Sailing around the Darien Gap.

Figuring out a way of reaching South America is a conumdrum all two wheelers face on their journey south.

Why? Because the Panamerican Highway peters out a couple of hundred clicks west of Panama City. Beyond, a chunk of largely impregnable jungle still divides Panama from Colombia, a swathe of land fabled for both its untouched beauty and the infamy of its residents: various insalubrious narco trafficantes and pockets of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Occasionally adventurous folk trek through, like Karl Bushby. Perhaps even more rarely, travellers kayak around it – like the Riding the Spine crew. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Both of these routes have their logistical issues, which can include difficult to procure permits and specialist equipment. They also promise a very real element of danger. Having explored possibilities with a couple of other hardy travellers (we found inflatable kayaks, but shipping the bikes alone was going to cost $750), unfortunately neither was destined to come together within our various timeframes. So in the end, I opted for the more ‘straighforward’ overland route: boating through the Caribbean’s prestine San Blas islands to (finally) reach South America.

The cheapest of these options is to hop on a series of lanchas – local speedboats – and hopscotch across the islands that speckle the Caribbean coast. More info is available here. This can take anything from a few days to a week or more, depending on the connections, and tends to cost around $150 to the port of Turbo. Alternatively, various yachts sail backwards and forwards between Portobello, in Panama, and Cartagena, in Colombia. At around $425 it’s certainly the pricier option, though the journey is stretched out to five days, with the romance of island hopping, snorkelling and fine sea food is thrown in for good measure.

I decided to treat myself to the latter…

Although the cost of the trips are largely the same, the yachts themselves can vary greatly; you can also land yourself with a grumpy captain, cramped conditions and a lack of promised food. Turning up in Portebello, I chanced upon quite the opposite: La Rebeldia, an incredible 67ft boat, complete with B&O sound system and fine dining that included lobster, king crab, baracudda and delicious paella, thanks to its excellent Barcelonian captain and first mate. What’s more, there was so much room my bike could even be stowed inside.

Rough conditions meant I wasn’t always at my best (only dry retching on day one, thankfully!). Here a quick report to give you a feel for this crossing, an incredible way to close the chapter on Central America, and begin a new one in South America…


One of 378 islands in the San Blas archipelago.


I'll have that one please.


Buying fresh seafood from the Kuna people, who run the islands as an autonomous province.


Destined for the paella. We also swapped some rice and pasta for a King Crab.


Kuna Kids in their dugout canoe. The women wore beautiful, colourful beadwork that ran the length of their arms and legs. Some had geometric tattoos on their faces.

I bought a simple two panel Mola, the locally made fabric, on one of the islands. There are much more intricate and complicated designs too.


The girls head off for some snorkelling on the reef. We saw starfish, manta rays and even a hammerhead shark.


Snorkelling fanatic Daniella, from Chile.

The Argentinian contingent ensured there was always a good supply of Mate.


The waters were clear and clean. Different shades...


... on different days.


Sunset in the San Blas.


And sunrise on the 30 hour stint across open water to Cartagena.


Barcelonan Mario, first mate, works the sails. He was also a master chef, cooking up a delicious, freshly caught barracuda amongst other delights.


And our illustrious captain Jonny, also from Barcelona. Jonnys the veteran of a four month bike trip in South America, so I knew I was in good hands (-;


Much of the time was spent under sail.


We were very lucky with the boat we ended up on. A 67 foot beauty, decked with wood and home to a B&O sound system, blaring out the Rolling Stones...

While we all popped sea sickness pills and the final crossing drifted by in a dreamy haze, while Jonny and Mario took shifts through the day and night.


Nearly there... Dodging freighters on our way into port.


The metropolitan skyline of Cartagena.


Fede, from Argentina, a sports teacher.

Londoner Katie. A world away from working as a PA...


Mario and architect Sol, also from Argentina.

Daniella, a fan of Colombian diva Shakira, does a dance of joy upon reaching terra firma.


A massive gracias to Jonny and Mario for making it such a great crossing.


Vane, Fede, Mario, Ceci, Sol, Katie, Dani and Jonny (our last member, Ramon had wandered off when the picture was taken.) Our traveller posse was largely Argentinian, with a Spaniard, Chilean and two Brits. Thanks to everyone.

8 thoughts on “Sailing around the Darien Gap.

  1. Susie Moberly

    Loved this post and bought back vivid memories of sailing off Belize… buying fish from local free divers and snorkelling in those crystal waters. Great photographs as usual! Look forward to your next… take care in this part of the world. X

  2. Gigi Love

    I just finished sailing in Kanehoe Bay on the island of O’ahu today. For a moment-out there-I thought about where you might be, came home and saw your new post. AWESOME…to feel the wind, waves, and vivid colors of the sea under your feet is so inspiring. Beautiful pics, glad you weren’t too sick :*) G

  3. ljubica

    hi, can you pls give me some contact for the boat and captain, it seems their passengers are really happy ones. thank you!!

  4. Ken Z.

    Did the same trip in reverse in May 2011 on La Rebeldia. Not much wind so mostly motor sailed. Great boat and really good food. The trip far exceeded my expectations. Ken

  5. Dan

    I’m on my way through Panama now but am yet to decide on my method of crossing to Colombia. There is a ferry starting on the 9th or 10th of May that will do three overnight trips between Colon and Cartegena per week for around $100. If I catch it I’ll try and write any details that I find out here but the San Blas are also calling…


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