Tag Archives: panama

Sailing to Colombia story

The smell of septic was present. The stale, unventilated air was very hot and sweaty. Any clothing or cloth-like material had an apauling salty dampness about it. A constant creaking and uncertainty, “are these sounds are normal?” It sounds like something important is breaking, but the crew doesn’t seem to be phased by this, so I can only assume everything is ok. You just need to embrace the fact that you are uncomfortable and nauseous because there are not many options at this point. There are 20 passengers on this overcrowded sailboat and 3 gracious crew. Out of the 4 bathrooms one is in our cabin and shared by whomever needs to use it. The more people that use our bathroom the better the chance the flushing system will malfunction, only increasing the septic odor in what I call my bedroom. I attempt to sleep naked with the mentality that whomever enters the room to use the facilities will feel instantly uncomfortable with the presence of a naked stranger and use one of the other bathrooms, which to the best of my knowledge are worse off then the one I sleep next to.


I could sleep on the deck aside my vomiting wife, but the hard grip tape-like surface is doing a number on my back and shoulders. Besides she needs her space, and I need to sleep below deck with my dog Lupe to ensure she doesn’t mysteriously disappear into the sea during this multi-day open water crossing to Colombia. I could manage to scrounge up a pillow or two for some extra support but the consequences of sleeping on such a surface will make the next day a painful achy one for sure. The last 15 years its been hard to sleep comfortable due to a number of sport related injuries, so sleeping in certain positions seems to be a requirement for me to ensure a pleasant work day.


Only a few were seasick, my wife being one of them. The smell of puke was not overwhelming. Sometimes on a vessel seasickness is a chain reaction. One person gets ill, than another than another. The stench becomes too much to handle, then next thing you know the entire boat is regurgitating last nights pasta carbonara with raw tuna sashimi on the side. In my opinion, this is not the best meal to feed a boatload of potential sick half drunk humans. But I enjoyed the meal, and considering all of this, the boat in a whole did a good job.


20 plus bodies are littered on any flat surface that can be found. God for bid you need to get up in the middle of the night to take a piss, you will be tripping on humans in the blackness of the evening, not trying to step on their faces with your filthy moist feet. Besides any excuse in the middle of the night to go outside for a breadth of clean air will be taken advantage of. After breathing and moving in the stagnant thick air for several hours like one of those dreams when everything moves in slow motion, you contemplate just using your own bathroom because it can be quick and easy, and you’re half sleeping in a hypnotic state, questioning if your even awake or just dreaming this. Then after having more difficulty breathing, you enter the bathroom while stepping in 2 inches of unthinkable water, sweating profusely, taking small fast breadths of the septic poop filled air, you decide to parade outside stepping over the bodies while the boat rocks heavily, grabbing anything you can get your sweaty grip on. Your rancid foot only manages to come in contact with a few bodies, and as you accidentally wake these people up by stepping on whatever body parts wind up under your feet, you don’t seem to care. You just need to get outside fast because your suffocating from the hot, wet contaminated air of the cabin. After I take a whizz off the side of the boat, check up on my sick wife, admire the amazing view from the rapidly moving sailboat, you realize how easy it is to fall into the black early morning sea without anybody else realizing until its too late. With a few sloppy foot steps you could easily end it all, better take caution.


You find one of the last nooks to squeeze into on deck because you need to take advantage of laying down in the cool fresh air, and your too exhausted to stand. The smell of the ocean is refreshing and clean. You are a bit chilly and shivering, but its such a relief from the cabin you decide to see how long you can take the cold night with minimal clothing and no blankets. You could go back down to the black polluted cabin to fetch a sheet, but the chore seems like more work than your willing to do, and during the process there is a good chance your sleeping surface will get snatched by another human. As you lay down and contemplate life and this adventure you decided to embark on, you notice another body slowly shuffling up from below deck going through the motions you just went through. You managed to steal the last possible outdoor sleeping surface so they are forced to stand in their semi slumber while gaffeling as much oxygen as possible. you smile mischievously, stare at the constellations, forget about the hardship, feel grateful for where you are on the planet, and really take in your beautiful view of the 3 am sky in the middle of the sea.


