Panama to Colombia: The Steel-Rat Experience

October 8-13, 2015
At 7am I’m leaving my host family in Panama City and heading to Carti. It’s morning rush hour and I’m on the opposite side of town. I have to split lanes through freeway traffic for several miles before the road opens up. I woke up this morning with an ear ache and it isn’t getting better, and it isn’t helping my balance as I thread between cars. It’s been a few years since living in Southern California and my lane-splitting skills are a bit rusty anyway, but fortunately people here are used to motorcycles sharing the lanes with cars.
About sixty miles from Panama City I turn left onto a small road towards the Kuna Yala lands. These indigenous people and their lands are technically separate from Panama, and about 12 miles down this steep, twisting road I come to a road block where I have to pay my “Kuna Tax” to continue. Another ten miles or so and as I crest a hill the Caribbean comes into view. Not long after, the road ends at the harbor, which is really just a place for the Kuna to launch their fishing boats. There is a concrete pier here, and there are already eleven bikes on the dock waiting. Within a few minutes more arrive. The Stahlratte is anchored just a couple hundred meters away. The 120-foot steel schooner was built in 1903, and has seen several different lives prior to its’ current use.

Arrival at Carti pier, with the Stahlratte in the background.

I walk the pier to have a look at the bikes. There are several BMW 1200GS models, an F800, a Kawasaki KLR, a KTM 1190 Adventure, a Triumph Tiger, a Suzuki V-Strom, a couple of XT600 Yamahas, a Honda Transalp, a Honda Africa Twin, a Suzuki DR650, Judith’s DR-z400, and my little Yamaha 250.  Eighteen bikes and twenty three people, from England, Australia, Canada, the U.S., Romania, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands. Most started their journey in Alaska, and intend to finish in Argentina. A few are going further and/or have been further already. The ages range from around late twenties to mid sixties.

Loading bikes

The crew loads the bikes onto the ship while we take a small boat to our hotel for the night on a small Kuna island about 20 minutes from the dock. The island consists of little else besides the small (20 room) homestay hotel and a short air strip.

Our hotel shuttle to and from the Stahlratte: powered by twin 40hp Yamahas.

Headed to our hotel for the first night. There are several islands nearby that are inhabited by Kuna people. Some of these are densely built out.


First night’s stay at Hotel Porvenir while the crew prepares the Stahlratte for sailing. We’ll leave the next morning for the San Blas Islands.


Local method of transportation.

In the morning we take the shuttle back to the Stahlratte and have breakfast before sailing three hours to a spot in the San Blas islands. We stay here for the next two days, with a BBQ and bonfire the first night in the islands. The ear drops aren’t working, and I’m a bit bummed that I can’t dive or really do anything in the water. But the place is so beautiful it doesn’t really matter.

Some climb to the crow’s nest for an even more stunning view.


There are 365 islands in the San Blas Islands, and only a handful are inhabited. Many look like this.


On-board entertainment system: Swinging from the ship.

This was our dinner location. You arrived by dinghy or by swimming. BBQ, bonfire, beer, rum. Very relaxing.


Preparing dinner.


Sunset from the island.


Sunset from the Stahlratte.


It’s muggy below deck, so I spend part of the first night on the Stahlratte in the hammock over the bowsprit. The small LED lights on the masts light the water below me just enough to watch eagle rays swimming by. Graceful and beautiful to watch in the dark silence. Eventually it cools off enough below deck and I climb down to go to bed just before a rainstorm moves by.
The next morning is Saturday, and we awake to find our little paradise taken over by Panamanian yachts.

Weekend local party boats. By afternoon they had all cleared out and gone home.

There are four or five islands within swimming distance or a short launch ride. One of these is the stereotypical “stranded on a deserted island”: about 80 feet in diameter with a lone palm tree.


Stranded on a deserted island? Life could be worse…

Several of us venture out here one day and within minutes a gale blows in. The rain is blowing so hard it hurts and it feels better to be in the water. It pours but is over quickly.


Storm coming…


Sudden deluge. The rain stings, but the dinghy arrives to carry us back to the Stahlratte, and the storm passes quickly.


