Friday, January 14, 2011

Portobello, San Blas Island Paradise, Crossing from Panama to Colombia by boat-

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Today I drove from Panama City to Portobello Panama.

Like I mentioned before, I got into Panama without a way to ship my motorcycle from Panama to Columbia as passage through the Darien Gap is dangerous and trekking takes a very long time. Needless to say, yes crazy Alex wanted to venture into the gorilla infested rainforest and hack my way through with the bike, but I wasn’t about to spend 3 months crossing 80 miles of everything trying to kill you.

Maybe something later in life…..

I was very fortunate to speak directly with a sailing boat captain by the name of John, from the vessel Wild Card. He was very nice and we worked out my passage with him on his backpacker boat that was already full.

I had spoken with many backpackers at the Mamallena Hostel in Panama City and got his info from there.

The hostel said they needed a $35 deposit for the booking. Well captain negotiator here smelled a scam and researched with others to find out it was just a booking fee for the hostel. So I paid my stay, skipped out on the deposit and off to Portobello I went to catch Wild card!

The drive to Portobello, of course started with getting lost getting out of Panama and getting lost taking the correct turn to Portobello. What’s new right?

I decided to stay the night in a hotel, the previous few nights I’ve been stuck at backpacker hostels with 10 people to a room and haven’t gotten more than 3 hours of sleep a night. It was time to relax. I negotiated a $20 room for the night. After hanging out in the party hostel of Mamallena for close to a week with heavy drinkers and chain smokers, I needed a rest, and a breath of fresh air.

I’ve noticed that there are some particular traits that most if not all backpackers have in Central and South America. Either they smoke, like to read books, or drink excessively, or the special cases do the drugs.  It’s a funny little niche I keep encountering in all the hostels, this completely different life style I have completely immersed myself in to observe, has given me a healthily appreciation for my own lifestyle and own decisions and customs I hold to myself to keep healthily, be athletic and maintain and overall good health. I'm not saying every backpacker is like this but these seem to be reoccuring traits. I sometimes feel like I’m back in high school, all the cool kids that smoke, drink and do nothing but chat around are the backpackers, and the lone wolf that does everything differently, aka the motorcycler is on his own doing his own thing-that’s me, but still with the ability to fit in well with the others.

So like I mentioned, I was sleep deprived from all the crazy party people roaming around the rooms and yelling every night at the hostel, so I went to bed at 6pm and didn’t wake up the next day until 10am. A beautiful and much needed slumber it was.


The next day I was on the hunt to find this boat I had spoken with, I came an extra day early to scope out the place and make sure I got on this boat, otherwise another 3 weeks I would have had to wait for the next one.
Like any good little town, I randomly talked to people near the ports and got the low down on what vessels were there, and when they were arriving. Some ransom man told me the vessel was gassing up in Colon and wouldn’t be there until later.

So I bummed around the town like a good hippie the whole day eating chips and people watching.

All throughout Panama have been these cool painted buses, pretty artistic, and Portobelo was no exception

I believe that they absolutely nailed it on the Rambo drawing lol

Saw a nice church

And an old Spanish fort that got taken out by a mud slide a few weeks ago. 

This meant there was no phone service or internet here yet, as it all got taken out by this massive act of nature.

 So I couldn’t call the captain to confirm my spot. I was starting to get worried this crazy plan of dealing directly with the captain and not a third party to make this more expensive than it already was, was not going to work and I would have to wait 3 weeks for passage to Colombia, Crazy Alex money saving tactics at hand.

I hung out at the dock talking to various people getting off ships asking about the Wild Card. I even asked the workers to drive around and see if it was there, which it was not. Finally I found a couple on a boat called sunshine that knew the Wild card. They happily called the captain but no answer and left him a message. Dang so close, it was looking grim for this sketchy boat charter.

