Panama To Colombia By Boat – Everything You Need To Know

Are you thinking about travelling from Colombia to Panama by Boat?

We backpacked all of Central America on our 10-month Latin America trip starting in November 2022. After reaching Panama, the next country on the list was Colombia.

We managed to not fly a single time to that point (okay, except Manchester to Cancun, but that’s quite far to swim), so we REALLY didn’t want to fly from Panama City. There is a problem there, though. The more than 100-mile-long Darien Gap. No roads go through here. It’s just an endless jungle. And not the friendly, visitable type either.

Luckily there’s another, even better option. Sailing from Panama to Colombia by boat. I’ll cover all you need to know, and mix in our own experiences to give you the accurate story behind this trip.

one of the many beautiful islands you see when travelling from panama to colombia by boat

Which Tour Should You Book To Get From Panama To Colombia By Boat

There are some different options when looking online. The following have the best reviews, and are known for their quality:

  • San Blas Adventures is the company you should consider for taking a speed boat trip through the San Blas Islands to Colombia.
  • Blue Sailing should be what you’re looking for if you’d like to sail from Panama to Colombia.
  • Extra: Consider the Alessandra as well! It’s a pirate-style ship sailed by the most hilarious captain I’ve ever met. I haven’t met that many though.

What To Expect From Sailing From Panama To Colombia By Boat

Ask someone to describe paradise. One will mention towering mountains and deep, colourful valleys. The other will describe islands, with crystal clear, turquoise water. A coconut in one hand, a book in the other.

Are you the second? Well. You’re in for a treat. While sailing from Panama to Colombia by boat, you will visit the San Blas Islands. One of the last untouched pieces of paradise on our planet.

What to expect of the San Blas Islands

Beauty like you’ve never seen before. The Guna, the native people of the islands, keep these sandy, palm tree-covered pearls in picturesque condition.

The Guna keep the islands clean. Which is why you sometimes need to pay a tax to enter an island. Usually this is no more than $1-$2. Very few islands have shops on them, but occasionally you’ll find you can buy beers or other drinks.

There are no buildings, no roads, nothing but a few huts and happy people.

The sea surrounding the islands is full of life. Rays, turtles, you name it. Grab a snorkel and mask and head out for a swim to find these gentle creatures.

All while the crew on the boat will provide you with meals and water. If you want any other drinks or snacks, you should get them beforehand because like I said, shops are not really a thing.

a man enjoying the crystal clear waters on one of the San Blas Islands

How Much Time Are You On The Islands Vs On The Boat?

This will depend on the type of trip you book. There are speedboat trips, where you don’t stay on the boat but on the island. Or, there are sailing trips where you sleep on the boat in front of an island, where you are free to come and go to the island as you’d like.

Other than that, your destination is a deciding factor. If you’re sailing to Cartagena, you have two days of open sea to get there. Which, if you get seasick like me, isn’t great.

The second option is going to Capurganá in the North of Colombia. And then travelling overland to Cartegena. Most companies include this bus journey, so while your destination is still Cartegena, you won’t have to cross the open sea. This is the option we picked.

So, to sum it up: if you take a speedboat, you’ll spend little time on the boat, and more time on the islands. If you sail, you spend more time on the boat, but still all afternoons and evenings at an island, which you are free to visit.

I consider sailing to be more fun and adventurous, but if you’re here for the island and not the sailing experience, fair enough.

Then your destination is the second thing to think of. Capurganá will mean less time on the boat, no open sea, but a long bus journey.

Cartagena will mean more time on the boat, but on the open sea so with high waves. But to make it better, no long bus journey at the end. All in all, going to Capurganá means more time on the islands because you’re not crossing the sea.

Planning a trip? These are our favourite Travel Resources:

What to expect at the border to Colombia?

Not a lot. Our experience was great. The crew took our passports to the immigration office and got us stamped. That’s it. We didn’t do a thing.

Now, it is not always the case. The crew sometimes takes you to the office to get your entry stamp. They’ll act as a translator if necessary, and help you out. Please check any visa requirements before making the trip, as this is different per country.

While we stayed on the boat with a cold rum and coke, the crew sorted everything out for us.

Where does the tour in Colombia End?

The boat trip will end in either Capurganá or Cartagena. But you’ll end up in Cartagena anyway. Just not by boat.

Again: if you suffer from seasickness, consider going to Capurganá. The open seas might not be for you.

