Panama to Colombia

Tuesday 2/3:

Back in Panama City, freshly showered and nursing my wounds. The islands were great, but it’s also nice to be back in civilization. Think I’ll chill here for a few days while I figure out how to get to Colombia.

As you may know, there is no overland route from Panama to Colombia, due to the Darién Gap. The Darién Gap is the no-man’s land between Panama and Colombia, a mythical, mystical place that is still largely unmapped and unexplored. Amazing in this day and age. It’s the only break in the 29,800 mile long Pan-American highway which stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Several attempts have been made over the years to bridge this 54-mile gap, but it’s a formidible land, and there are many environmental and cultural reasons for keeping this barrier between the continents. More people have scaled Mount Everest than have crossed the Darien Gap. There are many thrilling stories of adventurers through the years who have made their way through the gap.. I’ve become fascinated with them of late. I’d love to read some of the books of their travails. One thing I don’t quite get is how the Land Rovers and motorcycles were able to make their way through the swamps and marshes. I guess they were floated on pontoons?

As for attempting the crossing now, most experts give this kind of advice:
“If you want to make it through the Darien you will need a good machete. No, wait… make that a chainsaw. And take lots of spare fuel (for the chainsaw, not the vehicle). Another problem are your travel buddies: the jungle is populated by Guerrilla groups, drug cartels, DEA and some other unfriendly folks that basically don’t want you to be there. Well, not quite true. Kidnapping for ransom is big business in the area, and maybe they can get some cash out of your family, too.”

The FARC and other paramilitaries have kidnapped people attempting to make the crossing in the last ten years, including the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guide to global trouble spots, and Come Back Alive, a travel advice book billed as “The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disasters, Kidnappings, Animal Attacks, and Other Nasty Perils of Modern Travel,” which I find supremely ironic. He was safely released a week after capture, you’ll be glad to know.

Amazingly, my guidebook says it is possible today, you just need good guides, a thorough knowledge of Spanish, a lot of cash, and.. good luck. It then proceeds to tell you how to do it. It actually looks fairly straightforward, and some people say that the last thing the guerrillas want is to be seen – they are hiding out, after all. There is even a guy right now on Lonely Planet’s message board looking for fellow loonies travelers to make the journey with him. He sounds quite serious and practical. BUT DON’T WORRY – as much as I love adventure, I’m not insane.

There are three sane methods of jumping the gap.
The easiest is to simply fly from Panama City to some large city in Colombia. There are flights all the time, the only problem is they’re fairly expensive, at $250-$350.
The second method is to get on a boat that is heading that way.. although cargo ships are occassionally an option, typically it’s done aboard yachts. These are either yachts that are traveling the length of the Americas and will pick up strays for the company (and help), or one of the few that make dedicated runs. This method sounds nice and all, but it’s at least as expensive as the flight, you’re expected to pull your own weight on deck, and you’re at sea for 3- 5 days. I’m afraid I might get seasick, I’ve never been on a boat that long.
The third method – the cheapest and most adventurous – is probably the one I will take. It involves taking a puddle jumper to the outlying Panamanian island of Puerto Obaldia, from where you get the Panamanian exit stamps (don’t forget!), catching a 2-hour boat ride across the border to the Colombian island of Capurguna, where you register with Colombian Immigration, then it’s a 75-minute canoe trip to Turbo, which is on the mainland. From there one can catch buses to anywhere. The timing is a bit tricky since the flights are only twice a week, and I’m not sure about the boats.

Wednesday 2/4:

I managed to catch a gastrointestinal bug on the islands. At first I thought I was reacting to the horrible exhaust fumes that one is forced to breathe walking around Panama City.. they really need to enforce those emmissions standards. But I think it is actually a bug. The miracle drug Tindamax that Alex introduced me to back in Belize usually knocks these things out after only one pill. But it’s not working, so I’m switching to Cipro.

