My sailing trip around the San Blas in Panama was amazing. I departed Panama City at 5:30am by 4WD on Friday 3 August to make the 4 hour trip to Carti. There is only only 2 ways to get to San Blas and that is by plane or 4WD & small boat and there is only one very bumpy road in hence the 4WD and then at the end of the road you catch a boat which takes you through a river and then out to the islands. The trip was very scenic and beautiful. It was just a shame that it was stormy as we could not get a clear view at the lookout that we stopped at along the way.
The boat trip started with a 20 metre treck through ankle deep mud to get to the river bank. Due to much rain and road works the ground was very muddy. I managed to make it to the river without falling but some of the others weren't so lucky.
Once out in the sea we made our way towards the main islands where many of the passengers where either holidaying or going home too. My stop was none of the islands but a large German boat called SteelRat. SteelRat has been ferrying many backpackers to and from Columbia for many months now to raise funds for there travel through the canal and on to the Galapagos Islands next March. (Anyone planning a holiday around then I would highly recommend it). I opted to stay an extra 4 nights on the boat before it made the 5 day journey through the San Blas and onto Columbia. (The travel to Columbia is only 24 hours and the rest of the time is hanging out by some islands). This gave me an opportunity to see more of the San Blas and sit back and take it easy.
Making our way up to the boat I was quite impressed by its size and also surprised that I was going to be spending the next 8 nights/9 days on something so nice. The crew of 3 meet us with big smiles (Toby, a Tassie boy (only 23 so don't get any ideas) was also coming onboard early so at least I had someone to keep me company). Ludwig was the captain and German and spoke very good English, then there was Claus, also German but not so good English and then Donato, from Spain and even less English. There was also a girl on the boat, Eliza (Ely) who was Ludwig's girlfriend of the moment, Columbian, 20yo and no English. (Ludwig is in his 40's just to give you an idea).
Once on board we were shown to our sleeping quarters, paid our money (didn't want to keep holding that amount of money) and checked out the boat. Brunch was served and then we wasted no time heading off to our first tropical island.
The scenery around us was just spectacular. Its one of those places that you really need to see first hand to believe. The San Blas is made up of over 345+ islands. Some have villages on them while otheres have just a hut or two of the family who owns it, others are deserted with just coconut palms growing on them and some may have hundreds of palms while an odd one or two just had one (and the island it was growing on was only big enough for one). The Kuna People are the indigenous tribe of these islands and they have very good business sense. No foreigner can own any island or piece of and no water sports such as jetski-ing or commercial diving is permitted. They have preserved their culture and it was just an absolute delight to see something so beautiful not taken over and destroyed by a white man.
Our first 2 nights would be spent anchored near some islands that had just 2-3 huts on them and a ship wreck which made for very good snorkelling. I have snorkelled very little in the past and the world that opened up to me when I went for a snorkel around the shipwreck was just mind blowing. I felt as if I was starring in my own Nemo movie. There were fish of all shapes and sizes and of course all different colours. The time spent in this spot was just fab. We ate fresh fish bought to our boat by locals and the crew were amazing cooks (which actually wasn't really that grand for me as I continue to go up in dress size). If we weren't snorkelling then we were sitting on the deck reading, listening to our ipods or just watching the sun go down. I had found paradise yet again.
On the 3rd day we made our way to some other islands that had villages on them. Here we stopped for one night. Toby and I spent an hour visiting a village on one of the islands. The village is small in area size but have many people living on them with a school, grocery store, basketball court, community hall and even a little bar. There sanitary system consisted of a little outhouse at the end of the jetty (several jetty's) and the waste just went directly into the water. It all gets eaten by the fish but lets just say that I didn't go for a swim while anchored here. That night we went to the local hotel on another island for dinner and feasted on fresh fish and chicken. The chicken has been amazing throughout as it is all free range of course.
The next afternoon we headed back to the islands at where we got on in readiness for the 16 passengers that would arrive the following morning. It was our last night of peace and quiet!!!!!
The next day around 10ish or it could of been 11ish as time really didn't exist out here, the canoes arrived with 16 very wet passengers (unfortunate for them it rained quite heavy and the boats have no cover). So from 6 we were now 22 and my peaceful haven was no more. Once everyone was on board and settled we headed back to the islands that we had stayed at the prevoius day so that we could organise immigration.
The next 3 days were spent anchored near some islands further out from where we had anchored previously. One of the islands we were near had no people on it so we were free to swim over to it and wonder around. We even had a BBQ on it one night. The snorkelling was quite good but not as good as the snorkelling that I had done at the shipwreck. On one of the days however a small group of us went out on the speedboat to some reefs about 1-2kms out and that was amazing. Lots more fish both in variety, size and quantities and the coral was FAB!!!! Its a shame that I didn't have a underwater camera as it was just out of this world (well for me anyway).
A lot of drinking was done by many (of course) and the boys played a lot of poker but it was pretty tame overall (although one night the 6 Irish did have a late one and decided to jump off the boat several times each, at around 1 or 2 or 3 am). The group was well mixed with all ages and I knew quite a few of the passengers from the hostel in Panama City that I stayed at and there was also an English girl (Cathy) that I had stayed at the same place with on Little Corn, so that was quite a nice surprise.
