As many already know, the Panamerican Highway that extends from Alaska, USA to Ushuaia, Argentina, disappears around the Colombia-Panama border in a region called the Darien Gap.
There are many reasons to not have a road in this region. Some say that there isn’t because it is a mountainious region full of dense forest and unstable soil. However, if we are in the 21st century where humanity can contruct things like a tunnel between the UK and France that crosses the English Channel, I don’t think a little bit of forest would be a large problem for the modern engineer to solve.
So, in my opinion, I think the problem stopping the construction of the road is the drug trade and the dominance of 57th Front of the FARCS (Revoluntionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in this region.
Visualize this: 90% of cocaine consumed in the United States comes from Colombia… and there’s only 4 possible routes to get it there: through the Caribbean Sea, through the Pacific Ocean, by air, or through trails in the middle of the forest in the Darien Gap.*
Imagine what would happen if they were to construct a road between the largest cocaine producer in the world and the largest consumer! They would have to thoroughly check each and every vehicle that passed through this way. Unfortunately, even knowing that the vehicles would have to pass through several other countries in Central America along the way, it’s really not that hard to bribe the police in these areas.
So, why should you use the route I’m about to give you to cross to Panama?
The one that I’m about to give you is, though perhaps not the easiest, definitely the cheapest at around $150. While this might not seem that cheap, the other options, which would be to fly or take a sailboat and stop on various islands along the way, would cost at least $400.
Here’s the itinerary:
-Cartagena, Colombia to Turbo, Colombia by bus
-Turbo, Colombia to Capurgana, Colombia by boat
-Capurgana, Colombia to Puerto Obaldia, Panama by boat
-Puerto Obaldia, Panama to Panama City, Panama by plane
Once you’ve decided to take this route, the first thing you should do is buy your flight from Puerto Obaldia to Panama City. This is especially important because there is only one company (Air Panama) that does these flights and, since the planes are very small, the flights fill up quickly. Aim to buy at least 1 month in advance. I paid 93.42 USD (178,300 Colombian Pesos) for a direct flight that allowed you to check a bag of 14 kilos (≈31 pounds) and bring a carry on of around 3 kilos (≈6.6 pounds). You’ll get charged 1.25 dollars per kilo over this weight. The site to buy the ticket is here: https://www.airPanamá.com/
- Beginning of the journey (Cartagena, Colombia à Turbo, Colombia by bus).
First and foremost, you will need to get a bus from Cartagena to Turbo, where you will then catch your first boat.
When I did this trip (August 2013), I paid 65,000 COPs (≈27 USD) and the bus left at 6:30 AM, arriving in Turbo around 4:00 PM. As the boats to Capurgana only leave in the morning, you’ll have to spend a night in Turbo. A “meh” hotel will cost you around 20,000 COPS (≈8.40 USD) and you’ll see signs for them when you walk towards the center. Apparently, it’s 75,000 COPs now, maybe it’s about the negotiation.
- Turbo, Colombia à Capurgana by boat.
The next day, you’ll catch the boat to Capurgana, the last village with basic infrastructure before Panama. The boat leaves around 8:30 AM and arrives around 12:00 PM. Try to buy the ticket the day before, if you can. You should pay around 55,000 COPS (≈23 USD) plus an extra 650 COPS (≈0.30 USD) per kilo that your bag is over 14 kilos (≈30.8 pounds).
Arriving in Capurgana, you’ll have to find a place to sleep. You could try to find a boat to get to Puerto Obaldia, Panama that same day, but I think it’s a risky option because boats don’t always leave in the afternoon. Plus, you have to arrive before 4:00 PM in Puerto Obaldia because otherwise immigration will be closed and you won’t be allowed to enter Panama.
If you have the time, I’d even recommend spending a few days Capurgana because it’s a pretty cool place to explore with La Playa de Miel (Honey Beach), waterfalls, and Sapzurro (a pleasant port city), among other things.
I stayed in a place called Hostel Marlin and paid 10,000 COPS (≈4.18 USD) for a private room to share with my girlfriend. It’s about a 3 minute walk from the port and, to find it, all you have to do is ask around (it’s a small enough town that everyone knows everyone and everything). Otherwise, as soon as you get off the boat it’s likely that they’ll be plenty of people at the port offering you accommodation options.
- Capurgana, Colombia à Puerto Obaldia, Panama by boat.
Continuing on, after you’ve found your hostel in Capurgana, you’ll want to confirm the hours of the boat to Puerto Obaldia the next day (as they can change) and then buy your ticket to make sure there’s a spot for you.
Our trip cost 25,000 COPS (≈10.45 USD) and you were allowed to bring 10 kg (≈22 pounds) of baggage. It was an extra 500 COPS (≈0.21 USD) per kilo over this weight. The boat left at 8:00 AM and arrived in Puerto Obaldia around 8:45 AM.
After buying you’ll ticket, go to immigration (just ask around… it’s right on the main “street”) to get a Colombian exit stamp in your passport.
With the rest of your day, as I mentioned before, there are quite a few things to do in Capurgana, like dive, swim in the waterfalls, or simply relax on the beach. You can even visit an ex-drug trafficking plane (disguised as an official UN plane) that was ordered by the Air Force to land in Capurgana.
The next day, you should arrive at the port half an hour before the boat leaves. You can use the trash bags got in Turbo to wrap you backpacks again.
After this short boat ride, you’ll arrive directly onto the military base of Puerto Obaldia. In my case, our boat was received by a pretty Panamanian lieutenant.
Once inside the base, your bags will be hand-searched and then subjected to a sniffing dog looking for drugs. So, think very carefully before trying to bring a “souvenir”from Colombia.
After the search, everyone will be sent to Panama’s immigration, about one minute on foot from the base.
