Right now I’m sitting in my dorm room at the Pit Stop hostel in Medellin. Words really can’t describe how crazy it has been here with the combination of people we have in this room. It’s part of the reason it has taken over ten days for me to post about the awesome San Blas sailing trip aboard the S.Y. Mintaka.
When I arrived in Panama I did some research when deciding on a sailboat. Choosing a boat is a bigger decision than you think as unlike a hostel you can’t obviously change the next day if you don’t like it. After reading the many horror stories featuring drunk/stoned skippers, overcrowded boats and lack of comfort I thought it might just be easier to fly. But the lure of real sailing added an entirely different dimension to my trip and a few days swimming and snorkelling around coral reefs and beautiful islands won out in the end.
Things to consider are the type of boat and the number of people it accommodates, where it departs from and finally whether it is considered a ‘party boat’ or something a little more serious.
At the end of the day though, the two most important factors to consider when choosing your sailing boat are:
1. The Captain
2. The group of people you have onboard
Our Captain ‘Manfred’ has solid reviews from a number of independent sources and is well-regarded for his experience and professionalism. It might take you a while to adjust to his sense of humour but I can definitely vouch that he knows exactly what he is doing and takes it seriously.
The Mintaka boat was purpose-built and accommodates 8 passengers. It is a single-hull sailing boat which is more likely to actually sail, particularly during the wet season when the trade winds drop-off. The larger catamarans tend to accommodate more people (around 20 people) and I was informed they are more likely to motor and not sail when the winds are low or coming from the bow. They might be more stable but 6 days at sea in confined spaces is far too long to be on a boat with 20 people.
Considering Manfred and his wife spend a majority of time at sea, I was surprised when they replied to my email enquiry in less than 2 days. I asked about the profile of people who had booked for the date I wanted and found out there were a German couple, solo Swiss girl and 4 Australians from Melbourne. Considering 6 of us have continued to hang out after the end of the trip, it would be safe to say that we were a great mix.
Most boats will spend between 2-3 days cruising around a few of the 300+ San Blas Islands. We spent a full 3 days and were spoilt with perfect weather the whole trip. The islands are postcard worthy and compete with many I have seen in Fiji. Unfortunately we only met a few Kuna locals and didn’t see much of the traditional culture. One of the island chiefs we were due to meet had to make a trip to Panama but we still enjoyed a coco-loco at his island.
One major bonus of the Mintaka is definitely the food. I wasn’t expecting much and read that most boats serve basic food at best but that is definitely not what we experienced. I assisted Manfred’s wife Petra in the small kitchen under deck and was stoked when I learned she was a former chef in the restaurant they owned. Our menu consisted of dishes such as Coq au vin, fresh lobster with garlic butter sauce, fresh mackerel fillets grilled with lemon, moreish sandwiches and copious amounts of fresh fruits. An added bonus was Petra’s famous Ice Tea and Colombian coffee every morning scored huge points from me in particular.
You will get to do a lot of snorkelling and swimming around the San Blas Islands. One reef we were taken to in particular was super healthy and abundant with marine life and corals. The tropical fish and their colours will amaze you as will the sunken backpacker sailing boat.
A few tips for anyone considering making the trip in either direction:
Departing from Portobelo instead of El Porvenir will save you some cash if you are coming from Panama City. Portobelo will take about 5 hours to reach by 2 buses. 4-hours in a comfortable air-conditioned coach to Colon, then a 1-hour chicken bus to Portobelo for a total cost of USD$5. Make sure you take the coach all the way to Colon and don’t get off at the earlier stop to save some time otherwise you will be standing in a full bus to Portobelo with limited space for any luggage. In order to get to El Porvenir you will need to take a 4WD taxi at a cost of USD$50-60
If you book a boat via Captain Jacks you get a free night accommodation at the only real hostel in Portobelo which means you can have a good nights sleep before if you have an early departure. I paid $529 all inclusive for 6 days aboard the Mintaka which was slightly less than what most other boats were charging. It includes all immigration costs, food and drink (excl. alcohol).
Bring and wear insect repellant. The sand flies are lethal at both Captain Jacks and a few of the islands and also be aware if there are minimal winds the insects can also reach the deck of the boat.
Have at least 24 hours buffer in your arrival time. If winds are minimal then motoring along will slow down the trip, even though we were sailing most of the stretch between San Blas and Cartagena it still took us around 10 hours longer than the average 36 hours straight sailing time for that section.
Definitely take sea/motion sickness tablets if you even remotely think you will get sick. You need to take them prior to the commencement and keep going throughout. I don’t personally take them however our boat had someone on board who was taking them and still managed to get sick. Basically getting to and from the San Blas Islands are the toughest parts with 1 and 2 straight days sailing respectively. When sailing the boat is at a 30-45 degree angle which makes sleeping difficult.
Be prepared for confined spaces. There is not a huge amount of room below deck and if you are travelling solo like myself you will most likely share a bed on board. The configuration of our boat was double at the bow, double in the salon, a small single and triple at the rear. More than likely you will need to “top/tail” with someone. It is really hot below deck and trying to sleep is affected by both the heat and motion of the sailboat. Showers are a brief hose down after swimming or snorkelling at the stern of the boat.
Bring a good attitude. Be social and make some great friendships. You will get to know your crew mates really well after 6-days together.
I guess I also have to mention especially for the fisherman out there that Manfred has quality game fishing equipment on board and will always have a lure trailing. If the boat can manage to get above 5kts then the chances of hooking something decent increase. On our trip we caught a small mackerel which was delicious and we also (almost) caught Manfred’s first sailfish. Unfortunately after getting it to the side of the boat, I made a complete mess of the gaff job and we dropped this fish.
I’m so glad I chose to sail via San Blas instead of fly to Colombia. Even though it was uncomfortable at times, the overall experience by far made up for that. Cartagena was also a great starting point for my first visit to Colombia and I had a blast there.
Massive thanks to Manfred and Petra from MintakaSailing as well as the great friends I made on board.
Look out for my next post on Colombia!!!