When I divulged my plans to kick-off the first Travel Dispatch journey in Panama City everyone asked me why start there? Truthfully it had nothing to do with my wanting to explore Panama and everything to do with an article I read three years ago on how you could sail from Panama to Colombia. In the years since, the dream of playing pirate refused to dislodge from my mind and (finally!) this past week saw that fantasy come to fruition.
Country and Region: Panama in Central America
Cities: Panama City, the San Blas Islands
Language: Spanish, Kuna (native tongue spoken in San Blas)
Currency: US Dollar (US$)
Visa Info: US, AUS, UK, CAN, and EU Citizens do not need a visa to enter. There’s a US$5 “tourist card” fee but this is included in your flight ticket price and is not a physical card you actually carry. You can stay in Panama for 90 days and then extend this by another 90 days by visiting any immigration office for a max of 180 days.
Proof of Onward Travel: You are required to show this. I didn’t have this as I’m a one-way ticket kinda gal, so before leaving Florida I booked a flight leaving Panama City on Expedia.com, printed the confirmation to hand to the official as I entered the country, and then cancelled my reservation. Expedia gives you 24 hours to cancel with no $$$ penalties so this is my go-to whenever proof of onward travel is needed.
Week 3 Highlights
While the sailing trip monopolized the majority of this week, I did have one day free in Panama City pre-departure. Taking advantage of this time, I visited a few of the sites still penciled in on my wish-list. They were the ones I never got around to seeing during my first week in the city. Though it comes as no surprise that navigating untouched islands on the way from one continent to another emerged as the superior experience, one particular Panama City excursion managed to eek it’s way onto this week’s highlight reel.
Watching Ships Pass Through the Panama Canal
In theory I knew the Panama Canal was a modern marvel.
But in actuality? It was just a term I once wrote on a flashcard before a middle school US History exam. I couldn’t remember why the canal was so important and without that knowledge I knew I’d never be able to drum up enough interest in visiting the world-famous transit site.
So I did what any good writer does and educated myself on the matter.
I purchased (and lugged all over Panama) David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas. Reading it cover to cover, I got swept up in the optimism of the era as the French first set out to, unsuccessfully, create a sea-level canal. The drama and the sheer force of personalities like Theodore Roosevelt’s had me turning page after page long after I should have been asleep. The failures, the high death toll, the advances in engineering, and all the political maneuvers up until the first ship passed through the canal had me hanging on the edge.
By the time I was done, I couldn’t wait to head to the Miraflores Locks to see the Panama Canal in action. I stayed for over two hours, watching as the locomotives pulled cargo ships into the lock. Once between the set of gates in the first chamber, water was released to flow into the adjacent lower chamber until the water level between the two lock chambers equalized. Then the gates opened and the ship was pulled into the second chamber in order to repeat the process one more time before continuing on its journey through the isthmus (see timelapse video above).
The Panama Canal is something that should never have been able to be built with the technology of the era. Without reading up on the creation of the canal, I never would have been able to appreciate its historical importance and all that went into making “The Great Enterprise” happen.
I was awestruck watching the Miraflores Locks in action and visiting the canal was one of the top highlights on this entire journey so far.
Essential Information for Visiting the Panama Canal
Where: Miraflores Locks (you can also watch ships pass at the Gatun Locks near Colon. More on this option here)
When to Visit: Before 10:30am or after 3pm otherwise you’ll miss the ships going through and there’s not much point in visiting the Panama Canal without seeing the locks in action. As the Miraflores Visitor Center houses a multi-story museum, you could arrive at 2pm and stroll through the exhibit before seeing the cargo ships transit the canal. Regardless of if you want to visit the museum or not, you have to pay the $15 ticket price to access the viewing platform so you may as well explore the educational galleries. The visitor center is open from 8am to 6pm (keep in mind you can’t buy a ticket past 5:15pm despite it closing at 6).
How to Get There: Uber is the simplest option and has a much lower price tag than a taxi ride. However it is worth noting if you order an Uber from the canal between 5pm and 6pm on a weekday, you can expect surge pricing as this is during the height of rush hour. This happened to me although my roundtrip ride was still cheaper than taking a taxi. Taxi drivers really gouge tourists in Panama City. You can also take public transport which was my original plan before I got too lazy! Bus instructions can be found here.
Sailing from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands
Off the northern coast of Panama lies the remote San Blas archipelago, a chain of islands numbering approximately 365 in total. The majority of these isles are uninhabited save for the small fraction that are home to the Kuna people, an autonomous indigenous group who control tourism to their natives lands.
I spent the better part of 4 days this week navigating through San Blas aboard a 51 foot Colombia-bound sailboat with 11 other travelers. We jumped from our boat’s bow and swam to isolated shorelines, snorkeled over barrier reefs, played volleyball on rustic sand courts, caught sailfish for fresh fish tacos, wake-surfed behind the boat’s tender, saw rainbows arc over entire islands, bought fresh lobster off the Kuna people, and so much more. The pure fun we had playing on the idyllic (and people-less) islands made up for the final 2 days spent traversing the rough, open waters comprising our final leg to Colombia.
Of all the email dispatches sent so far, the ones from my San Blas adventure have garnered the most interest and questions from you guys. It’s an experience worthy of its own standalone post and I have one in the works to answer all your questions. It will include a breakdown of costs, show you how to book your passage, let you in on what to pack, provide you with a day-by-day account of what to expect, show you options from different routes, and will also give firsthand accounts from passengers and crew from various boats so you can be best informed when choosing your own passage.
