Three Days in Heaven, Two Days in Hell

147Views 0Comments Posted 17/03/2010

By Kristin Brinner

Continuing her reports on a Grand Tour of Latin America.

After spending six months in Central America, we decided it was time to move on to our next region South America.

We had already spent several weeks exploring Panama: starting with the Quetzal trail and coffee tours of Boquette, surfing in Santa Catalina, shopping the markets of El Valle, touring the Canal, and finishing in modern Panama City.

We first had to do a bit of the paperwork-shuffle and  run-around that had become so familiar to us in Latin America to arrange for the shipment of our car (via cargo container) from Colon to Cartagena, Colombia. Once that was finalized, we found a yacht sailing from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena. Many people recommended the San Blas as a highlight of their time in Panama, and it didn't disappoint. 

Paradise found

Sailing the San Blas Islands of Panama for three days on the sailboat Sacanagem, we entered an unspoiled paradise of pristine white sand beaches, palm studded islands, and enough fresh seafood to satisfy the hungriest stomachs.

We spent the first two days moored between two small islands that were home to four Kuna families. The days were hot and breezy with plenty of snorkeling, swimming, reading, and cooking to keep us happy.

We spent the cooler nights eating on the island and getting to know our fellow travelers. We were quite the international crew.We spanned the globe from Italy, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, to Canada, the US, and Colombia.

The third evening we anchored in a small bay that was once used by Captain Morgan as a hiding spot, although we didn't find any pirate treasure. For our last night in Panama, luminescent squid surrounded our boat and floated slowly by, twinkling their eerie lights.

On our way out to the Caribbean, we picked up two confused Koreans who seemed stranded in San Blas. They spoke no Spanish and almost no English, but we think they had been waiting for the last four days on a tiny island hoping for a ride to Colombia. The Colombian captain of our boat referred to them as the chinos (Chinese) for the rest of the trip, as their true nationality appeared not to be an important detail to him.

We did notice that  El Capitan might enjoy his booze a little much, and that two people didn't have their own cabins to sleep in, but we tried not to let these details cast a cloud on our impending ocean crossing to Colombia. When  asked where the life vests and life rafts were; the captain  gestured vaguely toward the ship's bow, and said not to worry as we wouldn't be needing anything like that.

Dinner on the Sacanagem

My husband Chris has always dreamed of sailing around the world, so we figured some time on the open ocean crossing between Central and South America would be a good way to gauge if we ever wanted to make that dream a reality.

Once we left the area protected from the waves by the San Blas islands, the seas became rough and the swell really picked up. We had naively assumed (or maybe hoped) that the Caribbean would be a placid turquoise ocean with gentle waves lapping the sides of the boat. However, our small yacht took stomach-losing plunges and sickening rides over huge waves. Although I had been drugging myself with double the maximum daily amount of Dramamine, I quickly had a death grip on the boat's railing as I stared desperately at the horizon in a vain attempt to quell overwhelming nausea. I added some jestsam to the ocean off the back of the boat into what looked like a sea of stars, as the waves were again lit up by luminescent creatures.

After that, I layon the floor of the boat in the fetal position praying to every and any god to make the boat go faster. My fellow boat-mates quickly became accustomed to my prone body at the aft of the boat, stepping over me to move through the kitchen to the boat's deck.

Chris steering the yacht

The first day I tried to amuse myself by listening to podcasts on my iPod, but after its battery ran out, I could do nothing but stare at people’s feet around me. At night I couldn't even open my eyes to enjoy the stars because they dizzily danced around the mast of the yacht as it pitched wildly side to side, making my stomach crawl. I just kept thinking to myself: it will be over in the morning.

When morning arrived the next day, I hopefully looked for land on the horizon. I was crushed to hear Capitan tell us that the winds had shifted so we would sailing for another twenty four hours. Meanwhile, the sea worsened as huge rolling swells washed over the ship, causing periodic avalanches of stereos, plates, books, or pots and pans in the galley. Chris slept next to me on deck the second night, although we were twice awakened by people falling on us as the ship pitched unexpectedly below their feet, and once rudely awakened when a huge wave crashed over the top of the boat drenching our only blanket. By hour forty of our crossing, the chinos had barely been seen outside of their cabin. The captain commented that they were like popcorn, bouncing up and down off their bed through the rough seas. I did manage to crawl to the bow of the boat as the skyline of Cartagena appeared in the distance on the third day and gazed hungrily at the land for the last two hours of the trip.

I now have serious doubts that sailing around the world will be one of my life's accomplishments. Once on shore, we all went out to dinner to toast our survival. We were not joined by the chinos though. Last we heard they spent two days resting in their hostel eating bananas, and then disappeared as mysteriously as they came.

Relief upon Land Ho

This was part five in a series of articles about our travels by car through Latin America. 

Click on the title to read:

Next week, exploring Colombia.  Many wonderful surprises, new friends, great food, and beautiful landscapes. 

For a full account of our travels, see our blog at The Darien Plan.

For those considering driving the Pan-American Highway, we have collected information on border crossings, car shipment, road conditions, gas prices, and everything else we found useful as road trippers driving Latin America at

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