To Colombia by Sea
There is no commercial ferry service between Panama and Colombia, but the adventurous occasionally book passage on yachts to or from Cartagena. Some yachts make this trip often enough that it’s become a commercial service for them, albeit an informal one.
Most yachts charge US$400–500 per person, including meals. The trip takes 4–5 days, most of which is spent sailing among the uninhabited islands of Kuna Yala. Yachts typically anchor near the beautiful, remote islands of Chichime, Coco Bandero, or Cayos Holandéses.
An itinerary like this would normally cost many times what these yachts charge, though of course this is not a luxury cruise.
Warning: Think carefully before making this trip, as there are many risks to consider. The seas around Kuna Yala can turn rough very quickly. They are also notoriously dangerous because of shallow reefs that lurk like depth charges throughout the archipelago. There are lots of shipwrecks there to prove it, and at least two lives have been lost from yachts out there in the last few years. The winds blow so strongly in the dry season that many boats won’t even make the trip.
Also, Panama is a popular transshipment point for drugs coming up from South America. If you’re unlucky enough to be aboard a vessel intercepted with a few tons of cocaine in the hold, you’ll have some tricky explaining to do. Boats are also sometimes caught with less-sinister but no-less-illegal contraband.
A few horror stories I heard on my most recent visit: passengers stranded because their perpetually drunk captain was thrown into a Kuna jail for fighting; passengers arrested in Panama when their captain didn’t handle immigration formalities properly; unbelievably filthy boats; a yacht that ran aground in Cartagena.
The truly adventurous sometimes strike a deal for passage on a cargo boat, such as the Colombian trading vessels that ply the waters of Kuna Yala or the Kuna-owned boats that travel the same route.
I strongly advise against this. For one thing, some of these boats are barely seaworthy rust buckets.
Those who insist on hitching a ride should know it’s tough to join a boat in Kuna Yala. Many a tourist ends up stranded in El Porvenir because they’ve heard that’s the place to hop on a boat. It’s much easier to arrange from Colón. Even here, I’ve heard tales of passengers having to wait 10 days for their boat to get even as far as Isla Grande, which is less than 50 kilometers east of Colón.
Those still interested should start by asking around at Panama City hostels.
Finally, some people fly from Panama City to the border town of Puerto Obaldía, on the Caribbean coast, and take a launch to Colombia from there.
However you go, don’t board any boat that doesn’t have life jackets, well-equipped lifeboats, communication equipment, and a captain who inspires confidence.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition