san blas islands

Backpacking Paradise – Sailing from Colombia to Panama

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Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking: 9.5/10

san blas islands

If you’re looking for a once in a life time experience whilst backpacking around the world then the sail from Cartagena, Colombia to Portobello, Panama is the one for you. Colombia has many stereotypes attached to it but it is undoubtedly a fantastic place to go backpacking and if you are there then this is an experience you can’t miss out on.

Cartagena is one of the hotspots to go backpacking in Colombia and it’s incredibly easy to organise the sail once you’re there, all you need is a little flexibility. Almost all the backpacker accomodation in the city will have details of captains that are doing the trip and all you have to do is contact them and find out the details of their departure. But be warned, there is a huge variation in the quality of service offered on these boats. You may get a captain who cooks every meal and dotes on your every need, but there are also captains out there who enjoy a drink or two on the boat and have been known to leave backpackers fending for themselves and even steering the boat whilst they make friends with a bottle of rum. The only way to avoid this? Do your research!

Once you’ve found the right boat and arranged your departure date you’ll be heading into a paradise rarely found on this earth. The trip involves a two day sail to the San Blas islands, a group of paradise islands that are inhabited only by the Kuna people (and a few wealthy Americans!). Many of the islands are empty but for a few palm trees and are surrounded by crystal clear waters and abundant sea life. If you find a good captain you’ll have 2 days there where you can snorkel, eat fish and enjoy a deserted island all to yourself! The journey itself can be a little tough if you’re not a great sailor (i.e. seasickness!) but we were entertained at various points by schools of dolphins dancing their way around the front of the boat as we made our way through the doors of our own personal paradise. Not a bad support act.

From the San Blas it’s another day’s sailing to reach Portobello, Panama and lay your feet on some dry land. The trip is a once in a lifetime experience; i’ve never been much of a sea baby but i can honestly put it amongst the top 3 of my all time travel experiences. The feeling of laying on your own island with just enough room for a cluster of palm trees, eating barbecued fish and having only the sea for company is hard to beat. If you’re in Colombia, it’s a must. If you’re not, go to Colombia.

I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s done the trip and any recommendations for captains to go with in the comments. You can also find details on other places to go backpacking in South America here.

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6 replies
  1. Backpacker Boy
    Backpacker Boy says:

    Hi Lynn

    We went with an American guy called Mark on his boat 'Melody'. Departures are very sporadic so you're best just to see who has there ads on the noticeboards when you arrive and then ask around to se if they're reputable.

    Costwise i can't remember exactly but i know it wasn't much more than 5 days would've cost on dry land and is certainly worth every penny!

  2. Off-Track Backpacking
    Off-Track Backpacking says:

    hey! I'm actually debating between Colombia and Tanzania for my next backpacking trip (Dec '10/Jan '11). I've heard great things about Colombia but I don't know anyone who's been to Tanzania. Do you have any info to share? This post is really wanting me to pick Colombia right now!!

  3. South American traveler
    South American traveler says:

    I’m planing to visit some central american countries after september, hopefully I will find the way to get to Panama from Cartagena, still do you think it is possible to do this sail trip from Santa Marta? maybe it is cheaper?

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      I’m not sure if you can do it from Santa Marta. We just arrived in Cartagena and looked at the notice boards in hostels to see when the boats were leaving. Just make sure that if you find a good boat you hop on board as they can be hard to come by!


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