San Blas Sailing - Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands with Ave Maria Sailing

San Blas Sailing – Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands with Ave Maria Sailing

BZFLAG Medina Destination, Sailing, South America & Antarctica, Travel Blog, Travel Guides 46 Comments

There’s a very good reason why we decided to go on a San Blas sailing trip – For anyone looking to travel from Central to South America via the Pan American Highway will ultimately run into the same barrier – The Darien Gap, a huge area of dense jungle and swamp, 160km long and 50 km wide, separating Panama from Colombia, making conventional road travel between the two countries practically impossible. So, it’s safe to say that this was not going to be the route for us! This left us with the choice between flying, or finding a sailboat to take us on a San Blas sailing trip from Portobello, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia!

NOTE – To arrange to sail with Ave Maria, you need to them directly– [email protected] or call Panamá + 507 608 94802/ Colombia + 57 314 887 3353

We are simply bloggers who traveled with Ave Maria and loved it (read on to see for yourself!) We do not organize bookings!

San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

  1. Fly from Panama City to a city in Colombia. You can find cheap flights on Skyscanner, but you can still expect to pay $200 to USD 300 p/person.
  2. The most relaxing and enjoyable – Take a private sailing boat for five days across the Caribbean from Panama to Cartagena via the incredible San Blas Islands – $525 to $575 p/person.

We chose number 2!

San Blas Sailing – Panama to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands

We had decided that we wanted to experience crossing the Caribbean by sailboat, but most of the boats we found appeared to be ‘backpacker party boats’ with 15 to 20 people crammed in like sardines, sleeping on the deck, on the floor, on each other – Not for us! We’re also not really into the backpacker party scene anymore, so that was another no-no.

Most of the prices for these San Blas sailing trips ranged from $525 to $575 per person, including three meals a day, 4-5 days sailing time, with 2-3 of those days in the San Blas Islands.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

There is one company offering a San Blas sailing trip for $375 by speedboat, with basic accommodation on one of the San Blas Islands instead of on a boat, but with a little more research we found that the cost ends up being much the same, as you finish far from Cartagena. The price doesn’t include water, transport to the departure point ($35) or entry charges to some of the areas ($25). You also then need to consider the onward transport to Cartagena ($75), several days’ food and accommodation, so the total cost is the same as an all-inclusive San Blas sailboat experience to Cartagena.

San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

WARNING – It’s unfortunately quite common for some agencies and hostels to tell you that a boat you want to book has canceled their trip, is broken, or even to make up bad stories about them, to steer you towards boats that offer them the most commission. Always check for real customer reviews on Trip Advisor, do your research and make up your mind.

We recommend trying to individual boats directly. If they are at sea, then you will have to send them an email or Facebook message. Otherwise, use a local phone or Skype to call them.

This left us with privately owned sailboats, catering to smaller numbers of passengers and a more relaxing, personal experience. There are a handful of boats offering a trip like this, but few of those have their website, and it can be hard to the owners themselves, as they are often at sea and use travel agents and hostels to get their bookings.

San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

After several days searching for San Blas sailing boats online, in hostels and with various agencies, we came across a picture of a classic looking sailboat, with twin masts, timber deck and trims and sleek, slender lines, anchored in crystal clear turquoise waters between two palm-fringed desert islands. AVE MARIA was etched into the stern in elegant, antique lettering. It was beautiful, and we wanted it! We had found our boat; now we just had to find the captain. Unbelievably, an internet search brought up the website for the boat and its captain, with San Blas sailing trips running between Panama and Cartagena, via the San Blas Islands, including one leaving the next day from Portobello, about 2 hours from Panama City. We called the cell phone number, and they had two spaces available, so we grabbed the opportunity and packed our bags again. Here’s how our amazing San Blas sailing journey went with Ave Maria Sailing.

Day 1 – Panama City to Portobello – Setting Sail to the San Blas Islands

So, we just had to get to the port of Portobello by 10 am the following day, 4th of June. Getting to from Panama City to Portobello is relatively cheap and easy – there is a bus from Albrook Station to Colon City which takes less than 2 hours and costs about $5, then another bus to Portobello for about $1. Easy! If you feel like splashing out, then you can get a yellow taxi which could cost you anywhere from $60 to $100, depending on your Spanish and your negotiating skills.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

We arrived at 10 am and met up with Captain Paul, an Australian who has been living in Colombia and offering San Blas sailing trips for the past five years. We gave him our passports to take to the port authority to stamp us out of Panama; then we had a few hours to spend exploring Portobello, which is packed full of history, ruins, and stories of Spanish gold and pirates! We stocked up on beer and wine and extra snacks to take with us and waited until our 4 pm departure time when we jumped in a launch boat to take us out to the Ave Maria. She was just as beautiful as in the pictures, classic and streamlined with a white hull, Teak deck, and wood trimmings. Paul and Sindry helped us up onto the deck, and we stowed our big backpacks into the hold, keeping just a small day bag with a couple of t-shirts and some toiletries.

