Getting up at 5am was nothing new for us at this point, but doing it with 20 other people milling about was new entirely. The hostel Mamallena was begrudgingly alive as folks were packing the last of their things and making themselves pancakes in the communal kitchen. Unfortunately the coffee pot had just been emptied by the time we got into the kitchen and our drivers arrived just as we finished loading a new one. Everyone filed outside where three trucks (one of them an 80 series Land Cruiser!) were waiting to take us up to Carti, where the boat was anchored. They strapped our packs to the top of the cars and we climbed in, our soon to be boat mates alongside. Although the drive boasted some great jungle views and steep climbs, most people slept in what was a quiet three hour drive across the country to the Atlantic. We finally crested a ridge and could see the ocean in the distance, but our descent stopped abruptly at a small shelter next to a river, no ocean in sight. To get to our boat, we had to take smaller boats down the river and into the ocean. Unknowingly they charged us an additional boat fee, but we thankfully had cash on hand, and we set off towards the MS Independence.
Our home for the next 5 days was the MS Independence, a large sailboat, about 85 feet in length, that was built in the 1960s. Once everyone was on board captain Michel welcomed us on board with a goodluck toast of rum and fruit juice before going of the rules and how to operate the ship’s pump toilet. The salty Slovenian finished his explanation before his wife and 2nd in command Majo led us to our bunks. We had read online that the best cabin was on the front upper deck and had requested it in our reservation, but instead we were given the front lower deck room. The difference was distinct. Grant and I were to share not only a room with two others, but also a mattress – the top bunk of the already cramped cabin. Oh well. In the end, we slept on one of the mats on the open deck every single night. We dropped off our stuff in the room and went to explore the ship. They had managed to accommodate rooms for 30 people including the crew, and we inched through the cramped corridors to get a feel for the layout. The rooms were tiny but there was plenty of deck space for everyone to sprawl out and enjoy their (semi) personal space.
If it was going to a cramped 4 days, we figured it was a good idea to get to know our fellow passengers, and we certainly lucked out in that regard. It was a wonderful group of people and we couldn’t have asked for a better group to spend the journey with. There were folks from London, Manchester, Wales, Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland, an Australian couple, an American couple, a pair of Canadians, an Israeli, and a Japanese motorcyclist. Everyone had their own reasons for traveling and their own paths lined out, but for a few days at least, we were all on the same path.
With introductions out of the way, we we went to the front of the boat to watch the scenery move past. Before long the ship came its first stopping point between two of the small islands we had been watching slowly grow bigger as we left our initial anchorage. We were gazing off the bow when we heard the first few splashes as people were jumping off the side of the boat. By the time we had our bathing suits on and got to the ladder, a few people had already hit the shore, and we wasted no time getting in and swimming over ourselves. Now, I’m not in completely terrible shape, but after spending two weeks in the car, a 60 meter swim wasn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. I was never a great swimmer in the first place, and was out of breath when I finally trudged up on the sand, but the work was worth it. We lounged on the beach and swam in the clear water, as the locals sat a few yards back and watched us. They had tried to make us pay them to use their beach, but when we clearly had no money with us after the swim, the quickly gave up, and even let us play with an adorable baby pig.
It was another long swim back to the boat, but this time lunch was waiting for us. As we sat around the wooden table on the top deck, we picked up anchor and headed out once again. This would turn out to be the theme of boat ride. Swim, lounge, eat, swim, lounge, eat. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing. And don’t forget about the nighttime activities. It quickly became obvious that we had made one key mistake before the voyage. Each other passenger had brought their own stash of alcohol for the trip! All we had were a few bottles of water, we didn’t realize it was going to be a party boat. Thankfully, Majo came to our rescue with her on board “shop.” We were the first to purchase a few beers and a bottle of terrible-yet-delicious Ron Abuelo rum, but we certainly weren’t the last. After a cookout on the beach and some evening beach volleyball, we cracked into he collective stores of booze and played cards and an eclectic variety of drinking games long into the night. We had been on vacation ever since we left the US, but this was the first time it actually felt like it!
The next two days were heaven. We went snorkeling in a shallow reef, tried to climb palm trees for their coconuts, played soccer golf on the beach, and drank beers while floating in the ocean on an assortment of floatable devices. We even had a bonfire on one of the islands, and ended up sleeping on the beach. It was a sobering swim back to the boat the following morning, but an experience I won’t soon forget. Of all of the experiences of the boat, the final day was the one that will stick with me forever. On the last day at see, we crossed the final 200 miles of open water to Cartegena, Colombia without stopping. I had been on the water before, but never on the open sea in an 85 footer. We left the islands at three in the morning, but it was later that day that the reality set in. Large swells rocked the boat up and down, constantly shifting the deck as we tried to stay still on it. I don’t get seasick easily, but I was tested on this ride. I may have been fine at first, but after all day on deck, I started to feel a little bit of a headache creep in. Others fared far worse than I did, but luckily Grant and I came through relatively unscathed, except for the worst sunburn I have ever had on my life…
The rocking on the deck was rough, but it was the crampedness of the ship that made it worse. There was nowhere to go and nothing really to do at sea, so we read when we could and slept when we weren’t reading. This made us all feel more than a little cooped up, so when Michel stopped the boat and told us to jump in, we didn’t hesitate. Jumping in was a blessing, albeit an incredibly surreal one. We were swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, and thousands of feet above anything resembling solid ground. The waves propelled us up and gently dropped us down again, a journey of 8 to 10 feet each time. More disconcerting was the fact that the boat made the same trip, each time seeming like it would crash down upon us before correcting itself as the swell shifted. It was amazing, terrifying, and ultimately necessary, as we entered the boat refreshed and ready to tackle the final stretch at sea. One more night sleeping under the stars on the deck and we awoke with land in site! A pod of dolphins seemed to herald our arrival and followed the boat for some twenty minutes as we entered the port. We had survived the opera rise and the ordeal of the MS Independence, and we were ready to go see a man (ok, several men) about a car.