As I sat in the street near the church, a tall freckled face man walks by and sees me. He comes up and we start to chat. Turns out he was part of the Wild Card crew and was dropped off in Colon to get supplies and took a bus over to Portobello to catch up with the boat.

He had a cell phone, called the captain and basically got my confirmation that my bike would be on that boat!

I was lucky Captain John was a nice guy; this could have been bad waiting around a month for a boat.

I then bunked down for the night at the only Portobello hostel called Captain Jacks. This is where you’ll find all the captains of the boats that take backpackers from Panama to Colombia and back, that dock at Portobelo drinking and talking about stories from many decades ago. This was obviously owned by Captain Jack that also did tours with backpackers and motorcycles.

I got a chance to meet all the other travelers that were on the Wild Card, and small world, I saw 3 backpackers that were in the same hostel in Panama City with me that would be on the same boat.

As the night began, the famous captain jack rolled into his hostel that had a very nice and convenient bar. I could already smell the musky alcohol off his breath as we started to chat. He tried to convince me I should go with him on his boat in a few days. Lucky I already had a boat but I didn’t tell him.

As more drinks were passed, I kept overhearing captains talk more and more. I overheard a conversation of one captain saying if he had to do another journey to Colombia he was going to go crazy and run the ship straight into a reef, another that had stories of running out of food and water for days with backpackers, another that seemed solely focused on how many people he could jam onto his boat for profit etc. It was crazy to see these people discuss all the crazy stories you only read about on the internet of those traveling this same route to get to Colombia.

As Captain Jack, age 60 something, was officially drunk, as well as his 24 year old Panamanian girlfriend, he proceeded to yell excessively at everyone for no reason, you could even hear him down the street.

He even got into a business argument with a partner that ended his partnership with the man after insults and drunkenness took over him.

I thought, man… glad I didn’t take that offer with Captain Jack. Other captains also were heavily intoxicated and gave me an idea of the danger it is to have a bad captain. I sure hope my captain isn’t too crazy.

**Reader disclaimer**--** (A few months after this post I was contacted by one of the people mentioned above in disapproval of what I had written, to be diplomatic I have put this disclaimer. To make a long story short, I am not trying to insinuate that the way these people acted is the way they act while they are working out on the ocean, nor do I insinuate they are alcoholics or crazy. This is the merely a recollection of this perhaps isolated incident that occurred that night. This is not an attack or conclusion on any individual, but just a recollection of what occurred).


The next day, after drunken captain stories and fear now with me of imagining a boat without food, water, and perhaps dropping my bike into the ocean or leaving me in a port far from Columbia, or bad weather issues etc. I met up at the dock. I met two other gentlemen the night before at the hostel that were also on the boat, they had KLR’s as well. Things were looking up, and knew I wasn’t alone with my concerns.

Getting the bikes on the boat first required the removal of all our side panniers, and all excess weight.

Then we had to drive on a dock that was no more than 5 feet wide, and put it into a small dingy. The other motoryclers and I looked at each other when they said, ok put them on, like are you serious?

After a match of rock, paper, scissors to see who the first test dummy was, Joe was the lucky guinea pig, we all rolled one bike at a time onto this very unstable boat on a piece of wood brought down from the village as the biggest they had.

I was thinking the entire time, man I’m so glad I’m not the first one, thank you rock!

Brian and his bike- Guinea pig #2
Once on the boat, 3 people had the job of balancing the bike for transport to the main ship, making sure it didn’t fall straight into the ocean.

Joe's bike looking like its about to fall over
Massive rain storms don't help this process at all

Don't Fall!

After 45 minutes, and a rain storm, we hoisted the bike onto the ship’s deck, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Ok only 2 more to go

Finally after putting all the bikes onto the deck, the bikers celebrated with rum and coke and I with my soy milk. I’m such a loser, I know.

The other 13 backpackers boarded soon after.

