- Cartagena – San Blas Islands
- El Gitano del Mar catamaran
- San Blas Islands – Carti
- Carti – Panama City
Zalie, Jacob, Lucy and I taxied to Cartagena’s marina at 7pm, giving us enough time to head to the supermarket and stock up on our alcohol requirements for the next 5 days. This proved to be a mammoth task, with Luce and I spending 360,000 pesos on our shop! Still, we had three cartons of wine, 30 beers, a bottle or rum, gin and vodka, several bottles of mixers, limes and snacks to keep us going. We struggled our way back down the road to where Andreas, another member of our boat, was guarding our bags and a few more of the group had arrived. Just before our captain, David, came out to greet us we had the whole crowd – Amy, Beth, Georgia, Josie, Zalie, Lucy, Nicola, Millie, Reem, Veto, Ryan, Jack, Art, Aaron, Andreas, Franc, Jacob, Jakob, Dan (who become known to all as Sexy Dan), and myself.
Once loaded on to the boat and given a briefing, Luce and I found our double cabin/ sweatbox and settled in. Then the fun and games began. Having been warned we had 30 -35 hours of open ocean sailing ahead of us, we’d been advised to take it easy on the alcohol night one. Did we? Did we hell. We just popped a few sea sickness pills and began the festivities, getting to know each other and get comfortable around each other (which proved to be highly necessary given how cramped the boat was). Lucy and I did manage to get in to bed before midnight though. However, this was not a pleasant experience since boat cabins are cramped and our windows had to remain tightly shut due to the waves of the open ocean night one. I woke several times sodden with sweat, and even once sodden with sea water as the window directly above me had opened and let in the water! I also spent my night with my stomach churning each time we went down over a wave. But hey, it was only one night.
The next day was a slow one. We began with breakfast and our first taste of Lucila (our cook). She was mental but that morning she was just very loud and excitable. It wasn’t long before we were all out on deck taking a nap. It also wasn’t long before we all got very burnt from the sun through the clouds and my clothes blessed me with a red racing stripe across my belly which was to last all five days. The open ocean is a crazy place. It’s one giant expanse of water that spans horizon to horizon; you barely see a single ship and yet at one point we were even given the most spectacular dolphin show you have ever seen. They spotted our boat and started to jump and dive and then road alongside for a good half an hour whilst we all watched on in absolute awe.
Another point during this day we stopped in some calmer waters and were allowed to jump in for a quick swim to cool off. Mum, read this over and over and over: I, Gabby Kent, the girl who cried going deeper than my knees just one year ago in the sea, jumped straight in to that open water 3km’s deep! I still don’t think she’ll believe me though. What is believable is just how quickly I was back out again when someone told me the waters also had sharks in! As we all climbed back on board, the sun began to set and we watched the most beautiful sunset. It had been a fabulous day out at sea, getting to know each other better, and seeing what the ocean is really all about.
Not so fabulous was the diabolical ham and cheese toasties we had to eat for dinner but we just hoped the food would improve once on the islands. And this wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed with copious amounts of alcohol and some drinking games. A few rounds of ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘Never Have I Ever’ later and I soon found myself the last girl up, being serenaded by the Irish (Jack, Art and Aaron) teaching the Aussie’s (Veto and Ryan) many an Irish song. My belly hurt from laughing and I was very merry by the time I joine Lucy back down in our sweatbox that night. We’d taken to wearing bikinis to bed by this point in an attempt to combat the sweat, but alas, it was relentless heat and we always woke up saturated.
Morning two was a special one. At 6.30am Lucila’s crazy loud music and animal calls woke us all up to something none of us had ever seen before in our lives: Heaven on Earth. There, just a swim away, was paradise. A completely deserted island with a little grass shack, lined with palm trees and white sand beaches and surrounded by the most turquoise of all waters ever. It was also Beth’s birthday and what a fabulous place to spend it. A few of the boat swam across before breakfast but I took my time in getting ready, sat down to enjoy some pancakes, and then set off to paradise.
