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.

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The stupendous San Blas Islands

I just got back from four days / three nights in the San Blas Islands.. I am not prone to superlatives, but these islands were a definite highlight of my trip thus far.. in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Travel magazine-worthy white sand beaches, clean, clear water great for snorkeling (although not a ton of fish), relaxed, friendly locals, and cheap living. There are 1-hr flights from Panama City to many of the islands, and according to my guidebook, comfortable hotels to stay at, in case you’re tempted.

Naturally, I took the more adventurous (read: budget) route. I had been given the contact of a guy named Aaron by fellow travelers I met a few weeks ago.. I called Aaron the night before leaving, and he arranged a car to pick me up in Panama City along with other tourists from around town.
The San Blas Islands are autonomously managed by the Kuna Yala Indians, an indigenous group who have occupied the islands for hundreds of years. Although technically part of Panama, they have successfully maintained their administrative independence  – Panamanian police, courts, tax laws, etc don’t apply here. As a result, we had to submit our passports to the Panamanian police as we left Panama proper (oddly, we didn’t have to show them upon returning.. you would think they would care who enters the country more than who leaves..)
After stopping for supplies, the road turned to a rough dirt track carved through the jungle. Although we were in a 4×4 LandRover, there were sections I would not have thought would be driveable. We approached a river at one point and I thought oh, this is where we transfer to a boat. Nope, the driver plowed right through it and carried on. Adventure!

Eventually we came to the end of the road, where long wooden dug-out canoes (with outboard motors) were waiting for us. We all piled in and took a 45-minute ride through rivers before reaching the Carribean. We arrived at one of the more populated islands, where Aaron lives with his family. The populated islands like this one are not particularly clean or pretty, since they don’t have beaches and are very built up (as much as can be with thatched roofs and bamboo walls), but they are culturally interesting.

There are 400 islands in the archipelago (only about 50 of which are inhabited), and they are all quite small. Even the ones with airstrips on them are no larger than the size of the runway. This island I arrived at (one of the Carti islands, can’t recall the exact name) was maybe 100 yards x 50 yards, and had 400 people living on it in 40 families. I decided to spend one night here for the cultural experience. I turned out to be the only tourist who stayed that night, which was a treat. I walked the pretty paths and explored the neighborhood (which took all of 10 minutes), paying my respects to the elders, saying “hola” to the kids, playing with the puppies and kittens, and generally observing their life. It’s a very relaxed pace, as you can imagine. People sewing, beading, sweeping, cooking, repairing their huts or boats, or more often than not just hanging out gabbing. The kids and teenagers were really happy and giggly.

The accomodations are quite rustic. I actually had a real bed in my own hut, which is a bit of a luxury. The floors are packed sand. All the locals sleep in hammocks, the entire family in one room. [Which makes sex a bit of an challenge.] During the day the hammocks are strung up to the rafters, and the room now becomes available for other uses.. a great use of space. There is a modicum of electricity on these heavily inhabited islands, but hardly any lights or appliances. Most people have gas cookers and kerosene lamps. A supply boat comes every few days with gas canisters. In the evening people play music on their cell phones since no one owns stereos. Ordinarily every evening there is live traditional dancing and music (for themselves, not for tourists), but the performers had gone to Panama City for some special occassion. I was bummed to miss that.

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Observations on Panama

Tomorrow morning (at 5am!) I am off to the San Blas Islands, home to the Kuna Indians and their famous Mola textiles. I’m really looking forward to this trip – it’s meant to be the highlight of Panama, and not yet overrun with tourists. The Kuna live a very simple life on hundreds of tiny islands, many of which are available for rent (your own island to yourself!). I was given a contact there by some fellow travelers who had a great time. I’ll be paying $45/night which is a bit pricey for me, but that includes three meals a day, including fresh lobster, etc. During the days I’ll be snorkeling and chilling. I’m sure there’s no internet out there, although there probably is cell reception if you want to call me. I still can’t text to Twitter which kind of defeats the purpose, so don’t expect any updates from me for the next 3 – 5 days.

I’ll leave you with some random tidbits I’ve noticed about Panama:

  • You can drink the water! All over Panama (except Bocas), the water is safe to drink.
  • They don’t really eat beans, unlike the rest of Central America. But fried green plantains (patacones) are often served with meals, which I love.
  • Japan and South Korea have provided a lot of infrastructure support. There are signs indicating so at facilities. Actually, I noticed some of this in previous countries as well – some European nations too, like France.
  • They overdub reality shows! Overdubbing is bad enough, but doesn’t that finally take the reality out of reality shows?
  • Even in the boonies, I am JDrive (tech fix-it man). A twenty-something stopped me on the street for help with the PIN code on his phone.
  • I’m getting tired of the spitting. Men do it all the time, accompanied by gross loud noises.
  • They don’t refridgerate their eggs. This is true throughout Central America, as in Europe. I’m convinced the U.S. is the only country to refridgerate eggs.
  • Like Costa Rica, Panama has no military. Which is great, since historically the militaries in Latin America have been used against their own people. continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…
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Panama City

Having made it to the metropolis of Panama City, I feel much better. I think it’s because of the anonymity – in a large city, I don’t stand out, so I don’t get stared at (much). Plus, the diversity – of shops, restaurants, people, things to do..

The city is fairly spread out, so I’ve been doing a lot of walking. I prefer that to haggling with taxi drivers all day who end up trying to upsell you to take a tour or something. There are poor slums and rich neighborhoods. The latter remind me a bit of São Paulo, the way restaurants and shops are integrated into residential blocks. Jeremiah is always (rightly so) going on about the importance of this kind of zoning.

As I walk through these smog-filled traffic jams, I’ve also been thinking what a wonderful world we would live in if the internal combustion engine had never been invented. Or, let’s just say the automobile. Imagine.. if fields and forests had never been paved over with asphalt. Looking at old European cities that were built before cars existed is one example – everything is within walking distance. But one can imagine more contemporary designs. I’m thinking of modern, clean transportation like mag-lev and segways. I always think of Dean Kamen’s manifesto when he introduced the Segway – pointing out that cars are complete overkill for the short distances they’re mostly used for – for getting around the 2-10km range, why not use something smaller and easier? No need to get in those dreadful machines that spit out heat and exhaust and make us so crazy we lean on the horn incessantly. For one thing, millions fewer people would be maimed and killed if we got rid of the damn things.

What if cities were designed for humans, instead of for cars? What if there were grass paths to walk along, and moving sidewalks and outdoor escalators for steep hills (see Hong Kong). What if they weren’t concrete and asphalt wastelands, but instead beautifully landscaped communities we wouldn’t want to escape from, thereby decreasing our need for cars even further? What if there were no need for interstates  and truck stops and mechanics and parking lots and gas stations and all their attendant ugliness and waste of natural resources, but instead massive large-scale public transportation (like mag-lev trains) that were clean, efficient, and pleasant to ride?

It’s sad to me that most of us simply accept the status quo and don’t envision, let alone strive, for an radically different (better) world that could so easily be ours. In the end I suppose it comes down to money, greed, and those other nasty human traits.
It’s nice to fantasize, anyway. But back to our regularly scheduled program…

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