Sailing from Panama to Colombia

Posted: April 25, 2011 in Colombia, Panama

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We’re in the 21st century and the Americas are still not connected by a continuous road. Truth to be told, I didn’t really know that till a couple of months before leaving on this trip. The 2 countries are separated by the Darien Gap, a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest. The only way across is by sea or air.

There is some information on how to get a motorcycle across but it’s not too clear on how and pricing. By air it’s probably the easiest and most expensive at around 1400$ but also providing the least amount of fun and adventure. I of course opted for a sailing boat which ended up being one of the highlights of this trip.

I booked a sailboat through Mamallena Hostel. I also lucked out a bit on the pricing at 750$ since most boats charge around 1000$ these days. Inflation is crazy, since just a couple of years ago they were charging about 500$ for the same trip. If you’re traveling with a bike, I strongly suggest shooting this hostel an e-mail. You can also go straight to Portobello and check out the sailboat list at Captain Jack’s hostel where you will end up staying anyway since your sailboat will most likely get delayed. All the captains get together at Captain Jacks so you can talk price and negotiate in person. Somehow, they try to charge more there than through the hostel as they know you’re pretty desperate. Either way, booking ahead doesn’t really mean that you will leave on the set date.

My sailboat was supposed to be the Green something and leave on the 7th of April. The captain delayed it till the 9th because he didn’t have enough customers. Then on the 9th, he delayed it till the 11th. Then he came to the hostel with an infected arm he injured while fixing the motor on the boat and said he had no idea when we were going to leave. He introduced us to another captain named Umberto and we transferred boats. Umberto was a bit of the same story, delaying the departure date 2 days at a time because there weren’t enough people on the boat to cover his budget. Luckily, Josh and John showed up with 2 more bikes. 3 guys with 3 bikes would have been fine to cover costs as the bikes cost almost as much as a person. Are you still following?! 🙂 Me and Josh loaded up our bikes onto the boat but John kept having 2nd thoughts. Sometimes changing his decision a few times within half an hour. He was worried about getting sea sick on the boat. Anyway, long story short, John didn’t get on the boat but another guy, Mike showed up with a KLR from another hostel so we finally had 3 bikes on there. Slept the night of the 11th I think on the boat and sailed out in the morning. I had been in Portobello going back and fourth between dates and boats for about a week. The town itself is not that bad, but 1 night is more than enough there. Captain Jack’s hostel is not the greatest either. It’s filled with crappy, burned out old American and European captains who just see a green sign on top of your head. They bad mouth each other and try to pull you in on their boat, but 9 out of 10 will not take motorcycles on there.

So anyway, this brings me to the next and last subject before the pictures… pick your captain well. We got lucky to have a Colombian captain that really liked sailing and doing trips on the boat. Most of the other captains, like the one from Fritz the Cat are burned out taxi drivers that fill up their boats like pig trucks and charge you crazy $$. We had a 42 footer and there were 4 of us on there, Josh, Mike, Umberto the captain and me. We had lots of space on the boat…

Pix time…

It rained most of the time in Portobello, but we did manage to visit Isla Grande on a sunny day before leaving. If you have a few days to spare in Portobello, Isla Grande is worth a visit.

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These pictures are from Portobello. A landslide took out some of the homes at the town entrance a while ago.

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And it’s not the cleanest town

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But there is a cute monkey that lives there on a leash. Careful if you play with him so that he doesn’t grab onto you as he will not let go. You might be stuck walking around town with him for an hour…

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There’s also an old fort in town. Kinda run down, but interesting to check out.

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And finally, here’s our sailboat, the Odysee.

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And we’re out sailing… Umberto on the left and Josh on the right

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In the San Blas Islands, we stopped at this small island town to get some Diesel.

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One of 300 some islands you can find in San Blas.

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Pure paradise! No words can describe the beauty of San Blas.

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This one island was going to be our home for the next 2 nights… well, it ended up being for 4 nights… We had already spent 1 night anchored up at another one where we did some snorkeling by a ship wreck.

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Food on the island was mainly coconuts, lobster, crab, squid and fresh fish. Not a bad menu, huh? One night we had for dinner all of them… Here is Umberto helping the fisherman clean up the fish. A decent size fish cost 1$. Lobster was around 5$ a lb but really negotiable. Lets just say that prices on fresh seafood were ridiculously low and the fisherman were not really selling the catch of the day, but the catch of the hour.

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Pictures of the island. They don’t to the island justice as it’s hard to see the nice clear water and natural beauties in them…

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My camping site…

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And we would have this amazing sunset every night

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While on the island, most of us were keeping busy. I went spear fishing for hours pretty much every day. My whole back got sunburned. We tried to fish for crab right off the shore, one of the guys caught a squid right off the beach and I did catch a couple of fish once I figured out some spear fishing tricks.

