There are three options to cross from Central America to South America.
- The Death Option – overland travel via the Darien Gap. Crossing the Darien Gap is only for the overly adventurous type due to the risk of kidnappings, treacherous jungle, crazed drug traffickers, and guerilla warfare. If one decides to cross the Darien gap by foot, then it is necessary to hire a guide, which can be costly. Since this option is expensive and dangerous, I’ll pass.
- The Boring Option – Fly. A one way flight between Panama and Colombia will range from $300 to $600, which is pretty expensive for a short distance.
- The Best Option – Sailing the San Blas Islands! Yes! Yes! Yes!
Details for Sailing San Blas:
- Duration: 4 to 5 days
- Cost: $375 – $550
- Itinerary: Visit the San Blas Islands for 2/3 days (sleep on the boat) and then sail for 30 hours to Colombia
Why Sailing is the Best Option
There are many boats, ranging from speedboats to catamarans, with different vibes you can choose to get from Panama to Colombia, It is important to research the boat that is a best fit for you. I recommend booking via Blue Sailing since they can match you with the appropriate boat. I told Blue Sailing that I was in my twenties and desired a social atmosphere, so they recommended the Gitano Del Mar, a Catamaran for 18 people, or the Gitanita, a monohull for 13. These two boats sail together so I decided to choose the Catamaran. Taking the Gitano Del Mar has been one of the highlights of my trip. My expectations were blown!
The Gitano Del Mar Experience
Gitano Del Mar is translated as “Gypsy of the Sea”. When I stepped on the boat I was greeted by our bubbly captain, Dingo, who took my shoes since he said I wouldn’t need them for the next 4 days. As Gypsies we were cut from the outside world with no worries. Things like showers, clothes, and cell phone reception did not matter. We entertained ourselves by playing card games, snorkeling, watching sunsets, drinking beers and rum(I learned that rum mixed with water is an acceptable mixed drink that keeps you hydrated!), and random activities like the beach Olympics. We had an international crew filled with Irish, Swiss, Germans, Canadians, Kiwis and more. It’s easy to bond with people on this trip since we are around each other 24/7.
The food was absolutely delicious! 3 meals a day are included in the cost for the boat. We had two chefs on board and each dish was sublime. My favorite meals were the seafood! Our captain would purchase fresh lobster and octopus from the local Kuna people. On our last day we caught tuna and had fresh sashimi. $550 does not feel expensive when it includes 5 days of accommodation and a happy, full belly.
After a couple days of visiting the San Blas Islands, the next step is a 30 hour sail to Colombia. Half of the boat got seasick, but I loved being in the middle of the ocean and riding with the waves. The ocean is serene, calm, and provides a beautiful setting.
Once we finally got to Cartagena, we stayed on the boat a little longer and enjoyed the hot sun and some beers. Eventually it was time to depart the Gitano and find some hostels in the city. For the next two days I hung out with my new friends before jetting off to Peru for the Inca Trail. It would of been nice to continue traveling with everyone, but it was time to go!
I have started a new love affair with Central America. I spent almost one month in Guatemala and Nicaragua, but that was not nearly enough. When I started my RTW trip I assumed one year would be plenty of time, but now I realize more time is needed, especially for an area like Central America. Therefore, I plan to visit Central America again in one year! I want to share the top ten most memorable experiences/random tidbits/reasons I love Guatemala and Nicaragua!
- Being Tall! – For once in my life I was the tallest person. I’m only 5 ft 4 in, but in Guatemala I was a full head or two taller than most people. It was cool to be tall for once. Maybe I can be Guatemala’s next top model, eh?
- Super Friendly People – I’m used to living in NYC, which is stereotypically “unfriendly” due to individuals being on their own agenda. While in Antigua whenever (99.9% of the time) I passed someone on the street I was greeted with a smile and a “Buenos Tardes” or “Hola”. Everyone genuinely looked happy. When everyone is friendly in a city, I immediately feel more comfortable and have a home away from home.
- Learning Spanish – I highly recommend going to Antigua to learn Spanish. In just two weeks, I learned enough Spanish to comfortably travel across Spanish speaking countries. For more details check out my post on learning Spanish in Antigua.