During the time spent cruising around the islands I never felt sick once as there was no swell, I was however expecting this to change once we headed out into the open sea for Columbia. The day we set sail for Columbia we left at around 6am. The crew did a big cleanup of the decks first in anticipation of rough seas and water washing over the decks. Hence all of the clothes, shoes, snorkelling gear, etc had to be moved inside. The trip took just over 24 hours. It was very calm which was unfortunate as we could not put up the sails and sail to Columbia as there was not a breath of wind. Around 4:30am on the last day it did get a bit rough but we were all tucked up in our beds and if you were lucky enough, sound asleep. I popped a few seasickness tablets during these 24 hours and I felt the best I ever had when on open seas. One girl however was quite ill on the crossing and spent most of it laying flat on the floor.
We arrived into the port of Cartagena (pronounced Cart-er-hay-na) before 9am and once anchored the captain sped off in the speed boat with our passports to immigration. We now had to play the waiting game for immigration to process our passports. It could take up to 2-3 hours. By midday we where told that the guy would be at the marina in 30 minutes to do the processing so we started to transport ourselves and our bags over in the small speed boat. At 3pm we were still waiting for the guy to arrive and so by this time we had found the supermarket and ATM and had wondered aimlessly (not really) around the streets as illegal immigrants. By 3:30pm however the guy had arrived and we were all now fighting for cabs to get to the hotels before everyone else to get a bed.
So that was my journey to Columbia. I am now in the land of coffee (which is the best ever and too make it even better it comes to you via men who carry around thermoses of it everywhere and it costs only 25 cents for a cup) and cocaine (don't worry Mum I won't be partaking in experiencing this) and in the 5 days that I have been in Cartegana I have just fallen in love with this country.
The old town of Cartegana is the most beautiful colonial town that I have seen on my travels. The streets are just a delight to wonder around and there are street venders selling everything possible but then there are shops and cafes and restaurants housed in beautiful old buildings. I have not partaken in many of the food stalls due to my ever expanding waistline. It has come to the crunch that I have to cook for myself so that I can eat healthy food (everything is deepfried) as there are no clothes around that fit me as everyone else is quite podgy and so all the decent clothes have been snapped up by the podgy locals. So I need to fit back into my old clothes hence the healthy cooking for myself. But there is some healthy street eating that I partaking in which is the fresh fruit that they cut up for you. A wedge of watermelon cut up into bite sizes is only 25 cents and the homemade lemonade (which is actaully made from limes) is so yummy and refreshing and also only 25 cents.
While in Cartegana a group of us went to a Futbol Match (soccer) between Cartegana and National. It was on Sunday at the main stadium and it was an interesting experience and I didn't realise how serious they are about their futbol. We arrived to the stadium a 1.5 hours before the match to get tickets. We were advised that it may be sold out and had many scalpers tell us this when we got there. The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the riot police outside the stadium and I instantly thought that things could get very interesting.The crowds were huge and of course when a group of white people (7 of us) turn up the scalpers and the pick pocketers swarm. We really had to be aware of what was happening around us. We finally managed to find out where the ticket booth was (but we had to pay a guy to show us) and then we were searched at least 3 times to get into the stadium. We found a fairly decent spot to sit even though by now th stadium had filled by at least 3/4's. The crowd was pretty hyped before their teams had even appeared with lots of drums beating and chanting and then when they did appear there was whistles, smoke, streamers and drums going off everywhere. It was certainly an impressive way to get a game started. The first half it was 0-0 but then towards the end of the 2nd half National scored twice. With only minutes to go to the end we opted to bail out as we did not want to part of the mass exodus although I am sure it would of been something else to write about.
Another great outing was to a Volcano, yes another one. This one was tiny though and took less than a minte to climb to the top (via some stairs). The big attraction of this volcano is that it has a mud bath in its crater. Wow if you have ever imagined what it would be like to bathe in dairy milk chocolate then this is how to find out. It was incredible and you couldn't touch the bottom (it was about 2300 metres deep) but you couldn't sink in it. You only went down as far as your shoulders and so if you wanted to cover your hair and face you had to dip your head in. I dipped my hair but not my head but some little local kid had the joy of covering in my white spots to make sure that I was covered. 10 of us went along to experience this and it was loads of fun. Once you had had enough of bathing in the mud you went down to the Laguna to rinse. Here women were waiting to rinse you off. It was quite a surprise when the women took my bikini off to rinse it and not just the top half. (she did ask first). The bus trip to get there and back was also an adventure in itself and it would take me all day to tell you.
I think that is enough to tell you all for now. Tomorrow I head north to get ready for a 6 day hike to the Lost City. I figure what better way to lose some weight, an expensive way, but at least I can witness some spectacular scenery at the same time. I will also be spending more time on more Carribean beaches (life is tough but someone has too do it). Now I need to head back to my hotel so that I can cook myself so nice healthy brown rice.
Until next time.