Panama 3: Sans Blas Cruise

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive race, one team of two raced to the town of Portobelo, Panama.  There they spent the night before racing resumed in the morning.

On waking, Teams Australia and Ireland walked around Portobelo then were shuttled by Jeff from One World in their dingy to the third fort on the other side of the harbour.  They climbed to the top of the hill and investigated the ruins.  Then it was off to the hidden beach around the other side of the headland for a quick dip.  That evening, along with the addition of Teams from Germany and Switzerland, all passengers made their way onto the One World.  Luggage was stowed, safety briefing given and to apocalyptic music, they set sail.

Panorama of the lower level of the eastern Portobelo fort
Panorama of the upper level of the eastern Portobelo fort
Hidden cove just outside of Portobelo harbour

The One World is a 64 foot schooner that was purchased by three Americans for the purpose of sailing around the world as part of their own Amazing Exclusive Race.  The boat is a newcomer to the Panama-Colombia backpacker route, but brings professionalism seen on few other boats.

Leaving Portobelo port, the passengers and crew chatted as the ship made its way through the night.  Sail was set once they cleared the headlands and about one hour into the night Ang became seasick and would remain so until the vessel dropped anchor the next morning in the calm waters of the Sans Blas.  Simon would later call this “part one of Ang’s all night and all day puke-a-thon”.

Early the next morning One World arrived at a calm anchorage between two stunning Sans Blas islands.  Receiving their clue, Simon, along with members of the other teams set off with local Kuna personality Raul to complete the spear fishing task.  Ang wisely opted to rest, swim and walk around the Island owned by the President of Panama and inhabited by a local well known Kuna Drag Queen.

Panorama of paradise, Sans Blas

The first stop on the spear fishing challenge was a tiny cliché of a tropical island.  There Simon, along with the other teams, entered the water and looked for fish large enough to spear and eat.  Raul, being an island resident and potentially part fish, was able to acquire conch and a small reef fish.  After 30 minutes, Raul, somewhat hyperactively decided the spot was no good and drove the dingy to the next location.  There everyone once again entered the water and commenced looking for fish.

Another Sans Blas island Panorama

Simon had one shot at medium sided reef fish, and missed, before being co-opted into helping Raul hunt barracuda.  Despite two attempts, including one where Raul jumped back in the water to chase after and wing a barracuda that Simon had spotted on his swim back to the dingy, the only fish speared was Raul’s earlier reef fish.   Later in the afternoon, after lunch, they attempted again.  This time Raul was able to shoot a trigger fish and corner a grouper, but unable to land.   Simon had his second shot at a suitable sized reef fish, but was unable to spear it.  However, Raul seemed happy to have had the support to hunt the grouper, and provided Simon with the next clue.  This would require Simon and Ang to attend a beach BBQ by the water in front of Raul’s grass hut.

Kuna vendors
All the Sans Blas islands look the same… stunning
Another clichéd tropical Sans Blas island

Returning to the One World, all passengers and crew went across to Raul’s island for a BBQ on the beach. There they ate reef fish stew and Simon was provided with a whole fresh reef fish. Raul was true to form and provided a hyperactive dinner service wearing only his underwear and a head torch.  Teams were able to purchase various drinks from the scatted huts in the dark with most enjoying a propane chilled beer or Don (Mr) Simon tetra packed wine provided by the resourceful Raul.

Ang suffers from sea sickness at the beach BBQ The teams enjoy the Kuna beach BBQ

With most teams nearing the finish of their meals, Raul decided there needed to be a bonfire, so he rustled up a bunch of dry palm leaves and set them alight while the passengers and crew of One World stood around and watched.  Being dried palm leaves, they were quickly immolated.  Perhaps out of a bizarre need to entertain or simply due to the Kuna’s incredible enthusiasm for all things hammock, Raul’s last bit of entertainment was showing the passengers and crew his dog in a hammock.