I’m taking advantage of the modern malls and stores here to stock up. Which by the way, are over the top – Bulgari, Chanel, Cartier, Jimmy Choo. I felt like I was back in O.C. I bought a new pair of trousers that are a bit heavier weight and more appropriate for going out than the two I’ve been wearing for four and a half months. These pants needed hemming, which was a whole cultural experience in itself – the tailor’s machine looked like it was from the 19th century. But he did a hell of a repair job on my 15-year old daypack that was falling apart. Arnie, you’re going to kill me – once again, I hemmed my pants a bit too short! What a dork. I also bought two short-sleeve button-down shirts that look good for dressing up, but are also functional for the heat. Naturally all of these are “tech” fabrics – wicking, quick-drying, non-wrinkle, etc. Back in Chitré I found a pair of trendy kicks for $5, so now I’ll fit in better in clubs. I also picked up a video cable for the iPhone so I’ll be able to play the yoga podcasts on hotel room TV’s. These countries have the funniest juxtapositions – one aisle over from the iPhones and Crackberries are typewriter ribbons. Can you imagine?!

I decided to investigate direct flights to Colombia, just for s’s & g’s. Indeed, all the normal travel sites and agents gave me prohibitively high quotes. But… Aires Air has flights to Cartagena for $173, sometimes even less! I would have been paying at least that much between all the planes, boats, buses, hotels and food by taking the long route. Oh, what a relief – this will be much simpler. So I’m booked on a flight for Saturday morning.. the first daytime flight they had. Oh well, a few more days in this less-than-stellar city.

I just wanted to share this tidbit from the guidebook. It relates to Cañas Island which I didn’t make it to, but wish I had based on this:
“If there is no boatman when you arrive, find the truck wheel hanging from a tree at the mangrove’s edge and hit it hard five times with the rusty wrench atop it. If the sun is out and the tide is up – if there’s water in the mangrove – a boatman will fetch you.”

Thursday 2/5:

I forced myself to go out last night which I usually don’t feel comfortable doing since I feel like such a dork at a bar/club all alone. But I was rewarded by meeting some nice people. A Panamanian-American woman who was trying to sell me on her concierge services, and a nice couple from Boston with whom I had an intelligent conversation. Yay.

Ballet in the park

I saw in the paper listings for performances in a park.. the National Ballet one night, and a bunch of music groups the next. The show was supposed to start at 7pm, but by 7:30, the dancers were still having class onstage, lights were popping on and off, and drapery was being strung up. Again, Par cans pointed in random directions, gelled in rock ´n´roll colours. No booms. And all controlled from stage left where they couldn’t see a thing. Huh? It was a good sound system, though. The best part of the tech were the video screens flanking the stage which you know are called I(mage) Mag(nification), since they’re supposed to show the audience a bigger view of the performers. But the screens were so small they displayed the performers smaller than in real life, so what was the point other than to pull focus?! The director gave a nice introductory speech before the performance, cultivating the audience who is clearly not used to attending ballet. It was nice to see dancers again after so long. [Never thought I’d say that, did you?!] They were pretty good, actually. Their legs weren’t very high. One of the men was quite talented.

Music groupThe next night I came back for the music groups. Based on the names of the bands, I thought it would be rock. I can’t say exactly what it was, which you know means I liked it. The intrumentation (of the first band, which is all I stayed for since they were running equally behind schedule) was oboe, clarinet, bassoon, flute, one-armed french horn (the player, not a new kind of instrument), viola, cello, bass, bongos, timbales. Weird line up, right? It was a kind of Afro-Latin jazz chamber music group. I guess. The evening was being filmed for broadcast, replete with jib – I love those things. Not that the players or the stage was dressed for filming. It was a mess! Oh, but not compared to the mix – gawd-awful. They were using all the wrong mics on the instruments, splatty plate reverb (totally inappropriate), the list goes on. I know, I can be such a bitch when it comes to technical production. But there’s just no excuse for such shoddy work!
Incongruously, there were boxing rings behind the stage (that are there year round, whereas the stage was temporary.. so it’s not so weird), so I watched the local middle-weights for a while before wandering away.

Just when I wondered whether I was being unneccessarily cautious in buying my theft-proof shoulder bag (which I love, btw), I witnessed a bag slash & snatch. Four white girls walking down a questionable street.. I pass them and think well, there’s four of them, they’ll be alright. I get about 50 yards ahead and hear a terrible scream. Look back to see one of them holding the strap of her former bag and a guy booking it down the street with said bag. I almost took off after him, but he was already 100 yards away. Amazingly, an undercover cop car pulled up a minute later, checked them out, and sped off after the guy. Admittedly I take risks by walking the streets alone at night. But I am always hyper-aware of who else is out, and make sure to always maintain a safe distance. Ever since getting pickpocketed in Guatemala, I’m also hyper-conscious of keeping my belongings squirreled away, away from easy grasp.

