When travelling around the Americas, your route options are quite straight forward – South to North or North to South. Regardless, if you’re planning on making either journey without flying, then the most obvious place to cross continents would be between Panama and Colombia. The ferry from Colombia to Panama was cancelled some time ago. As a result, the most common (and enjoyable) way of making the journey is by sailing Colombia to Panama by sail boat. I met a lot of travellers who talked about this being the highlight of their South America backpacking trip.
With lots of tours making this journey, the Google search result page for this can be rather intimidating. Finding transport like this that caters to those of us with vegan and other dietary requirements is often a bit of a hard slog. Trying to gauge how much space you’ll get and who will be on board is also tough. Cue the Ave Maria.
This 50ft traditional sailing yacht is the baby of Captain Paul and his partner Sindry. One of the few remaining owner operators and, having worked in the hospitality industry for years, the duo put a lot of effort into getting things right. They are very strict about the number of passengers they allow on their trips; boats their size would usually carry 5 – 6 more people!
Paul is so concerned about his passengers that he actually keeps track of the number of them who experience seasickness on their trips. This is a large concern for a lot of people! Their current level is a mere 0.5%!
Sailing Colombia to Panama – The Itinerary
Day 1 – Day 1 is a sailing day, pulling away from the mainland and heading for open waters. It’s a great way to make yourself familiar with the boat, locate a personal sun spot on the deck and work on your tan whilst getting to know fellow travellers on board.
Day 2 – After 2 nights at sea, the first stop is the paradise island of Coco Banderas. Here, is group of 4 tiny islands with nothing but a few traditional indigenous grass huts, perfect blue seas and dazzling, smooth white sands. For 24 hours, this will be home. For the curious, the Ave Maria provides snorkelling gear and location tips for the best swimming spots. You’ll build bonfires on the beach and watch magnificent sunsets over the waters, before retreating to Ave Maria and cosying up at bed time. For those hankering for adventure, you can opt to sleep in hammocks under the palm trees and stars on your uninhabited, island home for the night.
Day 3 – Wake up in your hammock on Isla Coco Banderas and enjoy your first sunrise from the beach. After breakfast, it’s time to move on to another one of Paul’s secret San Blas islands – complete with its own ship wreck! This really is the perfect place to snorkel in San Blas; surrounding uninhabited islands are only a dingy paddle or short swim away. You might even be fortunate enough to spot a friendly ray or two amongst the thriving fish communities.
Day 4 – Day 4 is your final island hopping day, as the Ave Maria sets sail for El Porvenir. El Porvenir is home to the Panamanian immigration, and where you are officially stamped into Panama. This is the most relaxed immigration office you will ever visit in your life! It comes with its own beautiful beaches and magnificent coral reefs.
Your last evening will be enjoyed on board the yacht. Sit down to another home cooked meal and reminisce about the previous 4 days travelling through paradise. Dinner will be enjoyed as you sail towards Portobelo – the sun setting over the Caribbean.
Day 5 – Waking up in Panama’s port city of Portobello, where you’ll enjoy a final boat breakfast. From the port, you can take the additional option of accepting a low cost transfer of just $5 to Panama City. Is there anything worse than having the added stress of haggling your own transfers when you’re trying to get get used to a new country?
The Sleeping set up
The Ave Maria has a mixture of single and double beds, all of which are located within the yacht’s open plan layout. Each passenger is allocated a comfy bed on arrival, complete with fresh, clean linen sheets. As previously mentioned, the stricter numbers for passengers on board means you share with less people than on most vessels. This makes for a more comfortable sleep space. Ave Maria is authorised to carry 12 passengers, however, by choice they restrict the number to 10 passengers per trip.
If I’m spending 5 days on a boat, you’d best believe I want to be sure that my vegan diet is going to be offered more than a salad 3 times a day (salad is a side dish for vegans too!). Vegan food in Colombia was pretty easy for me to come by, but in terms of sailing from Colombia to Panama (or vice versa) a lot of the commercial companies get a bit hazy in terms of what’s on offer. A miserable food experience could ruin a trip. Finding a vegan sailing trip from Panama to Colombia is pretty much impossible! For me, one of the biggest benefits in sailing with Ave Maria is the team’s understanding and care for people’s dietary needs. Alongside their normal meal plans, Paul and Sindry offer this list of tasty delights to keep the animal lovers happy:
- Vegetarian curry
- Quinoa, avocado, veg and leaf salad
- Chick pea and vegetable goulash
- Vegetarian Bolognese
- Pesto and Almond Pasta
- Salads and Fresh fruit
This entire trip comes in at just $550! That’s everything from your 3 home-style meals per day AND the following extras:
- Daily fresh fruit and water
- A free sunset cocktail in San Blas
- Fins, masks and snorkels
- Inflatable dingy, hammocks and double air bed
- A speaker to connect music to
- A beach BBQ and bonfire
Compare this to the Speedboat from Colombia to Panama and you’ve actually got yourself a pretty good deal with the Ave Maria. The base price for the speedboat comes in at $395 and, as such, transfers to connect with or depart from the boat cost much more (around $100!). The lower costs tend to mean that space is a lot more limited. Seats are hardwood, and the overnight accommodation you are offered is often regularly used hammocks amongst indigenous huts.
Most of the extras that the Ave Maria provide free of charge are not included in the speedboat trips. Your drinking water is not included, you must bring your own – those who don’t (or run out) face high costs when buying it on the islands on the route. It’s worth noting that the operators receive a commission on everything that passengers purchase. As a result, prices are inflated. I find big tour companies, in general, are a little less understanding when it comes to us folks with dietary requirements. Food is often made up in bulk for the mass and often you are left with the same meals for several days straight.
Interested in adding the sailing experience of a lifetime to your backpack trip? You can contact Paul and Sindry via their website booking form, or by heading over to their Facebook page. Spaces on board the Ave Maria are limited, so make sure to book your sailing Colombia to Panama trip in advance to avoid missing out!
You can also check out what the crew are up to via their Twitter page @panama2colombia.
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