Right before lifting the anchor Ludwig comes to us and tell us “we might have a problem!”
We honestly have no idea what is coming next…
“Colombia has changed their rules/ regulations/ laws…who knows; since we were last there they told us we are no longer allowed to bring motorcycles to Cartagena.”
“I have had to cancel the 14 riders coming onboard in Carti, Panama and I have my agent in Cartagena trying to get approval for just you two to disembark there as you boarded before they changed the rules…they told me they’d get back to me, we need to wait for an answer, that’s all I know right now.”
We sail away not having a clue what we are going to do, will we have to disembark in Panama and then arrange our own transportation across the gap, will Colombia be nice to us, can Ludwig pull an ace out of his sleeve. We sail off in zero communication zone with these questions hanging in the air.
We sail for 3 days not knowing, we arrive in San Blas and get good and bad news almost instantly –
Ludwig comes to us. “I have good news, Colombia said you can come, but the 14 others definitely not. The bad news, for now, but I’m working on it, the Kuna people (San Blas Islands) don’t want us here!”
So we are kind of happy and kind of confused, the Stahlratte has been coming to San Blas for years, why the change?
The way it was explained, they felt all the boats that came in used the islands more as a dumping ground, leaving bags of garbage etc and it was costing the ‘people’ a lot for very little in return. Sailers were not going to the islands and eating or buying things from the Kuna, just ‘using’ the islands
Ludwig disappeared for a while, was talking back and forth with people, people were coming to the boat, around 24 hours later it was all good, he had smoothed it over, now we could relax.
We had arranged for someone to bring a new clutch pack for Egle’s bike to Panama City, we’d made that arrangement before “the tow”, once that had happened we called again and asked if they bring a second clutch pack and now a few tools I had missing.
All was good except the timing was off by a few days so we hung around and had to wait in San Blas for a week…life could be worse, the end of the day as the waiting begins
the people are very humble and friendly with a unique culture, I would say not so much a time out but simply asking people to have a little respect for them and where they live. While we were there the ‘Sailah’ who are the chiefs for the bigger islands we getting together to try and work out a plan that was good for them and also for visitors. The main problem is that there 378 islands with only 49 inhabited so it could be very difficult to enforce and a real uphill struggle
If you have never been there you have to understand this is a group of people who until a few decades ago didn’t have words in there language for work, time and money.
Work – was just something you did for the community, everybody did it, so instead it was just life.
Time – there are various sounds blown from a conch shell for different things, when to fish, when fishermen are coming back with their catch and bad weather is coming so everybody will try and ward it off
Money – the islands are/ were a collective, everything for everybody and trade was more important
The trash situation is horrific on the more inhabited island; if you swim in the sea before going to a major island you might question swimming in the sea afterward anywhere near one
From a few years ago, trash everywhere and ‘toilets’ that drop straight into the sea surround every inhabited island
San Blas’ largest pile of garbage isn’t a pile of plastic bottles on a beach somewhere it is this…
It was put there by what can only be described as a total idiot, and by put there I will explain.
What you are looking at is the San Blas Ferry, I find it amazing that people still think this thing runs back and forth daily!
No, it doesn’t, the owner who formally owned a catamaran running bikes and backpackers between Panama and Colombia ran that aground on this same reef. He had just bought the San Blas Ferry and did one run I think Ludwig said, he then grounded his catamaran and then used the ferry to get the catamaran off the reef…doing so, ground the ferry on the reef and its been there ever since, for almost two years!
This shot is taken from the deck of the Stahlratte we were anchored about a mile away
We looked at it from a distance for a few days until I pulled out a zoom lens and saw that rope ladder hanging off the side, we decided to go and have a closer look, Egle and I along with a German backpacker, Christoph who was the only other passenger on board.
Excuse the quality of the photos, they were taken with a waterproof point and shoot
Is it big, yes!
it’s sitting in about 6-7 feet of water
and at a crazy lean angle
Inside and out its totally destroyed by the salt water and no it will NEVER run again
I jumped off the far side to get the next shots, the water is not much deeper here so who knows how it would ever be moved. Think about it, the Guna people cannot afford to clean up the islands from all the trash that is around, how do they move a 10,000+ ton rusted ship?
Here’s a short video in the rain of the San Blas Ferry and why it won’t sail again
We now had a week to wait in San Blas for sure, it was guaranteed that we were getting clutch plates for Egle’s bike and they were being brought to Panama City and then relayed to us on one of the daily tour jeeps.
