San Blas sailing
Having a hell of a time in Panama
On the morning of February 8, eager for adventure, Max (my travel partner) and I meet at the bus station in Panama City with Ian, a Canadian who has a sailboat and that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas archipelago. Anyone who knows me, knows that for a few years now this was one of my dreams, and one of the highlights of my travels, to see the crystal clear waters of the archipelago, learn about the Kuna Yala, the indigenous people of the archipelago, and well… live this adventure. Too bad it was a misadventure, almost entirely.
At the bus station, we met Michelle and Gavin, Londoners, who will embark with us, and together with them and Ian go up on a rickety bus to Colon – so rickety that every time a passenger has to get off and the bus stops, it fails to gear into first and leave again. So rickety that one arrived in Colon it drops us off in the suburbs and not downtown, because it dies altogether. Anyways. Quick lunch at Colon, for me based on sauteed vegetables (I have eaten so much chicken in less than 3 months that I am about to grow wings on my back!) and then jump into a taxi which in theory should take us to the central station, in practice ends up driving us to Portobelo (about an hour’s journey, 4 of us are seating in the back and the road is bumpy) . Arrived in Portobelo – small town that has been called like that by Cristopher Columbus, the ruins of which remain after it was completely razed to the ground by pirates – we see the rest of the crew : two boys of Belgium and a girl from Germany, and the other two people who will embark with us – two Dutch girls. We then decide to go leave our stuff on the sailboat. First surprise: we are sailing with a cat ! A big cat about a year old, which is called Mici black and white, just rubs on me and Max. Then we get into the boat, below, and we wonder how we’re going to be able to stay there for 5 days. A HOLE perhaps would be more spacious. We are given the sleeping arrangements. Massimo and I are given the place of honor at the bow, a kind of triangular bed with a porthole above out heads and the water tank right below. The result is obvious: because it always rains, water falls from the porthole and since the tank is loaded, the mattress gets wet. In the evening we sleep being “nicely” wet. The bathroom consists of a toilet where the chain is not nothing but a pump that pulls water out of the sea, and there is a mini-sink to wash your hands – had it not been that there is not running water. Forget about the shower. We are told that in order to shower, we have to wet ourselves in the sea, leather up and then we would get rinsed with a hose. Max is horrified, thinking his beautiful curly hair. I am horrified thinking that since I am a worthy Tavani, I got my period just in time for the crossing. Anyways, we say that in the end will be worth it, definitely worth it, and it will be worth the $ 440 (compared to the average of 500 or 550 that are required to take the same route, and always under similar conditions in terms of size and number of people). I also ask myself how I will deal with my introversion and my need to be alone, while being in such a restricted space.
After putting our stuff on the sailboat, we go back to land to do the shopping: drinks are not included and we have to buy water and all that we need during the crossing. Luckily ( I say now ) we have been not bought too much compared to the rest of the guests. After the usual caribeñan rain, at 8 o’clock we are back on the boat, carrying with us large amounts of water, beer, snacks etc. I wonder where we are going to put all the stuff. The crew begin to prepare dinner, which ultimately consists mashed potatoes with carrots, and scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, a slice of bread, all served in bowls, to eat with a spoon, and without a table on which to lean – impossible to have one as there would be no room for cramping in so many people. After dinner, I get the first hint of nausea. I run to lie down on the deck, look at the stars, I chew one of my motion sickness pills and then decide to lay down in my “beautifully and delightfully” wet bed, fully dressed ( shorts, tank top ) . Shortly after, one by one the rest also go to sleep, cat included . Massimo collapses dressed, just like me.
