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So, you’ve made the decision to take care of your border crossing by sailing Panama to Colombia. Good choice! As a border you can only cross by sea or air, it can be tough to decide how you want to travel from Colombia and Panama. But, if you consider that paying a bit more will allow you to have the experience of a lifetime and be able to see the most picturesque little islands the world has to offer, it’s honestly a no-brainer. People pay hundreds to do San Blas Sailing tours without a border crossing being involved, so this really is just killing two birds with one stone.
I recently sailed Panama to Colombia with San Blas Adventures, and it was one of my favorite adventures to date. This trip is not like many other Sailing Panama to Colombia tours, because the trip operates via speedboat. When I was weighing my options between taking a speedboat tour and a sailboat tour, I had a lot to consider!
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- Don’t miss my Complete Panama Backpacking Guide if you’re traveling around the area!
After doing much research on the different ways of sailing Panama to Colombia, and personally deciding on a speedboat tour, I thought that I would contrast the options for you here to help you in your decision as well. It’s a choice many backpackers must make, so hopefully this makes it a bit easier! Just make sure you do the San Blas sailing rather than flying. Trust me, this is a place you’ll want to see, and making a 4 day all-inclusive trip out of it is truly the way to go. I haven’t met a single person who thought otherwise!
Before you go to Colombia, make sure to brush up on your Colombian slang so you’re fully prepared – there are quite a few differences between Panamanian and Colombian Spanish!
Check out my other Panama content while you’re here (they open in a new tab!):
- Complete Panama Backpacking Guide
- San Blas Adventures Speedboat Trip Panama to Colombia Overview
- Things to do in Bocas del Toro: Travel Guide for Every Kind of Traveler
- Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro
- Lost & Found: An Adventure Hiking Hostel in Panama’s Jungle
- Tribal Gathering Festival Review + Guide
Sailing Panama to Colombia: Speedboat or Sailboat Trip?
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Boat Time + Seasickness
With a speedboat tour sailing between Panama and Colombia, you are on the boat for 1-3 hours per day, and a total of 8 hours in the 4 days. The boat time here is for a transfer – you may (probably will) get wet depending on weather, that is the price you pay for getting the transport time over with quickly.After the 1-2hrs, you are then are back on the islands with freedom to roam, swim, and relax.
Seasickness is not common due to this less boat time, and also because of the speed of the boat. Rather than slowly wave and bob around with the sea on a sailboat (which is what causes most seasickness), speedboats cut through the water much quicker. It can be VERY bumpy but the motion is much different and usually not as nauseating.
On a sailing boat between Panama and Colombia, you live and stay on the boat. The boats will dock up near islands for the day/night which you can make trips to, but you always return to the boat to eat and sleep. On sailboats you of course also have a two day open ocean crossing between the San Blas islands and Cartagena, where you don’t leave the boat at all.
This may be a problem for people who get seasick – many people opt out of sailing Panama to Colombia via sailboat because the 2 day ocean crossing can get very rough. There is also a 7-8 hour crossing from the dock to the first San Blas islands, taking up a large chunk of the first day. So basically, you spend 2.5 days in the northern San Blas Islands.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Amount of San Blas Islands Seen
On a San Blas Adventures speedboat tour, you get to boat through all 365 San Blas islands from the northernmost to southernmost. You remain very close to the Panamanian coast the entire time. Through your speedboat journey and different island visits, you get to see all the beautiful little tiny islands and how the landscape actually changes a bit from north to south.
The north has all beautiful flat pancake islands, and as you get towards the south they are a bit larger and more hilly with more mangrove forests. These tours are also the only ones who actually get to see the more untouched and authentic southern San Blas islands. All the San Blas sailing tours from Panama City see the north islands, but when you get down south you will see villages and islands that are much more unaffected by tourism, making the experience that much more special in my opinion.
Sailboat San Blas sailing tours spend their first three nights in the northern section of the San Blas islands, going between islands in the first section (of three). The San Blas Islands are all located next to Panama, so once you leave this area there are no more islands to be seen.
Because this is the most direct place to sail to Cartagena from, these trips sail from Panama to Colombia directly from the northernmost part of the San Blas area.
They spend more time relaxing around the northern and most touristic area, but do not see all the islands or the more authentic southern part of San Blas.
Distant Sailboats mooring up near northern islands for the night.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Island Time
With a speedboat tour, you will spend all of each day on the islands besides 1-3 hours of boat transfer. You eat, sleep, live, and do everything on the islands and always have freedom of movement. There aren’t many times in life you have tons of time to explore and relax on picture-perfect little islands that you can see from end to end – the photo opportunities are truly endless and you will never be able to believe it’s real life!
When sailing Panama to Colombia via sailboat, you take day trips from the boat to islands but must return to the boats to sleep and eat. You spend quite a lot of time on the islands during the 2-3 initial days, and have most of the days to explore around them and relax. But, all of your belongings and all the eating and sleeping are on the water.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Boat, Food, and Tour Quality:
When you book a speedboat tour, all the tours offer the same exact product. So this way, there’s no uncertainty between dates or boats. All tours will go to the same or similar islands, serve fantastic food, see the authentic and untouched village, sleep in the comfy colorful dorms/hammocks, and use similar speedboats with set timings.
You don’t need to be uncertain of any quality on a Panama-Colombia speedboat tour because you can expect a high quality every time.
