The Darién Gap is the 60-mile stretch of jungle/swamp that separates Panama from Colombia, ie. North from South America, and was something that we’d been pondering for a while. As inviting as the Chocó Department in Colombia sounds, the Gap is a regular haunt – or home – for indigenous tribes, guerillas and narcos. How could we get to South America? The options were:
A. Fight. Fight through the jungle, also taking chances with the aforementioned locals who probably wouldn’t have the kettle on ready. And probably not actually possible with a bike anyway – No thanks.
B. Fly. It’s approx $400 to fly from Panama City to Bogotá or Medellin. We hate flying with bikes because of all the faff and so avoid it as much as possible – Again, no thanks.
C. Sail. There are a couple of options with this, you can do a 2-day option on a speedboat which is slightly cheaper than the alternative 5-day slightly more relaxed* ‘sail’ (actually a ‘motor’) with 3 days island hopping/snorkelling and 2 days on the open sea – Yes please. With bells on.
Many boats make the trip from Panama to Colombia and vice versa; we were looking for one that wasn’t a party boat, didn’t cram passengers in like sardines, had good reviews for food and if it looked pretty for insta then all the better 😉 . We decided on the Ave Maria, and booked.
So there we were happily booked in at a new hostel — having ditched the previous night’s accomodation which was, well, let’s just say ‘basic’ — waiting to meet Paul the Captain and our new sailing buddies. Hoping they weren’t either dullards or drunkards, somewhere in the middle would be just perfect please 😊 . After Paul immediately relieved us of $550 each and our passports we had a quick brief of the timetable/expectations and probably all breathed a sigh of relief. No one showed dullard/drunkard tendencies and actually everyone seemed mostly normal.
I should point out at this stage that Edwards and I had read a few reviews of the boat when we were doing our research, and one had stated that Cap’n Paul had apparently punched a man in the face and another that he had shouted at a woman – both due to being sick in the boat, not out of it. Hmmm. One of our questions at the right opportunity was going to be “Have you ever punched a man in the face?” but chickened out. Our new friends seemed nice, the captain seemed stressed (burst blood vessels – in both eyes…) but also nice. Anyway, we’d paid and had no passports, we were in.
We were meeting at the dock the following evening which gave us plenty of time to pick up supplies for the trip – both Paul and @wolfandsongbird had advised us to “take more beer than you think” and so we did. And rum (and wine, Snickers and Fresca). A quick little ferry trip to the boat – with bikes precariously balanced on top of ALL of our luggage – and 5 minutes later we were aboard with beers in hand. A very good start I think you’ll agree.
There were 12 of us on the boat and it was pretty cosy living. We were allocated the cabin at the front of the boat to share with an Irish couple (hi Lucy and Bryan 👋!) and although our beds weren’t perfect we probably had better luck than the Irish, as they had the top bunks – which were, again, cosy – but also meant that they had to clamber over us to get up. I only got stood on twice though. And hit once – he swore it was accidental…
Night one was at sea; we raised anchor and ‘set sail’ (ok, ‘started motor’) towards the San Blas Islands. We had a beautiful sky, lovely sea, new friends, all is good – albeit maybe a tad warm in the boat, this is the Caribbean after all. And then the retching started. Luke-the-Aussie was the first to go but then one by one we all felt awful at some point during the night (except Bryan, the only one who hadn’t taken sea-sickness meds, grrrrr). 4 of us were sick and two of us just gave up and slept outside/hung our heads over the side of the boat. Quick bonding session there.
ANYWAY. We anchored the next morning next to one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen. Was the sickness worth it? Yes, I’d probably say so! It’s genuinely like a postcard picture, perfect islands everywhere. What you can’t see in the photos though is the occasional bit of rubbish that’s either washed up or left by previous thoughtless visitors. The San Blas islands are inhabited by the Kuna tribe and whilst not all islands are lived on, one family is caretaker for a few islands for a set time, and then rotated to another island and another family moves on. This means that there is sometimes a small stall with handicrafts set up, either in their shack or they’ll row to ‘your’ island and set one up!
Days one and two were spent relaxing on the islands, in hammocks, reading and chatting or snorkelling around the clean, clear, turquoise waters and nearby reefs. We’d swim back to the boat for lunch and later head back to the island for more R&R. It was possible to spend the night on the island in a hammock (we were the only people there, despite other boats having shown up throughout the day) but it’s Central America in rainy season and boy can it rain! We weren’t risking a soaking and so all stayed on the hot boat for unsettled, hot sleeps instead. We’d then head to another island after a leisurely breakfast – luckily calm seas – and repeat the idyllic island life.
Now, we’re cyclists, we can eat. We’ve also got pretty voracious appetites even when we’re not cycling and so as part of our boat research we’d wanted to make sure we’d be well fed. Ave Maria – well, Sindry, Cap’n Paul’s partner more to the point – did not disappoint! We were SO well fed, 3 meals a day, everything from fresh lobster pasta (which we’d taken delivery of the previous day on the boat) to chickpea curry, it was all incredible. And what was more incredible was that Sindry cooked it all in such a small space on a floating boat for 12 people! The portions were really generous and there was usually enough for some seconds too. I still have no idea how she did it.
On day three we upped anchor in the late afternoon and left our island paradise(s) for the open sea. We were in for approx 36 hours of sailing non-stop and so we were all pretty nervous by this stage, popping (sea-sickness) pills like it was a rave off of the eighties. Whether it was the pills, the patches, the bracelets or we finally found our sea-legs, no one was sick this time. It was pretty punishing though to be at sea for so long with VERY little shade and no moving air in the cabin. We were all quiet and got MOST excited whenever the Irish put the kettle on. Rock and roll hey?
We made really good time at sea and anchored in Cartagena during the night which meant we woke up (again, anchoring is LOUD!) to a lovely view of the city from the water, and a final group breakfast.
All in all, a pretty good 4 days/5 nights right?
Beautiful islands ✅
Good, plentiful food ✅
Great company ✅
Eccentric Captain ✅
Talked to like children ✅
Loud engine ✅
Not enough/broken hammocks (FWP!) ✅
It was a GREAT trip and one I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone, but talking to others during and after our crossing, I think we could have picked another boat, perhaps one that didn’t pride itself on being ‘budget’, despite being the same price as everyone else…! Having said that, we’ve made a bunch of new friends that were (literally) in the same boat and we’d never have met them otherwise! On arrival in Colombia we all promptly met up and finished off the beer we couldn’t face for fear of sickness! OVERALL: New friends WIN
*it wasn’t entirely relaxing…