In the morning, despite the slight rocking of the boat, I seem to feel good. I am excited as we will finally leave! Breakfast consists, for me, in a banana. Max, for some reason, decides he wants two beers – although he later regrets it, obviously. The others celebrate with coffee, fruit, cereals etc. At 10 o’clock in the morning we start the engine and the boat goes. Just outside the bay of Portobelo, surprise: WAVES and RAIN. Unable to stay inside unless willing to die of nausea, we must all stand out. I chew my motion sickness pill and try to relax. In all this mayhem, I have not brushed my teeth, washed my face of changed my sanitary pad: thank goodness I have light periods. Max sees the weather conditions (sometimes there are the usual downpours) and gets back inside to wear his bathing suit: the cat, placed at the foot of his backpack, does not make a move (he also feels sick, poor thing). Shortly after, he resurfaces, yellow face because of nausea. Anyways. The boat goes, we’re just going by motor as we are currently sailing against wind. Speed is about 3.8 knots. We are tight on that damn bridge. Things drop inside, out of their places, as the sea is so rough. But I finally manage to find a position that, although not the best, allows me to lay my head. I can’t turn my head, or even tilt it, unless I want to vomit. I shall stay as put as possible. Too bad that after a few hours I have to pee. I wonder if I can jump in the water to do it – better than under the deck, in the sweltering heat. I can’s, says the captain, but he suggests that if everyone turns to avoid looking at me, I can pee in the hole where water passes that cools down the engine. Ok – I say – I pee in the hole. After several maneuvers, including almost falling into the water and attempting not to vomit while moving, I set to pee. Peeing while trying to maintain balance requires a huge effort , also because I have the teller between my legs ! But I’m a tough girl, I will not give up, and shortly after I lifted myself, happy, ready to sit down and go back feeling nauseous. The others are all more or less ok. They put on sunscreen ( the smell of which does nothing but increase my nausea) and happily eat tuna mayo sandwiches, the smell of which makes me even more sick. I can not even say “no thanks!” when they offer: I can only lift a hand to block anyone who wants to talk to me, ’cause I do not have the strength to answer. NB : Max does not speak English and the only one who knows how to put together (badly and with a horrible accent of Quebec ) two words of Spanish is the captain. So if I do not translate, Max is practically isolated, which, introvert as he also is, does not bother him much.
After another eternity the captain informs us we are through about one third of the journey. Then I start worrying: does this mean I have to feel so sick for 8 more hours? Well … I do swallow another seasickness pill, seems to be working this time and I’m pretty optimistic. Yes – I say – it will be worth the money, I will see the paradise of San Blas, the Kuna Yala and the eat lobster on the boat.
The relief lasts about half an hour, after which I am again forced to take another pill for seasickness. The others (except Max ) , meanwhile, are starting to play dice, laugh, read, move around. Yet another eternity and finally the wind rises: we pull up the sail and just go for a little sail, to hear the silence of the sea. I admit that the view of the sea ( waves, deep blue ) is magnificent, fascinating: just us, water, and wind. But if I turn around to admire the view, I get more sick. I give up. We restart the engine, the others are hungry again: again tuna mayo sandwiches and this time Max also has one. And here they begin questioning: you do not eat anything? (Not only did I not eat, but I do not drink either, and despite everything I have to pee, a sign that I’m completely dehydrating which bothers me more than a little). Another question: you have not taken anything for seasickness? (Just 4 tablets but hold on, I will now take the fifth). And then just ’cause my face (says Max) says it all, they stop talking to me (they just stare, as if to make sure I am still alive). After a few more hours of torture, the captain announces that “in about three hours,” we will arrive. Not having a watch at hand, the three hours seem to me … 20 or is it because I feel so sick? I wonder: 3 more hours? Well, between the motor and sailing, our speed is now 7 knots, or about 12 km per hour. Imagine what it means to sails 90 km WITH WAVES at a speed of 12 km per hour on a boat of 12 meters. 11 hours for 90 km – and with this I have said it all. I think it would be definitely faster for me to swim the distance. No kidding.
I decided that no, it’s not worth it, and I prefer to throw $ 440 and as soon as we get to San Blas I have to get off and go to the ground and to hell with San Blas, the sailboat, the Kuna Yala and all of Panama: I am sick of it! We have been trapped in Panama since ever, being sick and all… I speak to Max, for as much as I can, and tell him that I am going to get off, but that he may stay on, because he does not suffer like me, and we’ll meet again in Cartagena. He says not to even mention that, and that in any case there is nothing to do for him with a group of people with whom he cannot even speak. I’m am about to cry from being so sick and frustrated, and he convinces me to stay calm, soothing me and saying that as soon as we get to San Blas we will land, he tries to distract me and make me laugh (I have not even the strength to do that).