How to travel onwards (from Capurganá, Colombia)

The best thing to do would be to book a trip that includes the journey to Cartagena as well as the boat trip.

We sailed with the infamous Alessandra and our crew (apart from the captain) got off the boat with us to travel to Cartagena. This made the whole thing a lot less stressful because they were still guiding us and taking us with them.

It’s advisable to book this journey in advance if it’s not included, but not necessary. There is a ticket office in Capurganá that’s very hard to miss because the town is tiny. It’s basically one ‘main’ street from the docks.

You can buy boat/bus tickets because there are no buses from Capurganá onwards. These tickets should cost 155,000 COP. You’ll have to travel to Necoclí first and take the bus from there. I mention Cartagena a lot because this is usually the way people travel. But from Necrolí there are buses to Medellín as well.

The mighty Alessandra, a sailing boat that takes you from Panama to Colombia

Getting to Necoclí.

To get to Necoclí you’ll have to take a speedboat. It’s best to get your bag wrapped in plastic to protect it from water since it can get quite choppy at times. They offer this service at the ticket office for $500 pesos.

The boats go twice a day. Once at 10 am, which is the one you should take because the bus will leave at 12:30.

Keep in mind that if you buy your own ticket (so not included in your trip) only 10kg of baggage is allowed. Every kilo over that will be costing you 1000 pesos. Once that’s settled, all you need to do is pay a 2,000 COP port tax on entering the dock. It’s at the small office at the start of the dock.

When you get to Necoclí, grab your bags, thank the taxi drivers for offering their services (but decline) and walk 2 streets up to the bus ‘station’. Which is nothing more than a street where the buses leave from. Enjoy the journey!

What Is Usually Included?

On the boat, all your meals will be cooked for you. Drinking water is also included, and of course, the accommodation. Most boats also have snorkelling gear which is a great little feature. The reefs around the islands are AMAZING!

What is Usually Not Included?

  • The $20 Guna Yala tax is what you pay to be allowed to get to the islands.
  • Alcohol and drinks other than water on board the ship
  • Any snacks other than the 3 meals a day
  • An occasional $1-$2 fee to use the beaches
  • Any fees for visas, if applicable
  • Tips for the crew

Panama To Colombia By Boat – Sailboats vs Speedboats

I’ve mentioned some pros and cons of the different types of boats already. But let’s get into detail.

Panama To Colombia By Sailboat

Sailing is the most fun but takes the longest.

How long is the journey?

The journey is normally 5 days. 3 days of San Blas Islands, and 2 days (30-50 hours depending on weather) of open sea. This will take you all the way to Cartagena.

In case of the Alessandra, you’ll end up in Capurganá, but they include the journey to Cartagena.

How much does it cost?

The prices are depending on the boat but typically range between $660 and $780 USD. This includes the whole trip, but not the Guna Yala tax.

Where do you sleep?

On the boats! This isn’t as wavy as it sounds though. You’ll be in front of an island, out of the wind and waves. I found the very gentle rocking of the ship to be beneficial for my sleep. It was like being a baby in a crib.

Panama To Colombia By Speedboat

Speedboats have their very own pros. Let’s discuss them.

How long is the journey?

4 days and 3 nights. You’ll spend most of your time on the islands and won’t cross the open sea: meaning you’ll end up in Capurganá in the North of Colombia

How much does it cost?

The speed boat trip costs $525 with San Blas Adventures. This includes the same things as the sailing boats but DOES NOT include the onward travel to Cartagena over land. The good thing about this is that you could decide to go to Medellín instead.

Where do you sleep?

On the islands. Usually in hammocks in huts. There shouldn’t be many bugs, other than the occasional sand fly. But they’re easily repelled by either bug spray or baby oil.

A white-sand beach on one of the San Blas islands

Tips For Sailing From Panama To Colombia & Visiting The San Blas Islands

Step into a world where turquoise waters embrace pristine beaches, and time seems to slow down to the rhythm of swaying palm trees.

These are my best tips for making the most out of the experience:

Pack a small bag of essentials

You can store your big backpack away not to be seen until Colombia. Which is great – you don’t need most of it. But clean underwear, towels, and some dry clothes are essential to your trip and need to be accessible.

Chargers and cables, a book, you name it. Pack it all in a smaller, separate bag to avoid having to unpack and pack your big backpack all the time in these tiny spaces. It’s a boat. It’s not going to be spacious!