Palm inferno The team drinks some Don Simon

With the beach barbeque challenge completed, the racers received their next clue and the next morning after a couple of swings from the yard arm, were on their way to their next destination, the Kuna Town of Cali.  On this stretch of sailing, the task of helming the boat was given to Simon to complete.  After roughly an hour, Simon was able to steer the One World on the correct heading to Cali, successfully avoiding any reefs.  There the professional sailors took over and brought the ship to anchor.

The view from the cabin aboard the One World Captain Simon takes the helm of the One World for a bit

Receiving their next clue, Teams Australia, Ireland, Germany and Switzerland, along with Jeff from the crew were shuttled to the Kuna Island.  There they made their way down one of two main streets to the Kuna museum.  Unfortunately the interpretation guide was out of town on a fiesta, so the limited Spanish of the teams was used to read the displays before everyone set out for the second challenge of this visit.  This challenge was to circumnavigate the island looking for souvenirs, photographic subjects, internet or bread, depending on which exclusive race each team was on.  Team Australia was tasked with taking photographs, which they completed rapidly.

Kuna lady Kuna hut
Kuna washing Kuna gato
Kuna braclets
Ang with Catherine from Team Ireland Ang enjoys the tropical vibe

With all teams completing their respective race tasks, the One World departed for the next location, another stunning Island in the Sans Blas.  This island had, for reasons not entirely clear initially been abandoned by the Kuna as while huts were visible from the boat at anchor, no people were.  Team Australia received their next clue and set off swimming to investigate the abandoned huts.  After swimming the 200m to shore, the team along with representatives from Ireland, Switzerland and Germany, walked around the cluster of empty huts and the stunning shoreline.  Many photographs were taken before they all returned to the boat for yard arm swings, showers and yet another fantastic dinner onboard the One World.

Another cliché of a Sans Blas island View of a Sans Blas hut from the water
Hermit crab on the beach Simon, along with other races enjoys the late afternoon sun
Ang yard arm swings off the boat Simon has a turn on the yard arm
Sunset from next to the One World

For the last day of cruising in the Sans Blas, the One World was sailed a short distance to yet another gorgeous trio of Sans Blas islands.  These islands, to paraphrase the Panama Cruising Guide, all looked the same… stunning.  With Ang at the helm for her turn at driving, the One World soon arrived at the cluster. The professional sailors once again guided the boat into anchorage located at the centre of these three typical stunning Sans Blas islands.

Ang poses for a during race photo whilst driving Another pirate ship in Sans Blas
a classy knot in the Sans Blas Kuna gardening

Once again, teams swam from the One World the short distance to shore to a Kuna souvenir hut, where a bartering challenge was completed.  Others set off to circumnavigate the short distance around the island and simply enjoy the setting.   This was One World’s first visit to these particular islands and the teams agreed that these were particularly attractive.  The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming, yard arm swinging, showering on deck and relaxing to prepare for the next challenge.

Kuna taking the family yacht for a spin The Kuna leave lobster like this as a warning to others

After the heavy seas of the first overnight journey, Ang and Simon were not looking forward to the crossing from Sans Blas to Cartagena.  Sea sickness medication was taken and in the evening the One World weighed anchor and departed the Sans Blas.  Course was set to cross to Colombia, and was expected to take approximately 36 hours.

Ang isn’t enjoying the crossing

The next 36 hours of racing were the worst seas seen yet.  The first night saw Team Australia separate as Ang was unable to go below deck to sleep.  She opted to stay up on deck with another Angela from team Switzerland who also was suffering from seasickness, in support. Simon, who was slightly less affected by seasickness, was able to get a few short hours of sleep before returning to find Ang on deck, though now shivering, soaking wet and still spewing.

Many times during this arduous journey the One World was joined by dolphins and hundreds of flying fish.  While Ang didn’t eat, Simon was able to enjoy the tasty meals cooked under what could only be described as difficult cooking conditions as for stability, the One World was permanently keeled thirty degrees over to one side.

