From The Northeast U.S. to South America – A Sailors Guide (Part 9/12)

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Steady on their sailor! You´re exploring quite some territory! Onwards and upwards, though, because we´ve still got a lot to show you. Here´s what you need to know about the Panama and Panama Canal, Colombia and Guatemala.

Panama and the Panama Canal

Whether you´ve sailed via the Caribbean or via Mexico and other countries in Central America, the only way to explore the west coast of South America is to go via the Panama Canal (unless you´re a West Coast sailor!). This man-made, 48-mile waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific. Here´s information on the procedures and costs involved.

The Panama Canal from above

The main cruising attractions in Panama are the 365 San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast. You´ll need a cruising permit to visit the islands, and you should be wary of the chart inaccuracies (which includes charting software, which may be out by 200 yards west and 100 yards north!).

Detailed map of the canal

On the Pacific side, Las Perlas islands are also popular, but only stop in a remote anchorage when in the company of another boat. Cruisers have reported half-sunk logs on the passage from Porvenir to Portobelo, so take care around the Panama coastline. Here´s what the traffic can look like.

Where to Spend the Night

Here´s a useful guide, which includes the main marinas, where to check for weather reports, and island listing and other useful facts for cruisers. Here´s one family´s experiences at some marinas in Panama.


Colombia also has coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean Sea borders of the country. Most of the coastal development has occurred on the Caribbean side, especially around Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta.

There can be some annoying formalities to attend to if you want to stay for a prolonged visit in Colombia, but the US Coast Guard has made this area into one of the safest in the world for sailing. However, be sure to exercise caution when sailing through the bottom of the Gulf of Uraba, says one sailor.

Where the River Sinu and the Carribbean Sea meet

The repair facilities at Cartagena are good, but Santa Marta provides an attractive alternative. Go to get fuel and water dockside at the marina in Santa Marta or at Club de Pesca in Cartagena. You can jerry jug diesel and water everywhere else, says one sailor with experience in the area.,_Colombia.JPG?resize=650%2C378&ssl=1

Isla Santa Catalina, Colombia´s Providence Island colony

The Cartagena Islands include Isla Baru, Tierra Bomba Island, Isla Grande, Santa Cruz del Islote and Tintipan. Providencia, San Andres can be visited on your way north from Panama, but be weary of the cays and reefs further north, like Serrana, Serranilla and Roncador since boats are often visited by the military there.

Where to Spend the Night

Scroll down this post for details on anchorages. Here are three more free guides written by sailors who have cruised around the Colombian coastlines. Please donate something here if you like the first two.


Guatemala has also received a bad rap over the years, but one sailor said that Guatemala was no more threatening than New York City in a recent article. Here´s more about their experiences sailing Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and here´s another couple’s wild adventure story sailing on this sweet river.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Hut on Rio Dulce

Rio Dulce is actually part of a lake and river system you can enter at the town of Livingston. Here´s a map and a cruising guide. Other cruising guides can be purchased online. You can find some examples on this page.

Where to Spend the Night

It´s recommended you definitely overnight at a marina. Entering Rio Dulce should be done in Livingston, and you can also hire the services of a local skipper to guide you from there if you´re worried about going on your own.

Here is a comprehensive list of the marinas in the area and some information about security. This post gives you some more detail on some of the principal marinas.

Don´t miss Part 10 of this series, which will cover visas, anchorages and the best bits of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

From The Northeast U.S. to South America – A Sailors Guide (Part 10/12)

From The Northeast U.S. to South America – A Sailors Guide (Part 8/12)

Sailing From The Northeastern U.S. to South America – A Sailors Guide (Part 7/12)




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