Monday, October 6, 2014

Sailing to Colombia & The Guna Yala Islands

"A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." - John A. Shedd
The Independence. An 85 foot steel motor sail that was to be our home for the next five days and four nights, bringing us from Panama to Colombia and into the colorful colonial fortress city of Cartagena.

Melissa and I had been crossing our fingers that for one: this boat wouldn't be disgusting (we'd heard horror stories) and two: we'd have some fun, laid back people to share this boat with for nearly a week. After a wild ride to our launch point in the early hours of the morning and hardly sleeping the night before (having a lost passport scare), we were exhausted and sleep drunk and constructing thoughts was not yet possible at our 4am departure. It wasn't until we arrived to the meeting area of the ship several hours later that I felt I was fully conscience and really had a chance to get a feel for who we would be sharing such tight quarters with.

The first person I spotted as I climbed the narrow steps to the upper deck was a young kid, around the age of 10 or so I guessed. Next, I spotted his even younger sister. Before I could get any further in my thinking about how this was not the crowd I had imagined, their dad stepped in firmly asking the kids to put away the smart phones, reminding them of how they'd already surpassed their allotted minutes for the day. The kids sat, undisturbed and ignoring their dad's request. Perrrrrfect I thought, a bickering family to deal with and they're arguing over phones while in this tropical paradise. Let them keep the smart phones, dad, it's keeping them quiet! (It didn't take long to learn that this family was actually awesome - mom, dad & kids included, and I'd spend a vacation with them any day.) It was funny, sitting around, watching as everyone rose from the lower level and took a seat around the captain. He sat in his captain's chair, silently watching and waiting for all to arrive. We also sat quietly, wondering how this trip was about to go down.

Our Captain, Michel, was what we came to call a real salty sea dog. There were many mixed emotions from all the passengers as to how they felt about the guy. After only a few minutes he was delving into several stories that revealed his seeming fascination with passengers' bowel movements; going on to tell us ALL about things that have gone wrong on board with the toilets, not failing to include some gnarly details, and successfully scaring us into never wanting to use a toilet on board. I sat there, trying to translate for a Guatemalan couple next to me who didn't speak any English. I was quickly reprimanded by the Captain and told to be quiet. That was only the beginning of the scoldings we recieved over the next several days. 

Setting sail 

Our first sightings of the Guna Yala Islands and the people who inhabit this area, the Gunas. These islands were formerly called the San Blas, and are still often referred to as such. 

El Perro Island. This was where we docked the first day/night.

From where we docked, we took a small dingy to another island, Elefante, and were able to watch the start of the World Cup. We drank beers and fresh coconut water, played sand volleyball and got to know everyone a little better. We stayed until the stars came out, eating a freshly prepared meal by our incredible crew. Freshly caught fish with coconut rice and potato salad. 

Moon rise on Isla Elefante 

Let me just say, this is actually what the water looked like here! It was so blue and beautiful I still can't get over it. 

Our Cappy-tan cartin' us over to a nearby reef to snorkel for a bit.


Sunken ship. The waters through the Guna Yala Islands are actually pretty treacherous. Reefs stretch in every which direction and exist invisibly under the surface. This wasn't the first or last wreck we saw. 

Some islands were so tiny and merely housed a couple palm trees.

                          Another shipwreck! 

In any direction you looked you could see several islands. Here, you can kind of see one 
of the many breaks in the open waters signaling a reef's presence.

One night we headed to a different island for a bonfire. The family had supplies for s'mores and the rest of us had ample supplies of rum. One of the crew members, Daniel, from Spain, shared a tradition with us, which was to jump over the fire...

Here's Georgia (and Jess I think you're back there too!) and Daniel, who later became known as Chicharron.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason behind the nickname. Poor Daniel tried to outdo Sam's flip of sorts over the fire and managed to barrel roll through the fire instead. Chicharron is fried pork skin and a popular snack.

Locals would pass by on their small boats offering us what they could: freshly caught fish & lobster or coconuts. Occasionally you'd see an old woman selling handmade jewelry. 

Unfortunately, we didn't have too many sunny days while on the islands, but it was warm and, really, you just can't complain when you're in this setting, no matter the weather. And not with water that color.

The local men would also come and offer to clean the outside of the boat. 