For the final night Ang was finally able go below deck and aft, to sleep in the bed given up graciously by Stefan.  Both Simon and Ang tried to sleep as much as they could. Ang still felt seasick and Simon was slightly as well, but needed to sleep while holding onto the wall on account of the tilted angle of the boat. Otherwise he would roll on top Ang. Eventually daylight came on the final morning.

Unfortunately, owing to the wind and an inconveniently located island, they were four hours later than estimated coming into Cartagena.  Seas by this stage had smoothed out and Ang was able to eat for the first time in a day and a half.  They entered Cartagena harbour and soon the One World arrived at the Yacht club.  Luggage was collected from the hold and the teams then travelled by dingy then taxi to a hostel in the Old Town of Cartagena.

Cartagena panorama
The crew and passengers of the One World

There they checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race and earned a much needed rest.

In the post leg interview, a tired Ang and Simon gave their thoughts.  Ang said “I’m so glad that’s behind me and to be on dry land! That was the worst time of my life and stomach acid is so painful. Despite the agony and tears I’m so glad to have seen the stunning Sans Blas. It’s heavenly!  I just never want to do an open sea crossing again!”  Simon commented that “while the weather was not the best during the crossing, we lucked out with our time in the Sans Blas as it was completely magic and our boat, the One World and crew were great.  Those guys [the crew of the One World] made the crossing much more bearable. We’ve spoken to other teams on their own exclusive races who are also here in Cartagena and the horror stories they told us about their crossings and in particular the quality of their boats and captains (or lack thereof), made us glad we picked the right one”.


Panama 2: Panama City to Portobelo

Once again as the first to arrive, Team Australia departed the pit stop by taxi to Panama City’s Gran Terminal.  Their clue required the team to make their way to Captain Jack’s, Portobelo, where they would receive their next clue.  Arriving at the terminal, they boarded a bus north to Colón.  The drive initially started well, but as they approached Colón, their bus hit traffic.  Unfortunately, their bus took an hour longer to arrive in Colón.

For some reason, the bus did not drive to the terminal and instead deposited the team outside of one of the massive free trade zone complexes. This meant that they had to walk back along the road south to get their next bus.  While few people were about, this area did not seem particularly safe.  This was soon emphasised by two men in khaki on a motorcycle speeding into an intersection ahead of the team as they walked.  The man on the back of the motorcycle held an MP5 up to get the traffic to stop to allow two unmarked SUVs to speed through. Needless to say, both Ang and Simon raced down the road as fast as they could and along the way grabbed a terrible Nescafe coffee shot before arriving at the bus terminal.

That’s how you spell Gourmet? Here in Colón

Simon said later,”by this point we had realised we had made a mistake coming all the way into Colón.  We could have changed earlier at an earlier junction to the Portobelo bus.  Colón isn’t a particularly safe city and out of all the places in Central America, it had probably most had a hyper commercial war zone feel”.  To which Ang added “dirty, smelly.  I’m just glad we were able to get to the right bus out of there”.

As is common in Central America, touts funnelled the team to the correct chicken bus and the team were soon speeding along the coast to reach Portobelo. Shortly after having reached Portobelo, the team made their way to Captain Jack’s hostel where they received their next clue from Captain Jack himself.  Portobelo was at one time the key point where gold from South America was transhipped back to Spain.   However, even through this town was highly important to the conquistadors as the gold transhipment point for all of South America, it has not significantly changed since.

Angela’s chicken bus collection

The clue tasked the team to sail via the Sans Blas Archipelago to Colombia.  To do this, the team would travel aboard the One World, a mini pirate ship.  A meeting was held with the One World crew and other passengers, including Team Ireland, and passports were collected.  Unfortunately, the port master was unavailable and out of town, necessitating that the departure be pushed back a day.

The team occupied their time by visiting the church famous for the black Jesus, checking out the two forts and the four supermarkets for the best wine money could buy for the voyage before spending the night at Captain Jack’s.