Dinner on board our cruise ship.


At five o’clock the next morning the 65 year old diesel engine fires up, and we begin the thirty hour trip to Cartagena. At 280 rpm, you can actually count each piston stroke by sound and vibration. Within the first few hours most of the people on board are seasick. Only a few of us have taken Dramamine before heading to open seas, and it pays off. For the next day, people are much more scarce at meal time, and tend to spend more time in their berth or lying down on the deck.
At sunrise the next day we awake to what looks like wafting glass seas and the Cartagena skyline in the distance.

6am: Cartagena in the distance.


We pull into the harbor at Cartagena, past the old fortress walls. After breakfast we are taken to hotels and hostels in the old part of Cartagena, where we will stay for a couple of nights while the bikes are unloaded and taken through the Customs importation process.


Passing the centuries-old fortress walls coming into the harbor.


The buffet boat following us in.


Cartagena skyline.


In the harbor, we anchor next to the FreeWinds. This huge ship is owned and operated by a church. Can you guess which church owns it? Hint: It’s a “Tom Cruise” ship.


My little 250 leaned against a Honda Transalp, ready to be unloaded.


Hoisted off the Stahlratte onto a floating platform, the bikes are transported six at a time to land.


Taking the bikes to shore. No dock…they pull right up to the concrete boat ramp, then use that wooden pallet ramp and you ride off onto and up the boat ramp.


Once everyone is through Customs and Immigration the following day, we are free to ride to our hotels. Here’s the lobby at the hotel where I’m staying.

And just for fun, here’s a YouTube clip of one of my Stahlratte shipmates, from about a month ago, on his first entrance into a hotel lobby on his bike:

The food on the Stahlratte is great and plentiful. This is not a cheap way to ship between continents but it is definitely worth it. The experience of the ship, the San Blas Islands, and the other travelers and crew isn’t found everywhere, and while you could save a few days but spend the same amount of money air-freighting your bike to Colombia from Panama, you would miss out on some memories of a lifetime.

Upper left, above the window: is now part of the Stahlratte experience.


9 thoughts on “Panama to Colombia: The Steel-Rat Experience

  1. Great post!!! I am in Pittsburgh this morning needing a jacket… Which way are you headed now – across Columbia to Ecuador?

  2. Headed towards the highlands in the morning. Ready for some cooler weather. Planning to stay in Colombia through around the first week of November, unless things change. No jacket needed here, just a mop. Cartagena is humid.

  3. With every story like this one, I think I’d be grateful to be on the 250. Maybe the 400 but definitely no bigger. I shudder to think of riding Tom’s 700+ lb Ducati off that boat ramp with my whole world tied to it. Much happier on a smaller more nimble bike on such a trip.

    Love the island photos. Made me think of Gilligan’s Island. The Palms don’t sprout like grass on our FL Keys like that. Savoring your photos.


    • There was one extremely scary moment on the floating barge when a passing boat created a wake that rocked us hard. I thought for sure a BMW GS1200 Adventure was going into the water. Three of us managed to catch it while holding our own bikes also.
      At dinner the other night one of the other travelers made a comment that was indicative of the swing in attitude: most everyone aboard the ship initially thought I was nuts for riding a 250. After hearing others and telling their own stories of dropping their big heavy bikes in difficult situations, they began to realize why I’m riding the 250. As is often said, you never wish you had a heavier bike. At least not until the 60mph crosswinds in Patagonia…

  4. It’s cooler here. Beautiful fall. Supposed to frost this weekend. Just so you know. 🙂
    Keep those words and photos coming.

  5. Holy. Camolee.
    I’d be very tempted to tell the Stahlratte to leave me there! Absolutely beautiful. Reminds me of the islands/Cays I got to dive in Belize.

    • At the time I went (last October), it was $1050 for me and the motorcycle. That includes all meals, 3 days on the boat, and the customs process in Cartagena (though I think there may have been some other fees at Aduana, but Stahlratte has a guy that walks everyone through customs and makes it easy. Check the Stahlratte Facebook page for current pricing and sailing dates.

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