The Art of Sailing From Colombia to Panama

After spending one awesome month in Colombia last January, it was eventually time for me to leave this enchanting country and move on. To switch continent and venture off to Panama.

There are two ways to do this, unless you’re willing to swim or take a suicidal trek through the deep and guerilla infested jungles conjoining the two countries, that is. Because no, there are no roads connecting Colombia and Panama. Most non-suicidal travelers thus chose to either fly, or sail. The first option tends to be cheaper and of course faster, but as I figured, also way more lame.

The missing road has turned the seabound alternative into good business and plenty of sailboats take off in both directions every week offering food, accommodation and a sweet little detour through the amazing San Blas archipelago before arriving on mainland. My goal for my whole trip from Peru to Canada was to avoid airplanes as much as possible, preferably entirely, and only travel over land and water. So well, even though my budget for that month pretty much got slaughtered because of this decision, it was a simple one to make.

The quality of the boats and the food served vary a whole lot, as well as the skills among all different captains and crews, so doing a bit of research before you take off can really make a difference. I ended up sailing with Eduardo, this older Italian guy who’d been sailing around the globe several times in his life so far. He had a beautiful new 44-foot catamaran and I got a good vibe when I went down to the harbor in Cartagena one afternoon to see him and his precious (the boat).

Le Boat

However, there were also these three Swizz guys coming along on the trip, who’d been off sailing the same direction five days earlier, but had ended up in a storm that their previous captain and boat clearly couldn’t handle. It resulted in near disaster, a couple of days stranded on some random island and then transport back to Cartagena and basically no refund for the misery. I admired them for the courage to give it another try. Again, research is the key.

Ship wreck

How you do not want to end up……

Cartagena skyline

We left Colombia and South America the next afternoon. I was sitting in the back of the boat watching the Cartagena skyline slowly shrink on the horizon, until we were embraced by nothing but an endlessly blue ocean. The tropical day turned into evening, and as the sun set and we opened our first cold beer, we got accompanied by dozens of dolphins. A pretty magic moment. They danced in the waves as the catamaran moved forward for a long time, seemingly out of pure joy.

After 30+ hours on open sea we finally entered Panamanian territory and started to spot the first out of hundreds of little paradise islands in the turquoise Caribbean water. We spent about two days snorkeling around, eating lovely Italian-inspired food, interacting with the indigenous Kuna people, and exploring a few islands. 

On one of them I stumbled upon Filipe, the one and only resident who had lived a simple but happy life here for the last 70 years. He’s a living example of the fact that happiness isn’t necessarily related to modern notions such as having a good job, a nice house and a family. We’re all so different, and this little man clearly found quality of life in this peaceful environment, far away from much of society’s madness. Encounters like these add to the list of factors that make me wanna keep wandering the globe for as long as I’m physically capable to.

Over all, an awesome experiece and if you’re ever about to travel the same way (or the opposite) I’d definitely recommend looking into doing it Jack Sparrow style, by letting the wind carry you there.

A first-timer in the Caribbean

After Villa de Leyva I river rafted and cliff jumped my way north until the day I finally stood with sand between my toes again in a part of the world I’d long wanted to visit, gazing out over the Caribbean Sea.

The trip out to the coast turned out way smoother and faster than expected, and once I got out of the over-air-conditioned bus in Santa Marta I instantly caught myself thinking how terribly hot it was. At 7 am in the morning. Acclimatization, phase one…

More or less instantly I took off to the more chillaxed former fishing village of Taganga, where I enjoyed a few days of diving, making new friends, bumping into old ones, and dancing my way through the tropical nights. Standing under the stars on a rooftop with a good drink in your hand, surrounded by people you like, while the ocean breeze works its way through your hair undeniably is a pretty awesome feeling.

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Another almost mandatory thing to do in the area is the coastal hike out to Playa el Cabo in Tayrona National Park. I’m no fan of “mandatory” places to visit; I prefer to go wherever the wind carries me or just base my next destination on my mood for the day. But the one who says Tayrona isn’t beautiful and well worth the effort would be slightly delusional. At the same time I probably shouldn’t take for granted that everybody’s into amazing uninhabited Caribbean beaches, and sleeping in hammocks with mind-blowing views when you wake up. But for now I will.

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Over and out.

That time in Villa de Leyva

The day before I was about to leave the Colombian capital behind, sweet Doris asked me where I was going next. “Hm, probably Villa de Leyva”, I said. “Oh really?!” She replies, “I got a really good friend living there, I’ll hook you up!” Said and done.

The next evening I was standing in the center of this little cosy colonial town, when I picked up my phone and dialed the number I’d got written down on a note next to the name Norma, without much of a clue of what to expect.

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20 minutes later she came greeting me with a big, welcoming smile, accompanied by three other family members. Together we walked back to her house, where I met the rest of her extended family.

The two days that followed I was hanging out with this wonderful group of people, getting treated like a family member myself, fed, given my own room and shown around town. Not to mention the free intense Spanish course as basically none spoke English.

It’s like there’s no limit to how hospitable people can be sometimes, and as always, this amazes me. A complete stranger in their house, immediately a part of the family, and they expect nothing in return… Colombia has been treating me so well. Not exactly this angle they use when feeding us news about the country through media at home. A dangerous no-go area as I got told before I went – by people who never put their foot in the country themselves.

To these people I’d like to say; Don’t believe everything you hear, rather go and find out for yourself and you will be amazed how much beauty there is to be found in the world.