Motorcycles make good boat seats and recliners, who knew

This fit his personality perfectly- Pride full Aussie he was

10 of the backpackers were Australians. In particular one gentleman by the name of Shane was the epitome of a good Aussie; he arrived at the boat with 8 cases of beer, which amounted to 256 beers for a period of 5 days and 4 nights all for him.  I would bet he couldn’t finish them all, but who knows. He had probably the best suiting tattoo’s I’ve ever seen on anyone as well. Not much into tattoos myself, but this one was pretty interesting.

As we set sail for Colombia, the Aussies realized that we had only a block of ice for the trip, and were not happy. They were told there was going to be ice for the beer, and it was merely a block they couldn’t even chip.

This caused havoc, and a 50 min angry discussion proceeded with the crew and captain, ideas of going back to the town to buy crushed ice, more beer, not paying for the trip, accusations, etc all irrupted.

Finally an ice pick was agreed on, but they sacrificed having cold beer the last 2 days, and we were off! 

Leave it to the Aussie’s to put up a major fuss about the ice for the beer and delay the boat.

As we set off, the drinking began. The wind of the ocean in our face, people tanning, this was going to be great….or so I thought.

About 2 hours into the trip, myself along with 3 others were sea sick and puking off the side of the boat.
We had some pretty rough seas.

Every half an hour for the rest of the day I spend doing some nice involuntary ab crunches regurgitating nice stomach acid and liquids along with half the others.

Seeing I didn’t have a bed on board because of being the last one on board and exceeding the maximum occupancy, I managed a nice spot to sleep next to the diesel generator and gas behind the boat.

The next day we arrived at the first set of the San Blas Island. It was spectacular! 

All those pictures you see in postcards of tropical islands came alive right before my eyes.

Everyone was so excited they started to take pictures.

The view was great, and got interesting when everyone jumped in front of me to take pictures as well.

I guess chicks dig bikes, who knew… I've been riding motorycles my entire life for all the wrong reasons

We got a chance to visit an indigenous Kuna village. Turns out I was the only fluent Spanish speaker of the entire boat and crew. So lucky me was designated official ambassador and translator. I engaged in translation for ports for the captain and negotiations over the radio and cell phones for people.

They should be paying me to do this, not the other way around.

Local kids paddling out from the village to say hi. 

So as we arrived on a random island in the middle of nowhere with the Kuna people, we started to see some interesting stuff.

I'm jealous of his awesome shirt

This is Antonio, leader of this little village.

I’m 6”2 and was bending my knees; you can only imagine the true size of this man.

He’s 75 years old, and has 10 kids. I learned about the entire culture of these people in less than an hour. How the girls are considered women at age 12, have a huge party with food and drinks and invited neighboring islands, and slaughter a huge pig, one of which was on the island that Antonio told me cost him $250 from Panama and was a pain to transport to the island.

He even introduced his entire family of 30 people to me and had some interesting conversations, pretty philosophical about the end of the world in 2012 and such.

Walked along the island, a little more, saw some nice sea turtles that are cultured for 2 years and then eaten.

Finally we were off back to the boat.

As sea sickness once again creeped from underneath my bowls, we luckily parked ourselves close to an uninhabited island later on that day.

Fantastic it was.

We had an entire island to ourselves.

(Part 2 Coming up)


  1. So.... I helped a little to put on all the gear onto your bike and it was a pain! Now they have you undoing all of my very little hard work help I did? lol. Following your blog is like reading a mysterious suspense filled book with unknown adventours waiting to creep up on you! Lol! keep it up my friend =)

  2. Loooved reading this blog! So adventurous, exciting, and suspenseful!!!! Here I am at Starbucks during my lunch break.. how LAME.

    I'm with Greg :) Love stalking your life, hahahaha.

    Karla, your fellow nutritionist friend from Texas!