Once docked, after maneuvering to drop the anchor, comes the big question: Claudia, how are you feeling? And then I confess that I’m too sick, I want to get off. The captain does not make a fuss, he tells me that maybe we can make sure that I always sleep on the ground, and go from island to island by boat, as he wants me to enjoy San Blas archipelago and that the sea will not be as bad again, and that there will be only the final stretch for Colombia – or 12 more hours of torture – but by then I ‘ll be used to the sea. He says we’ll camp, we’ll play music, eat lobster, etc. . I tell him I do not think so, I’m too sick, but if he takes me to land we’ll talk about it the next day – they will spend the night anchored there. So, he prepares the dingy. Meanwhile, Max goes in to pick up our stuff (the cat finally re-emerged too), and we put all our heavy backpacks etc on the dingy. The sea is rough, but we only have to row a short distance and we should manage. Uploaded the stuff, Max must get on the dingy. He places his precious saxophone, and then slips on the slimy ladder, slams the arm, leg and almost looses a tooth, and falls almost entirely in the water. I panic. I also go up in the dingy, Belgian guy jumps in to help rowing. Super loaded, in the pitch darkness illuminated only by flashlight, the two begin to row – Massimo and I terrified try not to move so as not to disrupt the really precarious balance, but we note that water keeps getting in the dingy. Once on land there are a good 10 cm of water there! The dingy says a lot about the real capacity of the sailboat: maximum of 6 people. But ALL the companies load more passengers than they should ( a bit ‘ like the famous chicken buses of which I already wrote) .
Once on land, surrounded by darkness, the captain takes us to a small hotel on the island, inhabited by no more than 3 families. The guardian of the hotel leads us to the administrator of the island. The captain, with his poor Spanish (he wants to do the talking) explains that I’m sick and I need to sleep on the ground. Grumpy, the chief tells him that his hotel is full, that it is now allowed to dock on the island without permission. Almost sobbing, I ask humbly for forgiveness, and I tell him that it was all my fault that I felt so bad and I implore him to help us. He sends us another hotel, behind the airport (imagine a single strip of asphalt where only tiny aircrafts can land). There, a similar scene: the boss, obnoxious and grumpy, tells us that the hotel has no room, that it is absolutely forbidden to camp on the island, he can’t do anything to help us and at that hour of the night (more or less 10 pm ) we will never find a boat that will take us to some other island. I’m almost to desperate. I can’t go back on the boat! Meanwhile, the captain convinces the administrator of the island to allow us to camp between the trees, behind the airport: he breaks through when the administrator cites article by article the constitution of the Kuna Yala and he asks if there is no article that says that the Kuna Yala must help those who are ill. The 20 inhabitants of the island within an hour know the whole story of my seasickness.
Armed with courage, captain and the Belgian get back on the dingy to go get our tent. Once they get back, we set to pitch our tent, lit only by flashlight. The tent is for two people, which means that once we put inside the backpacks (’cause it might rain, and there are all of our things), we can only sleep sideways, our feet on the backpacks. As the captain leaves, he tells us to meet again the next day to talk about what to do. While Max takes off his soaking clothes (realizing that jumping into the water he drenched also his wallet and all his money), I fall asleep, dressed, having not eaten anything all day, dirty and half- wet. Shortly after Max also falls asleep. I wonder what else we could ever happen … and a short while later, it starts to rain in the middle of the night and the rain comes in the tent through the air intake. As soon as the sun comes up, I wake up, I go out of the tent and put out the backpacks, so cam rest at least a little better. I take pictures of the beautiful dawn, and when I see a man on a zodiac coming to shore with his dog, I go have a chat with him. He is American, has an Italian wife, and he is also there with his sailboat. He tells me that the stretch of sea between Panama and Colombia is one of the hardest to sail, and that many people will feel bad and give up on sailing. I decide that no, I will never go back on the boat. I will go back to Panama City and take a flight to Colombia, too bad for the money. But I do not want to suffer like the day before. I still feel jolted … As soon as Max wakes up, after an hour or so of also battling with the rain, we gather our things, dismantle the tent, and talk a bit of what to do: and the decision is to spend a night in the hotel on the island, hoping that there is room for us, and return Panama City either by plane or on a speedboat to Carti then a car.
At 8:30 we are at the hotel (we practically slept in their garden) and the old lady who runs it (where was she the night before?) welcomes us willingly, saying she has a room for us, but only for one night. She calls the airport (ie the little house on the corner) and they tell her that the next flight to the city is on Thursday. She then organizes the transport for us on a speed boat (40 minutes) and the 4×4 (the road is very steep) and since in the archipelago there is no internet, she also calls a hostel in Panama City to book us a room. I tell her that she is in my savior, and she smiles satisfied, her toothless smile. After that, leaving our stuff in our super-plain room that to us looks like a mansion, we go eat breakfast. I can only stomach bread. Max happily eats scrambled eggs. I feel better after a shower (cold of course, but I AM FINALLY CLEAN!).
