We expected to find a few boats willing to cut us a deal, but the price of $550 is pretty much set in stone. The alternative would have been to take a less credible speedboat to Colombia, but we avoided this option due to a fear of damaging our bikes. Also, it would have taken more time to find such a boat and we were already in a hurry to get outta there.
We've heard some horror stories about sailing from Panama to Colombia, including way too many tales about captains getting drunk while crossing the open sea. We definitely did not want this to happen, so we decided to travel with the Luka due to the crew's credibility, its safety certifications, and the fact that it was one of the largest boats doing the Caribbean crossing (which would hopefully reduce our chances of becoming seasick).
In the morning, we all woke up to a much gentler sea as the boat arrived at the San Blas Islands, an archipelago consisting of 378 islands off the northern cost of Panama. These islands are home to the Kuna People, who (according to wikipedia) inhabit about 49 of the islands. The area is often visited by tourists sailing through the Caribbean, and for a small payment to the Kuna, one can spend time snorkeling around the islands and even spend a few nights in hammocks overlooking the beautiful ocean view.
On the second day, we spent a couple of hours relaxing on the beach. Eventually, it was time for dinner so we began the 150 meter swim back to the boat. When we were about 20 meters away from the boat, Cole began swimming at an Olympic speed towards the boat. Out of pure, motionless confusion, Adam watched as Cole grabbed on to the anchor chain and started pulling himself up to the boat at a furious pace. Nonchalantly, Adam asked, "Hey, what's going on?" His body already halfway out of the water, Cole responded with just a few words: "Shark... Oh God, a shark." The speed by which we propelled ourself towards and onto the boat would have put Michael Phelps to shame... We were terrified (and Adam is still a little upset that Cole got halfway up the boat before finally telling Adam that he spotted a shark...) Our captain assured us that absolutely no sharks live in this part of the sea, but Cole stands by his belief that he saw 7+ foot-long shark in the water. I guess that we'll never know for sure...
If you do choose to go to Portobello to find a boat, BE SURE TO GET MONEY BEFORE GOING THERE. THERE IS NO ATM IN PORTOBELLO.
The San Blas Islands are beautiful, but for $550, we did not think it was worth the price, especially considering the brutal time spent at sea. Nearly everyone gets seasick and it's a pretty long trek crossing the Carribean. If seeing the San Blas isn't an absolute priority for you, maybe you should look for different options.
However, if you DO want to see San Blas, there are options other than taking a 5 day sailboat.
The bigger the boat, the better. We would recommend waiting until a bigger boat leaves from Carti. You will need to take a $40 ride from Panama City to get there. The larger boats will have more people, spend more time on the San Blas islands, and will dramatically decrease the chance of getting sea sick. Also, in Carti, you have the potential to catch a string of smaller boats / ferries that will get you to Turbo, Colombia. This option runs you about $250, but it will require a little more work in order to find the various boats.
Also, as stated above, Captain Jack's Hostel was probably one of the worst hostels that we've stayed in. We would advise trying to find a different option if you plan on leaving from Portabello.