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The sole land border between Colombia and Panama is occupied by the Darién Gap, a 160km-long, 50km-wide area of largely unexplored forest and swamp. The name is easily explained: ‘Darién’ after the Panamanian province in which it sits; ‘Gap’ for the break in the Panamerican Highway, an otherwise continuous 48,000km road between Alaska and Patagonia, that it necessitates. There are no roads through the Darién Gap, and parts of it have long been regarded as profoundly unsafe. However, to get from one country to the other, there are alternatives.

The cheapest option (US$150-US$300, depending on your haggling skills and your luck) is to take a string of about five speedboats and/or cargo boats along the Caribbean coast between the scruffy ports of Turbo in Colombia and Cartí in Panama. The most financially unpredictable (baggage charges are at the whims of the check-in staff) is to pack everything up and stick it on a plane. The easiest way, and the dearest, is to take a leisurely five-day charter boat from Cartagena in Colombia to mainland Panama via the postcard-perfect Caribbean archipelago of Guna Yala (formerly the San Blas Islands). Having ruled out the speedboats because they bypassed Cartagena, then eliminated the air option on grounds of it being deeply boring, we added dramamine to our medical kit and went looking for a ship.

 


 

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The Guna Yala route between Panama and Colombia has become a tick-list staple among backpackers with fat wallets. At any one time, there are 30-40 boats making the journey, mostly yachts, cruisers or catamarans with room for 8-16 people. They operate as a cartel; few boats deviate from the standard, all-inclusive price, which in August 2014 was an eye-watering US$550 for a five-day trip. And yet, of course, they’re all in competition.

There’s an interesting investigative piece waiting to be written about this twilight industry, a largely unregulated world of cash payments, cut corners and expat captains who are often, euphemistically and perhaps generously, described as ‘characters’. At once the most famous and the most notorious is Fritz Breckner, an Austrian who’s been plying this route for years and has reputedly been made a very wealthy man by it. His previous boat, Fritz the Cat, sank in 2012 with 16 tourists on board (they all survived). Despite this setback, Breckner was back on the water in no time with a new boat, the Jacqueline, on which he continues to pack in the backpackers.

The demise of Fritz the Cat is an extreme example of what can go wrong, but it doesn’t take an expert Googler to scare up horror stories about its competition. Among the boats whose schedules matched with ours were the Ave Maria, which apparently managed to get lost making the trip a few years ago (and, on a more recent crossing, misplaced its mast); and the Corto II, which appears to be the unnamed boat featured in this eye-popping account.

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We ended up on the Dutch-built, German-owned Stahlratte (in English, the Steel Rat), at 125ft by far the largest boat running the route and thus the best equipped to take a couple of bicycles. (It’s also the only boat with the capacity to carry motorbikes, and has shipped as many as 11 motorcycle tourists and their vehicles on a single voyage. There were a couple on our trip: John and Alanna Skillington, a pair of rootless Australians who’ve been touring on and off for ages.) Its captain is a German chap named Ludwig (Lulu) Hoffmann, a barrel-bellied man with a ready laugh who’s been rolling on the high seas between Colombia, Panama, Mexico and Cuba for a decade.

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The Stahlratte is advertised as a non-commercial operation, with any profits apparently going towards the maintenance of the boat and living costs for the captain and resident crew. (Having sailed its first voyage in 1903, it’s older than the Titanic.) We never dug too deeply into what, in practice, this actually means. But we had a tremendous time in excellent company, both with Lulu and his crew and with our mellow fellow guests, and consider ourselves very lucky to have found such a splendid and safe boat on which to have made the trip.

 


 

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The Guna Yala archipelago is often described as Paradise, but it’s more interesting than that. There are around 360 islands in the archipelago, although only about ten per cent are inhabited, and your eye is constantly drawn to them as you cruise through the region. Some are the size of a half-dozen football pitches. Others are barely bigger than a tennis court. Many are ridiculously beautiful: spotted with palms, lined with pristine sand, fringed by the gentle lapping of the warm Caribbean. In other words, the kind of thing most of us only see on a screensaver.

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Comprising the archipelago and a neighbouring strip of the mainland, Guna Yala is the province of the Kuna people, the best organised of Panama’s various indigenous groups. A successful rebellion in the 1920s led to the Kuna being handed greater control over their land, over which they now have almost total autonomy. In 2011, they even successfully petitioned to change the region’s name to Guna Yala, a better phonetic representation than the previous spelling. (The area’s earlier name, San Blas, carries uncomfortable connotations of Spanish rule, but is still used by most outsiders.)

That the Kuna are said to have an uneasy relationship with tourism is unsurprising, given how badly some visitors are said to treat their property. (We passed one small, pristine island on which an earlier tour boat had dumped a small mountain of rubbish. Two members of our ship’s crew enlisted a few guests to dart over there and clean it up.) However, this tourism provides much of the Kuna’s income. A few of the islands house small, basic hotels, where wide-eyed visitors come to soak up the sun. Tourist boats may be charged a token fee by the Kuna if they want to use the shores of a deserted island for a barbecue, as ours did.

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Some Kuna make their money by driving buses or taxis, which here means boats. Life here is lived on the seas: the water buses ferry locals between islands, including taking kids on the school run, while the water taxis take tourists to and from the shore. Other locals fish the waters, then zip from tour boat to tour boat selling their catch. The lobsters in the picture above met a fairly immediate end in our kitchen, where they were cooked in a passionfruit and coconut-milk sauce and then served with corvina fillets, fried plantain, rice and salad.

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A century ago, before the rebellion, the greatest threat to Guna Yala was the Panamanian government. In 2014, it’s climate change. The islands sit barely above the level of the sea, and the houses seem inches from being washed away. In a generation or two, rising sea levels may cause the islands to disappear. We’re glad we saw them, and the unique community who live on them, while we had the chance.

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from Panamá, Panamá, Panamá (city, province, country)