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Sailing to Colombia or Panama

Sailing to Panama

Kuna Tribe Huts in the Islands of San Blas Panama

A Resource for Sailing to Colombia or Panama

Sailing from Panama to Colombia or Colombia to Panama might be your best choice for sane adventure seekers. It’s not the cheapest choice but it’s also not the most dangerous. This page serves as a resource for sailing to Colombia on a backpackers travel budget.

The Pan-American Highway stops in Panama, creating a gap in the highway that attempts to connect Alaska to the southern tip of South America. Without a road, you have no bus or cars. You have 5 options for crossing the infamous Darien Gap that separates the intense jungle between Panama and Colombia.

1.  Fly – The fastest and safest option, but costly

2.  Charter a sailboat – 4 days, costly, adventurous and island touring

3.  Speed Boat (lanchas – fast boat) - 1-2 days, cheap, wet and rough

4.  Cargo Ship – ? days, possibly cheap, uncertainty, no schedule and uncomfortable

5.  Cross the Darien Gap on foot – ? days, crazy and life threatening

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

Sailing on a charter boat isn’t the most extreme of the options for crossing into Colombia, but it’s still an adventure.  Flying seems to boring compared to 4-5 days of sailing through the San Blas Islands and open seas to Colombia.  At $400 – $550USD it’s also not the cheapest option, but understand you are not paying for food or accommodation for 4 days.

Research for the sailing journey was limited on the internet.  We wanted objective information about the trip, not websites advertising their sailing services.  This article will serve to fill that gap while providing a recap of our own personal experience.

Sailing to Panama

A Typical Sailboat Found Sailing in the San Blas Islands of Panama

Booking A Sailboat to Colombia

As Lonely Planet correctly states, most hostels in Panama City arrange the sailing trips.  We decided to book our trip prior to arriving to Panama City in order to secure solid departure dates.  We booked through Hostel Wunderbar.  Hostel Wunderbar is located in Puerto Lindo Panama on the Caribbean coast where most scheduled sailboats depart from.  The hostel also organizes many of the sailing trips out of Puerto Lindo.  On their website information is provided about all the boasts they book between Panama and Colombia.  Booking ahead of time you may not know what captain and ship you are sailing on, as was the case with us.  This is unfortunate considering your captain and ship has a significant impact on your overall sailing experience.

What impacts your sailing trip the most?

  1. Weather
  2. Captain Behavior and Experience
  3. Shipmates
Sailing to Panama

6 Travelers on The Tango Sailboat in the San Blas Islands Sailing to Colombia

A quick glance at their website leads you to believe you will be sailing on the 50ft Seedler.  Don’t believe that! We ended up on the 32ft Tango sailboat.  When booking through the Wunderbar Hostel they require that you arrive at the Hostel the afternoon before your departure.  We did stay at their open air tribal style cabins, but we know of another couple that chose to stay in a guesthouse next door and still booked through Wunderbar, however they were asked to provide a large deposit for their trip.

Cost of Sailing from Colombia to Panama

This is a growing business in both Colombia and Panama as indicated by the increased number of sailboats offering the ride and the $200 increase in cost in only 3 years. In 2009, you were able to book a boat a decent boat for $350USD.  Today’s sailing trips cost between $400 – $550USD.  This fee includes all food, non-alcoholic drinks and all boarder crossing fees and taxes.  You are only responsible for alcoholic drinks and additional snacks.

Getting to Puerto Lindo

Some hostels in Panama City will offer a jeep ride to Puerto Lindo for $50, however you can take a local bus with one stopover for much less.  The bus stops in Colon, where you can hop right on another bus to Puerto Lindo without ever leaving the station, something you might not want to do.  In Panama City, Luna’s Castle Hostel, along with many others, will book trips for you.  Remember, there is no guarantee of the type of sailboat or specific captain.

Puerto Lindo – Departure City

Puerto Lindo is a very small fishing village with nothing to do for the average traveler.  Few tiendas and restaurants exist.  You can cook your own dinner at the hostel, or visit the women that run restaurants out of their homes.  The women will serve the same dish; catch of the day, usually whole fried fish with plantains or rice.  It’s cheap and very tasty.  Order a beer and hang out with the family.  At the tienda you can purchase beer or rum and snacks for your trip.  There are no ATMs in town.