We could have taken a airplane to Colombia instead of the 5 day sail. But putting Lupe the dog on a plane would involve stacks of paperwork, vet visits, and a possible non entry to the country because her breed has a bad reputation in Colombia. We could not take the risk of non entry because our truck is also on a ship someplace in the middle of the Caribbean awaiting our arrival in Colombia. Plus smuggling Lupe through international borders is a task we know all to well at this point. Since we did the boat, we would not have to pass through any security or authority of any sort with Lupe. So no matter how uncomfortable the over crowded vessel was it was really the only option to arrive in Colombia. Plus we are embarking on a journey where flying might seem like the easy thing to do, challenges are a big part of this trip, and suffering will humble a person. Though the stank boat overcrowded with twenty something year old cocaine filled backpackers was not a walk in the park, I did enjoy it thoroughly, and might do it again if need be. After all, being comfortable your whole life will make a person soft. And soft people suffer when things get tough. The midnight view of the sea and the flying fish hitting you in the chest made the experience interesting and worthwhile.




The birding was fun but I’m not a birder. We hunted the Quetzal through the jungle trek. There was six of us shuffling up this mountain. I think we saw more than a few. If I was a birder I would be able to brag to all my bird nerd friends about the sight we saw. Yea its a beautiful green bird, and we had fun on the hike, but the humid tropical air was hard to handle without the beach nearby.


Surfing is always an option anywhere in Central America, and that was one of the main reasons we left Jersey in the first place, to surf everywhere. Our last couple weeks in Costa Rica surfing one of the longest lefts on the planet during the first big swell of the season left our bodies beat down and it was hard to move, our feet sliced up from rock reef. It was probably the best biggest longest waves of the trip and probably our lives. The sense of satisfaction was glowing in our minds, so surfing in Panama was not a priority.


Pavones, Costa Rica
Pavones, Costa Rica

The constant thought of having to ship the Toyota to Colombia was on our minds. This process involves mucho paperwork, constant back and fourth emails to our agent, questions, security concerns, coordinating dates as to when we can pick it up, and deciding how we will be getting our bodies on the other side to receive the vehicle on time. This was a small burden, but maybe i worry too much. Not to mention the many thousands of dollars its going to cost to get us and the truck finally moving again in South America. We knew about this though, for a long time. Its all part of driving to Tierra del Fuego.


Once you travel from the States to South America, by the time you get to Panama you are kind of over Central America. All the countries in Central America feel very similar, especially the costal route. You are anxious for a change, and you know South America is on the horizon. You are excited to get there, to taste the new food, and peep all the hype. For example, once you leave Mexico the food situation goes downhill. Maybe thats because Mexico just has some of the most amazing inexpensive eats i’ve had my entire life. The rest of central America, not so much.


eating streetfood in Oaxaca MX
eating streetfood in Oaxaca MX

Dont get me wrong, Panama has a lot to offer, and is a beautiful place to visit, but for us personally it marked to end of a major leg of this trip and the beginning to something bigger and more mysterious. In Panama we surfed Santa Catalina, which was an interesting paddle out, with welcoming locals. The place is famous and the waves are strong, this is not a place for the meek, which is good because it keeps the kooks in check. The tides in Santa Catalina can have a difference of 15 feet, so getting caught inside at a lower tide can have an impact on your feet, body and board. We did manage to see one surfer with a blood gushing wound on his face, but thats normal there.


Santa Catalina at mid-tide
Santa Catalina at mid-tide

In many of these tourist communities there was a large presence of expats. These folks a lot of the time are a miserable bunch of chaps. They usually have their own cliques and sit around complaining about locals while chain smoking and making business. Its kinda funny that during our 9 months of traveling the most miserable sketchy people that crossed our paths are usually jaded american expats. I recommend minimal contact with these people. Connecting with locals is far more rewarding.


We spent over a week in Panama city getting ready to ship the truck and coordinate our sail to Colombia. We camped out in the street next to the canal one night. In the morning were woken up by a large family picking mangos from a tall tree above our camp. The street was crowded with parked cars and sound of mangos slamming on the hoods was amusing. Old town was riddeled with street art and narrow roads. Evidence of an old colonial town once threatened by pirates and smugglers. The history was evident and the ceviche is fresh. For $1.25 you get a heaping cup of fresh lime soaked fish straight from the boats you dine next to. And don’t forget the first Dunkin Doughnuts we visited since Jersey, it wasn’t the same though, no bagels, no sandwiches.