Sail Away: Panama to Colombia

Costa Rica to Panama

I have a confession to make. I didn’t shoot any video (or many photos) from San Jose to Panama City. I realized that every border crossing was pretty much the same, and the hours on the road didn’t make for very interesting video. So I focused on making the miles and getting to Panama as quickly as possible so I could set sail. So for those of you waiting to see photos from that section of the journey, I apologize.

ENFOCADOS
The ENFOCADOS photo club waiting for me to start my talk.

While in San Jose I was invited was invited to speak to a local photography club, ENFOCADOS. Gustavo Valle and Luis Figuer set everything up on very short notice. I was expecting a small crowd, but over 50 people showed up! I had an absolute blast meeting so many wonderful photographers. My time in San Jose was too short.

After my time in San Jose I returned to my goal of getting to Panama City as quickly as possible. I was able to make it in just two days. After many hours and miles on the road I’d finally made it from Veracruz, Mexico to Panama City.

The Quest To Book Passage

Panama City
Panama City

All of my previous attempts to book a ship between Panama and Colombia had failed. My best option was a ship leaving May 9th – but after many emails with the travel agency I’d been given official word that it wouldn’t work out. The ship already had two bikes and there was no room for a third motorcycle.

I really wanted to sail, one of my hopes is to do this entire trip without ever having to step foot on an airplane. I’m not sure that’s realistic, but I think it would be great to circumnavigate the globe without flight. It just feels a bit more honest, like I’ve really travelled the miles. I know this is ridiculous, but it would be fun.

By the time I arrived in Panama City it was already late April. I needed to be in Cartagena, Colombia by May 16th at the very latest. My good friend Keith was flying to Cartagena on May 17th to meet me for a week of vacation. If I couldn’t find a ship to take me and the bike I’d be forced to fly.

I spent the next few days talking to locals and investigating my options. I learned that there were a lot of ships sailing between Panama and Colombia, but none that were large enough to take the bike. I found a few ships in Colon that would take me on, but not legally. I’d have to sneak the bike to Colombia and try to sort out the customs issues once I arrived. That was not something I wanted to do.

I found a website for a ship called the Wild Card. It had a form that would allow me to book passage for me and my bike. The next available crossing was May 9th, the same date as the ship I was trying to book previously. I thought it couldn’t hurt and so I signed up and paid the deposit for me and the bike. I fully expected to get an email telling me to buzz off, they’d already told me there was no room. I waited for a couple of days and didn’t hear anything.

I finally gave up on sailing and spent three days arranging for the bike to be flown to Bogota. It was much more expensive and meant that I’d have to ride from Bogota back to Cartagena to meet Keith. But it looked like it was my only option. I rode out to the air cargo terminal and made sure everything was set to go, I was going to leave the next morning.

That night I got an email from the Wild Card. They had space and were happy to take me on the ship! I would later learn that it was the same ship I’d been trying to book. There were two other bikes on the ship. The captain wasn’t sure what happened, but somewhere along the way the booking agent I’d originally talked to had mixed up the details. Things had worked out and I would be sailing from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia with a few stops at the San Blas islands.

The Paperwork

It took a full three days to get everything sorted out. Because we were leaving on a Monday I was told to get everything finished by the end of business the Friday before we departed.

First I needed to get the bike inspected by the Dirección de Investigación Judicial in Panama City. Then it was off to the Secretaria General to get a document saying that I was legal to leave Panama. This process took hours because the offices were closed in the middle of the day, so after the initial inspection I had to wait nearly 3 hours before I could get to the next step. And, of course, the offices were miles apart.

Portobelo
Portobelo

That night I rode from Panama City to Portobelo, it was worth the ride just to see the sunset. The next morning I was off to get my Bill of Landing document from the ship’s captain. I then had to ride back to Colon to visit the aduana (customs office) and cancel my temporary vehicle import permit and get everything stamped and signed.

Colon isn’t the most exciting city so I rode back to Panama City to spend Friday and Saturday night. Sunday morning I rode back to Portobelo. That evening I met the rest of the passengers at a little place called Captain Jack’s Bar.

Ryan with the bikes at Captain Jack's
Ryan with the bikes at Captain Jack’s

I met Thor and Ryan, the other bikers. Thor (pronounced tore, like “he tore his pants”) had ridden down from Canada and Ryan was from New York. There was also a guy named Pieter who was riding a bicycle around the world. There was also Sophie, Simone, Sarah, Paige, Lily, Laura, Emilie, Anna, and Allison. Everyone had an interesting story, the group was incredibly interesting.

We also met our captain, his name was Yuyu (pronounced you-you). He’s been sailing for years and is quite a character. He’s from Poland and speaks with a heavy polish accent. He never wears a shirt or shoes and is always laughing and smiling. He’s the definition of stress free.

We also had a cook named Flor (short for Florencia) and a First Mate named Ory. Flor was always smiling and singing songs. Ory was a magician, he’d appear on deck to do his work and then vanish for hours at a time, I have no idea where he was hiding out.

Riding To Rescue The Lost Passport

The next morning all of the passengers met at Captain Jack’s, we were supposed to hand over our passports to Yuyu so he could get them all process for departure. It was at this point that a Danish girl named Simone realized she’d left her passport in Panama City. She was traveling with her friend Anna. They had both made copies of their passports at their hostel before heading to Portobelo. Simone had her copies, but no passport.

Note: Copies are required for the border crossing – see my previous post for my rant about copy machines in South America.

Simone made a quick call to the hostel, her passport was still there – sitting on the copy machine exactly where they’d left it the day before. It was a small miracle. I volunteered to take her to Panama City, we could be there and back in three hours.

