Elaine (aka The Runaway Brit) is an English teacher from the UK who has spent a good chunk of the last 10 years living and teaching abroad. After five months of travelling around South America with her boyfriend, she took a boat from Cartagena to Panama City in order to fly back to Europe (via New York for a quick shopping spree). Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Elaine as she makes the journey from Columbia onwards!
This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Day One: Wednesday
I am aboard the Stahlratte, a former fishing boat that tours the Caribbean. We left Colombia yesterday to sail to Panama. There are 21 of us aboard and we sleep in a dormitory under the deck, our cabins separated by curtains. Last night the crossing was rough. According to Ludwig, our Captain, it wasn’t bad but to those of us with no experience of the sea it was daunting when waves reaching 4 metres swept up alongside the boat, tossing it around violently. Early this morning two monster waves crashed over the boat and through the hatch above our bed. Completely drenched and thinking that the boat was sinking we jumped up in panic. Up on deck the Captain and crew battled to keep control of the ship.
4.30am – Desperate for the toilet I clamber through the cabin in the dark, climb a ladder, cross the kitchen and find the bathroom. To flush the toilet you pump a handle 15 times; this is no easy task when you can barely sit on the toilet without falling off.
8am – We enjoy a breakfast feast of fresh fruit, bread, ham and cheese, laughing at each other as we try to keep hold of our plates which slide across the table.
2pm – We have been sailing straight for about 26 hours now and the sea is still rough. Along the way we have seen flying fish flitting between the swells of the monstrous waves. Now we approach idyllic tropical islands and dolphins play alongside the boat. Soon we will be able to drop anchor and visit the islands.
4pm – We have arrived at a tiny island covered with palm trees. The San Blas is an autonomous region inhabited by the Kuna. The Kuna cleared the mangrove trees and replaced them with coconut plantations which create the postcard scenes of palm tree fringed beaches that we have been sailing through. Ludwig warns us not to take the coconuts as the punishment for this is a fine and imprisonment. Sadly, there’ll be no coconut with our rum today.
6pm – We have been swimming and sunbathing in paradise for a few hours and now the crew are preparing an almighty BBQ for us to enjoy on the beach. We each make our own skewers and place them over the hot coals. We eat them as the sun goes down and then enjoy homemade rum punch. We sit around the fire late into the night and then head back to the boat to sleep.
Day Two: Thursday
1pm – Last night the sea was still and we slept soundly. We sit around the large table on the top deck to eat breakfast. I have never eaten breakfast with such a wonderful view before. Afterwards we go swimming, snorkelling or sunbathing. Some of the boys have been on the rope swing but the only girl brave enough to try is Lily, the daring Scot. Some attempt the crow’s nest but nobody makes it into the basket. I float around in the water filming the action on the waterproof camera. Lunch is salad and the most delicious garlic bread I have ever eaten. This afternoon we will do more swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing. It’s a hard life!
8pm – Everybody is looking pink after a day of swimming, but the sun has now set and we’re hungry. Dinner is late and a few of us consider mutiny, but when it comes it’s really good. Some of the boys go on the rope swing but the action is brought to an abrupt halt when a Swiss passenger fails to let go of the rope in time and crashes into the steel hull. Everybody holds their breath as he plunges into the sea, but soon he surfaces again. When he gets back on deck he has a large wound on his elbow. A crew member expertly patches him up but the rope swing is put away. Later we sit around the table enjoying Cuban Rum. There is plenty of laughter as we reflect on the last few days and everybody agrees that they have been perfect.
Day Three: Friday
6am – The boat begins chugging through the San Blas archipelago whilst most of us sleep off the rum from last night.
9am – Breakfast is another veritable feast but now we have to pack our bags and bring them on deck. Immigration comes aboard to stamp our passports, and a few local Kuna come aboard for a can of coke. They stand on deck laughing with Ludwig. We say our goodbyes and thank the crew for all their hard work.
2pm – After a boat ride with the Kuna, we jump in jeeps that will take us to Panama City. The journey takes three hours and passes through mountainous jungle until the skyscrapers of the city are visible in the distance.
4pm – We didn’t book ahead so it takes us a long time to find accommodation. Most hostels are full but we find a hotel in the old town. The place is shabby and more expensive than we’d like but we can’t walk around with our heavy backpacks anymore so we agree to take it. Today I loathe my backpack and can’t wait to reach a place where I can stay for a while. But then I think back to the past few days and remember that you can’t beat travelling.
9pm – After checking in we go looking for dinner. We walk from the old town along the sea wall to the new town. We are surprised by Panama’s incredible skyline, where impressive skyscrapers stand out against the tiny boats bobbing in the harbour. We walk around until we find a restaurant and have good Indian food. We have to walk back as we can’t remember the address of our hotel and our lack of Spanish prevents us from directing a taxi. Walking back takes over an hour but the walk alongside the sea wall is pleasant and we are joined by joggers, cyclists and roller-bladers.
Day Four: Saturday
8am – I am woken by a fellow guest playing ‘My Favourite Things’ on a saxophone in the next room. Outside the street is already alive with the sound of early-morning trading and a cockerel crows relentlessly.
11.30am – We look for a launderette but are unsuccessful. Instead we go to the shop to buy bread and cheese for lunch. Today will be a lazy day catching up on emails and blogging. A few rain showers make me feel less guilty about this.
8pm – We try to find the bar featured in the ‘Tailor of Panama’, the website says it opens at 4pm but at 5.35 it is still locked up. Instead we eat Tacos nearby. We end the day drinking ‘Zombie Virus’ wine on the rooftop terrace with a guy we met on the Stahlratte.
Day Five: Sunday
9am – It’s Sunday so the street is quiet, but some boys throw firecrackers and wake me up. The rain has gone and it’s a beautiful day.
2pm – We visit the famous Panama Canal; luckily there is a boat passing through as we arrive. It is interesting but you can’t really walk around or get close to the canal and it is really busy. The Visitor’s Centre and the documentary are interesting. We take some pictures and leave. The taxi driver overcharges us on the way home but it’s too hot to argue.
8pm – We eat dinner and spend the evening blogging and watching ‘Modern Family’.
Day Six: Monday
10am – It’s Chinese New Year today so we are woken up by firecrackers and dancing dragons outside on the street. As we leave for New York tomorrow we have to go to a mall to buy some warm weather clothes. In the mall I find a pair of jeans for $15 and a warm coat with a faux-fur lining for $60.
The evening’s activities include dinner and packing our backpacks ready for the airport tomorrow.
Day Seven: Tuesday
5am – A road closure forces hoards of chicken buses up our tiny road and the noise is immense, revving engines, grinding gears and incessant honking of the horn. The local dogs decide to join in. It seems I won’t be getting any more sleep this morning.
11am – We leave for the airport to get a flight to Miami and then on to New York.
5.30pm – Arriving in Miami is a straightforward process, although we are surprised to find that our bags are not in transit and we have to collect them from the conveyor belt in Miami. Short of time we find a Wendy’s for a quick meal. I have the apple pecan salad which is surprisingly good.
11pm – We arrive in New York’s La Guardia airport. On the descent I can see Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Having never been to New York before I begin to feel really excited about what the next few days will bring. New York is cold; it’s hard to believe that only a week ago I was cruising in the Caribbean and that in less than a week I will be in Europe.
In light of my own recent experiences with sailing, I was fascinated to read about Elaine’s nautical voyage (and I hope you were too!) Elaine and her boyfriend have just settled for a while to live and look for work in Tenerife. If their plan is successful then they intend to travel to India as soon as possible. Feel free to follow their journey on her website Runaway Brit, or on Facebook or Twitter @runawaybrit.