When we arrived at the shoreline we were amazed by the amount of starfish in the shallow waters. And big ones too! The water was like a bath and the sand like flour. The palm trees were picture perfect, some fallen down and littered with coconut shells, and the beaches were full of shells including giant, perfectly pink conch shells. H E A V E N. By 10.30am, the boys had kayacked over a pack of beer to start Beth’s birthday celebrations and a short while later, I returned to the boat on suncream and more beer duty for everyone. This was repeated a few times by various members of the group and before midday, we were all several beers down. Unfortunately, after lunch it was time to leave this first paradise island but only to be replaced by a second one, so not all was lost.
Actually the weather took a turn during lunch, so we all huddled in to the seating area of the boat instead of sunbathing out on the hammocks and front deck as we’d been used to. We ended up mooring up between islands instead and actually didn’t leave the boat until it had turned dark. Well, Andreas, Jacob and Franc went out with David on the speedboat to see some wildlife but the rest of us were happy celebrating Beth’s birthday. Upon their return, we cranked up the sound system and began dancing on the front deck. We literally had no neighbours for miles. And no neighbours means no rules! It wasn’t long before a night swim was suggested and we all stripped off and crashed, one by one, in to the black waters below us. Whoever thought drunk, nightime swim was a good idea clearly doesn’t abide by the crazy UK health and safety laws but it was the best idea ever!
The party contined during dinner when we were served freshly caught lobster. Oh my, it was so beautiful. Although it must have been a sight watching 20 backpackers attempt to crunch up lobster shells and pick out the meat using plastic knifes and forks! Beth then cracked open the prosecco and we took the part back out the front, all collected on one of the hammocks. It was such a fantastic night and a day where we’d really all bonded. No one was in bed before 2am and myself, Lucy, Dan and Jakob even attempted to sleep out on deck that night. I lasted about 20 minutes before giving in to the endless sand fly bites and retiring back to our ever so slightly less sweaty sweatbox now that we could open up the windows.
There were many sore heads to the next morning but care we did not because that day was Nicola’s birthday! Two back-to-back birthdays on San Blas’ known party boat was obviously going to be big! We sailed off to another paradise island to spend the morning on. Here there were two enormous reefs that we could snorkel in, a giant stretch of beach to nap on, and a mass of jungle land behind that we took a wonder through. Luce and I swam across and made the most of the snorkel eqipment first, spotting all kinds of rainbow coloured and light flashing fishies. We then watched as Sexy Dan attempted to paddle board the 200m stretch from boat to shore, failing miserably but still receiving ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from all male and female onlookers. Dan by the way, is a South African safari tour guide and quite possibly the coolest (and obviously sexiest) guy I’ve ever met.
After wondering the jungle with Jacob and Dan and then taking a nap and fearing for my life that a cocnut might fall on my face at any moment (FYI, falling coconuts kill more people a year than sharks and I was at risk of both on this trip!), it was time for Luce and I to attempt paddle boarding. Now I know what you’re thinking – correct, I do not have the best abs in the world for a heavy core work out like paddle boarding. However, the water was calm and I turned out to the best in the group! With just one fall, I paddled around and back to shore for Lucy and Reem to give it a go to. Reem also mastered the skill and paddled all the way back to the boat. I’d resumed irrational ocean fear by this point after returning to the boat for some water and using the snorkel so that I could swim properly. After the reef, the ocean dropped off to nothingness and I completely freaked out about what was below. You’ve never seen me swim 300m so fast in my life!
We all hopped back on board for lunch and head off to the afternoon destination: another island but this time with a bar and ship wreck for us to entertain ourselves. Since it was Nicola’s birthday and her head had been sore up until this point, we flocked to the bar and returned as teenage girls, with Smirnoff Ice in hand to a celebratory drink! The afternoon was then spent in and out of the sea, snorkelling the ship wreck, drinking beers and sunbathing. We even managed to locate a shower to wash off the salt from our bodies and grab the speedboat back across to the catamaran.
That evening we were off to yet another island where we could have a BBQ and play games all night. We drank under the canopy and ate some fabulous food and then regressed a few years to mix sports day type games with drinking, having a really funny night. I was a complete zombie quite early on having partied too hard the previous few days and so returned to the main boat on the first trip back, leaving the majority of the group laughing and drinking back on the island. I needed my rest! But it had been a very fun evening nonethless. Even with David’s weird drunk game of throwing a coconut at a glass bottle and loving every minute of it!
