San Blas : a hellish ride through heaven

Today was by far the harder day of travel we’ve done, both physically and mentally.

The goal was simple : take the “boat” from Puerto Obaldia in the morning to reach Carti about 5 hours later, and try to get dropped off at one of the San Blas Islands.

Yesterday we were told the boat wouldn’t leave before 8am, probably 9, because one of the Colombian passager’s was still awaiting the administrations approval to enter the country (which, as we said in the last post, is much harder for Colombians). Immigration office opens at 8, and we knew from a couple blogs that we might wait a couple hours.

So we went for breakfast early, at 7:30, just to be sure, and met the captain around 8. We gave him the necessary papers (3 copies of our passport, but we knew that so we had made some in advance), and we waited. And waited. And waited. Around noon, we finally got moving. After getting searched again by the military (like we could have bought something illegal is this small military town since yesterday…), we went to the boat. We were ready to go, or at least we thought so. We were just waiting for the captain who had just disappeared somewhere.

It’s already noon, and we’re still waiting…

But the captain had decided to earn more money, and so to wait to get more passengers. So we had to wait until the paperwork for these new passengers came through. We finally left around 2pm. Some blogs said the boat crossing took between 6 to 8 hours, so we weren’t very confident about going so late (even if the captain kept saying it should only take 3 to 4 hours).

So of course, after a 6 hour wait, we weren’t in the best state of mind to start the trip. But it got worse. In the boat, where you can cram around 12 people with luggage, there was no roof (so no shade, and no protection against rain). The only engine is always running at maximum power, propelling the tiny vessel at a huge speed across water, speedboat style. So for the driver, at the back of the ship, everything’s fine. But for the passengers out front, each time the front of the ship comes crashing down onto the next wave, it’s a breathtaking (literally) brutal shock. And there are a lot of waves in a fucking ocean !

It seems calm, but really isn’t!

After 15 min of hell, you start to get use to it. The trick is to behave as if on a horse at full speed : always on suspension with the legs. And you better not get it wrong unless you don’t want to sit again in your life ! The shocks are many and impressive, the luggage to the front of the ship rise by 20 to 30cm each time before crashing back into it. After a while you make a game out of it : just think you’re in a theme park attraction. It keeps your mind from the pain, at least for a couple minutes.

But 4 hours is long, very long, et very painful for your legs, butt and back. We don’t recommend this trip if you have any back problems, and if you don’t have any back problems, you’ll probably have some afterwards ! Even if sometimes the boat is sheltered from the big waves by the some big islands, the majority of the trip is an infernal gallop and seems endless. The only upside is that you’re so shaken you don’t have time to be seasick.

We have to stop several times because of engine failure, even thought the motor is supposed too be new (well, probably wasn’t designed to be used so recklessly…). So, even if we’re racing across the water, the sun is rapidly declining, and the rare opportunity we have to check the smartphone’s GPS (which we have to do very carefully if we don’t want it to end up below water), we see that we will probably reach Carti a bit after nightfall.

But slightly before nightfall, we stop at an inhabited island on we’re told we have to overnight here, and that we’ll only reach Carti tomorrow morning. Well, thanks for the heads up (and the extra budget to spend the night!), it was well worth it to wait 6 hours to leave too late to reach Carti ! So we seek out the only hostel (the mattresses won’t really help our newfound back problems) and the only restaurant on the island, and go to bed very furious about all this.

Ok, we know this seems all very negative, but is was very difficult for us, not only because the trip is stressful, but also for a couple reasons :

  • Cost : We’ve done shitty trips in shitty vehicles, we know it exists and that in Latin America, you often don’t have a choice. But at least generally it’s cheap. Here, between the boat ride and the taxes, we’re paying over 260 dollars (not counting the unexpected overnight stop, as we’re still not in Carti). That’s more than the total combined budget for transportation we’ve spent for all of Colombia, and we stayed there a month ! So of course, we’re not really happy about it, and you don’t really have a choice, this is supposedly the cheapest way to cross the border!

