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The Darien Gap and crossing the border to Columbia

PANAMA | Wednesday, 13 February 2013 | Views [1830] | Comments [1]

Loading the boat to cross the border to Columbia - wild boat ride!

Loading the boat to cross the border to Columbia - wild boat ride!

Darien Gap - getting to Columbia on the Caribbean side.

Our flight left at noon on Sunday the 3rd. We rode our bikes to the national airport in Panama City, after taring ourselves away from Nina and Michael, who send us off after marveling at our bikes, the weight and all....waving until we could not see them anymore.
Somebody in charge for the cargo at the airport looked highly skeptical at our load. Boxes to pack up our bikes were never mentioned, but we did have to take them apart to some extend. All the luggage and both wheels had to be taken off.  We tried to make it all look small, but nobody gave us any guaranty about actually leaving as planned on that plane (so, there was still hope to return to Michael and Nina...).   
Well, we did leave we were the last ones entering the plane, after paying $40 for overweight luggage each- the plane was pretty full. A passenger seemed to have seen that our bikes have actually been loaded onto the aircraft we took seat in.....all we could do at this point was just hope it's true! 
The 20 seater, propeller powered aircraft was a small puddle jumper and we reached Puerto Obaldia in an hour. I was stunned by the acrobatic way this pilot managed the landing. The wind was still strong, the clouds were like buff balls scattered all around high and low and the runway was as long as maybe 500 meters and appeared right after we took a really sharp turn behind a big hill right at the coast. Again, I was SO IMPRESSED and didn't have time to worry or get scared. We all clapped after we landed safe at the tiny airport. These pilots appear to know what they are doing!
The village was/felt strange to say the least. It's purpose is a military base, but there are families and little stores and plenty of stranded individuals trying to either get to Panama or to Columbia. The atmosphere was somewhat hostile with a few exceptions. I still can't figure out what this town is all about while I am writing this a week or so later. It surely wasn't a place to linger or rest. The only hotel didn't have a room for us and pitching a tent in the strong winds wasn't something I really wanted to do. We arrive mid day, got our passports stamped for leaving Panama and then we bumped into some gringos who had just come off the boat from Columbia. They were soaked and had not much good to say about their experience on the water or the people they dealt with.The Caribbean is very rough this time of year and they said they feared for their lives and would never choose that route again once they would get out of there. The boats (and they are all small motor boats with one - if you are lucky - two engines) are often in questionable shape. It is only a one hour ride from P. Obaldia to Capurgana, but a two hour ride  from Capurgana to Turbo and a boat had capsized that day and a person had drowned. On another boat - apparently that same day - a woman broke a vertebrae when the boat crashed down on the water from a big wave. The Caribbean had been really wild and unruly. What timing I thought to myself, trying not to be scared and getting the feeling of being trapped. The two gringos were trying to arrange a flight, but the ticket office was closed - at least there was a ticket office for a plane ride...none for trying to get a boat to Columbia though.
We spend a rather surprisingly restful night in an empty shed behind some "captains" house who was drunk but nice and told us we can stay and be sheltered from the wind. This was arranged by another individual who had been stuck for five days in this village trying to find a boat to Panama (cheaper than flying, but seven hours on this rough sea would not be my choice). Upon awaking the next morning we found the captain had gone already, but the sea was still too crazy for my taste anyways.....the two gringos were super frustrated because they tried to charge them $200 per plane ticket to get to Panama City. (We had spent $90 each, oh, and yes, Panama's currency is US $ ). Don't know if they ever got out of there, but we walked up to the little beach where the villagers hung out and ask for a "lancha" to Capurgana and one of the guys gave us a price of $50 for the two of us including the bikes and the deal was on.
We paid up front and the guy ran off with the money gesturing he needed to get gas for the boat and we didn't see him for another hour or so....wondering if we were "had"..  He came back with gas and two other guys who's destiny was the same as ours.....The bikes in the front (didn't even have to take them apart) and off we went into the high waters. But the sea seemed to have calmed down just a tad bit, or maybe it was just what I was wanting to imagine.
After the gringo story I have to say it really wasn't that bad. I felt like I was in Disneyland on a ride. We got sprayed by the warm Caribbean basically the whole time - soaked to the bone, but I had TOTAL confidence in our captain and his mate (might as well, right?). I just loved how they communicated with each other without words...seemingly knowing the sea and maneuvering us safe and sound to Columbia AND pointing out the very moment we entered Columbia marked by a flag in the midst of the jungle on a little cliff right by the sea. I was busy wiping the salt water off my face and staying seated - holding on for dear life, but, shit, I had fun! The Darien Gap was flying by, or maybe it was us who flew by, but WOW!!! I am still in "awe" about this jungle, the swamp and all it's natural dangers as well as the dangers created by man (drugs) and I was safe in this boat! What a ride...thank goodness!
Capurgana, a little oasis with tourists, cafes, restaurants and hostels. A pleasant little village! People were super friendly- our first experience with Columbians - we got our three month visa for Columbia and our $ were exchanged for Columbian pesos by the official immigration officer at an excellent rate. What a warm welcome! This village feels like a trip back in time...no cars, only horse carriages and old rusty bicycles on cobble stone streets. We found a hostel a bit further down the main track - as the only guests, we had the whole place for ourselves, sweet deal!
Now here was a ticket office and fixed prices for a boat to Turbo - not much bigger than the one we took from Panama, but it had two engines and we were told it'll be a tough two hour ride across the open seas and then a bay. But, not in a rush, we spend an extra day in C. and met some three young Germans the same day who just got off the boat from Turbo and did not look all together too happy. All three of them were pretty convinced that this crossing was the "boat trip from hell" and they booked a flight from there straight to the bigger town of Medellin in the mountains a few days later.Their pale faces underlined their experience, or maybe it was just the lack of sun in Germany...? We had a good connection and hung out together at the beach, went to dinner and the next day, early in the morning, met up at the dock where they waved good bye with worried faces for a good reason: The boat was packed full with people and their luggage. The bikes had to be disassembled again and our luggage was all over the place - my bike was stuffed horizontally, tail first next to one of the motors, while James's was laid on top of -in black plastic bags wrapped up- luggage in the very front. After my concerned looks, one of the captains dressed my bike with a life vest, which really didn't make me feel a whole lot better, but it is the thought that counts, right? Well, the fun began shortly after....our concerned new German friends stayed waving at the dock, they knew what was coming.... James and I sat apart in the front, life vests tightly secured. The sea was rough ...yes, but nothing more than we already had encountered in the boat ride before. These people are just amazing how they maneuver the boat and all this cargo through these restless waters. Accidents happen to the best of us and yet I still felt confident in the captains ability.  I didn't even have time to get sea sick - loved the ride, loved it all. Not even the bikes got damaged. We lost one water bottle and a back flasher and one wave crashed over us just to make sure we won't arrive too dry looking in Turbo.
Welcome to Columbia - here we come!




Here is another account of crossing the Darien Gap: Crossing the Darién Gap (2013).

That documentary was filmed on March 2013.

Happy travels!

  Päivi & Santeri Apr 19, 2013 5:29 AM

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