A brief history on the Panama Canal. In the 1500’s, King Charles V of Spain studied the feasibility of a canal through the isthmus of Panama. However, they were unable to create anything substantial with picks and shovels. So, they settled with a cobblestone trail over which tons of gold was transported. This trail can still be seen today. Image author.
Panama Canal trail and map.
Construction begun on the Panama Railway in 1850 which then opened 5 years later. However, that was only after many hardships, including 10,000 casualties. Once opened, the canal was a huge success with over 400,000 people crossing the Isthmus in the first 11 years.
Panama Canal Railway. Photo courtesy of Panama Advisory International Group
In 1879, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps created the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique Panama. Columbia granted the exclusive privilege to construct the waterway across the Isthmus of Panama. This was to be a 99 year agreement.
The Compagnie was obligated to pay $750,000 francs to Columbia within 3 years. Columbia was also to receive the following payments:
5% of the gross revenues the first 25 years
6% for the next 25 years
7% for the 25 years
8% for the final years.
And they added another clause, that no payment was to be less than $250,000 which was what the Panama Railway was earning.
In exchange for all of the above payments, Columbia would concede 1,235,000 acres of land, plus 200 meters of land on either side. At the end of the 99 years, Columbia would own all of the equipment, land, and the canal.
Unfortunately, the incredible skill of the french engineers could not overcompensate for the many struggles. This project incurred rough terrain, disease, and hardships. Sadly, the company was in financial ruin by 1889. This was after they spent over $285 million and lost over 20,000 lives.
In 1894, a second french company, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama emerged to continue the work. However, they were unable to obtain funding and were forced to sell the equipment and rights to the United States.
Columbia wanted to raise the fees which President Roosevelt felt were already too high. The two countries hit the negotiation tables. Panama wanted to ceseed from Columbia and President Roosevelt supported the change. In exchange, the U.S. receive the rights to build the canal.
It took a decade, more than 75,009 workers, and almost $400 million to complete this project. They faced unprecedented struggles with the unique geology that caused landslides. In addition, an enormous amount of excavation was required for the massive size of the locks. Interesting site on “What it Costs, photo courtesy of this site.”
The project was completed under budget and ahead of schedule, opening on August 15, 1914. About $100 million was been spent annually to ensure it remains fully operational. From 1979-1999 the canal operated in accordance to the treaty between the Republic of Panama and the U.S. The transfer to the Republic of Panama occurred December 1999. The Panama Canal Commission now manages everything, which is composed of 5 U.S. citizens and 4 Panamanians.
In 2007, construction began on two new sets of locks that added a new lane of traffic for large ships called Panamax. At cost of over $5 billion the new lane opened in June 2016 to the traffic of these giant ships.
Compare old and new locks. Photo courtesy of Cruisemapper.com.
There are many ways to sail to the San Blas Islands and many places to clear into Panama. Some people clear in at Puerto Lindo or El Provenir while others sneak into the San Blas islands and clear in further up the island chain. The problem with clearing in at Puerto Lindo and El Provenir is that you have to pass by most of the San Blas islands. So, where does Puerto Velero come in?
Since we didn’t want to take the risk of sneaking into the country and we didn’t want to circle back, we had to find another choice. Our best option was to clear in at Puerto Obaldia which is a small village and a fairly unique entry point. It’s located on the border of Colombia and Panama and is not a popular clearance location. The guide book and noonsite have confusing language about who is and isn’t allowed to clear in at this port. Most people just avoid it due to the uncertainty and poor anchorage.
The sail to Puerto Obaldia is roughly 260 nautical miles. We could either sail 3 days/2 nights directly from Santa Marta, Colombia to Puerto Obaldia, Panama or we could sail to Puerto Velero one day and sail the remaining 200 miles in 2 days/1 night. Puerto Velero seemed like the best choice.
After leaving the comforts of Marina Santa Marta at 630am we noticed immediately that there was something wrong with our props. Matt was at the helm and was not getting much forward propulsion even though we had prop wash. We decided to forge ahead and carefully navigated our way out of the bay. We raised our sails with two reefs in and headed south without the engines. The winds were gusting over the forecast to 35 knots and predicted 1-meter waves were over 3-meters. We settled in for a fun sail down to the Magadelana river in Barranquilla.
