Crossing the Darien Gap

Crossing the Darien Gap

The infamous Darien gap is one of the most notorious stretches of land in all of Latin America. Only the most foolhardy of travelers have attempted to cross over from Panama to Colombia on land and as brave as I thought I was I had no desire in doing so. This part of the world is notorious due to the fact that this sparsely inhabited stretch of land is home to FARC Guerrilla, narco-traffickers, bandits and smugglers. It remains ungoverned, unpoliced and unwelcoming to say the least.

The dense jungle bordering both countries is the only break in the Pan-American Highway that stretches all the way from southern Argentina to Alaska and for various reasons there has never been any real political effort on both sides to make the border frontier passable by land.

How It All Got Started

Scene from the Darien GapAs I lazed around in my hostel; Mamallena’s in Panama City, I analyzed the various options at my disposal to finally get from Central America to South America. I had only just flown down from Guatemala City to Panama City after my sojourn of learning Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. The first thing I noticed about Panama was that I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying to me. That was a bit depressing considering I had just spent five consecutive weeks learning!

All in all I was in a rush to get to Colombia. Panama City was uninspiring and boring for me, the food was poor and the humidity was energy-sapping as I had spent the last few months in the cooler mountains of Antigua.

For that reason my research efforts began, my German friend, with whom I had spent two weeks travelling Mexico only three months previously had recommended me only one thing to do: make sure you visit the San Blas islands!

The cost was $600 US, this included 4 days and nights on board a yacht or Catamaran crossing from Panama to Cartagena. The initial few days were to be spent island-hopping on the San Blas, visiting the various beaches, swimming, snorkeling, lazing around or drinking rum out of a coconut with other travelers. Not a bad way to spend a few days I thought!

The other was to fly to Cartagena directly from Panama City. The airline wouldn’t let me choose a one-way flight to Colombia because of migration rules therefore this was costing about $500 dollars. No way, I thought, the San-Blas sounds a little bit better!

I spoke with girl on the front-desk who informed me that the next boat going to Cartagena was the day after but that it was full. I would have to wait another five days to cross. I was really not in the mood to prolong my stay in Panama and returned back to the lounge area of the hostel in a pensive state. Here I met some interesting characters including one Canadian guy who claimed he had driven his motorcycle from Vancouver, Canada all the way to Panama City. He was planning on continuing his journey to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. I looked at the map of Southern and Northern America on the wall and looked back at him in awe!

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He was a bit annoyed that he would not be able to claim that he drove ALL the way from Canada to Argentina, having to take the boat from Panama to Colombia! He like I, was also unwilling to take his chances amongst the plethora of dangers that would undoubtedly await him if he had dared to take his Harley Davidson into the jungle!

It was there that I met David from Luxembourg who was also unorganized and had nothing planned or booked. David had decided on a whim to extend his trip. He had heard so much good things about Colombia that he had rang home the week before and informed everyone not to expect him for another two months at least!

We started off badly as I asked him what part of Germany he was from, he was a bit put out about this but we smoothed things out and discussed how we were going to plan the next few days. He had only just spoken to a Spanish backpacker he had gladly informed him that there was a cheaper and more adventurous way to get across.

We sat down with the Spaniard and talked.  I understood about 50% of what he was saying but I got the general drift.  I quizzed David after and I discovered that there was a flight from Panama to a small military outpost called Puerto Olbaldia, near the Colombian border. It was then possible to take a speedboat across from there to Capurgana, a small sleepy Carribbean village in Colombia. It was possible to receive an entry stamp there and continue your journey to Turbo. From there were regular buses running to Cartagena, via Monteria.

We decided that this would be the best course of action, it was the cheapest and appeared the most adventurous. I looked up the flights on the airline company’s website and there were seats available for the day after. I booked the $90 flight there and then and told David to do the same. He tried to do so but his booking was rejected because there were no more seats left!

Crossing the Darien Gap in airplaneI felt bad as the next flight wasn’t for three days. We enquired as to how one would get to Puerto Olbaldia. Our Spanish friend was again very helpful, he advised us that there was in fact a four-wheel drive that brought people to a small outpost on the coast, this would take roughly five hours.

From there it was possible to take a speed-boat all the way up the coast, in what he had heard was a rough and bumpy eight hour journey! It seemed like I had dodged a bullet!

Heading Into The Darien Gap

I set off that morning to take the flight. I made plans with David to meet up in Capurgana. I got to the airport and checked in. I then saw the plane. It was tiny, I enquired as to how many people it could take and found out it was 12-seater. Nerves started to set in and this stage, I looked around and headed up to the bar. I thought one small glass of whiskey might help settle the stomach.

I boarded the plane with about 7 others. I could see right into the cockpit and heard the two pilots laughing and joking. We were too close for comfort I thought. As we became airborne, we seemed so close to the trees that I could almost see the wildlife that called the jungle home. We also flow over the coast at various stages. I thought to myself that I could much prefer to land in the water than the jungle.

I was sitting next to a Colombian women who it looked like had been on a shopping trip to Panama. She was from Medellin and very proud of the fact. She assured me that Medellin was in fact the best place in Colombia and to make sure that I visit. A stereotypical proud Paisa!

After about an hour flying over the jungle we landed in this field which I discovered was in fact the ‘airport’ of Puerto Olbaldia. I met some English travelers who led me to the migration office. I got my exit stamp and proceeded along where we were approached by a local offering to take us to Colombia in a boat. It would cost $30 US Dollars. The crossing was calm and scenic. We got splashed from time to time but the water was warm and the view was spectacular. It was just jungle, beach and ocean. We got to Capurgana and received our entry stamp in the village. I got my first 90 days tourist visa and checked in to an Italian owned hostel called Gecko.