Despite my unadulterated praise for the sail, this trip is NOT for everyone. There’s a lot of crucial information no one tells you about and I want to shine a light on some of the less-than desirable truths about the sail so you can make an informed decision on whether or not this is the excursion option for you. The article is being thoroughly researched and I don’t want to rush it so the expected date of publication is Jan 2 after the holiday madness.
In the meantime, below is the cliff-note version of the sailing vessel and tour I booked.
Essential Info for Sailing from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands
Vessel: La Gitanita
Departure Point: Puerto Lindo, 2 hours outside of Panama City
Arrival Point: Club Nautico Marina, Cartagena, Colombia
Duration: 6 days/5 nights
Costs: $550 for the sail and $20 for Kuna taxes (this varies by boat as each itinerary is different)
Included in the Price: accommodation onboard for all 5 nights. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all days along with coffee, tea, and water. All port and immigrations fees (minus Colombian visa fees if required. US citizens do not need a visa for stays up 90 days). All watersport equipment which varies by boat. Ours provided snorkeling gear, a paddle board, surfboard, fishing rods (though there are restrictions of where you’re allowed to fish) along with books, card and board games, a frisbee, and a volleyball. Transport to Puerto Lindo and alcohol were not included. I brought my own liquor onboard as it was easier than bringing a ton of beer. On most islands you can buy beer from the Kuna people so it wasn’t an issue.
Customs and Entry Info: our Captain collected our passports prior to the sail and arranged for them to get stamped. We did not personally have to see any customs officials or do anything at all to enter Colombia apart from making a photocopy of the passport page with our Panama entry stamp on it (I assume this is to make sure customs recorded our departure date from Panama). After the sail we were free to roam around Cartagena before meeting at a prearranged place and time to collect our freshly stamped passports.
Who I Booked With: I booked straight with my hostel in Panama City – El Machico. The staff were wonderful and helpful when booking. They also arranged for a shuttle to take me to Puerto Lindo (it cost $25) even though I had switched hostels by the time my sail came around. Most other travelers I spoke to booked ahead of time from online tour operators. La Gitanita can be booked through Sail Colombia Panama though I can’t vouch for the company as I didn’t book it through them.
Who I Slept With
As I was on a sailboat for 6 of my 7 nights during Week 3 of the current 52 week journey, I only had the one from my night in Panama City pre-departure.
Location: Luna’s Castle is in the central Casco Viejo area of Panama City
Price Per Night: USD $14
Highlights: hot water. Great communal lounge areas both indoors and out. Easy to meet other travelers. Front porch has great view of the skyline. Dorm-style beds have privacy curtains and include their own fan and reading lights. Reception sells beer. Free breakfast. Lively bar in basement. Good location.
Lowlights: old building. The showers weren’t great and were quite dirty. Many didn’t have hooks to hang your towel/clothes/toiletry bag. While not terrible, I’ve definitely had better in similarly priced hostels. Staff were hit or miss. Most were quite unhelpful and seemed bored.
Would I Stay There Again? most likely not. One of the reasons I chose to stay at Luna’s Castle was to try out a new area of Panama City. I had previously stayed for a a week in the Marbella District (at El Machico Hostel) and I much prefer that neighborhood and hostel. While Casco Viejo is pretty, it is very touristy and the prices are higher. This short missive details a few other reasons I’m glad I didn’t originally stay in Casco Viejo and it still holds true now that I’ve actually stayed there. Everyone has different travel styles though and Luna’s Castle is a very popular and well-reviewed hostel. It’s just not for me.
Things That Got Me Through the Week
I often get asked what’s in my backpack and while I posted an entire article on everything I brought with me for my 12 month journey, I thought it’d be more beneficial to show you week by week exactly when and how I use each item.
This section highlights my most used items throughout Week 3.
1. Size 10 SealLine Dry Bag: while the La Gitanita towed a small motorized tender, there were more than a few times when the only way to get to shore was to swim from the boat. This especially rang true on those islands surrounded by shallow barrier reefs. This bag seriously came in handy for those swims. I played pack mule more than once for our group. Securing our rum, mixers, snacks, playing cards, money, dry clothes, and electronics (though I kept these in a smaller waterproof pouch I then put in my SeaLine Bag because you can never be too careful) I swam to shore with our day’s supplies.
2. GoPro Hero Session: this sailing trip is the reason I bought a GoPro in the first place. It was perfect for those times when I didn’t want to risk exposing my phone to the numerous wet (and not to mention sandy!) elements. I used it almost everyday and created this teaser clip from the footage I took. I’m working on a more polished video that encompasses the spirit of the entire trip.
3. The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough: with all my excitement over the San Blas Islands sail, I didn’t want to let it completely eclipse my less-adventurous yet important venture to the Panama Canal. As I mentioned in the highlights section above, this book gives a brilliant account of the events that transpired to get the canal built. I highly recommend it even if you aren’t planning to visit the canal. It’s a fascinating read and perfect for history buffs and novices alike.
Published This Week
Further Reading on the Current Journey
Why Suffer From FOMO When You Don’t Have To?
The current Travel Dispatch journey kicked off in Panama on Nov 15 and is showcasing a classic “round the world” loop as I weave my way from Latin America to The Balkans, Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and Southeast Asia back to the US over a period of 12 months and with a budget of $25,000. Finally along live by subscribing below!