    The Guna Yala rip-off tax : 40 dollars for a small piece of paper !
  • The people : Harsh trips with other people are often bonding moments. Waiting a couple hours, why not (we know out here everything takes time, a a lot of time). But being told every half hour we’re leaving soon is making us think we’re really taken for fools. And at noon, when everyone was waiting for the captain in front of the boat, the other passengers (all Colombians) suddenly disappeared without a word. We found them in town a while later, just finishing their lunch. Apparently, we were the only one that didn’t know we had to wait for new passengers, and of course now it was too late to eat, as we were leaving “soon” ! No one thought to tell us, even though we had talked a bit with them during the wait. For us it’s a bit of a shock to meet mainly shitty people out here after all the great people we met in Colombia.
  • The ecology lie : The San Blas islands are shown as this heavenly place with coconuts and clear blue waters that is threatened by the rising waters due to global warming, and thus the Guna Yala inhabitants are supposedly becoming concerned by the environment. For what we’ve seen, yes, global warming is probably going to flood the islands in the next decades, but no, ecology isn’t really their thing. One of the advantages organizing our own trip instead of taking the all inclusive tour is that we get to see the non touristic islands, the real  home of the Gunas (the ones that weren’t cleaned for the vacation pictures). So all the way through the islands we saw garbage floating everywhere around the islands, and the Guna carelessly throwing about everything in the sea : soda cans, oil, hygienic pads, … We know a big part of the Caribbean inhabitants don’t really have any knowledge about waste management and mostly live in the middle of it, but at least they’re not doing their sales pitch based on ecology. Here we see the kids doing the same as their parents, which seems to indicate that the cash income from tourism doesn’t really go into an ecological education for them (to the contrary of what the advertisements say…).

So yeah, all this didn’t really help us to enjoy the trip. But it wasn’t all so horrible 😉 . So as we don’t want to only write what was bad, let’s take about the good parts.

First, there are a lot of pelicans out here. So in France, when you’re bored on the beach, you just watch the seagulls flying above. Here it’s a bit more fun, you can see the pelicans dive through air and water to catch their meal. And as a pelican is much slower than a kingfisher, we made you a small video :

And the trip, even though it’s very stressful, allowed us to see beautiful islands that look like postcards. Most of the islands are uninhabited (so less garbage !), with 3 coconut trees, white sand and a beautiful azure see surrounding them. Some of them even just have a small wooden cabin with a roof made out of leaves, it looks very Robinson Crusoe like!

On the continental side, the jungle grows over a very vast hilly region all along the coast, so from the boat it creates various horizon lines. It looks very much like a watercolor painting.

Yes, there’s a finger on there. But it was firmly holding the phone, so I didn’t drop it !

And all this under a beautiful blue sky with a couple of white clouds. The end-of-afternoon light over this paradise is really beautiful (so there was an upside to this very late start :p)

Tonight we’re still about 45min ride from Carti. So in total the trip takes a bit less than 5 hours (if you’re going at the backbreaking speed we’re going), and not the 3 to 4 hours we were told in Puerto Obaldia. Today we had our breath taken away both by the boat (literally, so we’re exhausted right now), and the paradisiac views (well, as long as you stay away from the floating garbage).

If you’re far enough from the garbage, it really looks beautiful!

More news on how we reach Carti in the next post !

P.S : for those interested about more info on how to cross the Colombia-Panama border, we’re thinking about writing (if we manage to find some time) an article summing up our experience and our research. We’ll also try to estimate if this way is really the cheapest one!

2 Replies to “San Blas : a hellish ride through heaven”

  1. T’as utilisé ton deuxième prénom Ben? Il y a marqué Grégoire

    Et il a peut-être pris sa commission auprès de l’hotel pour vous avoir obligé à y passer la nuit qui sait…

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