Also, while this was happening Simon and Lisa were making their way from Jamaica to Panama to take their bikes off, which was their original plan…there was no Colombia for them this time around.
We’d done our marine exploration of rust, the Stahlratte had been cleared and was OK to stay here and for us to get off and go to the islands if we wanted, so it was time to meet the people and their culture as they’d been eyeballing us anchored there.
San Blas is like having a cultural museum floating by, Egle had been asked to write another article for the BBC, which if you’re not aware is a huge thing being one of the most respected prestigious outlets to write for in the world. She decided to write it about the people…it should be out in a week or two, she details how the ladies are the most important part of the culture and how this affects life on the islands between men and women
The Guna believe they came from space, 4 sisters came, one was the earth sister, one was the gold and you can research the other two…hehe.
This when you first hear it may sound a little far-fetched but think about it, there are around 3000 different Gods, religions and stories about creation, if your belief is that you were created in the image of your God from two people and everything was here 7 days later, doesn’t make there’s sound so far-fetched does it?
When they came down, they came down with the designs of the Molas.
These are Molas, originally the Guna was not a clothing wearing culture so these were painted on their bodies, then as clothes were introduced they transferred them to cloth with extremely intricate stitching and layering of various colored cloth
Some of the ladies wear a gold nose ring inserted in their septum to represent the sister who brought the gold
They are very shy and reserved people and taking photos is no easy task, most photos I took were with a zoom lens from a great distance, but when spotted some will turn away or hide their faces
clothes for very young kids seemed optional
Another unique item the ladies wear are a row of tiny beads in various designs and colored to protect you from evil spirits, orange is a predominant color as its the strongest protection! These are worn on the arms, wrists, and legs, they now make and sell them to tourists for around $5-10.
As we did in Guatemala we approached some of what we felt were the poorer people to buy them, Egle has a group of people that like to donate money to unique cultures and in return, we try and find unique items as a token of thanks for their donations. We don’t give money directly to the people, we buy their products to entice them to continue…we bought a lot of bracelets and molas!
Some of the ladies will also tell you they are good for stopping bug bites!
On the smaller islands people are hand-picked and live as ‘caretakers’ of the island mostly fishing and collecting coconuts, some of the 40 or so inhabited island may have only one family living on them
one day haul from a small non-inhabited island…I guess its thirsty work
They were very intrigued by Egle’s hair!
Other islands where there are a few families living they work and do everything together including laundry!
One day drifts into the next in San Blas, life is slow easy going and just hanging around seems to be normal everyday life here
another day ends…
the next is more of the same, just a relaxing time, interspaced with a little crazy
you can set your watch in the late afternoon as the rain predictably comes down
end of another day…we are waiting for Simon and Lisa to get to Panama and for my parts to arrive too, maybe tomorrow
The following day starts a little different early on we have visitors, dolphins, and rays
it ends up today is not the day, more exploring…
of course, the rain comes in again while swimming back!!!
end of another day…
We wake up in the morning to the sound of the motor running, its familiar potato, potato, potato rhythm…Simon and Lisa are heading to the dock, a 3-hour drive from downtown Panama City, we cruise around 1 hour to the dockside to go and meet them and unload the bikes
if you’ve never seen a bike unloaded of a boat, put down your hot drink if you have one
later in the day, my parts arrive and are relayed down from PC and brought directly to the boat, we are about half a mile off shore. As soon as the box hits the deck the motor starts and we point towards Colombia…and I do a clutch swap as we sail away from San Blas as the sun is setting
This Stahlratte experience wasn’t as good as the other two I had been on.
The Stahlratte, if you are not familiar, could be described as a floating hippy backpacker hostel, it’s an experience, not just motorcycle riders but also bakpackers as well.
There is Captain Ludwig and then usually 3 crew, this time around there was definite friction between them, a female and two males who she very clearly stated she had stopped talking to a long time before we got on. The boys, and I am being honest here were young, 18 & 20, and neither wanted to be there any longer, and it showed.
They had a few jobs, one of them was to clean the kitchen, this was extremely lax but not surprising from an 18 & 20-year-old, it was dirty, very dirty, not like I had experienced before.
Another of their duties was to make food, now keep in mind we were with the Stahlratte for two months, and onboard for 17 days of sailing, we paid for 3 meals a day, somewhere to sleep and motorcycle transportation. I cannot fault the Stahlratte for getting the bike from A to B it is done extremely well, the bed is well a bed!
