We all met up at 6AM in the hotel lobby to ride to Puerto de Carti to catch our sailboat the ‘Stahlratte’. The final stretch of the road towards the port was on indigenous ‘Guna Yala’ territory and we sat for about an hour in traffic to pass through the toll booth.
We were in Guna land after passport check and $23 toll.
Stahlratte (Steel Rat) was waiting for us at the pier. It’s a 114-year old dutch-built sailboat and its homeport is in Bremen, Germany. It’s run by a nonprofit organization that’s been transporting motorcycles and backpackers across the Darien Gap for many years. The Darien Gap is a dense jungle that separates Panama and Colombia and there is no road connecting the two countries. The only methods to transport a motorcycle across are either by air or ocean freight. The Stahlratte is a popular option among adventure motorcyclists.
We rode up onto the pier and unloaded our luggage to have them transported to the ship.
We were taken onto the boat later for a quick lunch. There were 21 motorcycles and 22 riders (7 Americans, 4 Canadians, 3 Germans, 2 Australians, 2 British, 1 Austrian, 1 Dutch, 1 French and 1 Italian) on this journey. The only 2-up was Robert and his 79-year old mother Margret from UK. Don’t believe you are too old for anything!
Pile of Panniers
We left our bikes on the pier to be loaded onto the ship and were taken to El Porvenir Island to spend the night.
There is not much on the little Guna island other than a hotel and an airstrip so we hang out on the beach and shared stories from the road over some beers.
We boarded the Stahlratte the next morning and peeked under the covers to find our bikes.
The crew gave us a safety briefing then we signed up for cleaning duties.
Then the pirate party started. (Captain Ludwig is in the middle)
It was about a 3-hour boat ride to the San Blas Islands. A group of dolphins came to guide us…could have saved the $50 I spent on dolphin spotting in Costa Rica.
The San Blas Islands are off the north coast of Panama and is home to the indigenous Guna people. Most of the islands are uninhabited and render that of paradise. We spent the whole afternoon hanging out in the waters and on the islands.
Back on the ship some lobsters were bought from the Guna people for dinner.
Lobster dinner was delicious and plentiful but seasickness got hold of me and all of the lobster went back into the ocean shortly after. I was queasy for rest of the evening and was going back and forth between puking off the deck and laying down in the cabin. Many were in the same boat as me…no pun intended.
Next day was spent sailing across the Caribbean Sea towards Cartagena, Colombia. My steady diet of Gravol and Coke seemed to take care of the problem. There isn’t much to do other than starring at the vast open sea and dream about stationary land that lies ahead. (Link to video onboard the Stahlratte)
The fishing line dragged behind the ship caught a dorado (mahi-mahi) which later became part of dinner.
Aye, Aye, Captain, I see land ahead!
We arrived in Cartagena around 7PM. Dinner was served after anchor drop and we spent rest of the evening playing cards in the calm waters with the beautiful skyline behind us.
An early breakfast was served the next morning and we were dropped off at the pier by a dingy with a few essentials. Bike unloading will be the following day and all of our passports were in the hands of the Captain for paperwork processing. It felt strange wandering around a new country without any documentation. We hang around a mall before being able to check into our Airbnb and I crashed into bed right away.
We were picked up from the same pier early next morning and brought back onto the ship. After a short sail we arrived at the dock to unload the motorcycles.
Bikes and luggage everywhere made it look chaotic but everything was unloaded within an hour and we were on our way to the Colombian customs.
The whole day was spent sitting inside Colombian customs (DIAN) waiting for our vehicle import document and insurance. For some unknown reason, our agent was unable to obtain insurance. We scattered around the city on our own searching for alternatives but it was already too late in the day. A few that are on tight schedule were furious and stormed off.
We ventured off into a dozen different insurance agencies the next day. The burden was tremendous as a week-long holiday was about to start in Cartagena and we would be stranded without insurance for a week. Colombia has severe penalties for driving without insurance as we were told jail time or vehicle seizure are possible if we get caught. For whatever reason there appeared to be an insurance shortage in the city. Some turned us away immediately even though they advertised moto insurance while others couldn’t complete the process in their system. “Out of paper” seemed to be a common excuse but we had a hard time believing that. Finally we stumped on an insurance company (Previsora Seguros) that would serve us and after 7 hours of waiting, we have insurance in our hands!
With the whole insurance fiasco behind us, we finally got a chance to explore the city after 3 days wasted. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is one of the top attractions in Cartagena. It’s a fortress built by the Spanish in the 1500s.
Flooded streets seemed to be the normality and frequent occurrence in Cartagena.
Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower) is the entrance to the old city.