After 4 night of paradise on a pretty much deserted island, we set sail again. I could have easily stayed a month….

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Tuna we caught while out at sea on the 1st day after the islands. We ate most of it raw as sushi. Best sushi I have EVER had! Ahhhhh… raw tuna…

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Almost no camera tilt here…

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I don’t have pictures of night time sailing but that was quite the experience too. We took 2 hour shifts. We were using my GPS, the captain had a cheap hand held one too, but mainly the moon and the stars. Since we had some motor problems, we had to sail where the wind took us which wasn’t always the right course. I learned a lot about sailing and I have to say, I’m hooked. Nothing beats being in the middle of the sea on big waves and only the moonlight to guide you.

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The inside of the boat with our captain doing the cooking

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Next day’s catch. A dolphin fish, or also called Muy Muy I think. It was a 3 course meal for the 4 of us. Sushi as breakfast, soup for lunch and friend fillet at night.

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After some rough sea sailing for a couple of days, we came close to land again, but the wind has brought us a few hours south of Cartagena. We ended up using the motor for a few hours which was cooperating again.

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Here’s Mike

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First Bouie in Cartagena

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Cartagena entry

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So relaxing

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In Cartagena, we tied up the boat to this smaller 37 footer. It’s Umberto’s Nephew’s. He bought it for 5000$ and is living on it for free. No docking fees here.

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Getting Mike’s KLR ready to be loaded onto a lancha.

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We got a bit ripped off for 28$ a piece to get the bikes off the boat and onto land with small lanchas (canoes). The bikes made it ok though even though they had some major salt water everywhere. I soon realized that I had lost my front brake though and I had no pressure what so ever. Turns out it was the caliper piston that had taken in salt water which mixed with dirt had clugged it up. Rode around town for a couple of days with the rear brake only. Josh shoed me how to clean the brake system all up and bleed it. I had never done it before but now I know how. Brake is up and functional again.

Here is Cartagena… more pics to come on the city later.

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Our dorm at Media Luna Hostel. We have been here since Tuesday I believe. Because of Easter, everything is closed and we need insurance papers for our bikes. If you get caught without insurance here, they can take your bike away, so we’re not risking it. It’s been a good time, but hopefully we get our insurance tomorrow and head back out on the road.

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So over all, what can I say about the sailing trip?! An AMAZING experience. This trip normally takes 5 days, but we spent about that just in the islands alone! Add on top of that the week long wait to get on the boat, and now almost another week of waiting in Cartagena… and I would not do it any other way.

If anyone reading this is thinking of the sailing trip too with the bike, (or without), here are a few tips:

– You can just catch a boat right from Portobello. You don’t need to make big arrangements months ahead like most do. Show up to Portobello and talk to the captains at the Captain Jack Hostel. Be ready to spend some time there as you will most likely not leave on the same day as you arrive… unless you’re super lucky.

– Try to get a local captain from Panama or Colombia. You will get to inhale some more culture and knowledge. These captains also enjoy their work a lot better than the burned out American ones. They also don’t run ass wipe boats… in other words, they wont wipe your ass for you like some other more luxurious ones.

– Bring some food and lots of snacks and fruit. The captains will feed you, but not much unless you are lucky to catch some fish.

– Make sure they will let you sleep on the San Blas Islands. Some will bring you to the islands, but you’ll not be able to get off the boat to go camping on the islands.

– Buy sea sickness pills before you leave. It’s gonna get pretty rough out there.

– WD40 your whole bike. It will get lots of water on there.

Contact me with any questions as I’m sure I left out lots….

  1. Adam says:

    Wow! Some of the best photos yet, Sounds amazing.

  2. E- says:

    Hmm, I always thought that Robinson Crusoe is a fictional novel…
    How can one obtain the right to live on that amazing island? (but do they have wi-fi, so that I can work? or, as a second thought, why would one need to work there?)

    • pimptrix says:

      The islands are 100% the right to the local indigenous people and luckily no gringo is allowed to buy land there. If you have a sailboat, you can anchor down for as long as you want I think. They have some weird laws around there though, like scuba diving is illegal but snorkeling is legal. Spear fishing is illegal too, but I was spear fishing all day. Either way, that paradise is by visit only and no way to settle there. As for wifi, if you can afford it, you can have wifi anywhere in the world through satellite… but for a lot of $$$. But like you said, why would you want to work out there?!