With sailboat trips, the quality is much different on each boat. Because the sailing Panama to Colombia tour companies are simply agencies for different boats and captains, one tour can be a fancy catamaran while the next is a sketchy little boat where water splashes in as you sleep (I actually heard of this happening once!!). With each captain/boat comes a total different tour, food, and experience, so it’s sometimes like playing roulette.
You can research what boat to take beforehand and try to time your schedule with a good one if you want, but it is sometimes (depending on the company you go through) not as easy to access information and reviews on each captain and boat to make sure your experience is a good one.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Indigenous Interaction
On a speedboat San Blas sailing trip, you get more culture and immersion with the indigenous people throughout all islands. There are families or owners on most of the islands you visit, with whom you get to interact and learn. On one of the nights in the southern San Blas, you even spend a night in dorms in a Kuna village. On this night you play with the kids, meet the locals, listen to an elder speak about the people, eat Kuna food, and even see a performance if you are lucky! This really helps you understand the fascinating culture and how they live their day to day lives. Read more about my experience with the Kuna people in my San Blas Adventures review.
Depending on the captain and boat, you may have more or less indigenous interaction. There will be families and locals on certain islands where you stop for a day trip and they may be selling some crafts, but it’s not as immersive.
Sailing Panama to Colombia Tours won’t stay in an actual Kuna Village or see the more untouched areas of the archipelago. Indigenous interaction also depends heavily on the captain of the boat you get and if he/she has any ties with specific Kuna people or islands.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Tour Ending Point
Speedboat adventures end in a tiny Colombian village called Capurgana, which is right over the Panamanian border and use past the end of the San Blas Islands/Kuna Yala territory. This village is beautiful and remote and has no cars – only horse-drawn carts! You will need to purchase your onward travel from Capurgana, which is about $60 to Medellin or Cartagena.
However, you will have seen one of the most untouched places in Colombia that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen because it’s only accessible via air or sea. The speedboat company should be able to help you with booking accommodation, onward travel, and recommendations for the area too! Chances also are that you will continue traveling with new friends from your trip – my group traveled together afterwards for weeks.
Read my guide to Capurgana here to see what it’s like!
Sailing boats between Panama and Colombia end in Cartagena, a big city on Colombia’s coast which is on most people’s travel routes. This is a major convenience factor, and it nice to be able to end in a bigger city without having to worry about traveling there.
Ending in Cartagena however does cost you a 2 day ocean crossing, and missing out on most of San Blas and a true Colombian highlight. It’s always a give and a take!
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Group Size
Speedboat groups can reach up to 25 people in size, and are generally between 15-25. Of course sometimes bookings are lower than others and there can be smaller groups, but groups will always be on the island together and sail in 1-2 speed boats for transit time. Passengers are generally from all over the world and offer a great environment to meet new friends.
Group size depends fully on the boat- usually around 6-16 people and up to 25. Each boat will be an independent tour by themselves, and the group you’re with on the boat will be with you the whole way. Passengers are also usually from a wide variety of countries offering a very social and immersive situation.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Social Aspect
Because you spend most of your time on the islands, you are able to choose how social you want to be when on a speedboat tour. You can go and read under a palm tree alone, or you can hang out with people whenever you please.
You spend most of your time on the boat so you generally are around your group at all times without too much of a possibility to go off on your own if you feel you want some alone time – besides when you’re on the islands!
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Giving Back to the Community
San Blas Adventures in known for its responsible tourism and gives back to the community through various different initiatives and working directly with the Kuna People. One of the owners is Kuna, enabling the company to forge close and mutually beneficial relationships with many different families and communities.
Most of passenger fares stay directly within the local communities. Fares go toward using Kuna accommodations, Kuna boats, Kuna fusion food, Kuna guides, Kuna construction workers, and more, and committees are formed to help communities with changes they would like to see made. San Blas Adventures also has initiatives to help with recycling, teach permaculture farming, and bring water filtration systems, and they are working towards a zero waste goal as well. I was super impressed by this repertoire of responsible tourism, and thought you might be too!
Most sailing Panama to Colombia tours via sailboat will visit a few communities, but don’t have much to do with them other than that. Some tours may give back quite a lot while others have little to do with the communities. Again, it depends fully on the boat captain and anything they personally do to help out the indigenous or personal relationships they may have.
Sailboat tours will use their own food and of course accommodation, and the fares will usually stay with the captain, agency, and possibly inhabitants of an island or two just for daytime use.
Speedboat or Sailing Panama to Colombia: Accommodation
Speedboat sail Panama to Colombia tours will be accommodated in either hammocks or dorm beds. These will be in huts that are open to the warm island air with space to move around if you need but will be close to one another. Personally, I felt a bit worried about sleeping in hammocks but I got so used to them that I missed them when I got to the dorm!
The boat is where you stay for the 4 nights while sailing from Panama to Colombia. It’s important to note that rooms will not necessarily be private and sometimes there will be bunks in the ‘saloon’ of the ship. Depending on what boat you get, space may be very limited – enabling you to really get to know those around you! However, some boats may have private double rooms – again, it depends on what boat you get.
Anyway, I hope this comparison has helped you decide whether you want to take a speedboat or a sailboat in your voyage sailing Panama to Colombia! I’m sure you will enjoy your trip either way – wishing you an amazing trip with lots of adventures & sunsets! 🙂
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Don’t miss my Complete Panama Backpacking Guide if you’re traveling around the area!
Thanks to San Blas Adventures for hosting me on a speedboat trip. Of course, all words are my own and I couldn’t have loved my trip more.