If you hate sleeping in hammocks, the San Blas islands are probably not for you. If you hate traveling by boat, the islands are probably not your jam. If you hate drinking games, meeting new people, bonfires, snorkeling, or fine white sand, you are likely going to hate the San Blas islands.
Luckily for you, there’s a destination that is the perfect antithesis of San Blas, and its name is Turbo.
For those going on the San Blas Adventure trip from Colombia to Panama, Turbo will be your first overnight as a group. For those adventuring in reverse, from Panama to Colombia, it will perhaps be your woeful last night. (This applies strictly to those coming from or proceeding on to Cartagena–those taking the bus to or from Medellin will be spared the bleakness of this less than jovial port city). Turbo’s gnarliness cannot be blamed on San Blas Adventures. Though it would be awesome to stay somewhere else that night, no matter how we figured, there was no getting around it. Turbo is literally the last land-stop before we embarked on the boats to the island.
What to expect when traveling through Turbo:
We left Cartagena in the morning, and after a ten-hour van ride that included fording a river (which was actually pretty badass), we arrived at what our guidebook called a “lawless border town.” It was late in the day and raining. San Blas Adventures had provided for our transport and arranged a hostel stay for us, which was good, because at the hour we arrived, no one wanted to go poking around the city. Honestly, it was the only place in Colombia that I felt less than safe.
The hostel we stayed in was Residencia Florida. It was a bleak little place directly across from the waterfront. Luckily, we’d been able to preview the place via this Youtube video on our ride over.
We were expecting moldy walls and bare bulbs, and it delivered! Our group was shown to a series of double bed rooms and bunk bed rooms, each with what could euphemistically be called a semi-private bath. If we’re truth-talking, though, the only thing separating the toilet from the bed was the addition of a slightly translucent and very flimsy shower curtain. If you’re traveling with a loved one or close friend, expect to become closer. If you wound up rooming with a stranger…well, best make friends quickly. The beds were about as comfortable as a stack of flattened cardboard—indeed, we’re pretty sure that’s what composed the mattresses.
There weren’t rooms for all of us at the inn, and we watched with a bit of envy as four of our number got upgraded to the hotel next door. That is…until we learned that the sinks and showers next door spouted dirty brown water when opened. So, to be fair to Residencia Florida, it could have been much worse. (Also in fairness, I didn’t see a single bug in the room, neither cockroach nor bedbug).
Food options were scarce in Turbo, especially for those among us who were vegetarians, who resorted to cheese and tomato crackers from the local mercado. The rest of us attempted different variations of street food: skewers, chorizo and papas fritas, or Hawaiian pizza. Expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised at the decency in both price and taste, and by no ill effects after.
It was around dinnertime that our mood took an upswing. Sitting on colorful plastic stools along the sidewalk, we cracked open cheap beers, unleashed our tirade of complaints, and found the laughter in the situation. Over ice-cold Aguilas, we traded stories of horrible drives, less-than-clean hostels, and awkward bathroom experiences. So Turbo, if nothing else, provided a fine bonding experience. And the irony of staying in the armpit of the country before departing for paradise escaped no one. The adventure had begun, and lucky for us, it could only get better from there.