Why take a plane from Colombia to Panama when you can sail through the Caribbean islands for five days and get the experience of a lifetime?
El Gitano del Mar sails across both countries four times a month. I recently crossed over from the land of coffee to the land of Panamanian hats. Let me take you there, so you can have an idea of what awaits you…
Departure from Colombia
The catamaran sails out of Cartagena, on the Caribbean side of Colombia late in the evening. My suggestion? Make the most of this beautiful city and walk its streets amidst the colourful colonial houses in the city’s old quarters. In this little enclave, all the artisans and artists come out to play and give life to the streets with their colours and music.
Then head to the bastions to watch the sun, slowly going to sleep into the ocean. That’s where you’re going to sleep for the following five days too, floating on El Gitano del Mar, cradled by the waves.
You’re picked up at The Club Nautico, only a 10-minute taxi ride outside the city. Ask the staff at the door and they will very kindly show you to the quay where you gather up with the people who will become your sea family for the following days. Oh, and by the way: if you’re wondering if you should be doing this as a solo traveller, trust me when I tell you it’s a no brainer.
The dinghy picks you up and off you go to the catamaran.
“Welcome to El Gitano del Mar,” Elena, one of the sailing crew says as she helps us off the dinghy and onto the catamaran, “remove your shoes – you won’t need them for the next five days!”
Good, I think. I’m home.
Out to the open sea
There’s something magical the moment you jump on board and start leaving the high rising buildings of Cartagena behind. The backdrop of the black curtain of the night, the city lights dotting its edges, slowly shifting backwards and backwards, until all you feel is the swing of the waves and the sails go up.
I stay up till 3am that first night, taking it all in. I couldn’t get enough of it – the sound of the wind in the sails, the surf rhythmically bumping against the bottom of the boat, the stars watching over us.
The sun wakes us all up sweetly the next morning, rising from behind the boat. The crew goes on non-stop through the 200 nautical miles – sailing, cooking. For most of us passengers, it’s the first time out in open sea, so we just do what we do best: we eat, we sleep, we relax.
“Crossing over from Colombia to Panama, on El Gitano del Mar, might easily be one of the most memorable border crossings of my life.”
San Blas – the Caribbean Islands of the Kuna people
Miniature islands of pure white sand, palm trees and crystal clear seas – this is the heavenly picture that is your world for the next days.
The Kuna people are a matriarchal society. They somehow decided to plant palm trees in these banks of white sand and turned them into a habitable place for them and their visitors.
Some of the islands are almost as if they were deserted – just you and your sailing buddies on them. On others, there are little bars where you can buy beer and dance. A bit of everything for everyone.
Life on board
Maybe one of the best things of being on El Gitano del Mar is that you can do whatever you want to do everyday – no rush. You’re anchored somewhere for the day and you can swim over to the island, or get a dinghy ride, and just chill under the cool shade of the palm trees. You can also snorkel around the reef and watch a variety of different fish, sting rays and star fish. You can kayak, you can float in the sea, you can walk around the islands.
There’s no strict program to follow – the day is yours, do with it whatever you feel like.
Drinking water free flows all day. The food on board is made fresh, three times a day, by a cook on the catamaran or when possible, on bonfires on the islands. Simply inform the crew if you have any allergies or follow a specific diet, like vegetarian, etc.
In the afternoon, you can soak up the sun on the catamaran’s front nets or take a siesta under the cool shade of the sails.
In the evening, you eat, you dance, you drink, you sit by the fire, you sing, you play football, you dance some more, you drink some more and do it all over again until you’re completely drained.
Music is always alive on El Gitano del Mar – from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall flat out on your bed at night, cherishing the incredible memories of the day.
The days out there by the islands are really moments you get to just be. You dive in for a morning swim, have breakfast, talk, watch out for dolphins, speak with the Kuna people who come on board to sell their crafts – bracelets, traditional clothing.
At night, despite the comfortable cabins, we all still decide to sleep out on the nets at the front of the catamaran, on the sides, on the top. The hypnotizing sound of the waves playing with the reef and the infinite carpets of stars above are too incredible to miss out on.
Welcome to Panama
As the days pass, and you float around on the turquoise sea, despite the fact that you can actually see Panamanian land, its mountains and thick green forests, you almost forget about countries and borders.
In reality, you might as well do – the crew takes care of the immigration process for you. On the last day, the boat sails right next to an island where the office is and all the paperwork is taken care of by them. Simply swim, snorkel, sunbathe and chill.
Once it’s all done, the captain comes back on board and hands you the stamped passport and voila – you’re officially in Panama.
An experience of a lifetime
Sometimes we’re so pumped up in the fast rhythm of modern society that we forget the joy of slow travel. We simply click around, get a flight, pack a bag, head to an airport and jump on a plane. Within a few (or a bazillion) hours, we’re dropped off in a new land, pass through a cold immigration queue under fake lights and the watchful eyes of officials behind a window – doing what immigration officers do. And then bang, your passport is stamped and off you go.
We forget what travelling the distance feels like. El Gitano del Mar gives you exactly that – you feel the sea as it drifts you from Colombia to Panama, the wind blowing in the sails and the sun rising and setting with the passing of each day. You breathe in life, as you transition from one country to the other – you have fun, you relax and once you get on the Kuna boat to head towards the mainland, you wonder and think: all travelling should be like this.