Thursday, March 25, 2010

Panama To Colombia

Boat Panama to Colombia: $410.00
Jeep Ride to Caribbean: $25.00
Entrance fee to Kuna Land: $6.00
Canoe Ride to ship: $6.00
Exit Fee from Panama: $0 (no stamp)
Entrance Free to Colombia: $0 (Stamp Required)

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale a tale of a faithful trip. That started from this tropic port aboard this big ass ship....

I got my alarm clock issues straightened out and all went according to plan. I got 2 cups of coffee into me by the time the jeep arrived to pick us up to take us to the boat at 5am.

Turns out that 3 people in my dorm were also booked on the same boat, 3 New Zealanders. For people who think the way I travel is crazy these folks make me look completely sane. They are bicycling from New York to the Christ Statue in Rio De Janeiro. I have no idea how they are doing it, the heat alone would kill me, toss in some hills and I would be changing up to a bus. They are averaging about 60km a day.

In typical Latin American fashion the jeep was 1/2 an hour late, then we had to wait for the pick up truck that would take the bikes. Many cell phone calls, much confusion and 1/2 an hour later we are off. There was a caravan of 5 jeeps, some folks were catching other boats and some were just going to the San Blas Islands to stay. After 45 minutes on the road we all pull into a grocery store parking lot to pick up supplies if you wanted them and to pay the drivers ($25.00). Organization is not these peoples strong point, again 45 minutes to get payments straightened out and many cell phone calls. Finally we are off. Then 30 minutes in a stop for coffee and breakfast.

The road to the Caribbean is dirt and full of potholes and pretty much all uphill twisty road. There were some road crews working so it looks like they are trying to make it a little more accessible. We also had to cross a river along the way, beautiful scenery, jungle jungle and more jungle. At one point you come to a shack were you have to pay $6.00 to come on to Kuna (native) land. There are also 2 passport check points along the way, 1 just for fun the other is the official checking out of Panama border (no stamp is given). There is something sureal about 4x4ing through the jungle listening to M&M on the CD player, every time I hear the Stan song from now on this road trip will come to mind. After a few hours we get to the river were the canoes are that will take us to the ship. The canoes are also run by the Kuna people. Again organized kaos as they try to get the right people in the right canoes with their bags. The trip takes about 1/2 an hour and costs $6.00. Met a Canadian guy who was taking another boat, he is bicycling from Vancouver to the bottom of Argentina.

Our boat is the Stahlratte (Steel Rat), it is owned and operated by a society, you can buy memberships and get discounts on all of the trips that they do. This is just one they also go up and down the Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras etc). The ship is 107 years old.

We get to the boat, got our stuff on board and picked our bunks. They have double and single ones as well as a private bedroom. All of the "bunks" have curtains that you can close for privacy and the sleeping quarters area is pretty large. I got a bottom bunk at the front of the ship, more bounce for your buck :-). When boarding you are required to hand over your passport, you get it back at the end of the trip once Columbia customs has stamped it. Some folks thought we might end up as slave labor and sold off to the Kuna's but really they need them so they can give the info to their boat agent in Columbia to try to speed up customs. They don't want to chase you again to get them when they hit port so they just keep them. No big deal you don't need them for anything during the trip.

The crew had set up a breakfast for us on the top deck, coffee, tea, breads eggs and all so once everyone was settled in the introductions began.

The Crew:
Led by Captain Ludwig aka LuLu - 6 in total - A mix of German's, 1 Swiss & 1 Austrian. All German speaking but they all speak english as well. Except for LuLu the crew rotates about every 3 - 4 months (Roli has been there a year) this trip was the last for 4 of them, 1 just came on board so it was her first trip but she has volunteered in previous years. I can't say enough about how great the crew is, they were willing to answer questions and let you "help" out with the sailing if you wanted to. An awesome group of people and they love a good party. Thanks for the whipping LuLu I promise to be a good steward from now on ;-)

The Passengers:
2 Dutch guys, 4 German guys, a German couple (riding motor bikes thru central/South America), A US couple, 3 Kiwi's (bicycling New York to Rio De Janeiro), 1 Canadian/Dutch couple (bicycling California to the bottom of Argentina), 1 British/Dutch couple and me

My Spanish did not improve on this leg of the trip but I did pick up some German swear words.