I think this set the tone for the entire sailing adventure. We all jumped in to solve the issue. Ryan loaned Simone his helmet. Anna and Thor looked at maps to figure out where the hostel was located while Peter and I unloaded all the bags from my bike. Our group of strangers had become a team. We were all cheering each other on. It was great.

Simone and I rode like crazy and made it to the hostel and back in time to get our passports to Yuyu for processing. Although we’d be loading the bikes a bit later than planned there was no real problem with the late passports. Mission accomplished.

At Least I Didn’t Barf

We departed Portobelo just before sunset. The ship was small and there were really only two places to spend time; on deck or in your bunk. Yuyu made it clear that we were not allowed on deck when we were sailing at night.

The first night on the boat was rough. When the sun went down we all headed to our bunks. It was hot, very humid, and the ship was tossing on the sea. I spent most of the night hanging on for dear life, trying not to fly off my bunk and crash onto the floor. I was sweating so much that my forehead was covered in salt crystals. Did I mention that there were no showers? A couple of people got very seasick and spent a good amount of time throwing up over the side of the boat. What had I signed up for?

San Blas

Anchored in the San Blas Islands
Anchored in the San Blas Islands

The next morning we arrived at one of the tiny San Blas islands. Once the ship was anchored we all hopped in a small dingy and motored to shore. It was beautiful. It was as if we were in a painting. We spent the day snorkeling, reading, getting to know each other, and just relaxing.

That night we stayed anchored just off shore. A few of us decided to sleep on the deck. It was incredible. There was no covering and so we slept under a blanket of a million stars listening to the sound of the waves gently lapping against the boat.

The next day we sailed to another island where we met some of the local Kuna, the inhabitants of the islands. We took photos and strolled through the tiny island.

The Happy Box

Before we left Yuyu had instructed us to bring our own alcohol. I brought a little extra thinking that there may be someone who forgot. Well, nobody forgot and everyone brought a little extra. A large bottle of rum seemed to be the common choice. All of the booze was kept in a large cooler that Yuyu had named “the happy box”.

That night was very happy. It was our third night at sea, and the last night we’d spend anchored. We had nothing to do the next day, nowhere to go, nothing preventing us from opening the happy box. And boy did we open it – over and over and over. Before the night was finished the happy box would become the empty box.

I can’t tell you exactly what happened that night, I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But I will say that there was a lot of jumping off the top of the boat into the ocean, some twisted version of truth or dare (Truth or Justice – a new game coming to bars everywhere), swimming with rays, some broken glass, a few radio calls from neighboring boats asking us to quiet down, and other activities that will go unmentioned.

The next morning a few of us woke up on deck with Yuyu standing over us with a garden hose. “I must wash deck,” he said with a shake of his head.

Land Ho!

The day after the boat party most of us were feeling a bit tired. We sailed to another small island where we snorkeled and relaxed a bit more. By this time we were all ready to get to Colombia. We were scheduled to sail all night, the entire next day and night, and finally arrive after being in motion for over 30 hours on the open sea.

We tossed left and right, up and down, side to side, rolling this way and that. We spent the night in our bunks repeating the misery of the first night. I barely slept and swore I was going to fly right out of my bunk and land on the other side of the boat. I drifted in and out of sleep, waking up just in time to grab the bunk before flying out.

My view from my bunk
My view from my bunk

The next day wasn’t much better. It was hot and the deck was getting constantly sprayed with seawater coming over the bow. There was no escape. I alternated between laying on the bunk and trying to get fresh air on the deck. Several times I attempted to read, but the motion of the boat made me sick as soon as I tried. All I could do was try to sleep.

A few others weren’t as lucky as me. People were throwing up over the side rails. One girl threw up over and over for our entire last journey. She was miserable.

The last night was the worst. I was done. I was ready to get off the boat and walk on solid ground. But that was not an option. There was nothing to do but hang on and wait. We didn’t even know how long it would take before we saw land. Yuyu told us it all depended on the sea, the wind, and the currents. We might be there early in the morning, or late at night.

After the second night of misery I woke with the sunrise. As I looked out of my little window I saw a buoy pass by. I thought I would explode with joy. I jumped out of my bunk and ran on deck. Sure enough, there it was, land! The sun was rising and we could see Cartagena in the distance. We’d made it.

Peter, Yu Yu, and Thor celebrate. We'd finally gotten all the bikes to shore.
Peter, Yu Yu, and Thor celebrate. We’d finally gotten all the bikes to shore.

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12 comments

  1. Safe and sound (apart from your liver) in Cartagena.Terrific tale of the crossing from Portobelo, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall LOL

  2. So you went to beautiful Costa Rica and only wrote one paragraph and took a picture of a bunch of people in a room?
    :/

    1. Well, no. I enjoyed the country, was amazed by the scenery, and met a bunch of new friends. But those things were for me, not the blog. 🙂

  3. Hi Mark, enjoying watching and reading about your journey.

    If I may, I’d like to suggest something. Early in the article you apologise for having not images or video of this leg of your journey. Would you consider doing so in future but rather than the focus be on the drudgery of the journey, that you share your thoughts at that time. Your thoughts could be about anything…coping being alone, how the bikes doing, concerns, hope etc.

    Just a thought.

  4. I don’t know how you mangaed to keep your dinner down, you must be a heck of a sailor. I was feeling wonky just watching the view from your bunk!

  5. I just discovered your blog last night and am really enjoying it. Although I’ve traveled widely, I’m in my 70’s and will never do it the way you are, on a bike. But vicarious is working fine for me so please keep it up.

  6. Hello, we are starting taking bikes from Portobelo to Cartagena via San Blas,
    if you are interested please contact me at +507 6234 4539 (whatsapp is better).
    also note that in Panama police ask you to wear a reflective gilet while driving, local home depot like shops sell it for few bucks.
    best

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