Panama to Cartagena, Colombia

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on the way to the ship
on the way to the ship (View on flickr)

Muddy road from Panama City to Carti, Panama on the way to the San Blas Islands
Muddy road from Panama City to Carti, Panama on the way to the San Blas Islands (View on flickr)

Here is the story of our trip from Panama City to Cartagena, Columbia – starting in a 4x4 vehicle from Panama City to Carti, Panama and then taking the 100´ sailboat the Stahlratte to Cartagena.

We got picked up at at the Hotel California in Panama City at 5:15 in the morning and threw our bikes and gear up on the roof rack and squeezed in the back with 7 other passengers, all who were going on the same sailing trip from Panama to Columbia. I, more than Randy, thought it would be great fun to take a long sailing trip. I have always thought I should try it to see if I might want to sail around the world after I finish biking half way around the world.

As we rode in the back of the jeep I was very grateful to be in the truck and not trying to ride, push or throw my bike along this route. The road was flat at first and paved until the turn off at El Llano, but that’s where the real road started. Other cyclists before us have ridden this and described this section as having 100 hills and many 20% grades. It was very impressive and I think I would have died trying to ride it. It had been raining the night before and the rain carved eroded mud-lined tracks that zigzag down the steepest parts. The truck would slide from side to side trying to find a hold in the red mush we sloshed through. Other trucks ahead and behind us also had moments of uncontrolled maneuvering. One 4x4 vehicle we passed parked at the creast of a hill was overheating from the taxing travels through the Kuna jungle. After we arrived at the end of the road, a trip which took about 4 hours, I was very happy with our decision not to have ridden this ride. Our newly cleaned bikes appreciated it too.

Awaiting to take us out to our boat were 2 large dugout canoes with motors which amazingly fit 10 people, 3 bicycles, a BOB trailer and all the gear for all those people. As we motored out to the sailboat, we passed islands which are inhabited by the local Kuna indians who live on the surrounding islands in thatched-roof huts. The huts were so crowded together, I couldn’t tell how many houses occupied the island. Not all the islands were inhabited but the ones that were had lots of people living in them.

Let me take a stab at describing the people of this area. The Kuna people make a living by selling coconuts, creating molas and fishing in the sea. The women wear very colorful tye-died wrap around skirts and hand-sewn tops called Molas. Several layers of fabric are loosely sewn together and then the top layer is gently cut and folded back and to form a design describing their traditional ways. The women are further accessorised with orange and yellow beaded leggings and gold rings piercing their ears and nose. Adorning the top of their short black hair is a colorful handkerchief head wrap. The women’s clothes are very unique, colorful and stand out as very different in the city of Panama where they often can be seen selling their handiwork.

randy in the canoe
randy in the canoe (View on flickr)

photo of upper deck
photo of upper deck (View on flickr)

After about 20 minutes of motoring out to the ship, we climbed aboard the double-masted 100´ sailboat which would house 23 guests and 6 crew members for the next 5 days. The name of the ship is the Stahlratte and it seems to have the best reputation in the area for sailing from San Blas Island to Cartagena.

Shortly after boarding we stored our bikes downstairs in storage closet, moved our gear to a very comfortable double-bed berth and started the 5 day adventure. The group received a lesson on rope fastening, sail raising and then we got our orientation about food, chores, and the like. And we were told that there is to be no shaving or whistling on board while the ship is underway.

We raised the sails and headed out for a 6-hour trip to a secluded spot where we anchored for two days among a handful of small uninhabited island in a protected spot in the San Blas Island. We snorkled amongst the colorful reefs and had fun sailing around the San Blas Islands in a tiny sailboat. At night we had a barbecue on the beach, a grand driftwood bonfire and sang along with a guitar.

When we finally set sail for Cartagena, we sailed for 28 hours in rough water with the sail up and the motor going. The 2 meter waves made many of queasy and some (including me) decorating the side of the boat with whatever food was in my stomach. The only relief was to lie straight on my back and not move.Randy also seemed to be felling similar but not quite as bad. Those wrist braclets we bought for sea sickness were a waste in that rough water.

I guess any dreams I might of had sailing around the world are smashed forever. I slept out on the deck at night and in the morning the waves were small, my stomach felt better and land was in sight.

You can see the pictures of our trip from Panama to Colombia here.

Cartagena bay
Cartagena bay (View on flickr)

We arrived in the harbor in Cartagena mid-morning on the April 14th. The vista of the skyline was similar to Panama City with skyscrapers all along the shoreline. I was impressed at how many new skyscapers were being erected along the shores of the bay. The container shipping industry is in full force with the multi-colored cargo cantainers being loaded and unload in the massive storage site. Naval ships, submarines and tankers head out to deeper waters.

We anchored near where other sailboats anchored. And we waited. We waited for immigration to come aboard and process our passports. To process our passports all the passengers had to show they had either $1000 dollars in cash or in a bank account. We do not carry this much cash so Randy went a shore and printed a receipt from our bank account. It took about 4 hours to process us all and shuttle us to shore.

Once on shore, the rhythm of this exciting city filled our veins as we rode our loaded bikes on streets of Cartagena, Columbia. This marked our 9th country we have visited and the first time bike touring in South America.

We spent just one day exploring this old colonial city with many walled sections built to protect it from the pirates who wanted to ravage the Spanish treasure fleets (and often did). We saw amazing architecture, museums, and the streets filled with vendors selling anything you could imagine. The place has a latin flavor that is different from all other Latin America countries we have visited. Perhaps it is the deeper complexion of the people of this friendly folks, the salsa music permeating the air and the slow hustle of the place that makes me love the city of Cartagena, Columbia.