      • E- says:

        Nice to know that there are still places on the planet that really belong to aboriginal population and where living in harmony with nature is an enforced rule. As for your spearfishing, don’t worry, I am sure that it’s one of the the most ecologically sustainable forms of fishing (and food procuring as a matter of fact).

  3. katia says:

    Pictures are indeed incredible!!! I’m glad to see that you finally started taking photographs again and overcame your laziness. 🙂
    The one with the bridge and HDR are really something! It’s also good to see that you were fishing in your PJs, Motik would have been all over you. 😛

  4. edgar says:

    hey hermano espero que te este llendo bien me cuidas la moto jajajaja
    saludos de todos por aCA SUBE LAS FOTOS PARA QUE NOS CONOSCAN

  5. Quinn says:

    Best update yet! Very jealous! Keep on truckin’! Can’t wait for the next update!

    I also may continue to ask you questions about the trip.. still highly considering doing the same come this winter.

    • pimptrix says:

      You should totally do it man! You never know what could happened and you might be stuck in the same place for the rest of your life. Do it while you can!

      I’m not much of a description day by day type of guy, you’ll find more info on that on ADV rider. This was just a bit more elaborate cause the posts on ADV about the Panama crossing make it sound a lot harder than it is. Any questions you have though, don’t hesitate!


  6. ANDRI QUEVEDO says:

    how are you Stefan? I hope that things are going well … I found it simply amazing that you are doing this race across america bike alone. I’m the guy who met him at a service station here in Venezuela when newly arrived from Colombia and across the Maracaibo Bridge. As I said, I know how it is to travel without a budget and go rolling, rolling … Friend’s why you come to the Paraguana peninsula in Falcón Venezuela, you will be welcome to my home is small quiet, near beaches and free zone … let us know anything and my family met her blog and found it very good idea. my email is and our phone number is 0416-5666771 (mobile) 02698084998 (home), annex you some pictures of our town. I hope you can read and answer the mail.

    Andri Quevedo Aldama
    Los Taques – Falcón
    National Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
    Management of Fisheries Management.

  7. andri quevedo says:

    hey man where to walk? we follow in family .. !!

    • pimptrix says:

      Hey Andri! Sorry I haven’t posted anything new in a while, but here in Venezuela I haven’t had much luck finding internet at the cheaper posadas where I have been staying, and even less on the beaches where I was camping…. I hope to be able to post some more soon! Cheers,

      • familia quevedo aldama says:

        buddy I hope things go well and has taken a short time to rest from the road …. in the north of the country is getting hot, tremor in Costa Rica, while steady rain was forecast for the Venezuelan Andes. .. we are following your path …. my mother always wondered where does the boy and show him the map, like my other relatives. Once again my friend I hope things go well, good luck in everything, great caution.

  8. edgar says:

    que mas hermano veo que tienes intenciones de regresar a colombia si regresas me avisas
    saludos te todos por aca te cuidas mi sangre ojo hermano te sigo por tu spot jajaj me cuidas la moto jajajajaja

  9. Vlad says:

    Are you kidding me? You crossed almost hundreds of kms of the Atlantic on that boat?

    Beautiful pictures, crazy photographer.

  10. Hansa says:

    First, I loved your fotos! Incredible wild style. That aside, I think you paid a stiff price for the trip even with the MC’s. I have also heard many bad stories with captains posponing or in the worst case being useless at sea. I did the same trip with Gisbert on the big cat Santana (without MC though). He was very reliable and left on time, as well as beeing a fantastic skipper. If anyone else is doing this trip with MCs I recomend trying to contact him on Colombia Panama Sailing as he seemed to be very helpfull. We had one guy bringing a bike, but I don’t know if or what he charged for it.

    • pimptrix says:

      Hey Hansa. I actually paid one of the lowest fairs available these days with a motorcycle. Most of the ass wiping boats (the ones that are 100% back and fourth taxi drivers all inclusive) charge 900-1100$ for person + motorcycle. Also, they only do 2 days with a max of 3 in the islands while some of them will only cruise the islands and maybe do some snorkeling. We camped on one of the islands for almost a week. The captain I went with doesn’t do full inclusive taxi service. Although he has many years experience in sailing, he wont wipe your ass for you or serve you 3 meals a day. For those that are looking for a full on 100% touristic do as your told when your told type experience, Colombia Panama Sailing and other services alike are great. When I’ll be 60, I’ll do cruise ships, but till then, I like to think for myself and do stuff a lot more raw and adventurous. You have to remember that there are no horror stories, only adventure! Also, I’d hate to be cramped on a boat with 8-14 demanding and whining tourists… Sailing with Mike, Josh and Umberto was an incredible experience… 4 guys and 1 sailboat! 🙂

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