Travel Stories

Epic Journey to the Panama Border

Epic Journey to the Panama Border

“Epic Journey” represents a metaphorical turning point in my life. Out of the dark depths of fear and despair came some revelations. Was it not for this voyage, they are insights I might not have otherwise encountered.

On a small motorboat bound for Colombia’s border with Panama, the ocean was as treacherous as my mindset.

Launching skyward I closed my mouth, unsure if last night’s party in Medellin would go viral – literally.

My torso thudded onto timber seating in unison with wave assaults, hard as concrete.

Fingernails mimicked cat claws as I gouged the seat in front.

“Will I bite off my tongue? Could my pelvic bones fracture or my spine pierce my skull?”

The boat teetered on tipping, as our skipper shifted gear and rode the enormous swell.

Hours before…

I landed by light aircraft from Medellin into Acandie, the gateway to the Caribbean coast in the Chocó region of northwest Colombia.

In the arrivals area, no bigger than a shed, I made a beeline for the only backpackers in sight who were waiting to board the departing flight. Asking a young woman about getting to the pier and her thoughts on my intended destination, Sapzurro, her parting words were, “Don’t let the boat ride freak you out too much!”

I’d been on plenty of boats since my grandfather and uncle had been fishermen and I had grown up in the Australian surf, so I didn’t take her comment too seriously.

It was a foreboding, perhaps I should have heeded.

Acandie is a small dusty outpost where Afro-Colombians wear cowboy hats, injured horses are left to perish in barren fields, meat hangs outdoors and travel to town is on the back of a horse cart.

It’s a place where locals stare and no one speaks English.

Getting off the cart at the pier, I found a ticket seller for the boat.

Vulnerable, speaking minimal Spanish, I paid the fare to Sapzurro, Colombia’s last frontier, to a man – who then vanished.

Sitting alone gasping for air, fighting panic, I observed all the other passengers from my flight depart on boats.

After forty-five minutes of gruelling concern and the afternoon heat frying my fragility, the ticket seller reappeared with nine Colombians and two French.

Epic journey to the Panama border

Main form of transport in Acandie


Encouraged to buy a plastic garbage bag from a man on shore to protect my belongings from getting wet, I hardly had time to tie it up. I was still fiddling with it as the captain tossed it on-board and ushered me onto the boat.

We were thrown life jackets as the motor started up and we departed into the relatively calm waters of the bay.

When a French girl turned around to me and laughed, I was provided with another hint to my impending predicament.

“Finish your beer, or throw it away – because it won’t last the trip!”

Yet, I chose to remain in denial, anticipating a scenic boat ride with my relaxing refreshing beverage.

I hadn’t been conned and left in Acandie, a situation requiring celebration. I was keeping my beer.

Relief at my departure was momentary.

When directed towards the bow, I hadn’t considered it was the most precarious position.

After leaving the bay, we reached open waters and the boat began darting between black piercing rocks stretching out from a menacing coastline.

Reality brutalised me.

The swell was enormous, waves swamped us, my life jacket was loose and my camera bounced recklessly around my neck, threatening to knock out my teeth. It had been so naïve of me to think I’d be taking photos.

As prophesied, beer frothed over my hair and T-shirt and the can was subsequently dropped to the floor.

My foolish self was close to fainting, yet I willed myself to remain alert, knowing my safety was at stake.

Had I known the Spanish for “Make it stop!” I would have begged as I’ve done on amusement rides. Without such vocabulary, I resorted to swearing in a repetitive blasphemous sequence.

After every impact hurling me airborne, came my anthem, “OH-MY-GOD!” The chorus followed, expletives starting with ‘F.’

The driver sensing my cataclysmic state and in response to my terrorised cries, ironically yelled over the engine “Tranquil!”

It did nothing to appease me.

The French girl bravely let go of her grip with one hand to hold my wrist momentarily in reassurance, “This is why getting to Sapzurro is an adventure!”

‘F’ the adventure I thought – it was close to breaking me, both physically and emotionally. I fought the deep compulsion to sob as a manic pupil-dilating lunacy overcame me.

Then, all of a sudden a miracle happened.

There was a dramatic change in course.

It wasn’t the boat’s rudder that adjusted but the direction of my mental dialogue.

Volatility of mind evolved into inevitability, stillness and an eerie sense of peace. The only possible control in the turbulent waters was a quiet regulation of my breath and ultimately, my thoughts.

Fear cast out, visualisations of a future abound with promise took the helm.

I began to think about my dreams and all the things I wanted to achieve.

Making a mental list of my life’s priorities, I pledged to myself that the moment I reached land, I would begin working towards them.

After the longest thirty minutes of my life, which felt like three hours, I nearly tripped over myself trying to get off the boat. I disembarked with ecstatic relief, wobbling legs and muscles as rigid as the wooden plank I’d been catapulted upon.

Epic journey to the Panama border

Happy relief arriving in Sapzurro!


Days later as the bruising on my bum healed, I crossed into Panama more grounded than ever, with a list of things to do with a life not wasted.


Challenging journeys can churn up tumultuous swell but they can also lead us towards the culmination of our dreams and propel important changes to inner navigation.


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  • Reply
    July 24, 2017 at 11:09 am

    When’s your next article about your arrival – love your writing – I’m gripped!

    • Reply
      Sally Watson
      July 25, 2017 at 8:48 am

      Thank you Sarah, so lovely of you to say. Do you mean my arrival in Panama?

  • Reply
    Elke Weeks
    July 22, 2017 at 6:30 am

    Fantastic article Sally! What a hair-raising trip!

    • Reply
      Sally Watson
      July 25, 2017 at 8:48 am

      Thank you Elke. It was quite the adventure 🙂 At the time I hated what I was experiencing but later and in retrospect, it was one of the best moments of my life – because I’ve never been so grateful for it. LOL! 🙂

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