(Panama to Cartagena, Colombia)
My teeth juddered as we slammed down from yet another eight foot wave in our tin-can of a “speedboat”. There was no land in sight and my belongings were undoubtedly already drenched as my carefully sourced black bin liner (aka rucksack cover) had torn when my bag was thrown into the back of the boat an hour earlier. When everything had still seemed so good.
I’d already run through the entire Les Mis/Miss Saigon Greatest Hits in my head, an attempt to distract myself from the apparently endless and terrifying crossing of the Gulf of Uraba, and was about to snatch the bottle of rum from the row of Colombian passengers behind me (they had quietened down in the past half an hour anyway and were looking slightly more green around the gills – they wouldn’t miss it, right?).
And then the engines failed.
And whilst everyone else’s nervous laughter subsided and disbelief worked its way down the steady road to panic, I thought: “well at least this will be good for my blog.”
But let’s rewind 12 months. It was New Year’s Day 2015, I was poring over the map of the Americas in front of a log fire in the highlands of Scotland, and then I noticed that the road ran out. Well now this was a bit of a fly in the ointment in my (boom boom) “no fly” rule. It seemed that I had just discovered, after over 20 years of being a self-proclaimed geography geek, the legendary Darien Gap. An impenetrable 160km tract of gun/drug-smuggler-infested jungle, the missing link in the Pan-American Highway between America’s top and toe, lying between Panama and Colombia.
In any case, there was an alternative. Sailing. It’s a tough life when the only way from Panama to Columbia involves jumping on a yacht through the Caribbean.
At this stage, all the same, I do need to pay homage to my magical Stugeron pills, without which the four days out on the ocean swells really might have been a tough life – a fact to which at least two of my fellow passengers can attest.
So it was that, less than 24 hours after arriving in Panama City, I boarded the African Queen 2 just off the north coast of Panama. I only discovered later, once well onto dry land, that African Queen 2 did indeed have a predecessor – but our Teutonic German captain Rudy had a close encounter with an unfortunate reef a year earlier. Fabulous.
For those of you who know about these things (and/or care) – African Queen 2 is a 54 foot monohull, built in Italy 60 years ago from good, solid wood (none of these fibre glass imposters). It has a maximum cruising speed of 10 knots, though I don’t think we topped 7. It also has the capacity to carry 600 litres of fresh water on board. Or indeed none, as it happens. After some error – still unexplained (possibly, unless you understand German) – we were rationed to bottles of drinking water only. I know that salt water is meant to be good for you, but I still felt (and probably smelt) pretty revolting after four days.
Still, we were all in the same boat.
Worse things have happened at sea.
(Go on, any more?)
At least we didn’t end up having to pay $100 each to call out the toilet rescue helicopter (after very strict flushing instructions from Rudy on day 1). On the other hand, we were held hostage on our last morning until we’d paid $100 towards a replacement mattress, after witnessing some German rage when a previous one somehow disappeared without trace during the night. There is probably a mermaid floating around the Caribbean Sea on it as we speak.
I am, however, disappointed to report that we did not bump into Jonny Depp – though Rudy’s Colombian wife was a dead ringer for Jack Sparrow’s regular fling. No Long John Silvers emerged from the depths with crabs crawling from their octopus tentacle hair either. Though I imagine that if I’d joined in with the constantly circulating spliff, I might be recounting a slightly different version of events. (Sorry, I’m a square – I prefer my zucchini spaghetti to come with mint, not marijuana).
Instead of pirates, we were approached daily by local fishermen in their dugout canoes, fixed up with makeshift mast and sails. This is the place where the fish market comes to you. We ate fresh tuna, king fish, dorada, crab and lobster twice a day.
Though after Rudy’s “Lobster party!” two nights in a row (I hasten to add it was more a party for us than the lobsters, despite their happy looking recces of the deck an hour before dinner…) I’m afraid to say that you really can have too much of a good thing. No really, it’s true.
Having said that, the locals had more luck with their fishing than us. Despite the 11am “catch-a-fish-beer” rule, and the signs attached to the fishing rods permanently playing out lines behind the boat (dutifully written in Spanish as you have to speak to the fish in their own language. Of course), we caught nothing. Still, that wasn’t quite the point.
