The Passage to Panamá: Were We the Last?

We might have been.  While we were riding on Fritz the Cat, there was a message over the radio that the Cartagena immigration wasn’t letting anymore sailboats with backpackers on board leave port.  This was reportedly because they are trying to get the government-run ferry between Colombia and Panamá restarted.  We had heard many rumors that this ferry would be starting within a few weeks and cost around $100 and such but it still had no website, information, etc.  The ferry would greatly decrease the price of the crossing and would undoubtedly be a blessing for all of us poor fellows searching for the cheapest way across the dreaded Darien Gap.  Whether or not more tourist boats will cross is still unknown, but I would just suggest not to have too tight of a schedule if you are trying to sail.

Until the rumors of the ferry are proven true, there are still only two (recommended) ways to cross from Colombia to Panamá: either by private boat (like Fritz) or by plane.

By Boat:

Here is a rundown of the cost of sailing with Fritz the Cat:

$488 per person payed in USD.

$6 for a National Parks fee.

$3 for the boat from Fritz to where the road is

$25 for the 4×4 to Panamá City

Total = $522

Included on the boat are all 12 meals plus unlimited fruit, water, and lemonade until it runs out every night.  Activities include the two days cruising around the San Blas Islas.  Fritz also takes care of all the immigration stuff and you don’t pay anything to enter Panamá.

By Air:

For this I’m going to assume that you don’t care which Colombian city you fly from and you want to see the San Blas Islands in Panamá.  The cheapest flight I was able to find today was about $350 from Bogotá, Colombia to Panamá City, Panamá.  Add onto that the $66 airport departure tax and probably pay for a bag so lets say $450 for the plane.

The trip to San Blas is $50 for round trip in the truck from Panamá City, plus $6 for the boat round trip, plus two nights lodging on the Islands $20 per night.

Rough total = $496

If you add food to all of this then the total will be far over the $522 of sailing.  Even if you don’t want to see the San Blas Islands (well worth the money) then the $450 + 12 meals is still going to be more than the $522 for sailing.  Any way you look at it, the boat is the better deal.

Sure, there are other ways to get to Panamá.  One is by heading to the shady Colombian town of Turbo, taking multiple boats through different mosquito-ridden backwater villages until finally getting into the first town in Panamá, Puerto Obaldia.  There is no road out of Puerto Obaldia, so from there you can take a domestic flight to Panamá City for around $100.  This is possible, but no one really recommends doing it, so try at your own risk.

The price of these sailing trips has soared in the last few years, but we think it is still a great value and a great time.  Maybe the new ferry will start; maybe everything will stay how it’s been, but for now we feel lucky that we were some of the last (or the last) people to experience this amazing adventure.

Read about our voyage on Fritz the Cat.

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The Passage to Panamá: Part One

Our last step in South America was onto a small dock in Cartagena as we jumped into a little boat that ferried us out to a larger boat.  That larger boat was Fritz The Cat, the most famous and reliable of the many private Colombia-to-Panamá sailing vessels.  We had booked our trip a couple months in advance via a PayPal deposit.  Captain Fritz, an animated old Austrian fellow, guaranteed that we would leave on time and arrive safely, as he has made the passage with a boat full of backpackers almost 100 times.   This was a popular time of year and, since we were now on a schedule and had heard stories of travelers waiting for a week for boats to fill up, we were glad to have someone who cared about timely departures.  On the boat with us were 16 other people:  four boys from Australia with their two Brazilian girlfriends, a couple from Switzerland, a couple from Seattle, one old German man, two young German guys, one guy from Argentina, Captain Fritz, and the First Mate Jose who did all the cooking and anything else that could be considered work.  This made for a rather full boat, but there were beds for everyone.  We arrived on the boat at 11am and, due to the Colombian immigration taking its good old time, we didn’t leave port until after 2pm.  While waiting we had a nice lunch of veggie spaghetti and feasted on the unlimited supply of fresh fruit (oranges, mangoes, bananas, pineapples….).

Aboard Fritz The Cat enjoying fresh bananas and lemonade.

Finally we set sail.  Or that is half sail-power and half motor.  We cruised at about five knots with the autopilot set at 262 degrees.  The total trip was just under 200 miles.  After two hours the skyscrapers of Cartagena could still be seen on the horizon, but they soon faded away and all we were left with in the world was our boat and water 360 degrees around us.  The sea was relatively calm but it was still hard to walk, especially below deck.

The open sea.

We relaxed under the shade of the front sail on strong netting that was stretched over the churning ocean.   After the sun set we gazed at the stars that were bright and clear above us.  We sailed toward Orion in the west, as he shot his arrows into the never ending sea.

