Cartagena to San Blas
06.03.2011 - 10.03.2011 32 °C
The route between South and Central America through the San Blas Archipelago by boat is a reasonably well worn path for backpackers and there were private yachts departing every 2 to 3 days. The vessels range in size with some small boats only sleeping 6 to larger boats sleeping up to 20. They all seem to charge roughly the same for the trip, USD$350 – 450 and follow roughly the same itinerary although for us finding a boat leaving on the right date was the most important consideration.
We had booked passage to Panama on a 50 ft catamaran captained by an Austrian called Fritz. As you would expect from anyone who lives full time on a boat he was slightly eccentric. The yacht was aptly named Fritz the Cat and had ten proper berths but Fritz was of course trying to cram 18 people on board, including himself and his crew in the name of capitalism.
Jess and I and two other couples travelling on the boat were lucky as we all had double cabins to ourselves. However, if you were unlucky enough to be travelling solo or with friends you were packed two to single berth or were allocated a spot in the saloon, sleeping on a giant sofa along with four others. Fritz was sleeping on the floor or in his cabin and other crew members dossed down as best they could around the boat. The saving grace was that being a catamaran there was plenty of room to lounge around on the foredeck and as the weather was great we were able to stay out of each others hair during the day.
The trip was advertised as five days and four nights but ended up to really be only four days and four nights as you are dropped off first thing in the morning on the fifth day. The first two days were spent crossing the ocean from Cartagena to the San Blas and the second two cruising around the islands lying around on deck in the sun, reading books and snorkelling.
We had perfect weather but as with any open ocean sailing many of the people on board felt a little seasick. Jess was one of the worst affected, emptying the contents of her stomach a total of three times over the two days and sleeping in the cockpit on the first night. That said, we were lucky to be in a decent sized catamaran and travelling to Panama, rather than in the other direction, as the following sea and breeze made things a lot more comfortable than they would have been otherwise. Sailing into the wind in a 35 ft monohull would have been far more unpleasant.
We arrived in the San Blas in the middle of the second night and when the sun came up we found ourselves moored in picturesque, aquamarine water with perfectly cliched desert islands sitting just off the bow and the gentle roar of the waves crashing on the outlying reef.
We lay in the sun for a few hours and then lazily swam into one of the islands to comb the beaches. Strangely, despite the island's perfect appearance from the boat, the prevalent currents have resulted in the shoreline being a dumping ground for Carribean flotsam and rubbish, creating a strange juxtaposition, where every 20 metres you would find a perfect conch shell lying on the sand sitting beside an empty washing machine drum or some other equally strange item of refuse.
That said, from a distance the islands were beautiful and it was incredibly relaxing lying around on the foredeck looking out at the water. Around mid-afternoon we pulled anchor and headed off to our anchorage for the night. The new spot had lots of marine life, which meant there was some particularly good snorkelling and the following morning I took on the role of the provider, taking the spear gun out to catch fresh fish for dinner. After searching in vain for a huge specimen that I could bring back to the yacht in triumph, I settled for shooting a small parrot fish on my third attempt. Not exactly the catch of the year but not too bad for my first time shooting a spear gun.
That afternoon we were able to supplement my meagre catch with purchases from the local Kuna people, who would paddle up to the boat selling seafood. We swapped two cans of beer for two lobsters, bought an octopus and what must have been at least a 5kg tuna for about 20 bucks – amazing!
The next day Fritz offloaded us from the boat on one of the islands in the San Blas, miles from anywhere, in what turned out to be a highly inconvenient location, with limited transport to the mainland. We could have stayed on the boat for another night and gone further up the coast but that would have meant spending more money with Fritz for dubious value. Instead, for about $20 each, the ten of us who disembarked were able to organise a local boat to take us to the mainland, where we could get buses to Panama City.
Aspects about the boat itself and how the services were represented to us could have been better but overall taking the ocean route to Panama through the San Blas was a pretty fantastic and economical way to travel between South and Central America which I would highly recommend and at the end of the day Fritz the Cat got us there as promised, on time and in one piece!
I thought I would post a few comments below in case anyone stumbles across this blog looking for information on Fritz the Cat.
- The boat is crowded, no doubt about it. There is not room on the boat for 18 people to sleep in comfort. It is fine if you have one of the cabins but if you have a saloon berth its pretty atrocious especially as you are paying the same as those in the cabins. You are probably better sleeping on deck. However, all of the boats to Panama may be equally crowded and I don't have any other reference points.
- The food provided is decent and plentiful but not amazing. Fritz claims to be a chef but the food is pretty basic fare and is the least I would expect. The seafood is good and obviously super fresh when you get it.
- The bathrooms get pretty grotty with so many people on board and should have been cleaned each day. Fritz's website states there are 4 bathrooms and showers but one appears to have been converted into berths and another is in Fritz's cabin and hence not available – so its actually two bathrooms rather than four.
- Fritz is a nice enough guy and keeps everything organised and running smoothly. Appears to be a competent captain and capable of dealing with problems as they arise.
- Overall the boat is well maintained, is a decent size and seems to be a safe way to do the passage
- Although advertised as 5 days, 4 nights the trip is really 4 days and 4 nights as you disembark first thing on the 5th morning and only get breakfast. I felt this was a mis-leading representation.
- Fritz drops you off in El Porvenir which is in the middle of nowhere and has infrequent transport links to the mainland. We arrived on the island at 10:30am or so and missed the only daily ferry. However, given there were 10 of us we were able to hire a boat privately. You can buy an extra day on Fritz's boat to Portobello but this costs another $75 and didn't seem worth it. The whole 5 day / 6 day sales pitch was a bit tricky as it enticed you to book at the lower rate and then then only found out later that El Porvenir is nowhere and you need to pay more to get to the mainland. While you can transfer to the mainland from El Porvenir independently it is a bit of a pain in the ass and in my mind El Porvenir is not an appropriate default position to disembark your passengers. I would suggest checking whether any of the other boats plying the same route will take you all the way to Portobello for the same price or whether they all terminate in El Porvenir as this would be a relevant consideration.
- At things considered we would have still done the trip at the price - it was an amazing experience cruising through the islands and none of the problems were serious or deal breakers. However, we (and everyone else on the boat) thought that many of the things mentioned above that could have been made clearer up front.