Please read the comments on this one, there is a lot of controversy. Fritz gets involved in multiple ways…
Breaking news, hold the presses! Fritz The Cat, the infamous vessel which ferried us and hordes of other backpackers from Colombia to Panama SANK! That’s right, the catamaran is at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. Colombian news website El Tiempo has a video in which you can hear the captain, Fritz, yelling in Spanish for rescuers not to take his picture as you see The Cat half-submerged in the blue water. Everyone came out alive, but how rough it must be for those 14 backpackers who lost everything. Here is a link to the video and news article:
Our boat trip seemed pretty crazy, but it’s hard to imagine going through that whole ordeal. Needless to say that it would have ruined our trip. I can’t wait to hear more details about the wreck. I feel like their will be a mention of captain’s error somewhere along the line. They probably hit an iceberg.
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.
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.
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.
In the morning of the fifth day aboard Fritz The Cat we anchored off the mainland prepared to cross the isthmus of Panama, near Carti, packed our backs and waited for a boat taxi to come pick us up. The boat showed up on time and we soon had 17 of us and all our gear on board. We puttered a short way along shore, then made our way up a small river that we were told was full of 2.5 meter caymans. The boat dropped us off about 1km inland and we packed ourselves into 4x4s for the journey across the isthmus of Panama. We climbed up through some small rolling mountains full of lush, green, very jungly vegetation. Soon we came to the Pan-American Highway, an old friend that we had lost in Colombia. The first thing that we noticed about Panamá was how nice the roads were.
After just over two hours in the car we came to the Pacific Ocean and the high rises of Panama City. You could place that skyline on any coast in the United States and it wouldn’t be out of place. McDonald’s and KFC were everywhere; we thought that we had gone straight back to the States.
We stayed in a rich suburb near the old town. That night we went for a little walk looking for food and wandered into one of the longest streets of cheap stuff (think Chinatown on steroids). We ate some street snacks and were amazed by the cars which actually waited for pedestrians to cross the street.
The next day we walked towards the old city of Casco Viejo. Don’t walk the wrong way heading toward the tourist center. We accidentally took a wrong turn and made our way through a slummish neighborhood that was very interesting. All colonial building that looked like they were still destroyed by war. Only three blocks from where we were supposed to be, the police came and grabbed us and made us take a taxi the three blocks back because they said we were in a bad neighborhood. In South America good changed to bad over kilometers, here it was over mere blocks. I guess we need to be more careful around here.
Sadly, in Casco Viejo almost every street was ripped up with construction crews everywhere. They are probably replacing the cool old cobblestone with new asphalt. This made it hard to take good pictures and just annoying to walk around. However, we did get to watch the boats in a long line to cross through the Panamá Canal.
Everthing in Panamá City is super westernized, but it is a pretty smelly city. However, even with all the chain restaurants, there were still plenty of the Kuna people walking around dressed in their awesomely colorful (but never matching) outfits.
We only stayed for two nights. On our bus out we crossed over the famous Canal.
When we walked up to the deck after waking up on Day 3 of our cruise, this is the view that greeted us:
We had reached the Comarca Kuna Yala, otherwise known as the Islas San Blas, a pristine chain of paradisaical islands off the Caribbean coast of Panamá. Most islands are totally uninhabited, but those that are are occupied by the Kuna people. The indigenous Kuna have managed to maintain their culture and independence despite over 500 years of outside influence. Their islands are technically part of Panamá but the group maintains a mostly autonomous government.
And their islands are literally PARADISE. For the next two days, I felt like I was living inside a postcard! Fritz cruised us around to several different islands where we lounged on white sand beaches, saw starfish bigger than dinner plates (sadly we didn’t get a picture of one), snorkeled over diverse coral reefs, and caught glimpses of Kuna life.
This is basically what the last two days of the voyage on Fritz the Cat consisted of: snorkeling, lounging, and taking in the beauty! Watching the sun set and the stars come out each night as the anchored boat smoothly bobbed in the ocean was a surreal experience. We also enjoyed lots of fresh seafood bought from the Kuna who would drive up to Fritz the Cat in canoes. On the fourth day, as we were eating lunch, Zach glimpsed a flash of silver in the sunlight. A dolphin! It ended up being three dolphins who swam along side us for several minutes!!! Watching them dart and jump alongside the sailboat was, I think, the most magical experience of our entire trip. The rare privilege of visiting the Islas San Blas was definitely what made the whole Colombia-to-Panamá voyage spectacular.
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….).
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.
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.
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…