I was very sprightly the next morning when much of the group were not. Many had drunkenly passed out on deck and woke up to the rain, so I wasn’t so upset about my sweaty cabin either. The sad news was that it was our last day in paradise though. More annoyingly was that we had to spend our morning waiting for David to take all our passports to the immigration office and sort out a lot of admin, meaning we were stuck on a stationary boat without any island within swimable distance. It was such a hot morning too and we had to keep jumping in to the sea around us to cool off. But we did get to relax, sunbathe and nap, which was needed all round.
Finally David returned and we head off to a sand bank just 1m below the sea which meant we could be in the middle of the ocean yet comfortably sit down. Again, the turqouise blue waters were something to marvel at, and we used the opportunity to get some group shots and spot yet more sealife. Back on the boat for spag bol lunch, the weather once more took a turn. They don’t tell you it rains every day in San Blas, but we actually really needed the rest from the sun each day so not all was lost.
Our island for the afternoon was apparently the most famous San Blas island. It certainly wasn’t the nicest we’d been to visit but it was the most popular and the first time we’d really seen any other boats whilst island hopping over the previous few days. It wasn’t sunny enough to sunbathe so we grabbed a few beers at the bar and socialised in there for a while before some of the girls went for a wonder and we spend an hour or so chatting down on the beach. It was also another opportunity to grab a shower which was fabulous; although, there were some creep island men with machetes watching as the girls washed. They soon scarpered when Jack got out his hairy Irish bottom for them to stare at instead!
Lucila, by this time grinding on us slightly with her relentless loud and crazy Argentinian ways, had cooked a fabulous pork dinner. You couldn’t really fault her for her food when she had such a small space to produce really tasty dishes for 23 people. She didn’t even have a designated bed at night either! This is Lucila and Dan, by the way:
It was then time for the island party. We joined forces with one of the other boats and some of the locals and head across to the same island we’d visited that afternoon for a beach party and bonfire and a generally crazy night. Lucy was chatted up and then stared at by one of the locals, Lucila made for Georgia and wouldn’t leave her alone, and we received a Danish, South African and French folk song from Jakob, Sexy Dan and David and Franc, before taking the party back to the boat.
Jakob had taking his drinking very seriously that afternoon and night and by this point was grinding against anyone who moved, chugging litres of rum and coke and caughing absolute mayhem! It was very funny but we did fear he might fall overboard without us watching him and it wasn’t long before we had to put him to bed. Georgia also retired earlier than the rest of us and we learnt the next morning that Lucila had gone to wake her up on multiple occasions, climbed in through the hatch of Mille, Reem and Nicola’s cabin to get access to her, and then sat watching her sleep until Georgia turned on the light and got the absolute fright of her life! The rest of us though partied hard, probably/ definitely kept all our boat neighbours up until the early hours, and then passed out in various sleeping locations.
On our final morning, every one of us had sore heads. Did that stop Lucila blaring inappropriate reggaeton music and screaming at us at 7am? Of course not. Luckily it was time to get away from her. But sadly it was also time to end our island hopping adventure and head to Panama mainland. Our speedboat arrived at 8.45am and we left behind the ‘El Gitano del Mar’ (Eng: The Gypsy of the Sea). Thankfully I’d hopped on the first boat as the second arrived in Carti 30 minutes behind us, having broken down twice on the way and had a few voms along route. Zalie apparently had even stood up, crying, contemplating jumping out in to the open waters because she felt so hungover!
We then paid the $47 for our transfers and Kuna taxes and said our goodbyes before hopping in to jeeps that would take us to Panama City. No one had warned us about the rollercoaster hell road to get there, and once it started raining and our driver was racing around, all we could do was close our eyes and hope we’d arrived safely once we opened them again! Still, we made it to Panama City unharmed and the four of us staying together (Lucy, Zalie, Jacob and I) unloaded, checked in and ran off for showers and beds!
So, 204 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and I have tasted the most beautiful paradise on planet earth, snorkeled amoungst some incredible reefs, mastered paddle boarding and made some incredible friends. Along with this, I am left a completely broken women, have a tanned racing stripe across my stomach, and never, ever, want to encouter the mad hatter that is Lucila again. But, I had the time of my life and wouldn’t have changed the last five days for the world. What a trip!