San Blas Islands

Panama and Colombia are connecting by a thin peninsula of thick jungles and no roads. Getting a car around involved stuffing it in a container and putting it on a cargo ship. Getting ourselves around there were two options: Fly or Sail.

We chose to sail.

The San Blas Islands are a beautiful archipelago off the coast of Panama. There are many boats taking tourists on a 3 day tour of the islands followed by a day and a half open sea journey to Cartagena (or vice versa). The boats take off from Puerto Lindo on the Caribbean coast of Panama and after 9 hours sailing arrive in the beautiful San Blas Islands. The islands are inhabited by the Kuna people (read about them on Wikipedia). We slept aboard our sailboat, the Big Fish 1, with daily activities of swimming, snorkeling, napping, eating, sunbathing.. And laughing at the guys on our boat as they got ridiculously drunk and sunburned.

After 3 days in paradise, we spent 2 nights and 1 day at sea. We lucked out with calm seas and had no sea sickness. The last night got a bit rough for a bit and Mitzi nearly threw up, but we managed to resettle her and no damage done.

Only a few boats accept dogs on board so we had to book our date well in advance through Blue Sailing. We wanted to sail mid-August, but there were only boats heading out early and late August that would take Mitzi, so we went with the later date. Less than 2 weeks before our departure, we were informed by Blue Sailing that the owner of the boat we booked had spontaneously decided to sell it (found out later, the new captain had nearly sunk the boat with passengers on board – which we would have been on board for had we sailed early August!!). But Blue Sailing had arranged for another boat to take us, with the same departure date as before. The boat doesn’t normally take dogs, but they were amazing and accommodating to Mitzi!

There isn’t much more to say about this trip, except that it was beautiful and we really appreciated the crew on the Big Fish 1! Captain Jari, First Mate Luis, and Crew/Cook Priscilla.

Extra Information: Sailing San Blas with a Dog

  • Most important part of this trip is finding a dog friendly captain and boat. Our friends at @justwanderinthrough took this trip at the same time as us on another boat and had a very stressful time. Ask for details about rules your captain has regarding your dog – Captain Jari is a dog lover and the crew were wonderful. They took her to shore on the dingy for pee breaks any time we asked.
  • If you expect rough seas, bring Dramamine for you and your dog! Mitzi was fine without, but the last day was a close call.
  • We heard some conflicting information about dogs not being allowed on the islands anymore. The Kuna government had issued a statement that dogs should no longer be brought into the San Blas, but this obviously isn’t enforced. The crew said this had to do with the locals not wanting their dogs and foreign dogs getting into fights. We saw one sign on one island stating no dogs allows – so we just steered Mitzi clear of this area. The Kuna we met on the islands loved Mitzi – particularly on the last island we visited where she had 3 very happy little girls gushing over her.
  • When nature calls, your dog gets a private shuttle to pee on a wide sand beach. What a lucky pup! While at sea, we brought a cheap bath mat to set on deck for Mitzi to pee on. We cut a hole in the corner that we could loop some string around to dunk into the water for cleaning. This worked well for us, since Mitzi has the habit of peeing on bath mats – for once a benefit!
  • The paperwork for entering Colombia with a dog by boat is simple and tough by air. This shouldn’t be your only deciding factor, but it helped tip the scales in favor of sailing for us.

Shipping the Darian Gap

North- and South America are not connected by any roads, between Panama and Colombia is about a 150km stretch of jungle, the so called Darian Gap. Therefore, we have to ship our Landy to Colombia.
To keep costs low, we searched for shipping partners to share a container from the Panamanian port of Colon to Cartagena in Colombia. We decided to use the biggest container available (40′ HC) so that we can squeeze in two cars and one or two motorbikes. We quickly found a van and a motorbike for the journey and as an agent we used Boris from Ever Logistics (WhatsApp +507 6213-3485). Main reason we chose Boris over other agents is that with him, we can load the container outside the port, are present when it gets sealed and can keep the keys to our cars.
Useful resources to find shipping partners are the well known PanAmerican FB-Groups (PanAmerican Travelers Association, Overland the Americas and for motos Horizons Unlimited). Since a few weeks, there’s also an online app called container buddies (We didn’t use it).