Use Reef Safe Sunscreen

The San Blas islands are magnificent. And we’d like to keep it that way, right? Sunscreen is full of chemicals that harm marine life. The San Blas is located on the third biggest barrier reef in the world, so let’s help protect it as much as we can.

Water Bottle

You’ll have access to clean drinking water on the boats. But it’s nice to have your own bottle, instead of a small cup that you keep having to refill. Take your bottle to the islands and avoid being thirsty!

❗️We use Water-To-Go bottles on ALL of our travels. Safe drinking water from ANY fresh water source. Taps, rivers, lakes, you name it.

Use code “COUNTING” for a 15% discount!

Sea sickness tablets

I couldn’t be a pirate. I get seasick in a pool. Okay, it’s not THAT bad, but I can feel pretty rough on the seas.

Dramamine seems to be the fix for this usually. Except for the day we went out in a storm, and the boat was rocking so bad we couldn’t even see the horizon on one side or the other. I think I lasted about 15 minutes. What a day that was.

Anyway, it’s just nice to have. Even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it can get VERY rough. Even Callie was not well. And she has never been seasick before. It was exceptionally stormy that day though.

We even had to spend an extra night on one of the islands because we just couldn’t continue. What a shame right? Stuck in paradise.

Take a dry bag

A bag that stays dry, that is. Well, on the inside, not necessarily the outside. We had a few small ones with us while travelling, and these proved handy when we did the journey from Panama to Colombia by boat.

We occasionally swam from the boat to an island and wanted to take our phones for pictures. And some money to buy fresh coconuts of course! Not having a dry bag meant this wouldn’t be possible.

Even if you took the dinghy to shore (a small boat meant to travel between the main boat and shore), the splashes could still cause problems. Just imagine your fancy camera getting ruined when you could’ve prevented that with a $5 dry bag?!

A dolphin in the caribbean sea, near the San Blas isalnds of Panama

When Is The Best Time To Visit The San Blas Islands

The San Blas Islands have a few seasons. But not the ones you’re thinking of. Summer and winter are not a thing. Rainy, dry, and windy seasons are, however.

Between January and May is considered to be the dry season. Little to no rain, and great blue sunny skies as a result. Amazing!

Windy season is from mid-December to April. Which means there is a bit of an overlap there. mid-April to the end of May would be the best time to travel. But, the wind is only an issue on the sea. The first couple of days from Panama should be fine. And if you’re sleeping on the boat, it’ll be covered from the wind behind an island.

Crossing the open sea to Cartagena will not be a pleasant experience in the windy season. Well, at least from my motion-sick perspective. I bet it’s an experience you’ll never forget if you can stomach it.


Other Ways To Get From Panama To Colombia

Sailing is the best way, if you love adventure and paradise. I think I should have convinced you of that by now. But it’s not the only.

Plane

Of course. You can fly. But where’s the fun in that?! You might absolutely hate boats. Or sand. Or get incredibly seasick. Flying is also better if you’re short on time. The boat trip could take a day extra. Or even two days if you’re (un)lucky.

If you’re flying, you’ll probably go from Panama City. Flying is cheaper than sailing as well, unfortunately.

Anyway, if you’re keen to take the plane, I suggest using SkyScanner for the best ticket deals.

Crossing the Darien Gap

I’ll be very short on this one. Don’t do it. It’s dangerous.


Panama To Colombia By Boat FAQs

I’m confident I’ve given all the information you need to make the decision to sail or not. Hopefully, you’re positively inspired! To take every single question away from you, here are the frequently asked questions (and answers!).

Can you visit the San Blas Islands on your own?

Technically, yes, But I’m not sure you should. It’s not possible to take a taxi to the port. You either need to drive yourself in a 4WD, or get a specific driver who is allowed to make the trip by the local government.

You will also need to pre-book your accommodation. From the port, you can easily take a boat to your island of destination.

Can you cross the Darien Gap by car?

The name “gap” comes from the fact that there is “nothing” there. Just rainforest. There are no roads, and as such, you can’t drive through the Darien Gap.

How do you pay for the boat trip?

All boat trips generally require an upfront deposit. Normally via PayPal or credit card. This is between $50 and $100. The rest of the payment will be done in cash, to the captain of the boat.

How much luggage can we bring on the Boat?

This differs per boat. On some it’s not specified, on others, it’s 25kg per person. Please check your baggage allowance before booking a trip! Going from Panama to Colombia by boat, you don’t need that much anyway. Unless this is part of a longer trip, of course.