As we approached the Barranquilla river we watched the beautiful blue water turn greenish brown. The water became more polluted with tree branches, logs, and trash. We even saw a man’s shoe. Which is scary as the rumor is the cartel dumps bodies into the river to be carried out to sea. We started to cross at about 6 miles offshore, into the light brown water, then into the dark milkshake waters. The depth gauge started reading 3 meters when it should be hundreds, so an immediate about face back to the 3-color water highway.
Thank goodness, we had strong winds and a broad reach / run which enabled us to sail fairly quickly without the engines. However, we had to use our engines as we entered the Puerto Velero bay which was painful at 2 knots with both engines pushing 1800 rpm (normally that would give us 6 knots). Once we arrived into Puerto Velero, we dropped anchor and Matt hopped in the water with the hooka to clean the props. We had offers to clean the bottom of the boat but we did not think it needed it since the water line was pretty clean. Big mistake! Matt spent an hour cleaning off 1” of hard and soft growth from the props. No wonder they could not give us forward propulsion – poor things. Matt prepared a really nice pulled pork dinner in the pressure cooker which turned out amazing!
• Total Daily Miles: 68
• Max Speed: 15.2
• Avg Speed: 7.2
• Hours Moving: 9
• Wind Avg: 25–30 knots
• Wing Angle: Broad Reach to Run
• Wave Height Avg: 3-4 meters
Up next, the completion of this voyage and arrival into Panama…
Matt took this photo in Santa Marta and it missed a post…
Tayrona National Park is one of the many jewels of Colombia located just 34 kilometers from Santa Marta. A stunning 150 kilometers of land set in Colombia’s northern coastal region of Magdalena. Tayrona was established as a national park in 1969 and is famous for its biodiversity, varied climate, remarkable wildlife, and beautiful beaches. With over 300,000 visitors annually, it is the second most visited national park after the Rosario and San Bernando Corals Natural National Park near Cartagena.
Columbia Map showing Tayrona Park
Many indigenous groups claim Tayrona as sacred ground and they have requested that the park be closed off for ecological, environmental and spiritual healing. They have completely closed the park in 2015 and 2017 for one month each time. The park is not even open to employees of the park, only members of these Indigenous groups, of whom several families live permanently within the park.
Matt, Wayne, and I walked 1.5 miles to the bus stop next to the Mercado Publico in Santa Marta. The bus costs 8k COP each and leaves every 45 minutes or when it is full. We hopped on loaded with water, snacks, and breakfast arrapas, then waited for 30 minutes. Once we were on our way, the bus driver honks his horn, slows a little, and gathers more passengers along the route. Within 45 minutes, we arrived at El Zaino where most of us disembarked.
We walked to the visitor center where we presented our documents (passports) and paid 40k COP each. At the top of the path we took a bus, 5 kilometers to the main entrance, Canavereal for 3000 pesos each. It dropped us off at a muddy parking lot and we headed toward Cabo San Juan de Guia (beach).
Our plan was to walk to Cabo San Juan, 4-hour hike, then to the village of Pueblito a 2-hour hike, then back to Canavereal, 2-hour hike to catch the park bus back to El Zaino, and then the city bus to San Marta. That was the “plan.” Of course, since I lost my phone, we did not have the maps.me app downloaded nor did we have a clear map or understanding of the trails throughout the park. We were given this nebulous map at
Hand held Tayrona Map with little information.
Map at entrance of park.
The first part of the trail was very civilized with a beautiful wood path over the muddiest parts of the rivers.
Super nice wood trail at the beginning of the hike.
Wayne enjoying a leisurely walk down the wooden path.
Keep in mind that we are all in flip flops while others are in tennis shoes, hiking shoes, and crocs. At this point we are pretty happy with our decision. When not on the wood bridges, we walked the edges around the mud puddles. It wasn’t until we were a few hours in that we started to encounter really big mud puddles and were forced to remove our shoes and go into the shin deep slush.