Upon meeting the captain, we announce that we do not want to get back on the boat. He tells me that he will not return my $ 440 (thankfully Max has not paid). Who cares about money, I think: this is what I have to pay for not being seasick again. After all – he explains – to bard me and Max he had to say no to two other people who would otherwise be on the boat. And I should have warned him that I might get seasickness. I tell him that I had never really experienced that, I am accustomed to going on boats, also on this trip I have done it many times and I have NEVER felt bad. But you know what? I do not care. At this point I just want to go back to the room and SLEEP!
Back there, I set to do laundry: the lady wants to charge me10 dollars, evidently sees my astonished face and when I ask again “how much?” she agrees to lower the price to 6. Soon enough I am in bed and fall into a deep sleep for 3 hours. When I wake up , I go to the restaurant (across the runway for airplanes!) and ask if we can have lobster for the dinner. While we are in San Blas, we might as well enjoy it. They say yes, they will go buy it and cook it for us. Hurray! Things are changing to the best finally! ! I happily stroll back to the hotel and announce this to Max, who then starts foretasting the lobster and saying he will buy me dinner. Happy and content, and optimistic, we decide to take the speedboat to go to the nearby island, to the main village, and see if we can find an internet point to search for a flight to Colombia. Once there we realise that the village is no more than – LITERALLY – huts of reeds and wood, with toilets flushing directly into the sea (in fact the Lonely suggests not swim where there are houses) and there is no trace of internet. And there are also the usual piles of garbage typical of the whole country. Waiting for the speedboat to go back to our island, we see a line of children – dirty , filthy , barefoot and in their underwear, lining up for a bowl of cereal and powdered milk. They explain that they do this once a month, like a party (I used to dream of cakes, candies and coca cola as a child!!).
Back on our island, I decide that it might be worth going for a little swim, since we are in San Blas after all. The water does not seem too bad, although the standard of Sardinia are unattainable. I put on my bikini, my swimming goggles, and run out. I jump in the water … looks beautiful, transparent, but all I get to see is algae so I quickly get out, go back to my room and take a shower. Max thought better of it, not getting in the sea. San Blas was meant to be THE tropical paradise … I wonder how that’s possible, with all that garbage, the rain and all…
Post-shower , we decided to make our own the motto of two Italian boys met in the hostel in Panama City: Toda Joia Toda Cerveza (do you remember the song Toda Joia Toda Belleza ?) . In fact, there is nothing to do here. Once you read, you swim (but we do not like the sea here) you get bored and end up drinking beer. We feel a bit better thinking about the lobster that awaits us shortly. At 7 o’clock we step in the restaurant ( which is no more than a couple of wooden tables, cheap garden chairs, loud Scorpions music totally at odds with the setting). We order our lobster and the waiter (well, we call him that!) tells us that there is none. I insist saying that a few hours before I had a specific request, but I am told that they have not found any. In fact, the Italians “Toda Joia Toda Cerveza” had warned us that, although the sea is full of lobsters, locals eat the same things over and over: chicken, patacones and little else. So, chicken and patacones it is again, and cerveza in cans, not even chilled. Yuck. After dinner, Max says he’s still hungry, and back in the hotel at 8 pm, we eat a few cookies and also open a pack of whole wheat crackers. I am asleep by 9 pm – we must wake up early, we have our speed boat at 7:30 am!
Once awake I see that Max has a nice bump under his right eye: a beautiful mosquito bite. As he pulls himself up from the bed, he takes a cracker from the package he had left open the night before. Within a second, he turns around and sees the package is COVERED in ants, the biting ants! He runs to the bathroom to spit it out, the ants are also pinching him inside his mouth! I get pinched while I throw the package out of the room … OMG! It was the icing on the cake …
Once the speed boat arrives, I sight out of relief. Within 40 minutes, no sign of seasickness, we are in Carti, where a car awaits us and we are back in Panama City, in our hostel, by 11:20 am. Once in the hostel, we find that the internet is not working in the whole neighborhood. It seems that there has been a great explosion and the lines are off. How do we book a flight to Colombia? Anyways, if we can’t get it to work here, we are set to go to another area to find an internet point. We go eat a sandwich nearby and when we come back internet is up and running again. First thing first, I buy plane tickets to Colombia, so if all goes according to plan (never say never!!) we should be in Cartagena tonight.
Meantime, we decide that there is no way on earth that we will cruise the Amazon river for 3 days. I do not want to risk seasickness again, I do not want to be eaten alive by mosquitos, risk malaria, and sleep on a hammock for 3 nights. We are going to change our route and cross the border to Ecuador, and get to Peru from there.
So… the adventures go on!
Looking for advice on what to do and see in Panama? Click here!
For an inspirational post on a sleepless night, check this post