ATTENTION!!! I’ve been through immigration many times in life. However, this one was, without a doubt, the absolute worst thanks to an immigration official who I’d describe with words I don’t want to publish on the internet.
He’s a major pain and likes to humiliate those who are crossing the border to impress all of his little “friends” working in the office.
First, once you arrive in his office, he’ll ask you to have 2 xeroxed copies of the main page of your passport. It’s best if you already have this when you arrive but, if you don’t, he’ll send you to the nearby internet cafe to make them.
Afterwards, he’ll ask you to show him the following documents:
-Your passport with a Colombian exit stamp and space for a Panamain entrance stamp (unfortunately, I found out the hard way that the exit stamp can not be placed on top of another stamp and I had to return all the way back to Colombia to get this fixed). Look out for this story in a future blog post;
-The two copies of your passport’s main page;
-A copy of your flight proving that you will be leaving Panama in the future (make sure you have this… I was joined on my trip back to Colombia by another Colombian girl who didn’t have this);
-Something proving that you’ve had your yellow fever vaccination;
-If you are American, Canadian, or European, you will have to show either a credit card or 500 USD in cash so they know you can support yourself while in Panama;
-If you’re not American, Canadian, or European, you can try to get by with just a credit card, but he’ll probably want to see the cash;
-A lot of patience!!
Once you’ve shown all your documents and received your entrance stamp, you are officially welcome on Panamanian soil.
- Puerto Obaldia, Panama à Panama City by plane.
The options for accomodation in Puerto Obaldia are pretty limited. We stayed in a little “hotel” almost right in front of the immigration office and paid 12,000 COPS (≈5 USD). In this case, we definitely got what we paid for…. electricity only from 6:00 PM to 9:00 AM (that means no fan during the boiling afternoon) and a bucket to shower. Not for the faint of heart.
Truthfully, there’s really not anything to do in Puerto Obaldia. The place is more of a military base than a town with the purpose of guarding the border. There are posts with soldiers around the perimeter of the town and they are serious when they say that you cannot l leave and go beyond their vision. I found this out when they told me that I couldn’t go and climb the small mountain just beyond the town. There was a military post on that, too….
Your options for food are limited to chicken and rice. I’d also recommend the “batido” (a type of smoothie) made with fruit, milk, and ice that is sold right next to the internet cafe. With the heat in Puerto Obaldia, you’ll really appreciate this thing.
Across the street from the batido place and the internet cafe you’ll find the office for Air Panama. If it’s open, try to go there the day before your flight to confirm the hours. If it’s closed, make sure you go there quite early so they can weigh your bag as, with such a small plane, all weight counts. As the Air Panama website didn’t mention this detail, my girfriend and I were stuck waiting at the aiport all alone like ignorant tourists until a kind soul found us and told us we had to return to weigh our bags.
(One note about the boat from Puerto Obaldia to Carti. Besides being as expensive as or even more expensive than the plane – $120 + cost of baggagen – sailing 8 hours in a small boat where you can’t do anything is a challenge to the sanity of any person. Another problem with this boat is that you will arrive in Carti on the Pacific Coast and then have to arrange another way to get to Panama City).
Relax…. you’re almost there! On the day of your flight, go nice and early to the Air Panama office. Stay around that area (you’ll probably see a crowd forming), and they’ll let you know when the plane has left from Panama City to pick you up. Unfortunately, due to an issue with the weather (?), our flight was about 5 hours late. We were even more confused when the office didn’t open until an hour or two after our flight should have left. So, just keep an eye out…
Once you arrive at the airport (just follow everyone else to get there… it’s a short walk), there’ll be another search of your bags by the military and then you can enter the plane.
After an hour flight, you’ll arrive in Panama City. On arrival, hold on to what patience you still have left. Everyone on the flight will have to be interviewed by a Panamanian police officer one at a time. Only after EVERYONE has been interviewed will you be free. Remember that you have arrived in Albrook Airport, the airport in the center of the city used for domestic flights.
TIP: There’s a tourist information spot in the airport. Of course, they’ll try to get to get you to take a taxi. However, you can ask them how to catch the bus to Albrook terminal where you will buy a transportation card and then find another bus to the destination in Panama City of your choice.
Well, here’s a sum of the total cost:
-Cartagena – Turbo by bus: 65,000 COPS (I last heard that it was now 75,000 COP, try to negotiate!)
-Turbo – Capurgana by boat: 55,000 COPS (with 14 kilos of luggage included) (Same here, 60,000 COP)
-Capurgana – Puerto Obaldia by boat: 25,000 COPS (with 14 kilos of baggage included)
-Puerto Obaldia – Panama City by plane: 178,300 COPS (with 14 kilos of checked baggage and 3 kilos hand baggage included)
–Hotel in Turbo: 10,000 COPS
–Hostel in Capurgana: 10,000 COPs
–Hotel in Puerto Obaldia: 12,000 COPs
Total: 355,300 COPS, or just under 150 USD. A good price alongside the sights and adventure!!
The prices in COPs listed above were current as of August 2013. The price in US dollars as converted from COPS is current as of January 2015. Confirm the current exchange rate before you go.
EXTRA NOTE: When I did this trip in the August of 2013, the current exchange rate put the total amount I spent right around 200 USD. Obviously, the value of the dollar has increased a lot since then in relation to COPs as the current (Jan. 2015) exchange rate puts the same value 50 dollars less. So, it’s quite possible that the price of the things I’ve listed above has increased. Bring extra money, just in case.
Well, that’s it! Please, use the comments área below to ask questions, make suggestions, or let me know if you’ve survived this trip yourself!
*Note: Peru has taken Colombia’s place as the largest producer of cocaine in the world. However, 90% of the cocaine in the US still originates from Colombia. Moreover, the US continues to be the world’s largest cocaine consumer.
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