Sailing to Panama

The Only Dish Available in Puerto Lindo. Deep Fried Fresh Fish and Rice

The evening before our departure, captain David of the 32ft Tango, arrived at Hostel Wunderbar to give us a 2-minute overview of our trip.  Most importantly he wanted us at the port by 7:30am.  The port was only 10-min walk from the hostel.  Six of us boarded a sailboat in Puerto Lindo, Panama.  On the 32ft sailboat all of our backpacks were stored very nicely, not interfering with our space and comfort.  For the next 4 days we would live out of our day-packs as the captain had ordered.

Several boats also depart from El Porvenir in the San Blas Islands.  To get to El Porvenir from Panama City, you will have to take a 4×4 from Panama City to Carti.  From Carti you can take a flight to El Porvenir or hire a boat.  The 4×4 leave before 5am so you are able to get on a flight or boat that same day.

Sailing to Panama

Sailboats Awaiting Passengers in Puerto Lindo

The Sailboats

The sailboat provided everyone with adequate bed space.  Sometimes you slept on a shared bed with someone else but it was still comfortable for a 32ft boat.  Remember, these trips are typically for budget backpackers, therefore accommodation is not luxurious, spacious or private.  Different captains have different ideas on how many they can squeeze on a boat.

Sailing to Panama

Social Area in the Tango Sailboat

The most private and comfortable bed on our boat was the front cabin, however once you are sailing in the open seas, you don’t want to be in the front of the boat.  Large waves will cause the front to lift off the water and then slam back down.  The rear cabin was also comfortable and private, but lacked ventilation and had a strong fuel odor.  Sailboats do have motors and they are usually next to the rear cabin.  During turbulent seas the rear cabin can be the most stable area of the boat. The smallest beds are in the center cabin, the socializing area.  These are usually created by folding down the dinning table.  This lacks privacy and comfort, but can be a happy medium between the front and rear and provides great ventilation and quick access to the outside deck.  These sailboats are small and don’t have much room on the deck to lie down.

Sailing to Panama

On the Deck of the Tango Sailboat

What’s included in a sailboat tour:

  1. At least 40 hours in San Blas, with snorkeling (gear provided by the captain).
  2. Island visits especially to Wichibwala Island to purchase goods and see the Kuna huts.
  3. At least 40 Hours of sailing in the open seas.
  4. Meals the entire trip.
  5. Water to drink.
  6. A bed to sleep on
  7. Sea sickness, someone will be terribly ill.
Sailing to Panama

Snorkeling in the San Blas Islands of Panama

The Captain

This is the topic where you hear the most horror stories.  Captains can make or break the trip regardless of the weather.  Backpacker stories swirl the internet about drunk or high captains.  Remember, it’s almost impossible to book a specific captain.  Hostels will book the sailing trip for you, but they can’t promise you the exact boat or captain.  Most likely, you find out who your captain is the night before you depart.  If you find you don’t like your captain and want another one, it will be a difficult task to get your deposit back.  If the captain can’t get enough passengers for your departure in the morning, you won’t be going anywhere.  These types of situations happen very often.  We originally were told we booked on a 50ft boat, but at 7:30am, we unknowingly boarded a 32ft sailboat.

The captains need to be familiar with the islands of San Blas in order to show you the best reefs for snorkeling and the best villages to experience the culture of the Kuna Tribe.  The Kuna inhabit many of the islands and you will often see them approaching your anchored boat in dugout canoes selling beautifully colored hand made crafts.  Many trips promise great interaction with the indigenous people, but don’t expect it.  You will see them around, buy crafts from them and possibly a lobster, but that’s probably the extent of it.

Sailing to Panama

Indigenous Kuna Tribe in a Dugout Canoe in the San Blas Islands

The quality of your meals is also determined by your captain’s chef skills.  We must share with you that David of the Tango is an incredible chef.

Length of Trip

Most advertise 4-5 days to sail from Panama to Colombia.  The length of the trip can be impacted dramatically by the weather.  If it rains while in San Blas, you might want to stay another day.  If during your open seas sailing there is no wind, it will take longer.  Weather is the main factor.  There will always be instances where travelers have a hostel booked ahead of time.  You must be flexible and try not to get angry or upset.  Sailing is different from flying, try to relax and have a good time.  Cartagena is a big city with lots of accommodation options.  You will find something if you don’t have a reservation when you arrive.  The San Blas islands are an incredible creation to experience.  If it rains and the captain offers you an additional day to explore them in the sunlight, do it!  Unfortunately, you have to convince your shipmates to stay also.  Some captains are very relaxed on timelines, this is another reason to approach this trip with great flexibility in your schedule.

