The Guna (also Kuna or Cuna) Islands stretch approx. 400km (250 miles) through the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama. Many of them are these little islands big enough for one palm tree or one Kuna house. The water is crystal clear blue, there are pristine conch shells washing up on the shores and the Kuna people are paddling around in wooden boats. It's unlike any place I have seen.
The Kuna population, which is around 50,000, live on these islands, in 3 politically autonomous reservations in Panama, a few small villages in Colombia and some communities in Panama City, Colon & other cities. They speak Spanish & their own Kuna language. Though part of Panama, they have their own Kuna General Congress to govern and disallow any foreign investment/ownership of their land.
For pictures and my experience sailing through their islands, you can skip the next section about choosing a sailboat.
Options for Traveling from Panama to Colombia
Per Wikipedia, "The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama's Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia's Chocó Department of South America. It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide."
Though people have successfully crossed through the gap by foot & vehicle, it's not something you just do. If interested, here's a crazy story of 2 Range Rovers making it through this intense jungle in 1972:
Us more sane people must choose another method of travel:
1. Take a flight - unexpectedly expensive, other travelers I met paying in the ballpark of $330-$380 for one-way from Panama City to Cartagena or Bogota.
2. Take a speed boat or ride in a shipping container - one of the cheaper options I heard, more in the ballpark of Free - $50. If you get dropped off right at the border, you will have to take another boat to make your way past the Darien Gap. I never met anyone who actually did this but have spoken to travelers who have met others who successfully did this. You must not have any time constraints if you choose this method as you might have to wait around in the port for a while.
3. Take a speed boat with a stop in the San Blas Islands (4 days; 3 nights total). The company is San Blas Adventures ( http://sanblasadventures.com) and you sleep on the islands in hammocks at night. Please note with this option you are dropped right at the Panama/Colombia border and walk into Colombia. You then say at a hostel the owner of the company runs on the Colombian side that night. Price was $350 but you then have to take another boat and buses to get to Cartagena or the other main cities, which could run another $80-100 in costs plus a few days travel.
4. Take a ferry - I finally heard of a ferry actually running while I was in Panama City. It's $250/person & takes 24 hours. You can take bicycles, motorcycles & cars on this ferry as well. All the info can be found at www.sanblasferry.com.
5. Take a chartered sailboat - A more expensive option with most charging $550 for 5 days/4 nights (food included) though a few were $500 or $530. The plus to this option is that you get to spend a few days in the San Blas Islands of Panama and all food/accommodation is included. (You can get it cheaper if you contact the captain of the boat directly! See below!)
I went with option 5 because I wanted to experience sailing on the open sea and visit the incredible San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala). Now, choosing this option opens brings up another big question - which boat?
I was given a binder of 30+ sailboats when I asked the owner of my hostel for a recommendation. While hanging in Panama City, I heard stories of boats sinking, some captain getting drunk while sailing, some boats with great food, some with dorm-style beds, others with private rooms. You ask everyone - but which is the BEST??? You can find a few reviews from past travelers, but there is no one stop shop website to make this decision.
By recommendation of my hostel (Villa Vento Surf Hostel), I ended up emailing a girl named Stef, owner of I Travel By Boat (Estefanía Gamarra, www.itravelbyboat.com
+507 6088-4815) in Panama City, Panama who provided me a calendar of all the boats leaving Panama that month:
Sailboat schedule from October & November 2013
The way it works for Stef as an "agent" is that she gets $50 of the $550 you pay (Some agents take $100 of the $550). PLEASE NOTE YOU CAN SAVE MONEY BY EMAILING THE CAPTAIN DIRECTLY. MY CAPTAIN SAID HE WOULD HAVE DONE IT FOR $450 IF I EMAILED HIM DIRECTLY (SEE BELOW FOR HIS CONTACT INFO) I asked her what boats she recommended leaving in the next few days. Here was her email response:
"Hey! Swala on the 28th is a great catamaran. French captain Bernard is super experienced and is a really really nice guy. He has endless stories of the many lives he's lived all over the world. He departs from Portobelo and the trip costs $550. He'll take up to 10 guests. It costs $5 to get to Portobelo by bus.
On the 29th you have Corto sailboat, I also like it a lot because the captain is young (27) and super nice. He has his dog onboard and the ambiance is always cool and chill. His boat is a monohull and he takes 8 guests. He charges $550 and departs from El Porvenir which costs $47 to get to.
These are my two best recommendations for departures before the 30th!!"
I went with Swala and had a phenomenal experience. There were only 5 passengers so we each had our own bedroom, which is unheard of on these sailboats since most have 8-15 passengers. You can contact the captain of my boat, Bernard, through his website:
Or by searching "SWALA sailing" on Facebook. Captain Bernard:
His 42. ft catamaran, The Swala:
We departed from Portobelo after sunset, maybe around 7:30-8:00pm.
All boats leave at night in order to arrive at the islands in the morning. There are very few lights on these islands so arriving at night would make for a very difficult docking.
I have to say that first night is probably my most memorable. The sky was teeming with stars. I was lying in the hammock/netting on the front of the boat that hangs about 5 ft. above the water watching for shooting stars and enjoying the fresh breeze as we left port. Out of the corner of my eye I could see bluish lights glimmering in the water as it hit against the hull of the boat. This light is known as bioluminescence, or the production and emission of light by a living organism. They produce the chemical lucifern, which reacts with oxygen to create light.
To sum things up, it was a pretty awesome first night at sea.
I fell asleep for a few hours then had to awaken to my night-watch, something like 2am-4am. Luckily nothing happened during mine or anyone's night watch so I just kind of sat there sleepily, enjoying the peacefulness. The next morning we arrived and this is the first island we saw...not too shabby. We jumped in the dingy to show our passports on the island.
The next 3 days were filled with eating fresh seafood, snorkeling, seeing the Kuna people and a whole lot of relaxing.
Fresh lobster (different from what we know as lobster in the U.S. - see how they have no claws)
The Capitan buying crab for lunch:
The Kuna are known for their intricate "molas", which you'll see on any of the islands or as they come on their canoes to sell them. I bought this for my mom, who is a true pro with the sewing machine and thought it would make a nice piece for a quilt.
This is not actually my picture below but just one to give you an idea for when you go on the island. I have very few pics of the people because they ask you not to take photos of the Kuna unless you have their permission (which sometimes entails paying them money).
Here's the small crew from my boat visiting one of the islands:
After the 3 days, sailing out and saying goodbye to a very special part of my trip:
I was very stoked to see 2 dolphins swimming with us the next day as we made our way towards Cartagena:
The morning we arrived in the port of Cartegena (I like boats but damn was I ready to walk on land again. Everything was still "swaying" for about another day after we got off the boat):
Next up: Colombia!!!