At any point while docked you could simply jump off the boat and swim, or kayak, to surrounding islands. This one below had nothing and no one on it and you could roam around (it was very small) and have a whole island to yourself. 

Locals enjoying some sand volleyball

While land was still visible! When we crossed the open waters the last two days, there was nothing in sight. Ever. Just the sea and the sky y nada más. 

The food we were served everyday was absolutely delicious and plentiful. One night, before setting sail into the open seas, we had an incredible lobster dinner. The lobsters were dropped off, still living, by locals and later prepared perfectly by our crew. 

One of my favorite times on the boat was when we set sail at 2AM on the third night. Once we set sail, there was no stopping. From that point on, for the next 30 hours, we were traveling across the open seas, which were much rougher, with rather large swells, and the cause of nearly every passenger's sea sickness (I lucked out there). 

Most of us slept outdoors while on the boat. Wherever there was any place to sit, hang a hammock, or have  a somewhat comfortable bed or sorts, someone had claimed it and be sleeping there come nightfall. It was a hot and steamy hellish spot in the cabins below the main deck and sleeping quarters were tight. Very tight (there's pictures below). Luckily, the front of the boat, as well as the sun-deck area, had lots of open air and space and some pads to sleep on comfortably. 

Anyways, the night we began sailing I woke up to the Captain's muffled yells. It was pretty windy out, but he was still very audible as he so charmingly hollered at his crew members in the f-bomb filled and harsh way he liked to address them in ("VICTOR! VICTOR! VICTOR, YOU MOTHERF***ER!"). I watched as the crew scurried about getting the sails raised, the anchor up, the knots tied, and all that other jazz that needs to be done. And then we were off. I dozed in and out for a bit until I woke up at the very beginning of some serious sunrise action. There was a storm on the horizon dead ahead of us with massive dark clouds and lightning brewing inside of them. The captain was quick to begin his yelling again and came and told everyone to get inside - a storm was coming. I stayed outside, figuring I'd wait until it really got bad and it was actually necessary to go inside. As we neared the storm, it began to disperse and we sailed smoothly through a gap that formed. You could see the rain to either side in the distance. 

Despite the excitement of the storm, the sailing was incredibly peaceful. This was my favorite time of the day/night. There was a bright, full moon and clear skies. It was silent except for the sound of the water, and our sailboat rising and falling over the swells, creaking a bit. Here's a short video that kinda captures being on the boat. 


La luna y mi cama (my bed)

Melissa and I sat at the front of the boat, right at the bow, and hung our legs over the front. It was like a roller coaster ride, crashing down and then bobbing up over the large swells. At times our feet plunged into the water and the a bit of the sea hopped aboard.

We actually sailed into the sunrise that morning. 

The colors were unreal! P.S. - I didn't alter or spice up these pics in any way! All natural. Pachamama (a Goddess, worshipped by the indigenous of the Andes. In short, Mother Earth) in all her glory. 

The next morning the sun made another grand entrance onto the scene.

The Independence Family! We had an amazing, hilarious, fun crowd on the boat, and ended up hanging out a bit more in Cartagena for a few days before dispersing across the continent. 

Main floor. Somewhere under all the bags is a dining table. There was also a television with VHS tapes handy and a sound system complete with microphones... perfect for karaoke. Not to mention dusty globes and corals, books in all different languages and other random knickknacks the Captain had cluttered about. 


Someone's bed! It was along the main stairwell bringing you from the main deck to the rooms and bathrooms down below. This was sailing for backpackers, keep in mind. No luxury business.

My and Melissa's bed. I could hardly fit, and I'm not exactly tall. 

First sightings of the walls surrounding the great Cartagena. 

                          Boca Grande in the distance 

In the port of the great port city! We arrived early on the morning of the fifth day, as planned. 

All in all, it was such a unique and incredible journey. I now understand how people develop their love of sailing. It's exciting, peaceful, relaxing, and beautiful at the same time. And feels like a real adventure. Setting sail, rounding the globe to arrive at your awaited chunk of land. It was a great time, but I will say, I think we were all pretty eager to get our feet on solid ground again and out of the tight quarters of the Independence. At last, we were setting foot on the much anticipated soil of Colombia! Which came to be known as Locombia with the start of the Fifa World Cup and what was to be a long awaited time for Colombia to celebrate the success of their beloved fútbol team.