  3. Very brave and daring journey. Congratulations, Alex !!
    Love reading your blog.
    All these places ( Mexico, Belize, Panama, Honduras ) are familiar to me ( visited Portobello city just like you), way less ''crazier '' way , with a cruise ships.. . Special memories. I do admire your determination, bravery and spirit of adventurer and traveller.
    Take care and be careful - some of those places and people can be too much. And yes, please stick with a soy milk .. :)

    Odeta Bruziene

  4. Hi Alex

    Firstly I hope your travels are going well and the bike is treating you well. We met several months back at my bar in Portobelo, Panama while you were waiting to travel with John on "Wilcard' to Colombia. A concerned member of my family has recently contacted me after stumbling upon your blog entry about your stay here with us.

    I understand that your blog needs to portray your experiences accurately and entertainingly for your followers however I am politely requesting that you omit my name from the section in regards to your time at the bar. I am the first to admit that things can get pretty wild at our place and that's the reason why I built it in the first place, somewhere for me other Captains and travelers to let our hair down and party while on dry land. We try our hardest to make sure we give the best advice possible to people getting on boats and only deal with boats that I have inspected myself. We also provide a safety checklist for travelers who are going on a boat that I haven't personally seen so they don't end up having a trip from hell with a cowboy Captain. Safety and enjoyment are of paramount importance to me, something that I'm sure John would happily verify along with everybody who has sailed on my boat "Fantasy". To this date I have never received a verbal complaint from any passenger or read anything negative on the net about one of my trips or my skills as a Captain.

    I am asking you to re-read the paragraph is question and realize that it insinuates that I am an alcoholic/Crazy Captain and would behave the same way on the ocean as I would while letting my hair down in my bar. I can honestly say that I never drink while my boat is "under way" just as I didn't during the 7 years I single handedly circumnavigated the globe on "Fantasy".

    I am sure you men't nothing malicious while writing the piece however you must understand that these insinuations are both hurtful to me personally, upsetting for my family and potentially damaging to my business which is simply to make a modest amount of money in my retirement while having fun and helping as many travelers as possible. If you had traveled on my boat with me and felt the same way then I would understand, however I feel strongly that the article is grossly unfair based on a brief encounter with me.

    I hope to hear back from you soon Alex with your thoughts in regards to the matter.


    Captain Jack

  5. Jack,

    First off thank you for the well wishes on the trip.

    I appreciate the time you took to write and contact me. I see you have some concerns with what is written in my blog. Know that I merely try to describe what I have seen and experience mostly for my own recollection of this journey for the future, and those who wish to read about it.

    Know that I don't deface, discriminate or lie about any business, experience I may have had, or lie about anyone I meet on my blog.

    To make things simple, know that the blog entry was in no way correlated with my stay at your hostel. In fact I quite liked your hostel and enjoyed my stay there.

    What the blog entry was about was about my own experience at the bar. I understand you only work with captains and boats that you approve of, I only mentioned that I heard these stories coming from people, whether or not they are captains you recommend to your clients or not I do not know, but never mentioned that they were part of your organization that you work with or recommend to others.

    I'm sure your a great captain, even though I've never sailed with you, and neither did I mention that you were bad or good. I just mentioned that having a bad captain is a danger, I never insinuated that you were one.

    My observations of what's explained in the blog are true and in no way try to attack you in anyway. I merely mention that perhaps you were intoxicated, and explained of what happened that evening. I never mentioned or suggested that this was a daily activity or nor did I ever accuse you of being a drunk. I neither mention that the way someone acts at the bar is the same way they act out on the ocean.

    I'm sorry if you thought I was insinuating such things, please know that that is not the case. I'm neither trying to hurt your business or you in anyway, and am sadden to hear of what my blog may have concerning to your family, nothing was intentional.

    I try to be a diplomatic as I can and be true to all that I mention. I just state what I see and what happens, not just with this but with everything I have put on my blog.

    I try not to cause issues to anyone or their families, so to make things a bit more clear I have revised the blog entry clarifying everything that was just mentioned above.

    Thanks for your time.


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