On our first 24 hours on board, we sailed through the San Blas archipelago – think of the stereotype – white sand, palm trees, turquoise waters, coral reefs. The first island I swam to, I walked across in less than 100 steps. And we always thought Tiree was small… We moored in the shelter of a cluster of similar islands on our first night, spotting a sting ray gliding past the hull of the boat before we went ashore and drank rum around a bonfire…
…Just in case you are sick of hearing how perfect it all was, fast forward five hours and I was having a minor (and I may say somewhat unexpected) altercation with a particularly serious snorer… I capitulated and alternated between cramped berth and breezy deck for the next three nights!
Back to perfection (unless you hadn’t discovered Stugeron), day 3 brought our first full day at sea. We cruised along outside the reef, engines silent, on both main sail and spinnaker. Boat keeling, sunshine, spray, the Colombian flag fluttering brightly and a school of dolphins playing in the surf around us. And yes, I was listening to podcasts of Desert Island Disks. The theme music transported me back to childhood car journeys in Scotland listening to Radio 4 (yes yes…), imagining that sailing amongst desert islands was a luxury I could only ever dream of. In a bizarre reversal, the guest on the particular podcast I was listening to chose Jerusalem as one of their eight tracks. So there I was, sailing amongst those desert islands in the Caribbean Sea, sun on my face, wind in my (salt encrusted) hair – but now dreaming about the green and pleasant lands of home…!
Not all of the islands down the Panamanian coast are deserted of course. It is the realm of the Kuna Yala – an indigenous people who are protected by the Panamanian government. We stopped off in a Kuna village one evening and enjoyed a stroll down the main ‘street’ passing through the tightly packed houses of wood and palm fronds, hundreds of children milling about everywhere.
One of my favourite images remains the sight of a stereotypically tall, blond haired Swede playing football with the short, brown haired Kuna kids – though I don’t think he showed them any mercy. Of course, modernity was here too – solar panels spaced evenly along the street, signs for phone credit, and I learnt of Obama’s new Presidential decree on gun laws from CNN playing on the local shop’s TV set.
There were also shades of sailing around the west coast of Scotland (or at least what I remember of it before I stubbornly refused to join the family sailing holidays because they were too scary, too bumpy, and I preferred to spend the week in bookshops with Granny!) Rain in the air, a warm breeze, the Panama hills disappearing in shades of grey along the coast (possibly the first time the Gairloch has been compared to the Darien Gap?), cups of steaming coffee, scrambled eggs on plastic plates and peanut butter on Kuna bread.
This is how our penultimate day on the boat started. It ended with us being chased out of Panamanian waters by their marine security forces (at least they gave us a very cheery wave goodbye), though the Colombians were less bothered by our arrival. As we moored up in Sapzurro, just across the border, I spent my first 18 hours in Colombia as an illegal immigrant. Always knew there was a rebel lurking in there somewhere.
The actual immigration process the next day, a short hop around the headland in Capurgana, was the friendliest welcome I’ve ever had into any country. Including the UK. The Colombian official dispensed with the normal line of questioning – instead he googled my blog as he happily stamped my passport, promising to read it later. And so if you are reading – hello Mr Immigration Officer!
With the lack of roads out of Capurgana, we did, of course, still have to undergo the most terrifying part of the trip so far across the Gulf of Uraba to Necogli. But you’ve read about that already. Long story short, we made it. Without swimming. We still had an eight hour journey along Colombia’s north coast to Cartagena – but we were aided by a friendly bus driver, some mercifully smooth roads and relaxing views of endless fields of bananas, coconuts – and the ubiquitous cows. Only the final leg had the potential to go horribly wrong. But happily we found a taxi driver at the bus station who didn’t seem to mind a new-found friend’s surf board sticking out of his truck into Cartagena’s teeming traffic for the last 30 minutes of our epic journey…
Frankly it makes my daily packing woes seem positively elementary.
Which is a good thing, as I’ve got three months of hostel hopping through South America ahead of me now!