I chose to sail on the yacht Mintaka, owned by Manfred and Petra, a German couple who have been married for 40 years, and sailing for 35. Mintaka was custom built by the couple and they have been sailing in the 46ft aluminium sloop since 1991. They have explored the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the South Atlantic before coming to the Caribbean eight years ago. Two years ago, after two years of observing other backpacker boats they decided to join in offering the five day trip from Panama to Colombia and vice versa. For me, the appeal of this boat was not only that it was a sailing boat (as opposed to a catamaran), but that it took only a small group of eight passengers, when some boats can take over 20. Also, Petra has ten years experience running a German retaurant so I knew we would be looked after food wise!
We left Cartagena on Sunday evening, saying goodbye to South America while watching the sun set over the city. It was a 40 hour journey in open wáter before getting to the San Blas islands where we would spend three nights. I was so glad to do it this way around, as imagine spending three blissful days in the islands only to finish the trip with nearly two days of rolling around on the open sea. Because rocking and rolling we did! Luckily we had been told to take sea sick pills hours before boarding and luckily these pills made us sleepy and after our first dinner, and after the motor was switched on and the sails were up, we all practically slept for the 40 hours. You needed to take the pills every five hours so I basically slept in four hour blocks, getting up only to take my pill, have a drink, maybe some food then get some fresh air before being beckoned by the horizontal position in the cabin below deck. Once we got to the islands Manfred and Petra told us that the journey was extra rough this time. But. It was worth it.
Our first stop in the stunning Kuna Yala was Coco Banderas. Here we swam, snorkeled, and explored the tiny islands. I even swan between two islands which was pretty cool! While on the boat we were visited by local Kuna women who sold us Molas which are beautiful pieces of coloured fabric sewn together. The Mola are a main source of income for the Kuna but interestingly until the late 1990s they were coconut barons! Up to 30 million coconuts were harvested annually and the Kuna would sell these to Colombia, in exchange for food, clothes and anything else they needed. Panama had no coconut processing plants which is why the Kuna dealt with Colombia. Each year the Kuna chiefs would set a price for coconuts in order to prevent competition and to ensure that no individual seller would be bargained down by buyers.
We got to meet a local chief on our second evening in the islands. We had anchored at West Holandes and after an incredible afternoon of snorkeling along a reef, we went ashore to an island where Julio, the chief, lived with his family and his sixth wife. Or was it his seventh? We sat down with the chief, drunk our coco locos (rum in a coconut), and asked him questions about life on the island. I didnt ask, but should have, if, after 15 years on the island, he had noticed a change in the amount and type of litter that was washed to shore. Unfortunately I had noticed so many plastic bottles on the islands and I was sad at what our obsession with buying wáter was doing to this paradise.
After our second night in the stunning San Blas, it was time to head to El Porvenir, where we would get our passports stamped into Panama. Petra and Manfred told us that this could take up to 24 hours but less than an hour after heading to the immigration office, they were back relieved and grinning. Apparently a 'gift' of a Mintaka tshirt was enough to get the immigration officer to promptly stamp our passports. Four days after leaving Colombia, we were officially in Panama!
What better way to celebrate an easy immigration run than to have a lobster lunch! Petra had been asking the Kuna if they had any lobster since we arrived in the área but it wasnt until our last morning that we found a fisherman with the goods. We had been having such incredible food thanks to Petra (filet mignon, shark, french chocolate truffles!) but Petra really did exceed expectations with the garlic butter lobster! After demolishing my lobster, I probably had about ten bits of bread dunked in the sauce. It was heaven!
That afternoon Manfred took us over to another island, Wichub Wala were about 500 Kuna live. Here we were shown around the village by a local. I would like to say I enjoyed the experience, but although I enjoyed seeing how the locals live, it was sad to see so much litter. Our tour guide told us that they had just finished a six day party and were still too drunk to clean up, but I have the feeling the island is always like this.
My only apprehension about choosing a boat with only eight people was the risk that the group would be terrible. Or that I would be stuck with a solo travellers nightmare, five days with only loved up couples. This wasnt the case on Mintaka however and we had a cool group. There was a Brazilian couple, who were heading to Cuba after Panama, an American couple who were exploring Central America for three months, a German policewoman on a three week vacation, an American vet who had sold her house to travel for a couple of years, and a Swiss guy who seemed to have travelled everywhere. It was a good mix of people, making the trip even more laid back.
After three days relaxing in the San Blas, we had another ten hours of rough sailing to Portobello, a small town on the Panamanian mainland. By now we knew what to do, so took our sea sick pills and bunked down for the night.
I had a feeling this trip would be a highlight in my seven months of travel and it did not disappoint. I made the right choice with Mintaka too, and the trip felt more like flashpacking than backpacking. What a way to travel between two continents! I was so excited about being back in Central America! Let the adventure continue.