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.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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