At 50 feet long the Ave Maria sailing boat has the capacity for eight passengers + two crew, with everyone having their bed! Four beds in the bow cabin, two double beds and one single in the mid cabin and the dining area convert to sleeping space for the final person. We only had four people + 2 crew on our trip, ourselves and a young Swiss couple who are also traveling the world. With light wind, Paul fired up the engine and left Portobello for the open Caribbean. Sindry cooked an amazing beef stew dinner, and we all fell asleep pretty early after that. Paul stayed up awake at the wheel, sailing 16 hours through the night to reach the San Blas Islands so that we would have a full days there to enjoy ourselves!

Day 2 – Arrival at San Blas Islands – Coco Banderas and our first Culo de Pollo!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

We woke early with the rocking motion of the Ave Maria as she glided up, down and across the waves. When we climbed out onto the deck, we could already see an archipelago of small San Blas islands in the distance – clusters of palms hovering on the surface of the shimmering water encircled by white-sand halos, like an epitome of lonely bliss. This was exactly what we had come for! Sindry prepared a fresh and healthy breakfast of muesli, cereal and fresh fruit, which we ate outside in the cleansing salty air. As we arrived at our first stop, Coco Banderas, the weather began to turn.

Dark clouds and bickering gusts of cold winds surrounded the islands, and the choppy water pitched the boat up and down. This was nothing to worry about as the Ave Maria can handle massive storms, and we were already anchored down between two islands. The brief yet intense storm, which lasted for about one hour, is known as a Culo de Pollo, or Chicken’s Ass, for its characteristic erratic winds, chasing around in all directions. As soon as the storm was over, the wind died down, the sun broke the clouds, and the sea was restored to shimmering turquoise glass, clear all the way to the sandy floor below. Several other boats had chosen the same spot to shelter, but they continued on their way once all was clear again.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

We spent the day diving off the boat into the warm sea, exploring the little islands and snorkeling around the shallow reefs that partially enclose the area. Local Kuna fishermen dive here for crabs, langoustines, and lobsters, which you can buy fresh out of their boats for just several dollars each! While we were snorkeling we saw huge shoals of tiny bait fish and red-nosed pencil fish, then as we swam back around to the beach, we saw a huge manta ray – two meters wide – and a smaller stingray!

For lunch, we had freshly caught fish, which Paul had reeled in from the back of the boat during the night, cooked up with a mixture of other fresh, delicious seafood, all prepared by Sindry!  The afternoon was passed with more of the same simple pleasures until we watched the sun set behind the island, casting oranges, reds, and purples across the sky. We spent the night anchored in the same spot, talking amongst ourselves and eating yet another amazing home-cooked dinner.

two monkeys travel - san blas sailing - panama to colombia - colombia to panama - san blas islands - 4San Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

Day 3 – San Blas Islands BBQ and night time sea turtles

The morning was completely peaceful, any other boats that had been in the area had vanished, and we had three whole islands all to ourselves! Sindry made us breakfast with fresh fruit and scrambled eggs on toast. The two best things about a San Blas sailing trip (apart from sailing) are the San Blas Islands and the food, so we swam to the nearest island to gather driftwood for a beach fire BBQ.

The sun had dried everything out pretty quickly, and we had a big fire going just off the beach using nothing but driftwood, palm leaves and dried coconut shells. Sindry prepared everything in the Ave Maria and brought it over to the island in the little dingy; marinated pork chops; avocado salad, potatoes, olive oil and home-made balsamic salad dressing. With a simple hot plate laid on the fire, we had an instant grill for the pork chops, which were some of the best I’ve ever tasted!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to PanamaSan Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

Later that afternoon, a local Kuna came by in his boat with some giant langoustines, freshly caught that day, which Paul and Sindry prepared for dinner with pasta and sauce, with crusty bread that evening.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

During the night, just as everyone was thinking about sleeping, two massive sea turtles started swimming around the boat, feeding on the algae growing on the underside of the hull, then surfacing to take deep noisy breaths. They stayed around for about 2 hours, and all the while manta rays were jumping out of the water and flying several meters into the air! Paul and Sindry said this was really unusual for this part of the San Blas Islands and they’d never seen this kind of activity before!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

Day 4 – New San Blas Islands and ‘the big question!’

Our last day in the San Blas Islands before heading back out into the open Caribbean, to end our San Blas sailing trip with a 34 hour non-stop journey to Cartagena.

