Crossing from Colombia to Panama on foot

There are many routes and travel itineraries in both South America and Central America. You can travel east, west, over mountains, stick to the beaches, or use a combination of all extremes, but there is one part of the route in which all travelers are in the same boat: crossing the Darien Gap. For anyone doing a cross-Americas trip, the quintessential question is: how do I cross this pesky swath of jungle? There are no roads (shame on you Panama and Colombia), and even if you try to off-road it: everything will actually try to kill you. The insects, the plants, the poisonous water, the guerrillas, the human smugglers, the drug cartels, and everything and everyone else inhabiting this jungle. The extreme adventurers try to do this overland, but since we are no action movie heroes, we decided to find a way around this 90km of hellish jungle land. While sipping on some fresh Colombian coffee in Salento, we came across a cheap solution to this trip. One of south America’s few budget airlines, VivaColombia, offered a flight for roughly 140 USD (including luggage) from Medellín to Panama City. Cheap, quick, and easy, but this didn’t sound like any fun. We explored other options, and read about a seemingly easy solution by taking a boat from Cartagena to Colón in Panama. Unfortunately, the ferry that existed for a few years has ceased service in South America to make more money in Europe. Another popular backpacker option was to take a private or shared yacht around the San Blas Islands from Cartagena to Colón, but we found that these easily cost north of USD $450. Since we aren’t made of money, nor are we that big fans of beaches, we needed to find an alternative option.

Furthermore, considering that adventure is among one of the main purposes of our trip, we decided against this flight and instead take the more adventurous route we had read about online. This would involve taking a bunch of boats, a short domestic flight in Panama, and since we were since quite far south in Colombia, some buses to get closer to the border. This way, we would (kind of) skirt the Darien Gap and, even better, actually cross the Colombia-Panama border overland.

Blogs describing this crossing identify two caveats to take in consideration when planning the crossing this way. First of all, the flight between Puerto Obaldia and Panamá City apparently book out weeks in advance, and we were planning on doing the crossing in 4 day’s time. Alternatively, we found that we could also take a boat from Puerto Obaldia to Colón, but this boat does cost over a 100 USD and has no fixed schedule.  Secondly, the boat from Turbo to Capurganá is supposed to be spine-breaking, rough and soaking wet. With these in mind, we were pleasantly surprised to find a flight in 4 days’ time and booked it online on airpanama.com for 70 USD each. That was one problem solved. Instead of taking the common boat from Turbo to Capurganá, we continued north a bit further on Highway 90 and took a boat from Necoclí. This boat ride promised to be shorter and through calmer waters, while at the same time, it was slightly more expensive (by 10.000 COP). That is the price you pay for comfort.

So to summarize, we were in sitting in Salento in our dirty clothing with a freshly booked airplane ticket four days from now in another country. We simply did not have any time to waste now. That evening, we made it back to Manizales, where Yon’s mom took proper care of us and our dirty laundry. We felt guilty especially because it was Mother’s Day, but she seemed happy to help. While our now clean clothes were drying the next day, we formulated a plan de campagne to get to Puerto Obaldia on time. We took an evening bus to the south bus terminal of Medellin, then a taxi to the north bus terminal (please city planners, stop that madness), waited for 4 hours in the middle of the night, and then took a direct bus to Necoclí. The internet is filled with horror stories on the terribleness of Turbo, and with that in mind, we found Necoclí surprisingly pleasant. It is a small beach town on the Caribbean coast. There was really not much to see, but with a portion of arepas in our stomachs and a beer on the beach, we found it a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. We never felt unsafe here and are happy with our choice to stay there. The boat from Necoclí to Capurganá  leaves everyday at 8am from the main beach. We negotiated a hostel room at the peculiar hostel Casa Museo (much more of a museum than a hostel), right next to the ticket office and the beach. Ideal for the next morning.

Casa Museo next to the ticket office

The next morning the Necoclí, positively surprised us again. Without any hassle, we were loaded on the boat, after paying a small port tax and some extra for the heaviness of our backpacks. The tickets were 70.000 COP, the port tax 2.000, and a 1.000 COP extra for every kilo over 10kg of luggage. Two massive engines launched our ferry over the smooth waters of the Gulf of Urabá in an hour. We neither got wet, nor seasick, nor was the ride bumpy. So far, so good.

