CARTAGENA & SAN BLAS ISLANDS / colombia and panama

CARTAGENA / Just beautiful, that’s what I have to say about the port city of Cartagena. Strolling the streets of the old town, beauty is everywhere you look. Whether it’s the cascading colorful flowers, majestic fortified wall around the Old City, pastel colonial buildings or the Palenqueras selling fresh fruit in flamboyant dress, Cartagena sure delivers. One thing for sure is that it’s HOT and HUMID, it’s all good if your hostel has air con, which thankfully ours did. The old town is full of beautiful boutique shops, swimwear, resort wear, sunglasses and stunning local brands. If you were thinking of doing a little shopping and supporting Colombian designers, this would be the place.

La Cevicheria is a nice treat from the usual backpacking dining scene. Known for some of the best ceviche and seafood in Colombia we were not disappointed. Lunchtime on a Saturday, you can expect a 40-60 minute wait for a table, if that’s any indication of the quality of food. Afterall, sitting at the outdoor tables and sipping on an aperol spritz is the perfect way to spend your afternoon.

Trinidad Square is home to some great street food and entertaining performers. Grab a few arepas for a couple of dollars and you’ve got a cheap and delicious dinner. Arepas are a typical Colombian and Venezualan food, a round dough made with corn and then stuffed with your choice of fillings. Better still arepas are gluten free, finally some street food that is good for my tummy!

Cartagena has an interesting history due to it’s geographical location. We learned about this on a free walking tour through the old town, a great way to absorb the stunning buildings and gain information about Colombia’s Caribbean history. The town has played a major part in Colombia’s history, protecting the country from a number of invasions, as well as battling pirates who desired the city’s treasure and riches.

The Palenqueras of Cartagena, you’ll spot these Colombian women dressed in bright costumes, balancing bowls of fruit atop their heads on any street through the Old City. Originally, these women came from San Bassilo de Palenque, a small town close to Cartagena. In 1961 people from the town became the first free Africans in the Americas. Today, the women still come from their town to sell fruits, mostly to tourists but boy do they make for a fantatstic photograph.

Housing boats from all over the world, the port of Cartagena is a launching pad for many sails to Panama. The land crossing between Colombia and Panama is a no go zone, with dense jungle, guerilla gangs (not the animal) and who knows what else. The only safe options are to fly or to cross by ocean. We chose the ocean crossing and booked our trip through Blue Sailing. Six days in total, we paid the typical price of $550US, a trip that most backpackers usually take.

SAN BLAS ISLANDS / If you’re looking for a remote island experience home to blinding white talcum beaches, then this is the place. Off the north east coast of Panama you will find the San Blas Islands, around 365 islands with swaying coconut palms and a sea of hues so blue they seem unimaginable. So how do you navigate to these stunning islands? Sailing from Colombia to Panama has a definite plus side and that is the San Blas. Beginning our sail in the port of Cartagena on a Monday evening, the first 36-50 hours is an open ocean sea crossing. A few nausea pills and lots of chill time helped the situation. Once the ocean crossing is over, you wake up in the most idyllic breakfast destination. Calm waters of deep turquoise that hotel pools aspire to. What a place we had landed in!

We spent the following three days exploring different islands with a fantastic group of people. Our boat consisted of travellers from all of the world, lots of Aussies, some Kiwis, a Dutch couple, an Israeli couple, one very tall German, English cousins, Americans and our crew. Daytimes were usually spent snorkelling, swimming off the boat and relaxing on the islands. Afternoons consisted of beers and beverages accompanied with volleyball or activities. The nights were full of drinks, laughs, deck dancing, backflips (dressed and undressed), games and more. The second night, on Henrique’s Island was memorable. The afternoon began with volleyball, beers and lounging in the sparkling water, followed by coconuts filled with rum, standard island drinks. A huge storm hit just as we were about to eat dinner. So it was back to the boat for the party to continue. Dinner was scrumptious, the best lobster I’ve eaten, boiled, then BBQed and served with garlic sauce. The local Kuna people sold our chef around 30 lobsters for under $100US. Caught fresh that day around the islands, they tasted like they could be worth $100 each in a seafood restaurant back in Australia. The Kuna, a tribe indigenous to Panama, run the islands and have fiercely protected the land. They know how many visitors are coming to their islands on a given day, where they will be staying, and they benefit directly from most of the tourist dollars spent. They are a matrilineal society – women control the money and are often the appointed elders of their island. For a group of people so invested in protecting their land, the rubbish washed onto the islands is so depressing and rings alarm bells for me. We are trying our best to reduce waste but this is a worldwide problem. We need change and we need it now. In order for that to happen, we need to improve waste management, environmental education and recycling facilities on a global scale. Simple measures to become waste free need to be taken, we have to change to way we think and live. Without a shift in mindset, the pristine destinations, like the San Blas will be gone and I have no doubt we are killing our earth far faster than we think! Just some food for thought as you read this blog and think about a simple take away message, the photos are stunning for now but will it stay this way?

Our final night consisted of an early dinner and then the navigation to Puerto Lindo. We arrived here for our final breakfast, off the boat and then a shuttle to Panama City. A truly unforgettable six days at sea, brilliant company and everlasting stories. If you’re thinking of ticking a sailing trip off your bucket list or you’re travelling between Panamá and Colombia, do not miss the San Blas Islands. They are a magical, get there and experience the dream!

Much love, Laura xx

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