The famous black Jesus Captain Jack’s pirate hangout

…to be continued.


Panama 1: Bocas Del Toro

Exiting the pit stop early, Ang and Simon were joined by Simon, the remaining half of Team Belgium last seen in León, and another Team Israel.  Together they walked over to the bus station where they waited for the bus to the border.

Soon, all teams were on a bus travelling through kilometre after kilometre of banana plantation.  They arrived at the quiet northern border and completed Costa Rican formalities before crossing a rickety old rail bridge to the Panama side. Simon remarked “that it was coolest crossing in a while, mainly because it was so unsafe.  They crazily even drove a semi over it”.

On the Panama side, immigration was completed with no real difficulties, other than the staff wondering why Ang did not have a Panamaian flag on her backpack.  A shared taxi was negotiated for a 50% reduction in the fare and team raced into Panama.

After an hour long ride they were deposited at Almirante where the team boarded a water taxi for the ride to Bocas Town, the largest settlement in the Bocas Del Torro Islands.   Without having any accommodation booked, the team walked around town and checked out the accommodation options.  By doing this, they were able to discover that a hostel had recently opened on the Island of Bastimentos.  They quickly booked this accommodation and then purchased some supplies.  Team Belgium, also received this clue and joined Team Australia on the water taxi to Bastimentos.

At the ferry dock near Almirante Banana ship
A lot of crane for such a small island Main street, Bocas town

They arrived at the water taxi dock and walked into the centre of the island where they checked in and raced to the beach.  There the Simons and Ang completed the swim at Red Frog beach challenge then, after spotting Team Ireland in the back of the shuttle truck, they enjoyed drinks and snacks at the nearby Punta Lava beach bar and grill.

Wildlife outside of the dorm Red frog beach from the bar

Their next challenges were to survey the beaches of Bastimentos and to spot red frogs in the wild.  Once again both teams set off to Red Frog Beach, then headed north.  Soon they were in a muddy rainforest area where they spotted tens of red frogs.  After completing this part of the challenge, the teams continued working their way along the coast until they arrived at the spectacular Wizard beach.

Panorama of Wizard beach
Simon takes a break from racing on Wizard beach

Not wanting to retrace their steps, the team headed across the island to Old Bank town, where they negotiated a water taxi ride back to the hostel dock.

Old Bank town flower Old Bank town trike

The next day the team continued their survey of the beaches of Bestimentos by heading east.

Ang crosses a jungle stream Plantain flowers
Abandoned beach bar
Panorama of a little cove east of Red Frog beach
Simon from Team Belgium follows close behind
Rainbow panorama

With the Bocas Del Torro challenges completed, the team rested for the remainder of the evening, socialising with Team New Zealand and a combination Team from Canada and Sweden.

Waking early the next morning, along with Team New Zealand, Simon and Ang raced via water taxi back to Bocas Town.  They then said goodbye to Team New Zealand and walked to the airport.  There, twenty minutes before departure, they purchased tickets for a short flight to Panama City.  Again after removing excess weight from their check in luggage, they were on their way.

Flying into Panama City the team took in the view of the hundreds of ships waiting to enter the lock.  They took a taxi ride through the congested streets to their hostel in the old town.  There they met up with Team Ireland, and received their next clue to make their way to the Miraflores lock.

Ships waiting to enter the canal The view from the hostel towards Panama City

Owing to the previous accommodation requiring the air conditioning be on 24/7, both Simon and Ang were unwell.  Ang opted to remain at the hostel to rest while Simon set off to complete the task. After two bus rides, Simon, along with Teams Ireland and America 3 arrived at the locks.  Their timing was perfect and they were able to watch three ships transition the locks before they returned via taxi to the hostel.

Miraflores lock Ships in the lock
Miraflores lock panorama

There at the hostel Team Australia checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Once again they arrived in first place. To celebrate, they had an excellent dinner of sushi and traditional deep fried Panama fare before returning to their accommodation for the optional rest period.