- Semuc Champey – Visiting these natural turquoise pools was a relaxing and beautiful experience. It was nice to find natural beauty in the middle of nowhere. For more details, check out the Semuc Champey blog post.
- Volcano Boarding – If you are friends with me on Facebook, then you probably saw some pretty cool shots from my Volcano Boarding experience in Leon. In the states, I’m not sure if Volcano Boarding would be allowed due to safety regulations, but in Central America, anything goes! Speeding down a volcano on a board was definitely a fun, unique adventure!
- The Vortex of Casa de Olas – I ended up staying at the hostel, Casa de Olas, a week longer than expected. Even though this hostel is more expensive ($15 per night) than other places in San Juan del Sur, it somehow sucks you in. The owners, an older Australian couple, are like caring parents, but also want to ensure everyone has a fun time. There were 3 free open bars during the 10 days I was there. I would wake up each morning, enjoy my free breakfast of either banana pancakes or fried eggs, jump in the pool to refresh, and enjoy the beautiful view overlooking San Juan. The staff encourages an “anything goes” environment, which creates the perfect setting for a free-spirit like myself. Message me, and I’ll tell you some stories from SJDS nights.
- Riva’s Season Opener – I am not a baseball fan, but baseball is a popular sport in Central America, so I figured I should check out the Riva’s team season opener. One of the bars, Nacho Libre, in San Juan del Sur organized a party bus to the game. During the 30 minute drive to the game, all 18 passengers were passing around shots of rum and cans of beer. By the time we arrived to the stadium everyone was in a good mood. The game was super crowded, it seemed like all of Nicaragua was out here! I sat down next to some locals, who seemed to think I was funny with my broken Spanish. They shared their drinks with me, while I encouraged them to show team pride and start some chants.
- Avocados! – There are avocados everywhere. In the states, I have to pay an extra $3 just to add some guacamole to my Chipotle Burrito, but in Central America they put guacamole on everything for no extra charge! Avocados are basically given away in this part of the world. The avocados are more delicious and make me oh so happy.
- People Love My Hair – I have never gotten so many compliments before, but it seems that people are obsessed with my hair. Looks like I’ll be rocking the fro for a while ;). I’m also adding a new section to my website dedicated to afro’s. Anytime I meet another traveler sporting a fro, their picture will be added to the Fro-etry Gallery.
- Various Forms of Transportation – Traveling in Central America might not be the most comfortable, but it is creative. How many people can we stuff in the back of a van to get from point A to point B? I don’t mind being crammed in the back of a pick-up truck since it creates a more social environment, and provides a better view of all the surroundings. My favorite form of transportation would be via motorbike. Although I can’t drive a motorbike myself, hopping on the back of someone else’s bike and riding the unpaved roads creates a lil’ thrill-seeking adventure.
Currently I am traveling around South America, and I must admit that I am missing my Central America vibes. I know I will be back.
My current setting – rocking back and forth on a hammock, disconnected from the outside world, listening to rain pouring down. I just finished a fun filled day at Semuc Champey in Guatemala. I arrived at El Muro hostel in Lanquin after an 8 hour bus ride from Antigua. When I got to my hostel I was greeted by a free welcome shot. Soon after I realized there were only two other people staying at El Muro, but we ended up having a fun night with jenga, cuba libres, and laughs. Usually El Muro is a party hostel, but I was definitely a fan of this laid-back vibe.
Why Visit Semuc Champey?
Semuc Champey is a natural monument famed for its limestone bridge and turquoise pools. Although Semuc Champey is in the middle of nowhere Guatemala, it’s worth visiting. I decided to book a tour, which included caving, tubing, and entrance into the pools.
We started the day with caving. Although slightly unsafe, it was a fun, little adventure to explore a dark cave . We each took a candle and then walked, swam, jumped, and climbed our way through. I left the cave with a couple of scrapes from slamming my knees into rocks, but I would totally do it again.
After caving we went tubing and then had lunch. For lunch there was a cheap buffet ($3-$4) cooked by some locals, which was quite yummy. There is also a family that will sell you cheap beer ($2)
3. Semuc Champey
We ended the day exploring the pools. First we hiked up to the viewpoint, and then we relaxed for an hour or two in the pools. Semuc Champey is relaxing and has beautiful scenery. As a solo traveler I would recommend going with a tour, so that you have friends to explore for the day. Also going to Semuc Champey during off season is great, because there was no one else at the pools.