A couple enjoying the turquoise waters when going from panama to colombia by boat

Are there any extra fees or charges on the islands?

On some, yes. A few islands have introduced a $1 or $2 tax for using the beaches. They keep the beaches tidy and clean in return. Obviously, it’s only a small payment for using their beautiful islands.

We’ve visited multiple islands and only had to pay $1 each on 1 of them.

Do you need to bring any extra cash?

Yes, for the previously mentioned tax and if you need to buy anything on any of the islands. Some of them sell fresh coconuts or cold beer. Which finishes the image of paradise already painted in our heads.

What currency do I need in Panama?

Panama, Along with their own currency, uses US Dollars. Their own currency is called Balboa and is always worth exactly $1. It’s basically the same thing, in Panama.

Are the boat tours family-friendly?

Yes! But some boats are ‘party’ boats full of young backpackers. So they might not be your thing. On our trip, we had a great mix of young and older, and from all parts of the world. Germans, Brits, Americans and more.

What should I pack for the trip?

Are you travelling onwards after the boat journey? Or are you just coming over for this trip? Anyway, you won’t need much on the boats. It’s warm, it’s sunny, and it’s the sea. So, swimwear, some dry clothes, and entertainment for the evenings like books or games, towels, and snacks. If you’d like any other drink than water you should take this as well.


Our Experience from Panama to Colombia by Boat

Storytime! We did this trip with a pirate ship called the Alessandra on March 30th 2023. I can safely say it was one of our best experiences in Central America!

Our first island was the most magical. Not because it was the prettiest, because it wasn’t, but because we finally started to realize how big of a treat we were in for. It was stunning – the water was clearer than you can ever imagine. And the beaches were whiter than a celebrity’s fake teeth.

It was like stepping straight into a postcard. I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was going to be good, but oh my! We got to know the people we would be spending the next 4 days with. A nice mix of different characters.

The islands were incredible. One even prettier than the other. As we were sailing to the next, we got company. A pod of curious dolphins decided our boat was worth investigating – they swam with us for what felt like an eternity. Jumping up and doing barrel rolls as they surfed the waves the Alessandra was creating in the water.

The first night was great too. We had some great food and somebody brought a game to play together. The vibe was amazing.

The next day would be very similar. After a good night’s rest in a very gently rocking boat we went on to the next islands. Halfway through we hit a short storm. Hard wind, MASSIVE waves and heavy rain. It was quite the experience. But after about 20 minutes, it was all gone. And as we arrived at the next island, the sky was perfectly clear again. Which was unexpected, at least for us. The captain told us it would be fine.

The rest of the day was similar to the first. Visiting gorgeous beaches, drinking rum straight from coconuts, laying in hammocks and snorkelling with big rays.

At the start of the next day, however, the captain realised the waves were too big to head off. And you could definitely see them crashing on the reefs in the distance. It was a little frightening. So. After we spent all day in paradise, the captain decided we had to stay put for another day. Bummer. Or not.

On day 4 we headed to the southernmost point of Panama. And this was the worst time I’ve ever spent on a boat. The waves were still very big, rocking the ship so hard that I got sick almost instantly. And after I went, others joined. We all sat there for hours. Holding on to the railing so we wouldn’t slide, with a bucket next to us. Please let this be over soon.

Luckily, it didn’t last all day. We arrived about 3 pm at yet another island, which was not part of San Blas, to stay for the night. To make the border crossing in the afternoon of day 5. Which the crew handled for us. We didn’t even get off the boat. Which, apparently after hearing other stories, is not the way it normally goes.

Day 6 consisted of the journey to Cartagena, and after that horrific day on day 4, I was incredibly happy this was over land. We took a very fast speed boat to Necroclí and had a bus waiting for us there. All were arranged by the Allesandra crew.

We arrived in Cartagena late. Tired. And smelly. Because the boats have no showers.

It was an experience I will never forget. The beauty, and the waves, will be ingrained in my mind forever. Even though that one day was harsh, I had the time of my life. And would advise going from Panama to Colombia by boat.

the captain of the Alessandra dressed up as a pirate

Panama To Colombia By Boat – Final Thoughts

SURELY I have convinced you of the greatness of this boat trip. And if not, I have at least given you all the information you need to make a decision on this trip.

Speedboats, sailing ships, Cartagena, Capurganá. I have discussed a lot. But if there are any more questions, feel free to shoot us a message!