Entering Colombia

Welcome to Colombia - Darien GapCapurgana was great, so relaxed and my first taste of Caribbean beach life since Livingston Guatemala. I got my first taste of Colombian, albeit Caribbean life, here and I will definitely return. There are no roads in and out of the place, people travel around on imported motorbikes and bicycles and the people are so laid-back they seem half asleep. No one was in any rush to do anything. My kind of place. I decided to chill her for a few days to see if David would in fact turn-up. I felt a bit sorry for him on that eight hour journey as I sipped Aguilas on the beach with my new English friends.

We took a day-trip to a well-hidden beach right on the border, there was a shop here selling duty-free alcohol, we bought a bottle for rum for $5 dollars, did some snorkeling for a bit and returned back to our hostel. The Italian owners promised us some authentic Pizza and they didn’t disappoint. As we sat sipping Rum and eating great Italian style Pizza with my new-found Italian, English and Colombian friends my expectations of Colombia were being fulfilled.

After a few days lazing about doing nothing we decided to take the boat to Turbo. I had heard horror stories about Turbo and the journey there but it proved easy in the end. The 3 hour trip went quick enough and the water was calm. We got to Turbo and got out of there as quick as possible. There was a bus waiting for us at the pier and we boarded straight away. Turbo was rough, dirty and congested. A typical port town.

The bus to Monteria wasn’t fun. We broke down after about two hours driving. The driver clearly didn’t have a clue what was wrong. On the bright side we stopped off in a village, Colombia were playing in a friendly match and we sat down in a Café cooling down and watched the game. After two hours a replacement bus came along.

We boarded quite lazily, I would have easily stayed there the day as I was enjoying myself and I wasn’t looking forward to the bus journey again. It definitely is one of the disadvantages of living and travelling in this great country. Bus journeys tend to be long, bumpy and grueling. The next hiccup was a random military stop. We were all ordered off the bus and all the foreigners were asked for documentation and our bags were searched. Once they were satisfied that none of us were transporting anything illicit we carried on, on our way. Due to the various setbacks along the way we missed our connection in Monteria for Cartagena.

Darien Gap beachWe were approached by a taxi who said he would bring us on the five hour journey to Cartagena for $20 dollars a head, Deal! The taxi was a welcome difference from the previous agonising bus journey. There was air-conditioning, comfortable seats and good company as I sat and chatted with a girl from Israel who was also coming from Capurgana on a diving-trip. As we approached Cartagena I realized that we had no reservations made anywhere. We arrived around eleven at night and found a room in the center of the town. Tip for anyone thinking of going to Cartagena; book in advance as I was left in the room with no air-conditioning with a fan that sounded like a helicopter at the bottom of the bed.

After a sleepless night I hurried downstairs to catch up with my colleagues. All agreed that it was going to be a day of relaxation due to the exertions of the day before. Matt, my friend from England and I set about exploring the city. After about five minutes, we gave up for a while. The heat was unbearable and there were quite a lot touts hassling us on the street. Cartagena is in fact a very beautiful city, however our Italian friends at Gecko informed us that Cartagena is in fact one of the more dangerous cities in Colombia. The centre inside the old wall is a set of beautifully maintained meandering streets with a vast array of eating options and street vendors. Outside this wall however, and away from the protection of the tourist police remains a number of no go areas, where we made sure we didn’t venture.

We met up some other travelers who had mixed reviews of Cartagena. The receptionist had warned us as to the apparent risk of being bribed by the police. Not carrying an official form of ID is an offence in Colombia, one which the police used in Cartagena to extract unsuspecting travelers of some Colombian Pesos!

My English friends left that evening and I was left to my own devices. Inside the lounge area chatting to a few French guys who had just come from Venezuela but who walks into the hostel only David, looking fairly sunburnt after his boat journey! We shared stories about our adventures, and agreed upon one thing, if anyone is looking for a cheaper alternative to flying or taking the boat directly they should consider doing as we did.

7 Responses to Crossing the Darien Gap

  1. Great story Niall.. Us all here understand your situation. Far away from the highs of RTÉ.. Keep em coming..

  2. Great story! Made me miss Colombia even more as I had lived there from 2008 till 2015.Reading your account fuels my conviction and desire to return to open a restaurant. I was very successful in Bogota serving Carolina country food and wings with salsa’s and cheesecake…but my partners were not to be trusted so I broke with them and now they’re not doing as well. If you know any Gringos who would like to start a restaurant in Colombia, let me know. My recipes were real winners.

    Actually, you didn;t do the Darien the way I had thought you would by travelling overland into Colombia. I’m not sure there is even a rout even by 4×4… But very risky business and in Colombia yopu should be prudent unless with trusted friends.

    I had spent many stays in farms in eastern Colombia, Los Llanos, where much of the countryside is lawless. One time I was tipped off by a local church I was attending that the word had got out that there was a gringo about. I chose to get back to Bogota pronto! Another time while teaching English for a petroleum company in Canon Limon, Arauca, the guerrillas blew up the power plant and the company helo’ed me out.

    But in general, Colombia is quite safe when approached with common sense and education.

  3. Niall, good read ! I had a similar adventure starting out Studying espanol in Antigua 35 years ago. I bussed it to Panama City spending one of the nights in Managua during the revolution in a sweltering hotel.Flew to Bogota, then bussed it back up to Santa Marta where I got ripped off while water skiing in my underwear.It was all good times though.

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