So, we've had a bit of a blogging hiatus, partly I suppose because of some travel fatigue (South America is one exhausting continent), as well as because of several dodgy internet connections here and there. So it was time for the South American leg of the journey to come to an end, and to head north towards greener Central pastures. On deciding on a means of transport, this time we opted to get our sea legs on, and signed up for an adventurous sailing trip across the Caribbean. Seeing as we have taken most forms of transport known to mankind thus far, (okay, no domesticated animals, microlighting, or pogo sticks have been tried...yet), we thought we'd give the next leg of the journey a pelagic flavour by sailing from Cartagena (northern Colombia) to Panama over five days. This included three days of sailing the tropical San Blas Islands. The boating option was favoured rather than crossing the notorious Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. This has, and still is, a hotly contested area of dense jungle and swampland separating the two countries. Over the years of Colombian civil war, the Darien has been the refuge of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and other guerilla groups, who have committed kidnappings, assasinations, and human rights violations. Since the introduction of the drug trade routes, the area has also provided a poorly policed highway for narco-traffickers between the Americas. Ironically, because of the inherent dangers of the area, it has managed to keep it's pristine ecological status, and has remained untouched by modern human habitation. There are two local tribes that still live in the shadows of the forest, hoping to keep away from the ever encroaching frontier of western lifestyle. It's a harsh environment, and not one that we were too keen on covering on foot or swamp canoe. So it was the open Caribbean seas for us...the anti-histamines were out in full force!
We left the shores of the wonderful fortressed Spanish town of Cartagena on a rubber duck, sitting atop our mounds of luggage. The rather eccentric Slovakian captain greeted us at the dock with a gruff 'good morning', and cranked the 45cc motor of the duck in the direction of our grand eighty foot "ship" afloat on the harbour bay. His right hand lady, his Colombian girlfriend, seemed at least half his age. She seemed to wear the financial and administrative pants in the relationship, whereas as he played the boat man role (although we did notice he barked deckhand orders at her in very rough Spanglish on most days). The ship was also staffed with two cooks, and two Argentinian deckhands, a total crew of six. The "Independence" bobbed gently in the flat harbour water, a cobalt blue with shining white hull. The luggage was loaded, as were the human cargo. A diverse group of seventeen including Dutch, German, American, New Zealand, British, Danish and Brazillian travellers. We were given the ship's 101, which included the do's and don'ts, instructions on how to work the sophisticated handpump toilet, and that drug mules were to be thrown overboard or face the wrath of the Panamanian police and their brigade of 'Gringo-hating' brak specials. We opted to throw the cocaine overboard (just kidding parents, we got rid of it way before then).
We were given our quarters, and at least Megs and I got our own cabin. The rooms were stifling two by three metre matchboxes, with portholes bolted shut, a bunkbed, and a tiny office fan that served as the 'A/C'. This was going to be a rough five days. The captain fired up the engines, and we headed out of the calm harbour waters, the silhouette of the old colonial city behind us. That's when the pitching and rolling of the Independence began in earnest, and the discordance between our inner ears and eyes announced itself. Almost immediately, I began with the trilogy of symptoms of sea sickness (yawning, belching, and not least flatulence), which was swiftly followed by a few mock charges from the gut. We found that lying immobile on our backs seemed to quell the symptoms somewhat, but as soon as you needed to get up, your world spun uncontrollably and even the simplest of tasks seemed near impossible. How were we going to survive five days?!
Luckily, the first two days were aimed at getting us to the San Blas Archipelago, where we would then spend the last three days slowly cruising the islands, anchoring within the safety and calm waters of the reef. The engines roared at full steam for two rough days, and managed to get us through a pretty heavy sea storm on the second night. Apart from meal times, we pretty much lay flat on our backs for forty eight hours (Megs handled this a lot better than I!). We soon realised that sleeping on deck was a lot more pleasant than the stuffy cabins below. The cool sea breeze alleviated much of the claustrophobia, hence a serious scrap for the best deck space was a nightly affair. We managed to secure a good spot on three of the nights, although we were washed back inside after a midnight sea storm on one of them. However bad the night's sleep was, we were always awakened by the sun rising over the vast Caribbean blue, a welcome sight everyday.
Although the food was decent (simple and voluminous), it was certainly swallowed with difficulty at times. I am proud to say, neither of us succumbed to chumming the pristine waters, although several other passengers couldn't stave the off vomiting. The menu included rice, pasta, fish, salads, eggs, potatoes, chicken, pork chops, and various soups. A satisfactory list of dishes, but the average quality could not be remedied by the above average quantity. We did have two very special meals of grilled crayfish on the deck and a fish braai on one of the deserted islands during sunset, so the meals weren't ALL that bad.
After the first two days and several hundered grams of anti-histamine doses, we arrived in the San Blas Archipelago, and were welcomed by calmer waters. We dropped anchor amidst a turquoise wilderness peppered with deserted islands, some no bigger than a bedroom, yet all home to palm trees hanging heavy with coconuts. True Caribbean paradise. Over the next three days, we sailed between the islands, swam, snorkelled the coral reefs with eagle rays and turtles, and even owned on our own islands. Living the Caribbean 'pura vida' lifestyle came fairly easily. After the islands, on the fifth day, we headed west for the coast of Panama. The Independence droped anchor in a small bay, we said our fairwells to the boat and it's dodgy captain, and donned our much missed land legs once again (thank God). It was an adventure we won't forget, and despite the literal ups and downs, it was overall a brilliant trip (looking back from a land based perspective of course).