Because Rachel and I wanted to sail via the San Blas islands to Cartagena we chose the Saturday shipping, so that we have enough time in Cartagena to get the cars out of the port without having to pay extra fees. You get three free days to unstuff the container, the clock starts ticking as soon as the ship’s in the port. Each extra day costs $41.

Total costs for two cars and one motorbike:
Panama: $1800
Colombia: $557 (payable in Colombian Pesos)
Total: $2357 ($978 for us)

The process to get the cars out of the container in Cartagena is actually quite easy but involves a lot of walking around, filling out forms, waiting and takes two days.
If you are shipping with Boris and Seaboard the first step to get your car back is to go to the Seaboard Compass office in El Bosque (location see iOverlander.com) with the draft Bill of Lading. There you will get a detailed step-by-step checklist and the original Bill of Lading.
If you have a motorbike and it’s Friday afternoon by the time you get out of the port, you are probably out of luck getting the mandatory SOAT insurance – the gas station SOAT selling places we found do not issue the insurance for motorbikes, you have to go to the Seguros SURA office that’s open Mon-Fri (8-12;1:30-5)

Panama

Before leaving Costa Rica, we stopped at a private Mirador (Viewpoint). The Mirador is run by a National Park Ranger and has two short but steep trails to a viewpoint. From there you have a beautiful view of the coast and with good weather we were told you can even see mount Chirripo. What we also saw on the hike were many green and black frogs, nearly completing our animals to see in Costa Rica list! The only ones we didn’t see were Quetzals, the elusive national bird of Guatemala we’ve been on the lookout for since months.

We entered Panama from the small border crossing on the Caribbean coast. We picked this partly to give us the chance to visit Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, but mostly because it is supposed to be much easier and cheaper with a dog. We have read and heard from folks that crossed through the Pacific border that they were required to pay an additional $100 “home quarantine” fee for each dog, where the Caribbean side doesn’t. We had time to kill before shipping the Landy, so the detour was well worth it to us. We had a slow exit from Costa Rica – it took nearly an hour to get the exit stamp, then a police officer didn’t understand what a canceled TIP document looked like and wouldn’t let us pass until the boss from the Aduana (customs office) came out and told him to let us through. Panama side was the normal Central American chaos, but everyone was nice and we had all stamps and documents in hand in just over an hour.

Most people come this direction in order to visit Bocas del Toro, a group of islands just off the coast of Panama. We considered going, but decided against because we’ve already had lovely Caribbean island experiences (Caye Caulker, Utila) with another to come (San Blas Islands), so the hassle of the ferry hardly seemed worth it. Instead, we drove back towards the Pacific side and up into the mountains. There were plenty of beautiful views along the way, including a giant hydroelectric dam and the reservoir behind it.

We spent 4 nights in Boquete, which is a very pleasant mountain town. It is a popular spot for Americans to retire and we could see why. The climate was pleasant – warm but not too hot during the day, and cool but not cold at night – and the surrounding mountains were green and lush. There is also bit of hiking in the mountains above town. We did two of these hikes. The Hidden Waterfalls hike has a relatively well maintained trail heading to two spectacular waterfalls, then a muddy path that leads to a third. Little dog legs and rainy season don’t mix well with the mud, so we turned around after number two. Then a bit higher is the Trail of the Quetzals. We were able to sleep at the ranger station above town for free and walked a portion of the trail. It had rained a bit in the morning and we knew it would probably pick up again, so we turned around after 2 miles and got back to the Landy just in time to avoid a downpour. We sadly didn’t see any Quetzals, which was our last chance in Central America. On our way back into town, we happened to pass a honey farm and popped in to see what they had. We did a honey tasting, with 15 natural honeys and 10 infused honeys. The natural flavors just come from the variety of flowers the bees visit and some were really unique, like the honey from coffee plants. We walked out with just two jars, though we would have liked to buy 10.

