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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

The San Blas Islands

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


The morning of departure for the sailing finally came. We left at 6 am as a group, taking side roads to avoid the tollways out of town heading for Puerto Carti and the 105 year old Stahlratte sailing ship.

For those unfamiliar with getting to South America, the border of Panama and Colombia is a region known as the Darien Gap. There are no roads through it, as it is an indigenous jungle region, almost impenetrable and occupied by native tribes, drug cartel operatives and rebel military groups. It can only be crossed by major expeditions but is well known as being impenetrable and highly dangerous. As well, Colombia and Panama are not particularly friendly to each other and neither desire to invest the vast resources to try and build a highway through it. This leaves only a couple of options to get from Panama to Colombia... most ship by air to Bogota, or the other option is to sail oneself and motorcycle from Panama to Colombia. This sailing method is highly restricted and many boats will do it illegally, dumping riders and motorcycles illegally on beaches or in small local ports.

The German captained "Stahlratte" or "Steel Rat" is a 105 year old Dutch ship, purchased and refurbished by a non-profit group, specializing in delivering passengers and motorcycles to various ports around the Caribbean. They have developed an always tenuous relationship with the Immigration system in Colombia, however the rules are always changing. The sailing ship leaves from the small port of Carti, an indigenous rule area and group of islands on the Caribbean coast. At the time of my travel, the rate for a 4 day, 3 night sailing was $550 per passenger and $550 per motorcycle. The ship can carry up to 20 motorcycles on the deck and 25 passengers. The sailing experience has become a stable source of income for the ship during the motorcycle travel season.

My friends in Volcán had warned me that the tollways in Panama City were no longer manned and the gates operated by electronic card only, so I should avoid them and find alternate streets. Garmin doesn't know the routes are tollways, so I suggest using Google Maps to plot it and then punch in accordingly on your GPS. You can also buy a tolltag thingy but it's not worth the hassle. The route showed to be 2 hours to Carti, but we gave ourselves plenty of time since it was also Independence Day and many streets in Panama City would be shut in areas for the parades.

It rained on the way, and the road turning off of Hwy 1 to Carti was wet and twisty, covered in potholes but a beautiful ride.

We were ahead of schedule and about 12 miles from the port, when we hit a traffic jam of epic proportions on the tiny road and sat for an hour before making it to the checkpoint and toll booth for the Guna Yala region. $3 per vehicle and $20 per person. Save your receipt as they check it when you get to the port.

The traffic jam was due to the holiday weekend and carloads of people were trying to get to the islands.

We eventually arrived at the port to find it packed with cars and people, being directed to an old concrete pier where the Stahlratte sat anchored in the bay. A few high fives were heaved as we all felt a relief since this was our only scheduled deadline and one we'd all thought about for a long time. More riders arrived, a few at a time, until 19 bikes were waiting. Andrea and Adrian were not there and I got a message that her bike hadn't started that morning and was being brought by truck.

The Stahlratte made a run to the pier and unloaded 3 bikes and riders and their gear who had sailed from Cartagena, Colombia, then it returned to the bay and anchored.

We were told to pile our gear and cases on the pier to be ferried by launch to the ship. As we did so, Adrian and Andrea arrived after their frantic morning trying to start her bike and scrambling to find a truck and driver, but they made it, making 21 bikes and 22 riders total.

Eventually we moved the bikes onto the pier, boarded a launch and were taken to the ship for a meeting with Captain Ludwig and getting our gear stowed on board. From there, the majority of the riders boarded a launch for the island of Porvenir for the night.

A few of us were left until they could find another boat to take us. No one but crew were allowed on board for the bike loading, understandably. It was interesting to see where the bikes would be placed, basically along the sides song the sloped deck.

Pile o' cash on that pier...


Our boat ride to Porvenir for the night took a while, first being taken to one island where the pilot sat waiting for us to do something. We saw no one from our crew there and didn't know what to do. Apparently the pilot didn't either. He finally gave up and headed for another island, depositing us and shouting in Spanish something none of us understood.

We saw no sign of the crew or a hotel, only a lone soldier who climbed out of his hammock and went into a building. One of us spotted a series of buildings across the runway and headed for them, relieved to see the gang swimming and lounging around.

Rooms were awarded and it was hot and steamy that evening. I finally found a hammock and spent most of the night outside in the breeze.

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