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Seduced by the concrete jungle

Bogotá. The sole thought of entering this mega city gave me anxiety long before I had to face it (I was born in a forest). It was gonna be just another enormous, busy city I would have to cross on my way to more appealing destinations further north. My plan was to rush through as fast as possible, to basically just spend the night and then be off early the next morning.

But that was before I met Edward. The young local doctor who opened up his nice home for me, which he shared with his equally nice and sweet mother Doris.  He saved me like 12 years of time by taking me straight to all these hidden spots and highlights, and bit by bit the city started to seduce me. For a moment I could even picture myself living there… That was a bit too weird though, and I began to speculate what kind of pharmaceutical drug(s?) Edward had put in my morning tea.

Anyway, lesson learnt – Never judge a place before giving it a chance. And the by far best way to do so is with a local pro by your side.

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Catedral Primada in La Candelaria, the old part of the city

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Catedral Primada, with Cerro de Monserrate (the hill) in the background

Rush hour

Rush hour in and around one of many TransMetro stations – a successful public transport system that helps keeping the already over-packed streets of Bogotá less packed.

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Oscar sharing some skills

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Doris, Edward’s sweet and extremely sporty mum who pulled me out of bed at 6am to go climb a mountain

View from Cerro de Monserrate

View from Cerro de Monserrate – One of the biggest urban landscapes I’ve ever seen spreading out in front of me, home to about 9 million people. That’s like the entire population of Sweden, only a wee bit more cramped together… perspective?

Urban sprawl

Lost in coconut land

High palm trees, reaching towards the sky… Most people, like myself, picture sandy tropical beaches by the thought of that. However, this is not the case when it comes to Valle de Cocora, Colombia.

Couldn’t help but feel like I was walking around in alien land when I finally got there, because in a way the trees seemed so misplaced… But, regardless how it makes you feel, it’s a place that shouldn’t be missed out if you ever make it anywhere near Salento in the central part of the country.

The start of the trail, that makes a nice day hike, can be found a short pickup truck ride away from central Salento. If you read your maps and follow the signs more carefully than me, it might even be a pretty short and pleasant trek! After detouring past a point where hummingbirds can be seen from a close distance, I started to follow a trail that was taking me up a steep mountain – all according to my map. Eh…

45 minutes later I found myself at the top of the hill, sweating like a pig in the hot afternoon sun. I remember thinking how great the timing was gonna be. According to my calculations I would reach the actual palm tree valley on the other side just in time for the golden light before sunset. That was before I realized I’d climbed the wrong mountain of course. A brutal 10-minute-speed descend later I was back on track and by moving fast I still made it in time.

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IMG_0540One of those humming hummingbirds.

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To be more specific, the trees, native to Colombia, are called Wax Palms and are among the tallest species of palm trees to be found on the globe. Apparently, they can grow as high as 60 meters and reach an age of 100 years. The fact that grassy farmlands are all that cover the hillsides they grow on, kind of adds to the feeling of them being t a l l .

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Over and out.

My Colombian vision of paradise

Salento. I don’t remember how I first found out about this place, but once I heard what it was about – organic coffee, rolling green hills, a lovely climate, rivers and good hiking – it turned into a mandatory stop on my journey up through Colombia. For Oscar it was a non-explored spot of his own country so he was happy to check it out. We had to overnight in the bigger and not near as welcoming city of Armenia before we got there though, as it had gotten pitch dark and pretty dodgy outside after leaving Cali.

If you’re on a very tight budget when traveling, artesanos are like the best travel companion you could imagine. Often, the money they make in a day is what most westerners would spend on parking fees that same day, and thus they have to keep their expenses low. And they know how to.

Anyway, not wanting to be dependent on me to cover his part of the hotel cost for the night, he took off to the nearest busy traffic light to earn a few pesos. I tagged along and soon found myself sitting in the middle of the street watching and documenting his actions.

OscarNot long after a local woman pulled up next to me, rolled her window down and asked me with a troubled face if I had a place to stay for the night. I smiled and said I indeed did and that she didn’t have to worry about me. As far as I can remember I never got mistaken for a homeless person before, but I suppose me sitting there on the concrete with big holes in my jeans and shoes, unshowered and all hooded up, kind of gave that impression that night. I was slightly touched by her concern.

The next morning we were once again standing along the road with our thumbs in the air. A few cars passed until this young Colombian lady and an older couple, coming from the opposite direction, pulled up next to us and asked where we were going. We told them we were unfortunately going to Salento in the other direction. They nodded, drove off a bit, turned around and then stopped next to us again, saying “Well, let’s go then!”

Marcela and her parents, that constituted the older couple, were more than happy to take the half an hour detour back to Salento to help us out. They fed us and then invited us to come and stay with them or contact them if we ever got a problem. Or if I wanted a job teaching English or so, Marcela, a teacher herself, promised to help out with that too. To me, this is Colombian goodwill in a nutshell.

The week that followed in Salento, I collected many good memories. A highlight on my journey through this enchanting country.

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IMG_0859IMG_0853IMG_0851IMG_0667Good old Don Elias has been producing organic coffee for many, many years

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IMG_0685Coffee beans drying

IMG_0691IMG_0696Coffee beans roasted

IMG_0698Roasted coffee beans being grounded. The result? Maybe the best cup of coffee I ever had.

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Coffee hills

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IMG_0763IMG_0657IMG_0808IMG_0331IMG_0814Sunset, doggy style….. classy.

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