A surprisingly efficient and orderly way to go on the boat to Capurganá

The Darien Gap on our left!!

Leaving the boat though…less organized

After we arrived in Capurganá, we decided to get the bureaucratic procedures out of the way and collect our exit stamps from Colombia. However, the city decided that it was not the right time for us to do so. The power was out in Capurganá and the migration services could thus not function. We were told to come back after 3. This gave us the morning and the afternoon to relax at the beach and make the much dreaded Colombia-Panama border crossing on foot. To do this, we walked from Capurganá to nearby Sapzurro, which has a much nicer and more tranquil beach. The hike to Sapzurro can best described as muddy. It was 1 hour up through the muddy jungle and half an hour down through the muddy jungle. Our flip flops kept getting stuck in the thick mud, so we completed the walk barefooted in the rock studded squelchy mud. Once on the beach in Sapzurro we cleaned our legs from the mud and kept walking north towards La Miel, which is in Panama.  We hiked for another 20 minutes on paved stairs, and had officially reached the border. We had to endure some quick meaningless formalities, such as waving our passports in their faces, before we we were allowed to walk down to the lovely beach of La Miel. Although we had crossed into Panama, we were officially still in Colombia, thanks to the power outage meaning that we did not have our exit stamps. SENAFRONT did not seem to care at all. It was not a super hard walk, but the swim was well deserved.

We thought we had left the mud behind in Los Nevados, but it has come back to haunt us

Yellow headed gecko

These ants smuggle almost as much over the Darian Gap as drug smugglers do

Walking to Panama!

La Miel Beach

We walked back up, waved goodbye to the guards on the top of the hill,  and took a boat back from Sapzurro to Capurganá for 10.000 COP. Struggling through that mud once per day was enough for us. Back in Capurganá, the power was back on and we quickly hurried to immigration. A new problem had arisen; the sole immigration official was fast asleep for his midday nap. A guard woke him up, he put on some pants, and stamped us out of Colombia in his pajamas without any problem. We went to get lunch with some fellow travelers and discussed the fate of 20 something illegal immigrants who were housed in a hostel down the road and would attempt to walk the Darian Gap in a few days in the hope to make in to the US unnoticed.  This really put the luxury of travel with a powerful passport in perspective.

Beach at Sapzurro

The next morning it was time to ‘really’ go to Panama. Both the Lonely Planet and travel blogs stated that there is a daily boat from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldia at 8am. Well, this was clearly not the case on that day. Since our flight was at 11:45, we didn’t want to wait for it for too long and chartered a boat from the port. We shared the price (40USD) with one other backpacker, which made the whole trip costing not much more than the regular boat would have been.

Our little charter ferry to Panama

Welcome to the bleak town of Puerto Obaldia

Once in Puerto Obaldia, we found that the Panamanian immigration service was not much more advanced than the Colombian one, but surely more innovative. The computer system was out in Puerto Obaldia as well, but the young immigration official just snapped a pic with his phone of our passports and Whatsapped that to his superior. He also could not be bothered to see proof of onward travel or the 500USD you are supposed to prove you have to your name. A few blocks up from the immigration hut was the AirPanama hut. Here they weighted not only our luggage (for which we had to pay a 4 USD overweight charge), but also us, much to Emily’s surprise when he informed her to jump on the scale after the luggage. When that happens, you know you are about to fly in a tiny plane. Sure enough, after walking from the AirPanama hut to a flat stretch of tarmac at the end of the village (and paying a 2 USD ‘airport’ tax for this), we were welcomed by a 12 seater Canadian-made Havilland plane. Our backpacks were loaded in the belly of the plane, 8 passengers got on, the plane turned, and off we went to Panama City. This 45-minute flight offered some great views over both the San Blas islands and the Darian jungle. Soon enough however, the skyscrapers of Panama City became visible over the shoulders of the two pilots. Again, the immigration process here was much more straightforward for us than we had been warned for. No one asked us to open our bags.

Guess his weight

Peering out in front of the pilots’ cockpit

We make up 25% of the plane’s passengers

A 2 USD taxi to the metro station and a short metro ride later, we had successfully made it from Central America’s most hostile jungle to the center of its biggest metropolitan hubs.

Landing in Panama City!