I am so happy I decided to come to Guatemala! The past two weeks have been a nice change of pace from my time in Europe. One of the goals of my RTW trip is to learn Spanish. I decided to start my Central/South America adventures by taking Spanish classes at The Antiguena Spanish Academy. Antigua is the perfect place for anyone interested in learning Spanish for the following reasons:
- Classes are Cheap – I paid $100 for 5 days of 1×1 classes for 4 hours per day.
- Great Teachers – I did not know any Spanish when I started classes two weeks ago, and now I feel comfortable having a 30-minute discussion in Spanish. It amazes me how much I learned in only 2 weeks.
- Customized Learning – Each teacher caters their classes for their students whether your are a beginner, like me, or fluent. My friend Rachel was already fluent, but she wanted to improve her Spanish and learn more medical terms since she wants to be a doctor in Spanish speaking areas. She came down to Guatemala for a week and had a positive learning experience.
- Fostering Environment – I have never been good at learning languages, yet it amazes me how quickly I am picking up Spanish here. The people who live in Antigua are accustomed to students, therefore people are more helpful with your learning process (i.e – talk slower, and happy to help you with Spanish). Also it’s easy to find another student and go to a cafe and study together.
- Home Stay Experience – I pay $60 per week to stay with a family and other expats learning Spanish. Johanna, the mom, makes 3 homemade Guatemalan dishes 6 days a week. Not only is the food delicious, but only paying $60 for food and accommodation for a week is amazing value for a backpacker! During lunch and dinner the goal is to only speak Spanish with each other (Though I am guilty of speaking a lot of English during meals).
What Does a Typical Day Look like?
As I mentioned, the pace of my life in Antigua was much needed after a very full and busy summer in Europe. So here is a typical day for an american expat trying to learn Spanish in Antigua….
7:00 AM: Wake up for breakfast and review my Spanish notes
Yummy pancakes to start off the day! Typically breakfast is some chopped up fruit, but twice a week we are spoiled with omelettes or pancakes.
8:00 AM – Noon: Have 1×1 Spanish Class
My teacher, Arely, and I. She was the best and has been teaching Spanish for 30 years! We talked about an array of things including politics in Guatemala, my dating life in NYC, and my job working for The Yacht Week. Whenever I “tengo frio”, she would lend me a jacket or a scarf. I must come back to learn more from Arely.
10:00 – 10:30 AM – Take a break and eat a snack, usually a chocolate banana (13 cents) and a chalupa or tostado (40 cents). Nothing better than cheap, delicious food.
12:30 – Eat lunch at our homestay.
Lunch would consist of a type of meat paired with veggies. Typically we talk about how our classes went and what we plan to do in the afternoon.
2:00 -5:00 PM: Either take a siesta or join in one of the activities provided by the school.
One of the activities was climbing to the top of Cerro de Cruz to get a full view of Antigua and the Volcano
4: 00 – 6:00 PM: Go to a cafe with other students and study.
My friend Rachel, Damon, and I all studying at one of the many cafes in Antigua. We could stay for hours with the free & fast wifi, array of hot chocolates & teas, small snacks.
7:00 PM: Eat dinner with homestay.
This shows a typical dinner we would eat. I love me some plantains! At dinner we would discuss plans for the night. We would also share laughs over funny stories and random facts. I now know that there is a female viagra.
9:00 PM – Go to a hostel bar and drink a couple beers. Each beer is $1.33
10:00 PM – 1:00 AM: If it is a Monday then it is quizzo night at an Irish bar. Wednesday and Thursday are ladies night, which means free drinks! Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest since people from Guatemala City come to Antigua. The clubs shut down at 1 am, which is perfect because I’m usually tired from all my studying!
Monday Night Quizzo – The bad news- my team got 2nd place. The good news – everyone got free beer at the end!
What is next?
Antigua has been such a pleasure. I definitely see myself coming back in the future and studying Spanish for a couple months. Guatemala, you have stolen my heart! I’m off to Semuc Champey next to visit some natural pools in a jungle 😀
My view every night from my homestay