One of the places that Jen was most excited about for this journey was visiting the San Blas. We had not only read great things about the archipelago, but friends have given great recommendations, including one, who spent two years traveling the world describing it as “the best place he ever visited”.
So when planning the first stages of our trip, the San Blas were definitely. On. The. List. Furthermore, we wouldn’t just be doing a two day trip like many that you find from Panama City. No – we booked a 5 day sailing adventure which would take us through the San Blas and then deposit us in Cartagena, Columbia. So it doubled as inter-country transport – score!
We booked the trip months in advance – paying the deposit was Jen’s first experience with a Western Union. And after a few days in Boquete, now was the time!
Our sail boat would leave from Puerto Lindo, a small sea village on the east coast – a cute little place, which is probably even better looking in the sunshine. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. . .
In order to get to Puerto Lindo, you need to travel to Colon first and then take a local bus that goes to all the little towns along the Caribbean coast. For Colon, we at first wanted to take the canal train, which runs alongside the Panama Canal and had a glass roof to see all the flora and fauna of the surrounding forest. As an infrastructure dork, Erwan was particularly excited about this. Thing is, the train only runs at 7:15 in the morning. We get up super early to get there in time to buy tickets, etc, only to be told once we arrive “no, Domingo”. Yeah, it was Sunday and the train line was closed – poor research and planning on our part.
We still obviously needed to get to Colon, so plan B – we took the public bus. If ever in Panama, definitely take the opportunity to ride the local buses, which are pimped out former US school buses. Paint jobs, disco lights, stereo systems – the works.
And, they still keep the former school rules signs. Jen wondered whether she could possibly be on the same bus that took her to middle school. . .
After getting to Colon, which is a city that we would not recommend (all the locals told us it was “peligroso” and from our 30 minutes spent there, it felt as much), we took a bus to Portobello. We could have taken a direct bus to Puerto Lindo, which is a bit further than Portobello, but as we didn’t need to be at the boat until the evening, we had plenty of time to kill and heard good things about Portobello, a former Spanish colonial town that also has a good beach.
Oh, but I should mention that it’s been raining this whole morning – albeit mildly. In fact, due to our previous time in Boquete, we hadn’t seen the sun in quite a few days. . .
Anyway, another pimped out bus ride later, which included lots of people dressed in their Sunday best getting dropped off at various churches along the main country road, we arrive in Portobello. There, it decides to start pouring. We seek shelter in a hostel bar, which is not actually opened and when we asked the owner when it would serve drinks/food, he responded “it’s Sunday, maybe in a little while, I don’t know”. After using his wifi for a bit, we explore the city quickly, particularly wanting to see the Cristo Negro in the church, which is famous.
No real luck, getting to see the statue – mass is going on. We’ll come back later. Following our jaunt, we stop in a local spot for lunch. After lunch, mass is still going on. We go to the bus stop to now wait for the local bus for Puerto Lindo.
We wait almost two hours (nobody could tell us when the bus would come, as it’s Sunday). As we left, mass was still going on. . .
So we arrive in Puerto Lindo! One step closer to the San Blas! And it’s still raining. . .
No worries, we find the bar where we’re supposed to meet our captain and settle in for the next few hours, except for a brief excursion to another bar, which is the only place in town that has a wifi connection. Oh and there’s no ATM in this town or even in Portobello. Given the lack of services to begin with and that which is to come, Erwan now refers to Puerto Lindo as the end of the world town.
While at the bar, we meet a German couple, who is on the same sailing trip with us. As it’s still pouring out, they also settle in and we share a few drinks with them. There are 12 people in total, but everybody else doesn’t join until just before 7pm, which is when we meet Victor, our captain for the trip.
Victor tells us that the boat won’t set sail in the morning due to the weather, so we won’t be boarding the ship that night. Instead, we need to meet him in the morning for an update, however he is confident that we should be able to sail the following day.
With the German couple, another Canadian couple and two young backpacker dudes from the states, we head to a nearby hostel, where we’re all put up in a “building” that used to be a former hen house. It’s run by a very lovely Austrian women, however the facilities were basic. There was no hot water and the building hadn’t seen a storm like that in a while, so the roof leaked. It leaked on Erwan. In the middle of the night. While in bed. Jen was on the bottom bunk this time. Erwan’s “roughing it” score has gone up massively.
Slightly rough night, but it doesn’t matter, we’re heading to the San Blas!
We meet Victor at 10am and he tells us that despite the rain, we should be able to board tonight, in order to set sail at first light the following day. He warns us that the first two days on the San Blas will probably be poor weather, but we will still go ahead. With the news of poor weather, two couples decide to bow out of the trip – including the lovely German couple we met the day before. They head back to Panama City and coordinate alternative means to get to Columbia.
The remaining eight of us settle into the same bar to hang out for the entire day. The. Entire. Day. At a bar. There’s poor weather outside and no wifi, so it’s just storm watching and getting to know each other. During that time, I learned tips on painting, tidbits on Austrian politics, nutrition tips from a certified nutritionist (who confirms that when there’s nothing else to eat, chips and beer is a perfectly fine meal), and a new drinking game.
