Adventures in the San Blas Islands

Since we started living aboard Sava in 2018, we’ve wanted to visit the San Blas islands. Small islands in pristine Caribbean waters, barely inhabited except by friendly people living off the land, and protected reefs you are only allowed to snorkel and free dive, the San Blas Islands sounded like a dream, and in many ways it was. It took us much longer than we thought to get there, but we did, spent 2.5 weeks, and had lots of adventures in the San Blas islands!

About The San Blas Islands

Map of Panama and San Blas archipelago
Panama Map with the San Blas archipelago

The San Blas Islands is an archipelago of 365 islands in the northeastern Caribbean of Panama. Occupied and governed by the Kuna/Guna people, less than half of the islands are inhabited. You may also hear them called the Guna Yala islands for their residents. The San Blas are one of Panama’s top vacation destinations because of their natural beauty in the Caribbean sea.

So yes, you can visit and stay in the islands: in hostels, resorts, or on a boat. Close enough to major cities that you can also do a fun day trip to visit the San Blas Islands! We are lucky to bring our home with us and moved around the San Blas over our 2.5 week visit.

anchorage San Blas Islands
Boats at anchor in The San Blas

Beautiful Anchorages

One of the best things about sailing in the San Blas islands is the assortment of beautiful anchorages. Everywhere we stopped had clear water, gorgeous skies, marine life, and tropical islands to admire from afar or walk along. Anchoring in this paradise wasn’t free: twice we were visited by tribe officials who charged us for use of the waters. Additionally, residents ask for small fees for visiting the beaches or building bonfires. No complaints, as it wasn’t that expensive and is worth it for visiting such lovely places far from the crowds.

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Sailing From Colombia to Panama

Our sail from Colombia to Panama began happily, since Brian fixed the autopilot! It was a relief knowing we would not be hand steering for the two day voyage. While that made things easier, sailing from Colombia to Panama was not a fun trip.

Autopilot worked sailing from Colombia to Panama
We love when autopilot works

It Gets Scary

When home is a sailboat with a 65 foot high metal mast and you’re alone in the middle of the ocean, you don’t want to see lightning. A lightning storm is a nightmare. We had a very small taste in Colombia and it didn’t prepare us for the scary lightning storm our first night sailing from Colombia to Panama.

It’s rainy season in Panama and electric storms are common. We saw flashes in the sky throughout the day Saturday, but weren’t concerned. We didn’t think it would get worse. And we were wrong.

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Vaccine Hunting in Florida

All your “I got Vaxxed” posts motivated us. Colombia is struggling to inoculate its residents, so there is little chance we would have gotten vaccinated there soon. We researched options and went vaccine hunting in Florida.

Long Time Away From the Boat

We left Colombia a week ago. It’s been a long strange week but a good one. The weirdest, and hardest part, is being away from Sava. It’s only been a week so far, but that’s the longest we’ve been away from the boat. In Curaçao we lived in an airbnb for a few weeks, but we still visited Sava daily while she was in the yard.

We are travelers, so being away from home isn’t an issue. But being away from our boat feels wrong. It feels like snorkeling without fins or traveling without luggage or Linus without his blanket. Sava is safe at a marina and will be fine when we get back, but I have to say I am antsy to get back even though we’re having lots of fun and reuniting with lots of people.

They say that sailors are called back to the sea; for us, it’s not that extreme, but we are drawn to marinas, bars on the water, and our cruising friends when we are not near our boat. We are not used to being away!

Sava Cartagena
One last photo before leaving Sava in Cartagena

It’s been two years and a few months since we sailed away from the U.S., and coming back by air almost feels like cheating. Yet, this was what we would have done if Covid hadn’t stopped travel for so long. We hope to plan more trips by air in between our passages, and hope for visitors to return to Sava before long.

Goals for the Trip

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How We Stay Safe in Colombia

Some of our friends asked how we are faring in Colombia during these difficult times. On top of struggling to combat Covid, the country has economic troubles, and citizens are protesting the government. Don’t worry, we are okay and staying out of the fray. Here’s more details about what’s going on here and how we stay safe in Colombia.

country wide covid lockdowns

Santa Marta was our first stop, and the covid protocols tightened in our time there. When we left after six weeks, the city was shutting down and keeping people effectively locked at home for entire weekends, from Friday evening to Monday morning. Unfortunately, these lockdowns are common across Colombia, notably in the major cities like Cali, Medellin and Bogota. The reason for the lockdowns is hospital capacity. Once a city’s ICUs reach capacity or near-capacity, the city shuts down, hoping that will decrease the Covid cases.

where we are

We are on Sava in a marina in Cartagena. The marina is in a residential part of town called Manga, just a short walk across the bridge to the hope neighborhood of Getsemani and a little further walk to the Old City of Cartagena. It’s a great location and we have enjoyed walking, especially in the evenings when all the locals are out getting their exercise.

Map of Manga, Getsemani and Cartagena
Map shows Manga just south of Getsemani and east of Bocagrande, Cartagena

It’s strange being in Cartagena again after so long, especially during the pandemic. Usually a bustling city with multiple cruise ships in port, the UNESCO walled city is relatively empty, and the few tourists are deluged with requests to go on tours and buy trinkets. Despite the emptiness and hungry vendors, Cartagena is safe. Everyone wears masks inside and in the streets and it’s mostly business as usual.

hats in Cartagena
The one time we’ve both worn our authentic Colombian hats purchased in Cartagena
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A Day Trip to Nueva Venecia

One of the most memorable tours we’ve done so far in Colombia is a visit to Nueva Venecia. A community built on stilts in the middle of a swamp which is a natural sanctuary, it’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. Keep reading for more about our day trip to Nueva Venecia in Colombia.

Cienaga and Nueva Venecia

You may have already guessed that Nueva Venecia is Spanish for New Venice. Named after the famous Italian city, the entire town is on the Grande Ciénega, a marsh leading from the River Magdalena to the Caribbean Sea. Residents live in houses built on stilts in the marsh, and instead of cars and bikes, they get around by boat, mostly long canoes. It was a real treat to visit and get a glimpse into the lives of its residents.

Map of Cienaga and Nueva Venecia
Day trip to Nueva Venecia map from Santa Marta

Getting to Nueva Venecia

For the day trip to Nueva Venecia, we took a tour from Santa Marta by bus to Ciénaga, where we met our boat driver. A quick drive under an hour from either Santa Marta or Baranquilla, and then a couple of hours boating around makes a great day trip!

Our bus tour guide spoke English and imparted interesting information about the region and its history. The boat captain who we met in Ciénaga spoke Spanish, and he took us for a long tour of the village and the surrounding waters, where we saw a variety of birds and the local fishermen at work.

boat day trip to Nueva Venecia
The boat waiting at the dock to take us to Nuevo Venecia
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