Crossing the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama
NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some of the info may be out-of-date.
The Darien gap is an 80km stretch of jungle between Panama and Colombia. It will be of interest to anyone looking to combine our South America backpacking route with our Central America route. A quick look on google maps would suggest that America is one huge continent and it should be possible to travel overland from Alaska right down to Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina.
However this narrow strip of land connecting North and South America has no roads and the jungle is tough to cross even if you are fit and have an excellent knowledge of the local area (guessing you don’t)…oh and there’s Colombian rebel fighters in the area who are at war with the government and have been known to kidnap foreigners. If you do decide to chance it on foot and make it across the dangerous Darien Gap then it’s fair to say you have well and truly graduated into a hardcore traveller! (you’re also probably a bit of a nutter).
Trekking Through the Jungle
Some people do indeed cross the Darien Gap by foot every year, numbers are unknown but we’ve met people who’ve done it and are planning to do it again. Although Colombia is now pretty much a safe place, certainly much more so than 5 years ago, many of the FARC rebels (those who haven’t been killed by the government forces) are believed to have retreated back to the jungles of Darien Province thus making the trip even more dangerous.
You will probably have to use local guides if you do try and do this trip and you will have to pay for them, so the costs could well make this the most expensive option as well as the most dangerous. Other things to consider include the risk of malaria which is high and you will be trekking 80km through jungle so prepare to be eaten alive by all sorts of insects.
You can get more information on attempting the crossing in local towns on either side of the border and if you are lucky you may find other mildly insane travellers who are planning to cross the Darien Gap on foot. If you do go for it attempt the crossing in the dry season and take lots of food, water, a machete and hope for the best.
myfunkytravel.com is not responsible if your head gets decapitated by a Colombian guerilla 🙂
The Safer Options
As if the situation wasn’t bad enough there are no public ferries between Panama and Colombia and there haven’t been for many years. It is possible with improved security in the area that ferries may start up again one day but don’t hold your breath.
Luckily there is no shortage of sailing boats that do the trip and this is probably the most popular option and definitely the most scenic. Most people who have done the trip rave about. It is typically 4 to 5 days and includes a couple of days stop in the beautifully quiet San Blas Islands (left). From Colombia to Panama, it’s best to head to Cartagena and even if you don’t stay there head to Casa Viena hostel which has a whiteboard with a list of boats doing the trip and remaining spaces on each. Try and talk to the captain of the ship before deciding on one. Going the other way then Panama City is the best place to arrange the trip (ask in your hostel) and there is normally plenty of boats doing the route every week. It’s worth considering whether food/drinks are included in the price, what extras are included such as diving/snorkeling etc, maybe try and meet your fellow passengers/crew (make sure they’re not going to drive you insane) and also consider whether you suffer from seasickness because you will be spending several days on a fairly small boat.
The Darien Gapster (no idea if they are good or bad) is a company that does the trip for $200 which is about as cheap you are going to find. There route is quicker than the others taking just 3 nights and still stopping in the San Blas Islands.
One solution to crossing the Darien Gap has cropped up recently with Spirit Airlines who offer budget flights from it’s Fort Lauderdale base to Colombia and cities across Central America. Flights to Cartagena are as cheap as $1+taxes+baggege fee (about $65) as of October 2010. Flights to Central America are slightly more but it’s possible to fly to San Jose for around $130. This brings the total to around $200 for the trip (eg San Jose to Fort Lauderdale to Cartagena), possibly more or less depending on the promotions they have on. Therefore the cost is similar to the sailboat option and you won’t have to worry about seasickness plus you have the option of spending a few days in Miami (there are worse places to get stuck waiting for a flight).
Otherwise there are direct flights from most of the major cities in Central America to Colombia. Flights from Panama City are normally the cheapest but still $200 or more so for a relatively short distance. It’s the quickest but least exciting way to cross the Darien Gap.
3. A Combo of Boats & Flights
The cheapest option when everything is running properly but the situation is regularly changing and it’s hard to say with any certainty what is currently possible. Firstly head to Turbo in Colombia, get a boat to Capurgana (2 hours 30). Capurgana (right) and nearby Sapzurro are great chilled out backpacker friendly beach villages and well worth hanging around a few days. Get your exit stamp at the DAS in Capurgana the day before you leave. Catch a motorboat from Capurgana to Puerto Obaldia in Panama (45 mins COP25,000). From here Aeroperlas had direct flights to Panama City for $80ish but at some point in 2010 they stopped running. Instead you can catch another motorboat from here to Mulatupo which has an airstrip (1 hour) or to Miramar which is a longer potentially choppy trip but will take you further north to Colon Province from where it isn’t far to Panama City. Reverse steps for the trip to Colombia and again it’s probably best to head to Panama City and gather current information there.
You should treat this trip as something as an adventure because it is unpredictable and frustrating but one way or another should be possible, you may have to spend a couple of days hanging around in towns waiting for a boat with space for you so don’t do it if you’re on a strict time schedule or at least do some major research beforehand into the current situation.
pic of San Blas Islands courtesy of frischifresh on flickr and Capurgana courtesy of kontour-travel.com on flickr.
This article was published in November 2011.
August 2015 Update
Read this detailed post for more on the land crossing and it includes the sad story of Jan Philip Braunisch, a backpacker killed in Colombia´s Darien Gap.
The author reports that the land crossing is now more dangerous than ever but a small airline called ADA fly direct Medellin – Acandi then boat trip (20 minutes) to Capurgana etc. (No more direct flights to Capurgana).