our big bags being brought on the trip but stored separately.
In my big backpack I put my clothes and any other items I was worried about getting wet into a bin liner, put that inside the bag, then covered the bag itself with another 2 bin liners. I would definitely suggest getting a full rain cover for your backpack so you don’t have to faff about with all the plastic bags! In my small bag I put absolutely everything into Zip-lock bags, which would help to keep it organised during the trip.
Once we were done with packing, we headed our to explore Sapzurro – I say explore, but really it’s a tiny little village with little more than a couple of waterfront restaurants and a cute little beach. We all jumped into the water to cool down before heading out to find something to eat for dinner. You can have dinner at the hotel with the guides for COP$20,000/USD$6.60, but we all opted for something cheaper and found a great burger place right on the beach called Playa de Oro, where we sat for a while and got to know the other people in our group who we hadn’t travelled down with. So far, everyone seemed great and it looked like it was going to be a really awesome bunch of people to spend the next 4 days with.
We had a final briefing with Svea that evening, where she told us what would be happening in the morning and how the border crossing into Panama was going to work, before we all settled down for our last sleep in a proper bed for the next few days.
D A Y 1
We were up and on the boats by about 8:30am the next morning, after what felt like a lot of faffing about with plastic bags and making sure everyone had everything. Breakfast at the hotel wasn’t included which was a bit of a bummer, and none of us really felt like paying COP$12,000/USD$4 when we had been told there was a bakery at the border where we could find cheaper food. I do think that as this is the first day of the trip, breakfast should be provided for no extra cost, but it seems as though the idea is that the trip doesn’t start until we are actually on the boat!
We finally boarded our boats (the best ones according to Svea) and were on our way – we had some Kuna guys joining us too who would be our boat captains and assistant guides. It was about 20 minutes on the boat to the border crossing (we literally passed between two rocks and Svea shouted, ‘Welcome to Panama!‘), where we had to take all the bags off the boats so that they could be checked by the police.
Things were a bit chaotic here as they wanted us to go in a specific order and we had to put the bags into two different lines and then wait our turn for them to meticulously go through every item we owned. I guess because drug smuggling from Colombia is a BIG deal, they have to be a thorough as possible, but I was really dreading them going through my stuff just because it was so beautifully packed! It took about 30 minutes for them to do the first 4 bags and we thought we’d be there all day, when suddenly they changed their minds and said that they would use the sniffer dogs to check the bags instead. There was apparently some commotion with another load of people who were trying to cross and they needed all hands on deck for that, so they pretty much just had the dog sniff about a bit and sent us on our merry way to the immigration office where they stamped us all into the country, no problems! Welcome to Panama indeed!
We were back on the boats by 10:30am and on our way to the first island, but not before being treated to the awesome sight of about 10 dolphins swimming beside our boats and playing in the wake behind us. What a treat! After about another hour on the boats, we arrived at our first island, the incredible Atidup, owned by a Kuna guy who bought it for just $50! The island was absolutely beautiful, with white sand, blue seas and coconuts everywhere. We learned that only Kunas can live and own the islands in the Guna Yala and that generally a family’s wealth and property gets passed down the women, not the men.
We had an awesome afternoon on the island, playing drinking games, volleyball, snorkelling and generally just getting to know one another. The Kunas made us a delicious lunch of tamales (chicken and rice wrapped in big leaves) to fill our hungry bellies and then before we knew it, it was time to head to the next island where we would be sleeping for the night. But we were in for a treat and we weren’t just getting back into our normal boats to make the journey. Svea had organised for us to kayak ourselves over in cayucos, traditional kayak-style boats that are hand carved from one solid piece of wood. Conor and his partner Joey decided to turn it into a race and we all followed suit, trying to keep up without falling in or just going round in circles… these boats are definitely harder to steer than regular kayaks!
Caledonia Island was where we would be sleeping that night and this was the only place we’d be enjoying proper beds. Our ‘hostel’ was right on the edge of the Kuna village and it was here that I had my very first ‘bucket shower’ experience… yep it really is what it sounds like. A big tub filled with water and a small bucket which you use to scoop up the water and pour it over yourself – simple living at its best.
Svea took us on a tour of the island and we were treated to an beautiful dance by some of the Kuna men and women, who were dressed up in the traditional Kuna clothes. The island inhabits about 900 people, 75% of whom are children, and they all came running over to wave and greet us as we walked around. They just wanted to play and chat, some of them even proudly saying hello in English and asking ‘how are you?’. Children here go to school on the island until they are about 13, and then they go to Panama City for high school and university, after which most of them return to the islands in professions such as medicine and education. The history and culture of the Kunas is so interesting and Svea did an amazing job of passing on all her knowledge and answering any questions we had.
