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Colombia-Panamá Border Crossings

No overland route connects the Central American republic Panamá with Colombia; in the debate of building a highway, the jungle—known as the Darien Gap—won. The famous crossing of the Gap on foot is prohibitively dangerous now, due to guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug labs and other hazards. Missionary groups and the rangers at Los Katíos National Park have pulled out, thus leaving the potential adventurer without the traditional safety nets.

The most secure border crossings between the two countries are on the Caribbean coast of the isthmus. Other routes exist on the Pacific side, but these are rarely used due to the dangers. Colombia does not require an on-ward ticket for those arriving by land or sea.

Many airlines are hesitant to sell a one-way ticket from Panamá to Colombia since they claim they will be fined if you are called on it. Depending on your luck, you may get a flight between the two countries for $350. Panamá requires a demonstration of sufficient funds ($600) and an onward ticket. However, for travelers from “first-world” countries, the sufficient funds and/or credit card usually suffices. Citizens from many Eastern European countries need a visa to enter Panamá. For specific requirements, check: Panamá has consulates all along the coast, including in Capurganá for those going up the coast, as well as in Bogotá. There are no ATMs between Cartagena and Panama City.

Rumors have always abounded about hitching a ride with a cargo boat out of Cartagena, Barranquilla or another Caribbean coast port to Panamá. Such opportunities are, quite frankly, a pie-in-the-sky dream. Ships must use only licensed crew. Additionally, there are many contraband-running ships that are hesitant to carry passengers. If the boat is caught doing illegal activities, you and the captain will have a whole lot of explaining to do. Better to spend a bit more and get to Panama or Colombia safely and legally.

If going through Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), read In Kuna Yala to learn more about local laws and customs.By Sailboat

The most popular way now to journey between Colombia and Panamá is by sailboat, plying the waves between Cartagena and Portobello, Panamá, by way of Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), home of the Kuna indigenous. The trip takes four to six days: a two-day open sea crossing from Cartagena, then two to three days in the islands. The entire package costs $450-550, and includes transportation, food and water, as well as customs and immigration procedures. Most boats take only five to seven passengers. Bicycles cost an additional $60.

Be warned that the sea can be rough at times and people frequently complain of seasickness. Travelers that have taken this route report Panamá immigration officials are usually more lenient on the entrance requirements, figuring if the tourist can afford the passage on a sailboat, then s/he has the financial means to visit their country.

The best sources of information are Casa Viena in Cartagena, and in Panama City, Luna’s Castle Hostel ( or Mamallena ( Travelers coming down from Panama are now going directly to the Caribbean ports from where the sailboats are departing. Recommended places to gather information are Hostel Wunderbar in Puerto Lindo ( and Captain Jack’s Hostel Portobello, where many captains hang out in Portobelo (

A frequently recommended boat is Fantasy, a 50-foot Vagabond built for the TV show, Fantasy Island, that Captain Jack operates ( The only reputable ships taking motorcycles ($500 extra) are Fritz the Cat ( and Stahlretter (

There are captains out there who are out to make a quick buck. (They can pull down a neat $5,000 in one run.) For tips on how to choose a sailboat, read Safety on the Seventh Sea.

In May 2012, a regular passenger-cargo ferry service began between Cartagena and Colón, Panama. For more information, see Getting to and away from Cartagena.

By Caribbean Coastal Route

The traditional route for backpackers traversing the isthmus from Colombia to Panamá has been along the North Coast from Turbo to Puerto Obaldía, Panamá. As long as you stay in the villages along the way and do not wander out, you should be safe. There is a trail that runs between Aguacate to Acandí, Capurganá, Sapzurró and over the brow of the hill to Puerto Obaldía. Ask local advice before heading out on it, as some parts may still have security problems. Panamanian officials will prevent tourists from walking the trail between La Miel and Puerto Obaldía. Be safe, be wise and you will see one of the most beautiful parts of Colombia.

Your journey begins at Turbo, the main port on the Golfo de Urabá. It is accessible by bus from Medellín by way of a rough road (8-17 hr, depending on road conditions, $34). Break the long journey midways with a visit to Santa Fé de Antioquia, a beautiful, safe colonial town.

You can also reach Turbo from Cartagena, by way of Montería (Cartagena-Turbo: 5 hr, $20; Montería-Turbo: 7 hr, $20). You will have to break the journey up in two. Montería has security issues; it is best to stay in Arboletes. Check Aires ( or ADA ( for cheap airfares from Medellín to Apartadó, near Turbo.

Turbo is an ugly port with many safety issues. If you can, get out as soon as you can. If not, a recommended hotel is Hotel Florida (Parque Principal, near docks. Tel: 4-827-3531 / Cell: 311-327-2569. Single $9-11). It is difficult to change money in Turbo. The chalupas, or boats, up the coast will take payment in either Colombian pesos or U.S. dollars.