After breakfast in the morning, we pulled up the anchor and headed deeper into the archipelago to another group of islands, with more reefs and peaceful, warm water. We made the most of the swimming and snorkeling and explored the larger island closest to the boat.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

After a burrito and salad lunch, while everyone was chilling out on the boat, I paddled BZFLAG and me out to the island in the dinghy, and we took a walk along the beach to take some photos. We sat down on a big driftwood tree, and that’s when I gave her a ring I had found in Istria, Croatia just a week before and asked her to marry me. Luckily she said yes, and now we’re engaged! Apparently, we are the first engagement on an Ave Maria sailing trip! We all celebrated with some drinks on the deck and chilled out again until we were ready to start the long journey to Cartagena and set sail that night.

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

Day 5 – San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia

More great food, conversation, reading and episodes of Game of Thrones kept us occupied on the day and a half journey, and we even took shifts steering the boat along the way. The rain came and went, and so did the hours; it’s incredible how time passes when you have no idea what time it is!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

We all slept quite early and woke up as we pulled into the Boca Grande port of Cartagena at about 4 am the next day. We were there just in time to see the sunrise over the city, which was one of the most beautiful mornings we’ve ever seen. There was no rush to get off of the boat, we had breakfast and packed our things before piling ourselves and our luggage into the dinghy. With all four of us on dry, Colombian land for the first time, we said goodbye to Captain Paul, Sindry, and the Ave Maria – Our San Blas sailing trip was officially over!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsCheck out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in  and  / .

We were so glad that we had chosen the Ave Maria for our San Blas sailing adventure – Great people, great food, great company, beautiful classic sailboat, spectacular San Blas Islands!

San Blas Sailing - Panama to Cartagena - San Blas IslandsSan Blas Sailing with Ave Maria – Panama to Colombia – Colombia to Panama

CONTACT EMAIL – av[email protected]

To find out more about Ave Maria Sailing and to book a San Blas Sailing trip, you need to them directly – email: [email protected] or call Panamá + 507 608 94802/ Colombia + 57 314 887 3353.

You can check their scheduled journeys through their .

We loved Paul, Sindry, and the Ave Maria so much that we negotiated a special deal for BZFLAG Travel readers!

Normal Rate: $550/ person but our discounted rate: $525 per person for individuals or $500 per person for groups of 6 people or more (Ask around your dorm!) Bonus; FREE cocktail each sunset in San Blas.

All you need to do is mention BZFLAG Travel when making your reservation. This offer is available for direct bookings only (not through agencies or hostels)

(All aspects of your trip are the concern of Ave Maria Sailing. We receive no money from this offer, we just really enjoyed our trip with them, and so we wanted to share that with you too!)

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Comments 46

    1. The first engagement happened in the area, Jhen. San Blas is full of adventures and a romantic spot. Sure you will also love the islands.

  1. Sounds like a great trip guy and congratulations on the engagement!

    We loved our time on the San Blas Islands and really want more people to experience their beauty.

  2. You just made me brain travel with your photos and detailed info.
    Thanks for sharing and this is on my to visit list.

    1. Our pleasure, ThisKenyanTraveler. Let us know when will you do San Blas sailing and maybe we can give some tips. Just drop a comment here if you have some queries.

  3. Everything looks gorgeous but pricey! It looks like you did a lot! I,hope you had fun on,your trip. 🙂

    1. The price is reasonable, Style With Tina, with what we had experience. 🙂 We had fun in exploring San Blas islands.

  4. It must be amazing traveling the world, I could only dream of having the privilege to get up and go. Lovely photos.

    1. It’s amazing, especially if you got to experience wonderful places like Sa Blas islands. #dreamsdocometrue, Kenia.

  5. I am so jealous. That’s why I love these type of blogs, they make me travel with my mind and dream! The pictures are really amazing, I wish I would have the opportunity to fly away for a while!

    1. Don’t be jealous, Kalliopi, Sooner or later you will have your own adventure. Consider San Blas islands in your travels.

  6. I think that $500 for a sailing trip like this is not bad at all. The boat seems perfect for a small group trip, or maybe a family get away and the experience of a bbq on board must be priceless. The water looks stunning, especially that picture where you are floating above sea stars.

    1. Joanna, 500$ was a good deal. The whole experience of San Blas sailing was priceless. And yes, this is perfect for a family or friends getaway. Bring your family in San Blas islands. 🙂

  7. What a great sailing adventure you had! Your photos are so inspiring, I’d like to go there one day! Pinned your post for the future! Congratulations on your engagement! So romantic!

    1. Thank you Eugenia. Appreciate your lovely comment and for pinning this post. Hope you will have your adventure soon. Better start in San Blas islands. yay!