The food – I have had experience on the Stahlratte with excellent food especially when Ludgwig is in the kitchen, so much you struggle to do up your riding pants a few days later…sadly this time it was not the case. Food stocks were extremely limited, food selection was what I would call atrocious for the latter part of the trip, most of the time if the two ‘boys’ were left in charge of food. One ‘meal’ consisted of boiled potatoes with melted cheese on top…this in their eyes was considered dinner. It ended up numerous times that we had to go search for sustenance later.
Another meal we were offered was rice on a plate and pumpkin soup, when we asked what was for dinner, they smiled “this is dinner!” I told them soup is an appetizer and rice is a side dish…they laughed.
Tension built over the last days as food stocks reduced and quality of what was left did too.
We were asked for feedback after we got off from ‘Stefan’ who I can only describe as the mouthpiece for the Stahlratte, we gave him very strong constructive criticism which he wanted, now keep in mind HE WAS NOT ON BOARD AT ALL, but is based in Germany and told us we were lying!
Really for the last part of the sail there remained three of us, paying guests, we all felt the same and were there but according to someone who wasn’t there, it was all lies. We DID NOT get what we paid for which was the offer of three meals a day. His argument to this was seasickness, ok fair enough, but at least come and ask and make an offer?
So much to the point the crew couldn’t even be bothered to let us know food had been served on multiple occasions they couldn’t be bothered to even shout “breakfast”, but instead eat as much as possible before we even knew.
No doubt Stefan will respond (and I would take his responses with a pinch of salt, as I say he WASN’T THERE), and tell you I tried to blackmail them, his communication is extremely poor and borderline offensive, opinionated and aggressive, other examples of his tone can be seen in his responses in @LoneStar RR
The reality is, I told them we did not get what we paid for in the way of food, and a refund should be offered. I told them I would not accept it but the money should be used for some sort of pest control in the kitchen which was swarming with cockroaches and would continue to get worse if similar help continued to be crew on board
Now all that being said Stahlratte is in a difficult position, costs are exorbitant, crew options are minimal, Colombia and Panama are developing countries, and boats like them and others bringing motorcycles in and dropping them at the shoreside was never even looked a few years back but Colombia especially now has aggressively come up with new rules and regulations and import and export of goods (our bikes are the goods for either import or export) so are getting extremely strict on all boats arriving and they have new and changing rules which need to be complied with.
I just spoke with another rider yesterday who was on the following sailing and he told me of massive food poisoning and complete disarray on arrival in Colombia and could not get his bike for one week, we only had to wait two days.
I have been assured by the Stahlratte (Ludwig) and Stefan(!) that all has now been resolved and everything is back to normal, the new crew is on board, the ship is clean again, the customs are accepting bikes openly albeit with a lot more paperwork than years ago…but its working.
So what are your options to get across the Darien Gap…there were basically four, but now three
- San Blas Ferry – defunct
The container shipment, I have done an import to Colon (heading north), it was a nightmare and took 2 days and hundreds of excess dollars over and above the stated cost. loads of running around in what can only be described as a dangerous city – Riders heading south will tell you that didn’t use the Stahlratte that a container is the best option. All in it will cost them around $600 +/-, what they forget to tell you is what they paid over and above that for taxi’s, food, hotels and other expenses, also the waiting around 3 to 4 days and having to deal with dock personnel in Colon and Cartagena in 100+ degrees and 100% humidity who can be very unhelpful at times with the process or paperwork. So what is their real cost closer to $1000 is most likely?
The plane shipment, I have done this in both directions, is it was quick and simple, you are at the right place where all the paper required is to be done, but its around $800 – $900, then you have to fly yourself and might end up with a night or two in a hotel, and the possibility of taxis as well as food, so you can be spending $1200+ and then if you want to see Cartagena you are now half a country away that you’ll have to ride back thru
The Stahlratte – right now it is your best option, by far, the price is comparable, the food, when Ludwig cooks is exceptional, it is a door to door, service with years of experience and paperwork is processed on your behalf. The only piece of paperwork that isn’t, is insurance, and we found an office a few blocks from where the bikes are unloaded, Ludwig has the details. Also, the experience, while riders were sitting in offices, at docksides, dealing with paperwork in a foreign language…we were on the beach drinking a cold beer, swimming with dolphins, experiencing a different culture, relaxing. When we did arrive in Cartagena we had our bikes off and processed and were done in slightly more than 2 hours
You decide, just giving you my experience of the options, I wish the Stahlratte all the best, times are tough, Central America is unraveling and by the time you are down there you might not be thinking straight, use this as your guide…for me my choice would be 2, 4, 3 and have a look at #1 while you are doing #2