That night we had dinner at a restaurant on the island and then spent the evening looking at the enormous moon and twinkling stars up in the dark sky… I even saw a shooting star! This trip was really turning out to be everything I wanted it to be and more.
D A Y 2
Even though we were all woken bright and early by a very irritating dog barking and whining next door to our hostel, our spirits were lifted when we saw the incredible breakfast Svea, Val and Chloe had prepared. There was all sorts of fruit, granola, yogurt, special Kuna bread, as well as jam, peanut butter and even Nutella!
It took a while to leave the island as one of the boats was having issues with an engine, something that turned out to be more of a problem than we’d though when our boat broke down about 20 minutes into the journey, meaning that we all had to squeeze onto the other boat and move our bags and all the food boxes onto the struggling boat. Svea came with us while Val and Chloe went on the broken boat back to the village so it could be fixed. Because there were now all 19 of us on one boat, plus Svea and the Kuna guides, the journey took a little longer than normal and we arrived at our third island, Isla Pelicano 2, after about 2 and a half hours.
Here we pretty much repeated our activities from the day before – swimming, snorkelling, lying in hammocks, playing drinking games (beers, sodas and juice are readily available on every island for about $2 a pop) and of course taking lots of photos… although the pictures just don’t do it justice. Svea and the other guides made us an incredible lunch of pasta salad, beans and smoked fish and we were soon all having a grand old time – this group was turning out to be the best bunch of people! I fell asleep in a hammock for about 2 hours and was just in absolute heaven.
We stayed on this island until about 5:30pm, when we got back in the boats (the broken one now fixed and returned to us) and made the 10 minute journey over to Tupile Island where we’d be spending the night. This time we were going to be sleeping in hammocks and a little group of us that had now become firm friends claimed 6 hammocks all in a row. There are some beds on this island, but generally these go to the couples – I was excited about adapting to the Kuna way of life though and was curious for what my first night in a hammock would be like.
We spent the evening getting cleaned up (yes, it’s another bucket shower, get ready for it), and being entertained by Tegan, potentially the best and funniest storyteller I think I’ve ever met in my life, while we waited for dinner. One of our group was feeling really ill and had a high fever so Svea and some of the Kunas took him to the hospital on the island to get him checked out. Svea was super organised and calm in this situation and made us all feel better about the fact that he was so ill and we didn’t know the cause (it turned out to be Dengue but we didn’t know that until he visited the hospital in Panama City… keep an eye on those mosquitos everyone!).
Dinner was a little delayed because of this, but it was well worth the wait, and only the sound of chewing could be heard when Val and Chloe brought out the most delicious chicken burritos I’ve ever had. The food on this trip was really turning out to be very impressive. After dinner Svea told us the story of the Kuna revolution, when the Kunas took their islands back from the Panamanians and have held control ever since. Their culture and history is so interesting we all just wanted to know more, sitting for at least an hour asking question after question, trying to delve deeper into all things Kuna.
D A Y 3
I woke up feeling quite rested and was surprised at how well I’d slept – the hammocks were actually really comfortable. I’d definitely recommend bringing some sort of pillow and sheet though – I had my travel pillow and it made it feel so much more like a normal sleeping situation.
Breakfast was, again, really great, with the addition of scrambled eggs this time too. Shortly afterwards we were packed up and on our way to the next island, the absolutely jaw-dropping Isla Pelicano 1, about an hour and half away. This was the island we’d all heard about and were waiting for, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a really tiny island that you can walk all the way around in about 4 minutes and you can fit the whole island into one photo. The sand was delicately soft under foot and the sea was so clear it sparkled in the sun. We spent the next few hours swimming about, exploring the coral and marvelling at beautiful starfish just a few meters from the shoreline. Again there was opportunity to buy beers, sodas (all $2) and more rum ($20 for a bottle) from one of the Kuna men whose wife owned the island (I love that the women are in charge in the Guna Yala).
We had another amazing lunch on this island before making the short but bumpy boat journey (approx 10 minutes) across to our last island where we’d be sleeping that night. Coco Bandera is apparently a lot of people’s favourite island and I could see why. With its pure white sand, awesome hammock dorm, volleyball net, great snorkelling spots, campfire and the amazing Kuna family who live there and take care of the island, this was a place I really didn’t ever want to leave. We all bought a couple of traditional bracelets (starting at $5) from the beautifully dressed Kuna women, who tied them on with such care and precision. There were so many incredible items, I just wish I could have bought them all!