  8. Sailing trip sounds a great way of doing a trip, esepcially if you can visit islands, eating fresh seafood, and the blue water with amazing creature like the turtle. Your post absolutely fabolous, you give very clear details of information about the sailing trip. By the way, congratulation for your engagement.

    1. Exactly, Rose! Every part of the San Blas sailing was a blast. Hehe. The food, the people, and the islands are all awesome

  9. What a cool new experience. I think I’d like going on a sailing adventure like this. I didn’t know you’d be able to do so much!

  10. Congratulations on getting engaged! So adorable to make it happen during your trip to such a paradisaical place. We never thought about Colombia before, but you make me want to go there someday and the idea of taking the boat in the Caribbean is a good one.. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thank you, Nya! It’s an overwhelming experience. San Blas sailing is definitely a trip worth to try.

  11. Wow this looks like so much fun and a must do. San Blas Islands is now on my bucket list. These images are gorgeous. That turtle pic is just awesome. Reminds me of Hawaii somehow

    1. Great decision to include San Blas Islands on your bucket list, IamVagabond. Looking forward to the time you will tick it off. From then, happy sailing! 🙂

  12. Looks like a lot of fun! My husband has been dying to go sailing! Maybe one day! Congrats on the engagement!

  13. Your blog inspires me to pursue my dream of travel and I hope to one day be able to travel the same roads as you. Even better you were able to watch Game of Thrones on the trip too!

    1. Thank you, Subhadrika. You should really try it and San Blas sailing is a great choice for water travel adventure.

  14. This is super inspiring, hope to be able to do exactly the same in the future! Great images by the way 🙂

    1. You will, Nicolas! 🙂 Sure you will have a great San Blas sailing and explore these wonderful islands.

  15. Wow, this looks like such an amazing trip! I’ve seen giant turtles before but not that close – they are lovely creatures. How exciting for you! And congratulations on your engagement 🙂

  16. Wow! What an amazing journey! I love that you chose the sail for 5 days option too! You’ve come away wth so many memories and such a great experinecen congatulations on your engagement!!!

    1. Thank you Francesca, It was really a great choice and no regret at all. San Blas sailing is definietely among the best experiences we had.

  17. Panama already figures in my bucket list. San Blas Islands looks divine and being proposed at such a magical place would have made it all the more memorable. Many congratulations on your engagement, dear! 🙂

    1. Felt romantic and magical, Ratisha. San Blas sailing was really memorable and will definitely want to visit the islands again.

  18. The idea of that cramped sail boat sounds awful! And great heads up about the scams! What a unique adventure you’ve been on from preparing and eating fresh fish on board to experiencing the islands with nobody else around. You were lucky to have a captain like you had too but most importantly CONGRATS on your engagement. What a place and journey to propose on! Certainly unforgettable for you both!

  19. There are cheap flights from Panama City to Cartagena, via Bogotà. I paid no more than 150 USD for that. Besides, Viva Colombia also has cheap flights to Bogotà and Medellin. And since February there is also a ferry service that connects Colon to Cartagena, twice per week.

    How do I know? Because I ended up in a really BAD sailing boat. Just from the pictures, yours look much better than the one I took. Despite my efforts to make some good research, I ended up on a 12 meters sail boat with 9 more persons – including the crew. Yes, that means 10 persons on 12 meters – something I found out only when we finally got on the boat, as until the day before the captain ensured me that there would be 6 of us. It was unbearably crowded. We did not have a table to sit and eat, because the deck was all covered with our belongings. I got really sea sick but I think that if we had had a bit more space it would not have been so bad, as I could have laid down.

    I ended up abandoning the boat as soon as we arrived in Porvenir, and getting back to Panama City to then fly to Cartagena!!

    Good you guys had a better experience.

    1. Hello Claudia, sorry just now we were on a boat again from Leticia to Manaus! Anyway, do you know the name of your boat company? That’s what we’ve heard too from other tourists and we’re not party people anymore so we were boat hesitant taking the boat, just lucky that we’re able to connect directly to the owner and it’s one of the best trips we’ve taken! Thanks for sharing your story, hope we can warn others too! Positive vibes!

      1. I don’t have it. I was searching for a boat and then saw in the hostel that there was a flier. The guy had not really set up a company yet. I wish I could write a review for that. His name is Ian and he’s Canadian. Perhaps you came across him?

        1. not sure, we’ve talked to a lot of people and even checked this popular hostel there but some of them are rude. Anyway, the ferry stopped in the last few months and i think they will resume in the 3rd quarter of this year. We also checked viva colombia before as an option instead of san blas, good thing we didnt fly because it’s indeed a great experience! =) Enjoy your travels Claudia!! =)

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