Portobelo to Cartagena

Final days in Panama feel like closing a second chapter. Waiting for our boat to Colombia to sail gives us 3 nights at the same spot with limited activity possibilities besides listing to your mind and body.

This steers quite some emotions with me while Frank remains his down-to-earth self. Seeing the ocean turn stormy grey, accepting the downpour, returning to emerald with with shades of maroon, welcoming the golden sunshine is as looking into my inner self. On Sunday biking without panniers into Portobelo is like flying.

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A quaint little town just before Puerto Lindo. We drop our laundry at the only launderette in town. We are lucky they have one with a mere population of 5,000 people, owned by a Chinese man called Luis. Finding last supplies for our 5 day sailing trip to Cartagena in Colombia and return to our luxury h(e)aven. Just before our hotel you find the well preserved ruins of the fort of Portobelo, a UNESCO heritage site, built during the same period as the one in San Lorenzo.

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Better preserved but not as big and next to the road. Does not have the same remote feeling as San Lorenzo, which we visited together with Ans & Henk last week. In 16th century it must have felt as remote and desolated.

Reading, thinking, investigating which further route to take once we are in Colombia. We finally take the decision that reaching Patagonia by the end of this year is only possible if we would bike 70 km per day without resting days. Our current average is 40 km of which the past few months were on asphalt, hence much faster. As we want to try to bike some more remote gravel routes we will probably make an average of 30 km per day. With pain in our hearts we inform our friends Henk and Heidi that we will never make Cusco by end of October of this year. We will not be able to hike the Inca trail to Machu Pichu together. Hope we will find another location to explore together.

Monday meets us with thunderstorms and heavy rain, even so much that I suggest to arrange transport to the harbor of Puerto Lindo. Of course we bike to Puerto Lindo, happy to have done so as it is a beautiful ride past pastures, hidden villages and rolling hills. We have plenty of time to prepare and wrap our bikes. The wrapping foil we found in Colon is the solution. But first sprayed WD40 over everything to ensure salt water can’t eat-up our bikes. Our captain passes us when we are preparing everything and ask for the first payment as he now does not have money to pay some of the things needed for the trip…

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Our home for the next 5 days will be Amande 1. As described on the Blue Sailing website: Amanda 2 (sic) is an Atoll 6, built by DUFOUR. (no year mentioned). She is a comfortable boat (or ship, you can find interesting discussions about the difference on internet) at 52 foot (15.2 m) and has 2 private en-suite cabins with bathrooms, 2 private double cabins and 2 private triple cabins with a double and single bed. There are 2 shared bathrooms, a large cockpit and kitchen. The boat has snorkeling and fishing supplies and the hard covered roof over the cockpit also provides ample space for lounging.

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Punctually at 17:00 we load our stuff in the boat and discover that the rooms with private bathroom are reserved. The captain first wants to put us forth ( 1 ½ bed), we can change his mind and get the 3 bunk room. Even if it is not one mattress, even if the cupboards are full with crew stuff, the 3rd bunk bed will be our stow-away for the next days. And we have at least one full bed each. As the other 5 guests have not yet showed up yet we have our last Panamanian meal together, a great hamburger at the floating harbor cafe.

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As agreed we return to the boat at 20:00 and are happy that the missing passengers have been located. The specially arranged transport from Panama City to Puorto Lindo had dropped them at the wrong location. Small boat has been chartered to pick them up and we are happy to welcome Marija & Stefan from the Netherlands, Elena & Christoph from Switzerland and Shane from Ireland.

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Together with the crew of 3 (Humberto, captain, Marija, cook and sister of the captain and Nicolai, handyman and son of the captain, all from Colombia. We will be with 10 on a boat which normally caters for 14 passengers & 3 crew members. Although 14 seems too much (spec of Dufour says 12 max pax). All passengers are happy we are with a smaller group. Everybody settles in and after a last briefing of the captain we leave the port on the motor at 22:00.

As it is a complete flat sea I don’t take any anti sea sickness pills. Bummer, when we hit open sea we really hit open sea. The mirror flat harbor water turns into a moving beast with waves of 3-5 meter high. But the wind also picks up and our captain sets the sails. I enjoy hearing Frank say: Oh now I remember how much fun it is to sail.

Sitting on deck under the sail with the washing moon, glittering lights in a grey seascape gives a liberating feeling until I feel I should have taken some pills. Searching for them in the cabin increases the nauseousness and even laying down does not help any more. I am the first one who turns dinner into fish food. My competitive streak should not have won.

Frank follows me to the cabin to ensure I settle down and he enjoys further the wind in the sails. I roll in the cabin and try to sleep. By mid- night the boat starts rolling but as long as I stay flat I am OK. Seems that after some hours we had to use the motor as wind was coming from different directions. Frank & Marie survived the night without being sick.

In the morning we only need to motor a bit further to the island where our passports will be stamped for leaving Panama. Waiting for the captain to return with our passports, we snorkel. Local Maia (8 years) & her aunt visit us and try to sell some handy craft. Beautiful handmade embroidery but we can’t carry this for 6 months. Instead I crochet a flower ring for Maia.