For dinner the first night we had crepes that we were instructed to eat as follows “Take zie crepe and cover it vit sugar and lime zen pour some rum on top, as much as you vant.”  We thought the crepes sounded strange eaten like this, and they were, but most the rest of the food was very good so we didn’t complain but ate more fruit!

With the boat moving throughout the night we were each assigned a night watch hour.  “If you zie any lights come close you come and vake me up,” Fritz instructed.  My shift was midnight until one and there was nothing to report except a bit of boredom and a slight wondering about the lack of pirates.  Because we were on the move, air entered our cabin very nicely and we were able to sleep very well.  On other nights we were not so lucky.

We woke in the morning to fresh-baked German brown bread, sliced tomatoes, cheese, onion, baloney, peanut butter and honey.  Breakfast was the best meal of the day thanks to the amazing bread.  We hadn’t had a good slice of heavy bread in months so we were pretty happy.

Autopilot.

The day was long and without much to report.  At noon we had lunch and just after dark was dinner.  We went to bed before anyone could assign us with watch duty.  It ended up being the Aussies on watch and their story was as follows:

“Well we were sitting here drinking heaps of rum, hay, and we see these lights go by ’bout 10 meters off the left side.  We were like ‘whoa that boat is close, hay’.  Turns out it was some sort of marker booey, woulda probably done heaps of damage.”  Good on ya, mates!

Luckily (with no help from the Australians) we made it safely to our stopping place at around 2am.  What we awoke to was utter paradise…

The Passage to Panamá: Part Two

Fritz the Cat cost breakdown

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Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Cartagena, our last stop in South America, turned out to be our favorite city in Colombia!  The city was founded by the Spanish in 1533 is now deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Shortly after it’s founding, the city was attacked by famous pirate Sir Francis Drake, which scared the Spanish and led them to build huge walls and fortifications all around the city.

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena
Fire the cannons!

The colorful colonial buildings with vine-covered balconies and the narrow, twisting streets are great for picture-taking and endless exploration.  A truly beautiful, albeit hot, coastal city.

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Cartagena also has a shining modern skyline of skyscrapers, creating an interesting contrast with the 16th century old town.

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Awash in vibrant colors, history, and charm, Cartagena was a great last stop in South America!  It’s also where all the private sailboats to Panama depart, and that voyage is what we’re doing now!  Hasta luego, South America!  I’m sure we’ll be back someday!

Colonial Colombia in Colorful Cartagena

Enjoy this post about colonia Caragena in colorful Colombia? Check out our archives for other adventures! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @laaventuraproject and subscribe to our Youtube Channel.

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Restaurante Vegetariano Los Girasoles in Cartagena, Colombia

Vegetarian lunch

Restaurante Vegetariano Los Girasoles in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia, serves healthy and inexpensive set lunches that should not be missed during any visit to this wonderful city!  Set inside an inconspicuous corner shop near the historic city center, the lower level is a natural foods and products store, while the upstairs contains a lovely air-conditioned dining area and kitchen serving up wonderfully nutritious, all-natural, and tasty meals!

Busy dining room

Founded 27 years ago as Cartagena’s very first vegetarian restaurant, with the goal of promoting healthy eating to Cartagena’s citizens, today the restaurant is still increasing in popularity.  The packed dining room is filled with mostly locals, a testament to the flat-out deliciousness of this place in a predominantly carnivorous culture.  The staff are friendly and always smiling as they provide quick and efficient service.  The complete lunch costs only 7000 COP and contains different selections each day.

Cream of onion soup

On our visit, we started with a mild cream of onion soup.  The main course (see top), consisted of aromatic rice, Asian vegetables, salad with a creamy dressing, lentil fritters, and a casserole of soy crumbles and veggies.

Lentil fritters

My favorite part was the sweet yet tangy Asian-inspired sauce covering the roasted vegetable side.  Everything in the huge lunch was fresh and amazing though, thus we had no trouble getting through the large portions!  All of this was also served with sugar-free, fresh-squeezed passion fruit juice, and followed by a sweet sampler of freshly-baked cake.

Strawberry and raisin cake.

After filling up on all your vitamins and nutrients at lunch, you can shop downstairs for all-natural condiments, herbs, and beauty products.

Selection of natural products in the shop

A great value and a truly great meal, Restaurante Vegetariano Los Girasoles will satisfy hardcore vegetarians and carnivores alike!

Location: Calle de Los Puntales #37-01, in the San Diego barrio of Cartagena, Colombia.

Restaurant from the street

This post was sponsored by Restaurante Vegetariano Los Girasoles.

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