But we did enjoy some beautiful beach views.
Views of beach as we crested over a mountain.
Path separating the beach and the mountains.
We soon came to a small beach called La Piscina that was peppered with large boulders. It was so pretty to see these harsh rocks against the sandy seascape.
La Piscina Beach entrance.
Boulders on the beach.
Opposite the beach are lush green hills and marshes.
Hills across from the beach.
After we passed through La Piscina, we had to cross a river that was mid-thigh deep. Trying not to be “that girl”, I bunched up my Lulu Lemon shorts (which are already short) and followed the boys. Up another muddy trail, still surrounded by a small smattering of other tourists.
Fun muddy trail up the hill.
A lovely beach greeted us at Cabo San Juan. A top the hill is the famous Seafront Cabana with 8 hammocks. Its a cool option to sleep in a thatched roof hut on the rocks overlooking the sea for back packers. It is a first come, first served at a cost of 5,000 to 25,000 COP.
Seafront Cabana up on the hill with 8 hammocks.
After arriving at noon, 3 hours (vs 4) later, we had no idea how to proceed to the village of Pueblito. We asked one lady who informed us it was too late and too dangerous for us to go because the trails would be all wet. Since we didn’t want to return the way we came and were looking for a new way out of the park. So, I asked another lady who told us to leave now before the afternoon rains, and we should be fine. Go with the old adage, keep asking until you get an answer you like. She showed us the trail and we were off.
Signs had indicated our progress on the way to Cabo San Juan so we were not surprised to see signs showing our progress to Pueblito “10% to Pueblito.” However, we were surprised to see the change in terrain.
New terrain changed to a boulder hike.
90 minutes later, we arrived at Pueblito. It is a very small village that is a perfect representation of the Tayrona culture. There are several round huts, made in several different ways, a top stone terraces. We just walked through and carried on our way. Not sure it was worth the extra hike, but it was lovely to see on our way out of the park.
After 30 minutes we realized that we had not seen any signs to El Zaino. Hmmm-strange. Even more perplexing was the fork in the road with no signs of which path to take. We went right which continued to be very muddy path, up and over huge boulders, across small rivers, and down troughs where you had to waddle with one foot on either side of the river. Challenging to say the least, especially since we had already been hiking for 4 hours.
Another hiker crossed our path and told us we were on the way toward Cabo San Juan – YIKES! We wanted to go the opposite direction toward El Zaino. This is not good. It was 230p, the park closes at 5p and it would take us well over 4 hours to back track. Our best bet was to continue on and hope to get a horse or boat out of the park before 5p.
A little after 3p, we arrived at Cabo San Juan where we were able to secure three spaces on a fast panga back to Taganga a small town near Santa Marta. We just had to wait an hour for departure.
Matt took this opportunity to hike up to the hammock Seafront Cabana while Wayne and I crashed on the beach.
Images from Seafront hammock hut looking down.
The panga wrangler told us it was a 10-minute ride to Taganga which did not surprise us as they had three 200-horse power engines. At 4p, everyone on the beach started gathering toward the water’s edge. Three boats were to return almost 75 people.
The boat was so tall that they had to use a ladder to board the passengers. Imagine how difficult it was to hold the ladder and the boat in the surf? Wish I got a photo of this for you!
Our panga had the biggest boat with the most engines and the most passengers. We thought we would beat the other two boats by a long shot! Ha! Our boat driver needed to take lessons as he was horrible. Our driver couldn’t surf the waves, crested over wakes, used 2 instead of 3 engines, and got 4 people sick. And we arrived last almost two hours after we boarded. It was pure misery. Originally, we thought about asking him to give us a ride to Santa Marta, but we could not wait to get off the boat.
Taganga is a quaint town that we would have enjoyed had we not hiked so many miles, been soaking wet, and needed to use the facilities. We managed to hail a cab back to Santa Marta for 12,000 pesos, showered, had a quick dinner and went to bed.
• Hiked 14.2 miles
• Over 35,000 steps
• In 5.5 hours over rocky terrain, across river, & mud.