While doing a lot of research on this crossing I ran into a lot of dead ends so here is my attempt to tidy up what is out there about what is an option and what isn´t. Other threads for someone looking to research this are. I found a lot of discussion turns to air-shipping so this thread is exclusively about the boats:
We have travelled by boat aboard the Stahlratte a 100ft vessel from Carti Panama to Cartagena. The captain is a German named Ludwig and he is great.
Our options approaching Panama were :
1) Fly. Decided too expensive
2) Pursue options of skippers taking backpackers from Panama City
3) Go to docks at Colon and negotiate with cargo ships.
4) Go to Portobelo and see which skippers were leaving for Colombia
Option that we were not going to do was :
- ferry from Puerto Obaldia to Turbo Colombia. This ferry does apparently exist but accessing Puerto Obaldia needs to be done by motorboat or airplane anyway. The road ends at Miramar and the distance by boat is significant. This CAN be done with determination and patience and a bent towards doing things your own way.
In looking for a boat, Lonely Planet advises you there is only one hostel in Panama City. This is incorrect. Next door to Voyager is Mamallena Hostel and on the other side of the block towards the Marriot Hotel is Zuly´s Backpackers. Both looked better options than Voyager for atmosphere. Richard at Zuly´s is German and pretty laid back and gives you details of the ships programs as the captains generally contact the hostels looking for backpackers. He´ll take a small commission of $20 or so if he lines it up but compare that to phone calls to every captain you can find. He may also be able to give advice on the seaworthiness of vessel and quality of captain.
Mamallena and Voyager may do a similar service. Also all hostels have noticeboards plastered with boats sailing. Choose carefully. There are several backpackers who made their captain leave them on the San Blas Islands when they realised how cramped conditions were or how poor the boats were sailed.
In our case I wrote down some email addresses and emailed everyone asking if they could carry bikes. We got lucky. Ludwig seems to be the best and he replied within 24 hours - was leaving in 3 days which was a little earlier than we hoped but a good option.
The website is in german but you can email Ludwig for english. He is currently dry docking the boat for about a month to do some maintenance and then I don´t know if he intends to keep ferrying people.
He was a good captain. We had a party first two days in the islands and then he asked if we could not get too drunk on the open sea. Smooth sailing really, just a small swell.
We paid $450 all up. Our agent Manfred Manfred.AL@gmx.net
in Colombia charged $20 each bike and it took a whole day to clear customs. He is on a pretty leisurely timeframe but then I had a cold (in the Caribbean) so wasn´t quite with it either.
For us it was a good deal because we saved the money and time of looking for a cheaper option. We just turned up, got lucky and instead of spending a week at $30-40 day got to put that into a sailing experience.
It was interesting getting to the boat down a dirt road. While no problem on KLRs in the dry (or a BMW...maybe) it rained all night and would have been impassable in the morning.
Our personal experience is here
I would not recommend the option in Portobelo - this was suggested on Lonely Planet forum but the marina is generally smaller vessels good for backpackers, probably not for bikes (warning, second hand info there).
The docks at Colon were where I was headed to negotiate a passage. I was told to go to the Captain of the port and ask who was going where and that he would be able to advise which ships were reputable. Colon is by all accounts a nasty place. We could have gotten a cheaper passage but one in the hand is worth a $200 passage in the tree.
Travellers going from Cartagena to Panama could try a hostel Casa Viena by email to get an idea of who is leaving from there Cartagena - Colombia -hostel- hotel- hostal - backpacker - rooms - internetcafe
Casa Viena isn´t moto friendly but all the cheap hotels are around it and they are.
So, I hope that makes sense and helps the next guys. If anyone wants to correct anything or add their own experiences, please do so.