The Steel Rat

Cartagena, Colombia

The day after Christmas, I crawled out of the Panama City traffic with Hanna and Jasper and headed a few hours west. We stayed at a hostel just a short drive from the small port of Carti, where the Stahlratte would pick us up the next morning. Carti is in Guna Yala, an autonomous region home to the Guna people, and encompasses a thin strip along Panama’s Caribbean coast, and the San Blas islands. Along with Joris, Hanna and Jasper who I stayed with over Christmas, we met up with Sparta and Sébastian, a French Canadian couple making their way to Argentina.

After a very wet night we made our way to the port, just a few small docks mostly used to shuttle tourists around the San Blas islands. We left our bikes and boarded a skip to meet the Stahlratte for the first time.

Die Stahlratte

She’s a bit rough around the edges, but not doing too bad for a 116 year old. We had lunch and were shown our bunks in the singular cabin below deck. It was a full ship with 20-odd travelers, 3 crew and 12 motorcycles. For the first night, though, we were shuttled to the island El Porvenir while the motorcycles were loaded and customs work completed. It was a cute little island that you can circumambulate in 15 minutes, and containing just a hotel, an airstrip, and a customs facility.

El Porvenir

The Stahlratte picked us up the next morning, the sails went up, the circa 1955 engine spooled up with a very quaint CHUG-a-chug-a-CHUG-a-chug-a, and a course was set for Cartagena, with dolphins escorting us on the way out.

Setting sail

We did make one more stop in the San Blas islands, where we could swim between a few nearby islands while the captain bought fish and lobster from local fisherman in wooden canoes.

A tiny San Blas island

After a very fresh seafood lunch, we weighed anchor and continued onwards. After getting a bit further into open seas, the true test of seasickness began. With the help of dramamine, I did reasonably well, although any time I went below deck it was a mad dash to do whatever I had to do and get back on deck as fast as possible. As night fell the seas got considerably worse, with 10 or 12 foot swells making walking a pretty good challenge. There were, however, really cool bioluminescent plankton that looked like stars flying past the ship and made the bow wave light the way in front of us.

Despite the substantial seas and my bunk being towards the bow, alternating between feeling like I was going to fly off the bed and then being smooshed into it, I managed to get some sleep, albeit very weird. The morning was pretty rough as well, but things smoothed out as we approached the Colombian shore. All the while, Kapitän Ludwig, a very large, jolly German man, was most often seen ambling around the boat wearing nothing but his well-worn briefs. He’s taken well to the Caribbean sailor life. I wouldn’t have minded a few more days, myself.

Me on the bow of the Stahlratte

That evening we sailed into the Cartagena harbor, where we stayed on the boat for the night while our immigration and customs paperwork was processed. We did some work on the rum which we were too afraid to drink the previous night.

The sun sets over Cartagena

One much more restful night later, we sailed to a small port facility nearby and the motorcycles came off. Hello, South America!

Unloading the motorcycle

The next day, I rang in the new year and new continent with a group of new friends from the journey. Cartagena’s large old town turns in to a massive party, so we just strolled around with beers in hand, before renting some cheap lawn chairs in the middle of a busy thoroughfare to take in the madness.

New Years in Cartagena

Not a bad way to start the year!