From Turbo, twin-engine speedboats leave almost daily (usually in the early morning when the sea is calmer) for villages along the coast, including San Francisco and Capurganá. If heading for Panamá, go to Capurganá (leaves 8:30-9 a.m., $31, 2-3 hours) for your Colombian exit stamp. Buy tickets the night before (in the low season, it may be possible to buy the same morning). Show up about 6 a.m. to get a seat in the back, which will be less bumpy and damp. The journey can be very wet; be sure to cover yourself and your belongings with a plastic tarp (a shower curtain works great) and wear a life jacket. Big plastic bags are sold at the dock to protect backpack ($1). Seas are rough December-March; this run is not recommended then.

Midways between Turbo and Capuraganá is the small hamlet San Francisco, accessible by launch (from Turbo: 8:30 a.m., noon; 1.5-2 hr, $17). Travelers willing to get way off the beaten track can pass the days relaxing, fishing, kayaking, hiking or horseback riding. Sea turtle season is May-July. Ralle’s Hostel provides lodging with communal kitchen (Cell: 314-703-6151, URL: Dorm: $14, with 2 meals $22; private room with 2 meals $28). Bring insect repellent, sun screen and flashlight.

Capurganá has for many years been a resort town for those moneyed Colombians looking for the ultimate in white-sand beaches and amazingly colored sea. Still, there are affordable inns in this village, e.g. Señora Beatriz’ Hostal Capurganá ($9) and Hospedaje Los Delfines (near Ferretería Marta, $7 per person). Restaurante Josefina is said to prepare the best seafood in Colombia.

The DAS (Colombian immigration) office is an 8 to 10-minute walk from the jetty; here you get your passport stamped. The office is closed for lunch (noon-2 p.m.). It is difficult to change money in Capurganá; the grocery shop reportedly gives poor rates. There is no ATM.

From Capurganá chalupas go to Puerto Obaldía, Panamá (9 a.m., 30-45 min, $6). Your boat will be met by the Panamanian immigration and customs officials, who can be quite thorough in checking your baggage and stringent on fulfilling the entry requirements. Be prepared to show sufficient funds ($600), on- or outward ticket (a credit card may suffice in lieu of a ticket), malaria medication and yellow fever vaccination. Have two photocopies of your passport handy. Panama immigration is open only Monday-Friday.

A hotel in Puerto Obaldía is Pensión Cande ($5 per person). The internet café gives good rates of exchange. Air Panamá has flights to Panama City three or four times weekly ( $92, including taxes; may be paid with credit or debit card upon arrival in Panama City). There is now Internet in Puerto Obaldía, to make plane reservations in advance if one hasn't already done so. Upon arriving at the Panama City airport, passengers are held for interrogation about drugs. Passports are stamped in Puerto Obaldía, but tourist cards issued on the plane. Up to 90 days are given.Alternative Route through San Blas

Foreigners are re-blazing the old, alternative route through the San Blas Islands. Sapzurró, a 250-soul village, is accessed from Capurganá by chalupa (several daily, 10 min, $4). Camping Paraíso, also called Chilli’s Hostel, has hammock-mosquito net accommodations ($5.50), as well as camping and cabañas (near the bay, Cell: 313-685-9862). Wittenberg Camp, at the base of the hill to La Miel, is quieter. It also lets hammock-mosquito net ($5.50) and a one-person cabaña ($11), and makes meals (Cell: 311-436-6215, E-mail:

Darien Gapster runs a speedboat from Sapzurró to Porvenir, Panamá, passing through Kuna Yala (Tel / Colombia: 314-567-3978, URL: The three-day trip includes transport, lodging and meals in San Blas Islands ($279; book ahead; $25 deposit required), but not water. The group of travelers meets in Cartagena, from where they travel together to Turbo by land, and then Capurganá and Sapzurró by chalupa (these costs are not included). Passengers can also join in Sapzurró. The captain handles all immigration procedures.

Alternately, you can await a Kuna merchant ship to take you to Miramar ($30-100, depending on your bargaining skills; 4-5 days). The journey is rudimentary, with only wooden benches and small servings of food; bring a hammock and extra food and water; Teresa (UK) recommends the Tabualá 2.

Daphnis (Belgium) island-hopped his way through the San Blas archipelago. Going South, this was his route:

- Miramar-Porvenir: common speedboat 8 a.m. (can be delayed), 2 hours, $25

- Porvenir-Narganá: cargo ship, 2 hours, $25

- Narganá-Ustupu: passenger speedboat, 2 hours, $25

- Ustupu-Calendonia: slow cargo ship, many stops; 6 hours, $5

- Calendonia-Puerto Obaldía: hired single engine speedboat, 4 hours, $25

In Puerto Obaldía, luggage was searched and immigration procedures done. Daphnis counsels that patience is needed, as it may be two or three days between boats. Don’t rely on local information for the next boast; take it upon yourself to ask every boat coming into port. Also, take plenty of money with you.

There reportedly is a weekly launch from Porvenir to Puerto Obaldía ($40-80, depending on the number of passengers).

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Caribbean Coast and Islands: Providencia and Santa Catalina Safety, Pirates and the Sacking of Cartagena, When To Go, Safety, Highlights of the Caribbean Coast and Islands, When To Go, San Andres Safety, Safety, Safety On The Seventh Sea and Cartagena Highlights.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

07 May 2012

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