Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
My plan as I wound up the eastern side of South America was to get to Colombia and then cross over into Panama. But there was one key thing I didn't realize until I was getting pretty close to Colombia: It’s nearly impossible and certainly very dangerous to cross the land border between Colombia and Panama. The Pan-American Highway stops there at the infamous Darien Gap, and for a hundred miles there are no roads there, only a jungle haven for drug lords.
But I also learned that I could sail from Cartagena, Colombia, to Panama. Better yet, the voyage would pass through the San Blas Islands. Among the best things that Panama has to offer, San Blas consisted of 365 islands, most of them uninhabited and too small to show up on Google Maps. I stopped by Blue Sailing, the agency in Cartagena’s Getsemani quarter run by two women, one from the U.S. and one from New Zealand, which was responsible for finding yachts for a majority of passengers.
The yachts that plied these waters were privately owned. The upside was that, well, you would be on a private yacht like some rich person. Five days’ sailing including all food catered by an onboard chef came to just over $500, surely affordable even to the bourgeoisie. The downside was that some not altogether competent sailors would try to sign on the less discriminating — this was where an agency like Blue Sailing came in, to book you with captains who knew what they were doing.
I signed on with a 74-foot sailboat with a captain from New Zealand (John), a chef from Australia (Sophie), a American former sporting equipment executive who tagged along to observe before he started renting out his own boat (James), plus two sailors from France and Colombia (Benjamin and Juan-David). The passengers consisted of three young men from Denmark, a pair of sisters from Sweden plus another Swede, two Dutch, four Swiss, an American woman who was the fiancee of one of the Swiss, and yours truly. Other than me, and but for the fact that one of the Swiss was half-Peruvian and another was half-Brazilian, every passenger was white. But for the American woman and me, everyone would have been European. Indeed, for reasons unknown to me, sailing the San Blas seemed almost an exclusively caucasian and European activity.
We set out from the port of Cartagena after dark and after dinner aboard. It would take a day and half of sailing the open sea to reach San Blas, which were much farther from Colombia than from the Panamanian mainland. It was a day that disappeared in games and drinks and simply sitting on the deck and enjoying the sea wind. It was a cloudy day, but the UV rays pierced the clouds and threatened sunburns before we would even get to the islands.
With much anticipation we reached San Blas on the morning of the second day. A sand bar rested between two islands with palm trees lining both and turquoise waters all around. We didn’t need much encouragement to pick up snorkels and jump into the water. Tropical fish abounded in the perfectly clear sea.
Later we caught up with the other boat the John owned, which he entrusted to another captain and which carried a full complement of twenty passengers (exclusively white but with more Americans and Australians this time). The plan was to join forces on the island for a grand dinner and the birthday party of a local elder. The local, matriarchal, Kuna tribe ran their own affairs autonomously from the Panamanian government, and they didn’t allow outsiders to set up shop on their islands. Nevertheless John had grown friendly with this particular elder. In preparation for the dinner, fishermen sidled up to our boat with fresh lobsters, which Sophie would soon turn into one of the most delicious dinners I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had that was cooked on a beach.
We parted ways with John’s other boat and carried on sailing to other islands. More lazy days of snorkeling and swimming out to sandbars. Surely I don’t need to say each time that the water was beautiful? Sophie cooked another amazing dinner of freshly caught yellow snappers. Dolphins swam right up and accompanied our boat as we moved through the water. And at night we spotted crocodiles coming out of the mangroves and swimming a short distance away.
On the last day before we had to sail for the mainland, we anchored near a shipwreck. We had seen it from a distance earlier, and many of us were curious about it. Now that John was considering taking us to it, he explained that an Austrian man had bought it, which was a mothballed Canadian ferry, with the intention of setting up his own San Blas sailing business. Except he wasn’t much of a mariner and so promptly wrecked it on the reefs.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“About a year ago.”
So this was the cost of inexperienced sailors trying to make a buck here.
Returning from the shipwreck we began a game of beach volley ball. Alas, it wouldn’t last long. The sun was leaning inexorably westward. And we had to leave the area before sundown, James explained to me. Otherwise the reduced visibility in the dark would mean that we risked ending up hitting a reef like the Austrian’s ferry. With some measure of regret we returned to the boat. By morning we’d be docked on the east coast of Panama.
None of us had bathed properly in four days, relying on the sea and wet wipes for ablutions. So the prospect of Panama City and a hot shower was very attractive by now. Nonetheless it was difficult not to wonder when we’d get another chance to sail the Caribbean.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."