Getting from Panama to Colombia without an airplane is no easy task. But rather than hot-footing it through the Darién Gap (notorious for bandits and terrorists - not to mention the nearly impenetrable, machete-requiring jungle), consider the more civilised option of chartering a sailboat via Panama's San Blas Islands to Cartagena.
Several cargo boats will take backpackers on the route to make a nice little bit of coin on the side. But we found a standout option: the Stahlratte. For no additional fee, it included Ludwig, a German captain with a penchant for Speedo(n’t)s, as well asa mostly European crew.
The Stahlratte used to be a Rainbow Warrior for Greenpeace. Nowadays it’s owned by a German cooperative who sail it round the world, paying for its upkeep by taking travellers on board. It feels like a pirate ship, with its grand sails and polished wooden hull. But unlike real pirates, the crew limits interaction with other vessels to trading with local indigenous people, the Kuna, who sell fish, coconuts and handicrafts.
The ship spent the first day sailing the picture-perfect islands, which are something to behold - especially if you are as obsessed by the quest for the perfect beach as I am. And let me tell you, perfection was attained! The sea is crystal-clear and dotted by completely unspoilt white sand islands. Some are populated by the Kuna, but most are made up of palm trees, driftwood and coral.
The crew dropped anchor within swimming distance from three uninhabited islands. This allowed the gang to spend two days carrying out the difficult tasks of fishing, sun-baking, conducting rope-swinging contests, swapping travel tales, swimming, snorkelling, reading, preparing meals and drinking rum. I thought this was the epitome of fun and relaxation. But it was the third night, when we set sail for Colombia by the light of the full moon, that was truly magical. Sitting out on the front of the rig as the stern rose and fell with the waves and the stars lit our way was an experience unmatched by any theme park ride, hallucinogen or adrenalin-fuelled adventure.
On arrival in Cartagena, Ludwig pulled out stops to bargain with the port 'authorities' who decide who can dock and who can’t (depending on the standard of the gifts the captain plies them with). Ludwig had selected a fine rum and a very sharp knife. Mission accomplished: the chief warden was more than happy to stamp our passports and let us through as a priority vessel.
Once on dry land, our sea legs wobbled as we made our way into the city, but my memory of the Stahlratte never wavered. To this day, I can feel the rocking of the boat and the tropical sun's warmth. I don't even need any photos to conjure up those perfect beaches.
Make it happen
Sound all right? Mamallena’s backpackers in Panama City will help you organise the trip, which starts at 6am with a 4-wheel drive through the outback of Panama to an inlet near the sea. From here, two men will stack you and your backpacks onto their longboats and chug you out to the Stahlratte, which will be waiting a few hundred metres from the coast at the gateway to the San Blas Islands.The cost of the five-day adventure is around US$365 including food.