Friday 2/6:

Went for a walk in the large metropolitan park / nature preserve this morning. People stopped me along the way and told me it was dangerous, that I would need a guide, blah blah. PUH-LEEZE. Kenji Yoshino calls this “self-imposed disemancipation”, a turn of phrase that I absolutely adore. If people don’t get out from behind their goddamned desks and automobiles and take a walk in the woods once in a while, then they’ll get exactly what they deserve. That’s probably the response Edward Abbey would have given them. Seriously, no danger whatsoever. Nature, in all it’s pure glory, doing it’s part to fight against the smog. Why do you need a guide to go for a walk? But people don’t know the woods, so they think the boogeyman is out there. Take back your city! They’re your woods! Get lost in them! This attitude of the locals was even evident in the signage – one said “This trail is 2km long, which is equivalent to 2 hours of walking.” Umm… who walks that slow??!

Baskets the crane picks up to study canopy

Baskets the crane picks up to study canopy

Supposedly there are tamarins, sloths, and Western night monkeys in these woods, although all I saw was some cool trees, lizards, and funny-looking humans. Birders they’re called, and they wear their pants tucked into their socks, hiking boots (while I’m tromping around in my shorts and sandals), vests loaded with gizmos like huge cameras, binoculars, scopes, recorders, and speakers with which to play field recordings in an effort to bring out their feathered friends. Fascinating to watch. There was an enormous construction crane in the middle of this nature preserve which I found odd until I read the sign – biologists (from the UN, Smithsonian, and elsewhere) use it to put themselves way up into the canopy, anywhere they would like to study. Genius.
Ooh, I also came across many leaf-cutter ants. Those things are amazing, the way they blaze trails in the woods with all their activity. Took a couple of videos of them doing their thing here and there.

After nature, it was time for some art. So I headed to the only art museum in town, a private gallery of contemporary art. The art was a complete waste of the entrance fee, but I had a nice time chatting with the dude on duty who knows quite a lot about American modern art, including Rauschenberg. I also created my own art out of the non-art in the gallery:

I know I'm a geek for noticing this, but isn't it odd to go to all that trouble? Why not just use an extension cord when you need to? It almost looks like an art piece (an extemporaneous comment on the state of modern society, naturally).

I know I'm a geek for noticing this, but isn't it odd to go to all that trouble? Why not just use an extension cord when you need to? It almost looks like an art piece (an extemporaneous comment on the state of modern society, naturally).

The label actually belongs to a painting off frame, but I prefer the sculpture of the fuse box more than the art.

The label actually belongs to a painting off frame, but I prefer the sculpture of the fuse box more than the art.

I will leave you with these two shots from around town:

The Colonel, calm in the storm

The Colonel, calm in the storm

It just doesn't have the same ring as "Marley and Me".

It just doesn't have the same ring as "Marley and Me".

Written by in: Panama | Tags: , ,


  • Marissa says:

    Ahh! It’s so great to read all of these observations, all of this detail. it’s like being right there with you. And that’s awesome.

  • Judith Johnson says:

    Hi Josh, I loved the stories. you have such adventures. I’m very impressed. Hope you find a hotel for carnival. It sounds such fun. After loving Mardi Gras in N>O> I’ve always wanted to go to carnival. Loved your pictures. Glad Columbia is different and intersting. The pictures of the colonial part look wonderful What fun to run into Alex and Dom. Hope you have several days of talk together. The 4×4 thru the water reminded me of our 3a.m. trip in Mali thru the water in the dark with a boy sitting on the hood with a flashlight. Amazing how they manage. Could you sleep in a hamock. I don’t think I could. Where do you learn all about the Kuna, and other things you write of? I didn’t know about their being short and albino. VEry interesting. missing you a lot! J

    • Yosh says:

      Hi Mom,
      Thanks for the great feedback, you know it means a lot.
      What a great story about your experience in Mali! I don’t remember hearing that one.. I’ll have to ask you all the details the next time I see you.

      Not only could I, I did sleep in a hammock for two nights. It’s surprisingly comfortable.

      Where do I learn all that I write about… well, that’s one of the reasons each post takes an average of 5 hours, lol! Research.. on the web, guidebook, newspapers, jotting stuff down throughout the day.


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