At 7pm, we were all ready to go and Victor came to tell us everything was fine (despite the continued rain and increased winds). Due to the higher waves, we just needed to walk to the dock on the other side of town to take the dingy to the sailboat (about a 5-10 minute walk). One of the other passengers refused to walk that far with her bags, so Victor goes to sort out some kind of transport (despite the rest of us saying we could help with the bags). When Victor comes back 30 minutes later, suddenly the trip is off again by another day, due to the increased wind and thus, the size of the waves.
So, we need to find further accommodation. As we are now bonded with the other passengers, we split the two apartments above the bar. We share one with the two American backpacker dudes. Although the facilities are a bit better than the night before, the shower is still cold, in fact it was freezing – coldest shower Jen has ever taken. But it’s still all ok, we’re going to San Blas! After our day of drinking/doing nothing and knowing that we are to meet the Captain for an update at 7am, we have an early night.
The storm gets worse in the night. In fact, it is no longer just a storm, but has turned into Hurricane Otto. Otto’s really mean and he batters the tiny town of Puerto Lindo. The place floods, power and water is cut off, boats in the harbour are grounded/damaged/sunk and our little bar/apartment building is now on an island. We wake up to gale force winds and local dogs seeking refuge on our upper storey terrace. The whole area is declared a national disaster area.
Um, I don’t think we’re going sailing anymore, Dorothy.
And to confirm this, Victor, our captain doesn’t show up at 7am, as he instructed. We aren’t sure if he’s on the boat or elsewhere. We wait and enjoy a breakfast of beer (again endorsed by the resident nutritionist). Hans, the bar owner, who is a wizened sailor, tells us, to just be patient. He spends the morning watching the seas with his binoculars and mumbling.
We all hang out on the upper storey terrace (the bar is flooded and being battered by waves). 8am, no Victor. 9am, still no Victor. We ask Hans for the local bus schedule – there should be one at 9:45 and another at 12:45. We have no idea if they will be running as there are flooded roads and downed trees, but we start to make plans to evacuate. The eight passengers are evenly split – 4 (including us) are now looking to leave and thinking the trip is a no go and 4 are going to wait it out until it is absolutely certain that we cannot go sailing.
We start to pack up to go wait for the possible 9:45 bus. However, in doing so, we realise that our L’Autruche cups (our trip sponsor – see other main page) are missing! We take apart all our luggage looking for them, but in vain. While doing this, the other couple leaves to go wait for the bus. Knowing this might be an only chance to leave this “end of world” town with the storm is getting worse, we quickly repack to rush and join them. It should be said that Jen is super annoyed at Erwan for not knowing where the cups are (they were kept in his small backpack).
As we are walking through water to the bus stop, trying to catch up to the other couple, a car pulls up, which includes the lovely Austrian hostel owner from the previous night. She is being dropped off in the centre of town by one of her guests, who is now trying to leave by driving back to Panama City. The guest doesn’t want to drive alone and offers us a ride, but only has room for us two. We take this opportunity, although we know it might be in vain since earlier we heard that local roads were flooded or blocked by downed trees.
The driver is Lu, a Chinese women doing her graduate studies in Miami, and she could possibly vie for a position as a rally driver – she took the windy, rural road really fast. Fortunately, there were work crews out in all the treacherous spots (downed trees, landslides, standing water) and we were able to pass (although Lu had to reduce her speed a bit to do so).
Within 2 hours (the trip is normally supposed to take about 3 hours), we were back in Panama City and as Erwan says “back to civilisation”. We checked into the same hostel as before (see earlier post about snoring dude), took hot showers and naps, ate a solid lunch and booked last minute flights to get to Columbia by other means.
So no San Blas Islands for us. Jen is really, really bummed about this. Also no more L’Autruche cups. Jen is again really bummed. This is so far the worst of all the travel days and hopefully will remain as such for the rest of the year.
However, it should be said that the above are completely first world problems. While the rain is certainly ruining some of our travel plans, as of writing this post, 8 people have died in Panama due to Hurricane Otto. Hundreds if not thousands more have lost homes or livelihoods due to the storm. This is the second natural disaster that we have experienced on this trip and we are truly blessed that we have the means and ability to evacuate without too much personal damage. Many of the people we have met along the way do not have this luxury.
Postscript facts: Hurricane Otto is the latest to form during the year in the Caribbean since 1969. It is also the first ever Hurricane to hit Costa Rica since records began in 1851. The rains in Boquete that we experienced were the longest period of rain that the town has experienced in 20 years and the storm/flooding in Dominican Republic was the worse in over a decade. The intensity and frequency of these storms within the Carribbean have increased immensely over the past few decades. As one of our Airbnb hosts in Boquete put it, “we have all these extreme weather events, but to the Americans, climate change still isn’t real”.