After Boquete we headed back towards the coast which we regretted immediately. Higher temperatures and humidity make it hard to sleep at night or do anything during the day. We thought we should check out some beach camping in Panama and made our way towards Las Lajas. We were making great time on the well maintained freeways which is welcome break from the potholed roads of Costa Rica! Then on the Panamerican freeway heading south, we suddenly came to a total stop. There was a protest in the town ahead and traffic was backed up for miles. This is just a way of life in Latin America – you make your concerns heard through road blocks, and everyone just turns off their engines and waits patiently. We were only delayed about an hour and made it to the beach with plenty of time to melt in the sun.

Next stop was Santa Catalina, further down the coast and gateway to Coiba National Park. On the way we stopped at the Salto Las Palmas waterfalls – free and you can drive right to them! We were still reeling from the budget shock of Costa Rica, so we are flocking to free waterfalls and activities like college kids flock to free pizza. In Santa Catalina, it was once again hot and humid, so we booked a dive tour – best way to beat the heat is on and under water! The dive shop took care of Mitzi for us during the full day adventure to Coiba National Park. The whole day was spectacular. First, the boat ride took as past beautiful undeveloped coastline and we saw humpback whales and dolphins! Then the diving itself we saw a huge variety of marine life: Giant oceanic Manta Ray, turtles, huge schools of fish, seahorses, and reef sharks. The surface intervals were spent on beautiful white sand beaches. It was a perfect day of diving!

Santa Catalina was beautiful, but without another dive day it was too hot for us. Back to the mountains we go! We went to Laguna Yeguada to find cooler temperatures and hopefully some hiking trails We found heavy rain and one short hiking trail, but we also made a new friend. A local police officer and part of Panama’s Nature Police welcomed us and was very curious about our trip and Switzerland. We shared a lot about the climate and culture but he couldn’t believe people live somewhere so far from the ocean and beach! He was also curious about Swiss food, and we struggled to describe what the cheese is like. Even in English or German it would be tough for us to describe hard cheeses to someone that only knows Prepackaged Yellow slices, so in Spanish it was nearly impossible. The next day we left town and stopped in Natá de los Caballeros to see their very old church. It claims to be the oldest built after Spanish colonialists arrived. It is well maintained with a wood interior was unique to see.

Next stop on our journey was El Valle de Anton, also in the mountains but further east. The town has hiking trails, a lovely market, and some restaurants. At this point we knew we needed to start killing time before reaching Panama City, so we settled into a hotel camp with a pool for a few nights. Our shipping partner Alexis also happened to be in the town, so we were able to meet up with him. Our first full day we hiked to La India Dormida above El Valle. Round trip from the car was a bit over 10km with not too much climbing, but it did involve some really steep rock sections that Mitzi was too tired to scramble down. The next couple days in El Valle were quiet, other than a parade through town for the Festival of the Golden Frog. We still aren’t sure what the festival is really about but the local schools put on a good show!

Two nights were spent at another hotel with a pool, down near the coast this time. We were able to meet some other travelers we haven’t seen since Mexico – Roque and Sharon (their blog is at bootsandcoffee.com) Panama is the end of their Panamerican journey as they are planning to live down here.

After two nights we were ready to make our way into Panama City, with a few stops on the way. First we went to Los Cajones de Chame, a beautiful river canyon. We all went for a quick swim, including Mitzi. You know it is hot out when she comes into water voluntarily! Then we took a scenic drive by Altos De Campana National Park, did some laundry at a truck stop, washed the car, and hit the freeway to Panama City! It was Thursday evening so we expected all traffic to be leaving the city, and none entering. Which it was – except all lanes during rush hour were used for exiting cars, and there was no way into the city until around 9pm. There are two main bridges over the Panama Canal near Panama City, one of which is very close to our intended camp site. This was unfortunately the stretch of highway most effected by rush hour… so we ended up having to turn around, head back to the truck stop and spend the night there. After a less than wonderful night, we finally made it across the Canal and into Panama City – more on that to come!