Over breakfast the rules of the boat and the safety procedures were explained. In case of a sinking the last party is on the top deck. The toilet works on a pump handle on the wall system, if you break it everyone will have to use the bucket and they will hate you. Everyone had to sign up for Steward duty which basically means you help get the food from the kitchen to the table on the top deck, clear the table and do the dishes. There was some mention of helping with cutting and chopping which luckily did not happen so I did not have to explain that I am not allowed to play with sharp pointy things especially on a rolling boat. 3 meals a day are supplied as well as coffee, tea and water. You can bring your own booze or you can buy it on board, beers were $1.00, cokes $1.00 and bottles of rum ranging from $10-$25. I brought along a bottle of rum and a few beers. I ended up just buying beers and left mine as a going away present for the crew when I left.

The trip from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena Columbia takes 4 days and 3 nights. 2 of those days are spent frolicking in the ocean, snorkeling and swimming and lazing at/around various deserted islands. Then it is 30 hours straight to Colombia. When I researched ships for the journey I came across some horror stories about too many people on the boats, bad food (5 days of ham & cheese sandwiches), drunk captains, getting lost and running out of food and water. One of the women I work with back home's daughter was on a boat that sank. If you do this trip do some research on the ships, everything I found said that if you could get on this ship it was the best. The cost was $410.00 which was only about $30.00 over what the others were but it was a day less of being on the water, it is totally worth it. There are only a couple of ships that will take you right to Cartagena, most go to Tobo as they can't make the crossing and have to follow the coast. From Tobo you need to catch a bus to Cartagena.

Day 1: Motor/sail to a deserted island - Snorkel, swim, do nothing - BBQ on the beach Chicken, fish other tasty things. Party.

Day 2: Motor/Sail to a spot with a few deserted islands - Snorkel, swim, do nothing. Lots of other boats here seems the secret is out much to LuLu's displeasure. They seemed to be mostly privately owned boats and they did not like us much. Our ship was much bigger, yacht envy? In the late afternoon a boat of backpackers pulled in there were a couple of Aussies & an Irish dude from the previous hostel/Noriega tour in Panama on board. They swam over with their rum, we tried to fend them off but well they had rum. So partied with them.

Day 3: Motor/Sail in open water to Colombia. Dolphins playing around the boat. Lots of heads hanging over the side of the ship, fish were well fed that day. I don't get sea sick, however I did over partake of the rum the night before and I can't drink. Even at home I spend the day after throwing up so I too was feeding the fishes in the morning. Rum is evil and I am very stupid. Pretty quiet around the ship, not many people attending breakfast and lunch and most that did didn't keep it down long. Psssst can you score me some dramamine? I just need 1 pill man I'll pay you in Colombia. Quiet night soup for dinner, lots of bread and soda crackers eaten, early to bed.

Day 4: Most folks have recovered some still a little queezy if they go below deck, most took a shot at breakfast. More dolphin's playing beside and in front of the boat, beautiful creatures. We got to Cartagena around 11am and after scooting through the hole in the wall that protects the harbor we dropped anchored in the harbor. LuLu took the launch and went ashore with our passports to drop them off with the agent. All ships have to have an agent, customs won't deal with individual captains/ships. LuLu returned and the wait was on. Fresh tuna fish soup for lunch. We got into port just after 2 huge cruise ships which did not bode well for a rapid clearance through immigration. Sure enough about 5 hours later a call comes in on the cell phone and immigration wants us all down at the office. They even sent a scary boat with angry looking men with guns on it to watch us to make sure we all went ashore (except the captain who had to stay with the ship).

5 cabs to get us all there, the ships crew paid for them, off to the immigration office we go. Many stern looking men with automatic weapons milling about. They seem to like to stand in such a way that they are not actually pointing them at you but they have them down by their sides (hanging off a strap) and they have their arm across the top, and yet the barrel is pointing at you. I love latin america it's all about the macho intimidation crap. The first group of us went into the office the rest of us pulled up a piece of stairs outside and waited. An hour later the 1st group comes out and the agent brings out all of our passports and they are all stamped. We didn't even have to go in and talk to anyone. I asked the people from the first group what happened they said nothing they didn't talk to anyone just sat in there. Back in the cabs we go and again the crew paid for them, on to the launch in shifts (only holds 9 people) grab our stuff and back to the docks.

We all say our goodbyes and go our separate ways with promises to keep in touch. Once you have hung over the side of a boat together you are bonded for life. Little did we now how soon it would be until we all ran into each other again.

On that note, a blatant push for my website and international people search. If you are looking for people you met on your travels you just might find them there. If not you can place a free ad to find them. I have to pay for this traveling somehow :-)

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