That night we had the much anticipated lobster for dinner, and watching the Kunas cook it for us over their fire in the kitchen hut was an experience I won’t forget. The dinner really didn’t disappoint as Svea, Val and Chloe went to such effort to create an amazing and beautifully flavourful series of dishes. The night didn’t end there though, and we definitely partied our hardest on this night, celebrating the trip, the islands and each other, knowing that we’d have to leave this island paradise tomorrow and head back to reality.
But before we had to go, the islands had a couple more treats for us. Right after I’d lit a bonfire (thank you camp for that skill), Kate excitedly yelled out to me, ‘Come in the water, there’s plankton!!!‘. After a few nights of looking and hoping, the conditions were finally perfect enough to be able to see glowing plankton in the water – it was insane… something I’ve only seen in photos and movies. We splashed about in the sea, marvelling at the little flashing lights that appeared around our legs. You’re going to have to take my word for it though, as I was too involved in the moment to capture any of it on camera.
I was also too involved to care when I stepped on something and a felt a crunch under my foot. That crunch turned out to be a sea urchin, whose tiny little spikes were now imbedded into my heel. Not gonna lie, it was pretty painful when I finally got out of the sea, so much so that I ended up sitting under a flashlight, surrounded by the Kuna family, as a lovely Kuna lady picked at my foot with a needle and tweezers, attempting to remove as many of the spikes as possible. Trusting the Kuna’s experience in these matters, I even let them soak my foot in Jannes’ urine, which he heroically volunteered to provide, while my so-called friend Conor ran the other way!
But not even the spikes from a sea urchin or having my foot doused in pee could dampen my mood… we ended the night with dancing, singing, games and full panoramic views of one of the most spectacular storms. As I lay in my hammock that night, listening to the rain on the tin roof above me and my surroundings being lit up by lightning, I couldn’t help but fall asleep happy. Happy and sandy. Very, very sandy.
D A Y 4
We weren’t leaving the island until 1:30pm, so we had a chance to have a much needed lie in and a later breakfast. We all slowly and sadly packed up our stuff, had one final swim, one final wander on the beach, one final lunch of rice, fish and lentils and then it was time to say goodbye to the San Blas Islands. As we drove away in our boats, I looked back and watched our island get smaller and smaller, and then spent the hour long journey reminiscing about everything we’d done and seen over the last 4 days.
This journey was a little rougher and we all arrived in Cartí feeling a bit worse for wear (the hangovers definitely didn’t help) and ready for a real shower and a real bed. But the journey wasn’t over yet. We clambered into the jacked-up Jeeps and started the 3 hour drive to Panama City, which started with what Frenchy described as an hour long rollercoaster ride. He wasn’t wrong. The road dipped and weaved around tight bends and over crazy hills, until we were all sick as dogs, especially poor Joey who still wasn’t feeling any better. Definitely be mentally prepared for this journey, and have some travel sickness remedies at hand… if you’re someone who suffers from motion sickness, I guarantee you’ll need them at some point!
We arrived in Panama City at around 6pm, and the Jeeps dropped us off at our respective hostels, hotels and airbnbs. Many of us opted to stay at the recommended Hostel Mamallena (yes, the same company as the one in Cartagena), as it was fairly cheap and looked pretty good, and it was nice to be able to continue our group vibe – it would have been strange to go back to just the two of us again. Most of us met up for dinner in the old town that night and we were joined by Sea, Val, Chloe and couple of the other guides who work for San Blas Adventures. It was really nice to be able to have one last meal together and say our goodbyes. It’s strange to think that I might never see some of these people again, but I do truly feel like I’ve made some friends for life on this trip, and that’s something pretty special.
I can honestly say that even though this trip might seem a bit pricey at a whopping $399 (not including some of the other costs we accrued), I have absolutely no regrets about doing it. Something I particularly loved was how proud the Kunas seemed to show us their islands and their way of life. It didn’t once feel like I was just a tourist invading their space – I always felt welcomed and I was truly honoured to have the opportunity to learn about the Kuna culture and see this stunning part of the world before it gets swallowed into the sea in the next 5-10 years. This is a trip like no other and I would recommend it to anyone, not just as a way to travel between Colombia and Panama, but as a valuable and humbling experience that I’ll never forget, nor be able to recreate.
I’m even thinking of returning to this part of the world to work as a volunteer for San Blas Adventures in the new year, if they’ll have me (hint hint). If that doesn’t tell you how much I enjoyed this trip, I don’t know what will!
If you would like to have your own island adventure, use the code ‘ROO‘ to receive $20 dollars off your San Blas Adventures trip! You can follow along with all the island escapades on their Facebook or Instagram… the photos alone will make you want to jump on a boat and see it for yourself!
*Disclaimer: I received a discount from San Blas Adventures in exchange for this blog and some photos, but please rest assured that all opinions are honest and my own.