The first thing I want to say is that most of what you read on this page is STRICTLY my opinion. I'm posting this on my site because I still get dozens of inquiries and requests for doing this trip on Andiamo every week despite the fact that we haven't done a run in quite a long time. I think it's easier to just post my thoughts (which are almost the same anyway to everyone I reply to) because it should save you and me time. And hopefully it gives you some insight on other viable options to see San Blas and/or go to/from Colombia before you make a decision on which mode to go.
After doing more than two dozen round trips between San Blas and Cartagena over most of 2008 and 2009 (though less so in '09 than the previous year), Andiamo is no longer doing these runs in any structured manner. The only time I'll do a sail to/from Cartagena from now on will be when Andiamo needs to go to Cartagena for haulout maintenance, specialized boat work available only there, any related reason, or if I just plain want to go to Colombia. Otherwise, Andiamo will be staying on the Panama side far more. There are many reasons why things have developed this way:
1. The going rate for this trip has gone up SIGNIFICANTLY in the last year or so (now currently as much as $450 per person, more than 20% more than what we were charging when I started doing these trips.). There is no justifiable reason for this dramatic increase. Demand is the same as it's ever been (in fact, it's gone down a bit), and in fact there are only more boats trying to do the trip than there were two years ago.
In my opinion, the cost is kept artificially high, and is being kept "fixed" by the boats doing these trips. There is no competition or innovation, everyone is simply trying to offer the same trip for the same price. Worse, there's no difference in cost even though there are VAST differences among the boats doing the trips, and the quality of the trips. Take a look at just a few of the boats doing the trips, and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Look, I could easily still be doing these trips as much as the other boats and easily charging $425 a pop, if not more. The problem is I no longer consider this a fair price or a good value to the traveler. Not when you consider that you can do 2 or 3 nights in San Blas on one of Andiamo's trips for around $100 a night. On most of these runs to or from Cartagena, you'll probably get 2 nights in the islands. In reality however, it's more like a day and a half total time in the islands before you're either on the way to Colombia or off the boat, depending on which way you went.
Now, compare that to doing a 2 or 3 night trip sailing around San Blas on Andiamo, then flying to Cartagena, Medellin, Bogota, or Baranquilla via Taca, Copa, Aero Republica, or Aires via their lowest promotional fares (just look for various promotional specials that the airlines run!). Then, add the other costs like transportation to/from panama city, road taxes, etc., and you'll find you'll STILL pay less than $400-425 per person if not about the same money!
The difference? You'll get more time in the islands on a trip like what Andiamo offers (which let's face it, is why most travelers opt to go on the sailing trip in the first place, to see San Blas!), with more comfort and amenities and probably better food. And, you won't be crammed with a dozen or so backpackers and their stuff, on what can be a VERY rough offshore trip that many travelers are simply not prepared for. It's simply not a good value anymore, considering the alternative options and ways to get to or from Colombia via what I consider cheap airfare.
2. There are an incredible number of boats doing these trips, or at least trying to. Call it due to the economy going down the tubes or even some captains seeing easy money to be had doing these trips. Many of the boats are shockingly substandard and run by captains who I consider to be less than competent.
Back when I started doing these trips in 2008, there were several good boats with good captains doing these trips. There were at least a dozen I could recommend. These days, that number is down to VERY few boats, less than five. Being in San Blas as long as I have, I have simply heard too many first-hand horror stories to recommend many boats that I used to freely recommend. Things have changed so much in such a short time that I'm even apprehensive about recommending ANY boat, though there are still a scant few that I will if hard-pressed.
If, after reading this far, you're STILL wanting to do a trip between Panama and Colombia by boat, here's my advice for what it's worth:
1. It's FAR better to do the trip FROM Cartagena TO Panama than vice versa. Most times, seas and winds will be working for the boat you're on, vs. against it. There are certain times of year that this doesn't apply, but it's in the vast minority. Even during December and January, when winds and seas can be so big/rough that many boats simply stop doing the trips to Cartagena, it's still a great trip going FROM Cartagena to Panama. That is, provided you get on the RIGHT boat.
The other advantage of doing the trip from Cartagena, is that you can EASILY inspect the boat and check out the captain before you make your decision to go. You don't really get this option going from Panama to Colombia, since most of the boats are on the coast (either in San Blas, Puerto Lindo, or Portobelo), and you'll most likely be in Panama City shopping for a boat trip. It simply is NOT feasible for you to go check out boats and their captains before you make the decision on which one to take. You will have to go by and depend on what you hear from the hostels in Panama, and whatever information you obtain via other travelers who've done the trip.
In any case, the information you get will be highly subjective, and you still may end up on a substandard boat because you didn't have the option of inspecting the boat first. If you're in Cartagena, you have NO excuse if you don't check out any boat first before committing to a trip.
2. Do NOT give your passport or ANY MONEY to any captain (or hostel that's booking you) unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure you want to do the trip on a particular boat. Once you give your passport and money, you cannot change your mind without getting screwed somehow. Do all your due diligence BEFORE committing to a boat!
3. There is a wealth of information online about various boats. However, be aware that you still have to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Many times people complain because they had unreasonable expectations or because they hit bad weather or seas, things that the captain may not have been able to avoid despite his best efforts. This said, be aware that there are MANY captains who will go out in ANY weather without concern for safety or risks. It's incumbent on you to ask hard questions before getting aboard!
4. An increasingly popular way (don't ask me why) to get over the border is to take a lancha or trader boat from the eastern end of San Blas, (usually Puerto Obaldia) over to/from Capurgana/Sapzurro on the Colombia side. From there, you're shuttled via a lancha or other boat into the Darien Gulf to the port town of Turbo, where you can catch a bus to anywhere you want to go in Colombia. Some people consider this an adventurous way to get to or from Colombia. IMO, it's simply NOT worth the risk or hassle, especially when you realize you will pay MORE for this kind of trip than you would to FLY to or from Colombia.
Nevermind all the risks, logistical nightmares, and hassles involved in going this route. Turbo is a real shithole of a port town in one of the POOREST parts of Colombia, and if you go this route, you HAVE to go there. I've heard simply too many stories of travelers being stuck there overnight or even longer because they missed the last bus out, or whatever other reason. Turbo is NOT a place you want to be stuck in for an hour much less overnight. I sincerely hope you read and heed this warning, REGARDLESS of what else you hear about doing this route.
I sincerely hope this missive helps you make a wise decision about which way to go to or from Colombia, and sheds light on what is going on at the present time. Of course, if there's anything else I can help with that's not already on this page, please do email me, and I'll get back to you when I have time.