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Just finished when the captain returns and we head off to the next island where we will also stay for the night. The short distance is covered by motor. There are quite some other boats anchored, also the boat which visited us at the last location and where we met Steven. They are sailing from Colombia to Panama and Steven is also a biker heading to Alaska.

Second time snorkeling today! After having snorkeled to the reef over a vast grassland we follow a reef which you can’t cross as it only has 20 cm of water above it. Already better snorkeling than in the morning.

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Having snorkeled half of the island Frank calls it a day but I can’t get enough. He follows me at the shore and I further snorkel in very shallow water but as it is sea grass I don’t care. What would be the min depth to snorkel and not hitting the bottom; 50 cm? When I look direction of the shore I see a stingray gliding through the water and looking right I see a huge barracuda spying on me. Whaauw what an experience. You don’t need to scuba dive to see a lot! Marija is at the seashore and also sees the stingray and a big puffer fish just meters away from her.

The suggested volleyball between the different ships followed by a bonfire does not happen as it is too clouded and getting chilly. During the whole trip the crew tries to buy as much as possible from local fishermen. We all head back to the boat to enjoy an octopus dinner and a quiet night. Everybody is refreshed and we are all happy to leave after a big breakfast. Elena learns how to sail and brings us to the next island. If it would always be like this I could choose for sailing as the next means of transport. Anchored between two islands with the most amazing snorkeling. Conquering my fear of heights by snorkeling along a wall together with Frank. Looking down the wall the bottom falls to 25-30 m. In the afternoon with the group to the next island for some more snorkeling and strolling along the beach.

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Evening is closed with the best dinner during the whole trip: lobster in garlic. Amazing which great food Marija created in the tiny kitchen!

The island is called Ogoppukidub, which means “many coconuts” in local Kuna language, because they decided to change the mangrove covered islands to coconut plantations a 100 years ago. Families are assigned to certain islands to harvest the coconuts and keep the island clean. It has been a steady income as the coconuts were sold to Colombia for a good price. Now Colombia changed it’s supply channel to Ecuador and the Kunda Island have too many coconuts which are not sold. They try to earn some money by selling artifacts and coconuts/fish/lobster to tourists but this does not compensate for lost income.

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As the captain said that the best chance to see larger fish is at 6:30 in the morning Elena, Marija, Stefan and I decide to snorkel the wall and see if we can find the canal. In the water by 7:00 and we do see 4 sting rays (two when we jump off the boat), several lion fish, puffers, big trigger fish (luckily they are not breeding as they can become very aggressive, remember my scar?) and schools of snappers and others. The canal is not as impressive as expected but the further hike is steadying our sea legs.

A yellow boat is our neighbor and belongs to Belgian sailor Dominique, who left his homeland when he was 17, sailed the sea and plays flute, mime, creates small figures of wire and does an odd job here and there. He told us the story of how he got his ship, that is made of corten steel. He saw it unfinished and abandoned in a port somewhere, decided he’d like to have it, tracked the owner and he gave it to him. Had to build the complete interior himself, but still a great deal. We even have time for girls and boys talk, writing or chilling.

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After again a good breakfast with eggs and fruit we head off to our last snorkel spot, pity we don’t sail but it is not too far away and nobody gets sick.

1000 shades of grey
Not only my underwater but also my adventure level is reaching its limits. Especially after the very rough start of the last stretch. No longer Island hopping as we only covered a meager 100 km the last days, now the start of the final crossing to Colombia, +400 km.

When we prepare to leave our paradise bounty snorkel islands, it starts to get clouded by big grey thunder clouds. Luckily the captain advises us on time when to take our seasick pills. When anchor is lifted and the sails are set, the ocean and sky turn into a wild beast. Lighting lights the sky and the thunderstorm gets very close. More than 1000 shades of grey. For me it is time to go and lay flat in my bunk bed.

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Morning comes with calmer weather, with less wind but no more sailing as the main sail has too much damage. So the remaining 16 hours are on the motor which is quite a bummer if it creates much rolling and has less of a freedom feeling than under sails.

We see the first contours of Cartagena in the twilight of Friday evening, sky turning scarlet and reaching the port which welcomes us with thousands of twinkling lights. Shane jumps off at the quay as he already has a reservation for a hostel. Marija & Stefan also have a reservation but decide to stay on the boat as they want to pack calmly. All of us spend a better night in the calm harbor, without a sound of an engine or any waves. Touching Colombian soil at 8:00 in the morning. Burning sun welcomes us to our South American chapter. It was fun to spend time together!

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Biking into town we discover why Cartagena is said to be one of the most beautiful towns of South America. As we have not arranged any lodging we first have a bigger 2nd breakfast and check possibilities. Started to chat with Jan, who owns the restaurant, he has an Airbnb apartment just outside of the old city. Plenty of space, fridge, kitchen and washing machine make the location of less importance. We decide to rent straight away for 3 nights and wander into town to discover part of Cartagena. Discover in next weeks blog our Airbnb, Cartagena and which route we initially take into Colombia. Will we do smaller roads or stick to the main road?

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