Sailing to Panama

Arriving to Cartagena, Colombia by Sailboat in the Early Morning

During our trip in late November we had sunny days with light rain at night in San Blas.  When we departed San Blas toward Colombia in the open seas, we ran into a storm that put us slightly off course.  During the day it was clear but lacked wind.  We had to use the motor with the sails down in order to continue on course.  The next evening the wind picked up again and we arrived in exactly 4 days including 45 hours of open seas sailing.  This is an average trip.

San Blas Islands

Sailing to Panama

The Beaches on El Porvenir in the Islands of San Blas Panama

If sailing from Panama or colombia, your first destination is the Islands of San Blas.  These islands are inhabited by the Kuna Tribe and can be considered the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean.  Located 8 hours from Puerto Lindo or 40 hours from Colombia, the islands are less dense than those on the Pacific coast of Central America, which make them easily inhabitable and popular for Caribbean sailors.

El Porvenir is the main island of business and also maintains an airport.  This is where your captain will have your passport stamped.  Travelers also have the option of catching a boat ride from Panama mainland to the island of El Porvenir and staying for days.  There are beaches and hostels / hotels for lodging.  If you are looking for more adventure consider island hopping by boat hitchhiking.  Eventually, you can catch another boat arriving to El Porvenir and continue on to Cartagena.

Sailing to Panama

El Porvenir Island, the Main Island in San Blas

Sailing from Colombia to Panama

The options are the same if traveling from the south to the north.  In Cartagena, Casa Viena is popular for booking trips that sail from Colombia to Panama.  The advantage is that you go through the rough long open seas sailing first.  The disadvantage is that you have no time to acclimate to the rocking of the sail boat before heading out into open rough waters.

Ships and Captains that Sail to Colombia and Panama

Please leave information about boats and captains in comments below so we properly maintain page.


SY Seeadler

Boat: SY Seeadler

Captain: Guido

  • 50 ft Steel Ketch
  • 10 Passengers

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Boat: SY Island Fever

Captain: Bjoern

  • 45 ft Gulfstar

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SY Tango

Boat: SY Tango

Captain: David

  • 32 ft Sailboat
  • 2 Private Cabins, and 2 other Beds
  • 6 Passenger + captain

We personally sailed with David in November of 2009.  The boat is basic and small, not luxurious. The front cabin fits a couple nicely, the rear cabin is more cramped, but can fit two small people. The rear cabin also smells like fuel from the engine and get’s no ventilation.  The dinning table collapses into two small individual beds. One bed can only fit 1 person, the captain. The other bed can squeeze in 2 people. There is no deck space for lying down, but you do have room to sit outside in the cockpit area. Captain David speaks French, English and Spanish. He remains to himself a lot, but is an incredible chef. At night while docked in San Blas islands he would spend the night with the locals partying, but was always back the next morning ready to sail. Overall, he was a good captain.


SY Golden Eagle

Boat: SY Golden Eagle

Captain: Peter

  • 65 ft Sailboat
  • 4 Private, Ensuite, Double and Twin Cabins

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SY Frederica

Boat: SY Frederica

Captain: Israel

  • 40 ft Sailboat
  • 6 Passengers

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SY Wild Card

Boat: SY Wild Card

Captain: John

  • 60 ft Sailboat
  • 15 Passengers

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Boat: Catamaran Lazy Cat

Captain: Fred

  • 38 ft Catamaran
  • 6 Passengers / 6 Beds

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SY Lady Fish

Boat: SY Lady Fish

Captain: Gwen

  • 35 ft Sailboat
  • 4 Beds

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SY Quatermoon

Boat: SY Quatermoon

Captain: Symian

  • 41 ft Oyster Sailboat

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Sy Flamboyant

Boat: Sy Flamboyant

Captain: Eric

  • 42 ft Sailboat

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Boat: Catamaran Come Together

Captain: Steve

  • 4 Double Cabins and Deck Space

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SY Esmeralda

Boat: SY Esmeralda

Captain: Oliver

  • 42 ft Sailboat
  • 5 Passengers

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Boat: SY Melody

Captain: Marc

  • 44 ft Sailboat

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SY Gambade

Boat: SY Gambade

Captain: Patrice

  • 50 ft Sailboat
  • 3 Double Cabins, 3 Dormbeds, Deck Space

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SY Stahlratte

Boat: SY Stahlratte

Captain: Luis

  • 40 meter Schooner

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SY Varuna

Boat: SY Varuna

Captain: Claudio

  • 40 ft Sailboat

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SY Tchao Tchao

Boat: SY Tchao Tchao

Captain: Tadeuz

  • 45 ft Sailboat
  • 6 Passenger

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Please add details of your experience below or email jason(at)2backpackers(dot)com.

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