Feb 04

Confronting the Darién Gap

The Final 90 km


Having arrived in Panama City, it was time for Tony and I to finally confront a problem that we had been slowly approaching ever since turning south in San Francisco:  There is no road to Colombia.

Remarkably, the Darien Gap as it is known is the only break in the Pan-American Highway system which stretches over 20,000 km from Alaska to the southern tip of South America.  Most people aren’t aware of it’s existence until they are traveling in the region, at which point they become only too aware of it, as crossing The Gap can be a complicated and expensive endeavor.

It’s incredible that no one has solved this problem yet.  Think about it.  In the early 1900s the United States dug a trench from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a project that cost a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of cash and thousands of lives just so that today we could enjoy quicker shipping times on our Amazon.com orders.  Later that century the British and the French (of all people) somehow agreed to work together to dig an underwater tunnel just so that today we could enjoy a rich coffee and crispy croissant for breakfast in Paris before catching a train to London for a warm, flat beer and a soggy sandwich for lunch.  We’ve even sent men to the moon and movie directors to the bottom of the ocean, so you would think that by now someone would have come up with a cheap and easy solution to cross 90 kilometers of jungle

That’s all it is.  From the end of the dirt track in Panama to the highway in Colombia, 90 measly kilometers of jungle are all that remain separating two massive continents and still we have to fly or take a boat.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Must be political.

Whatever the real underlying reason for this breach of pavement between Panama and Colombia, the current reality facing travelers in this part of the world is an intimidating one.  Though up to about 15 years ago it was still feasible for the most adventurous (read: crazy) travelers to undertake a long arduous trek via jungle track, indigenous villages and amazonian-esque rivers, today that option is simply not feasible.  Today the Darien province of Panamá and Colombia´s neighbouring province of Chocó has become a stronghold for drug-traffickers and Colombia’s guerrilla rebels the FARC.  In response, Colombia’s military and para-military also have a huge presence in the area.  In other words, the Gap is a very lucrative war-zone where life is cheap and passing through on foot is not considered safe for anyone, not even for the local indigenous people.  Even if you were willing to risk being robbed, kidnapped or killed, you would still need to evade the Panamanian and the Colombian authorities who have orders to not let anyone through.  Special permission can be attained, but then you would need to pay for said permission and be able to fund your own private army to escort you across.  Not exactly something most travelers budget for.

So for the average traveler, there are really only two options for making the trip from Panama to Colombia (or vice-versa): Fly or take a boat.

No good easy options for Tony and I


When Tony and I arrived in Panama city we already knew the basics for crossing the Gap.  The closer one gets to the Darien, the more people like to talk about it, and the topic soon becomes impossible to avoid.  In the hostels in Panama City it’s pretty much all anyone cares about and the common areas are filled with people on their smartphones searching the internet for a cheaper or easier option to get across.  In the end though, everyone ends up taking the path of least resistance: an overpriced flight that is always overbooked (cost: approx $450), or a 5- day sailboat trip from Portobelo across the Caribbean to Cartagena via the beautiful San Blas Islands (high-season cost: $550).  For part of the year there is a third option: a fast boat from ___ to Turbo (Cost: $120 + $80 4WD transport to ____) but when the seas get too rough this service is suspended.  There are other variants on this theme, which I outline at the end of this post.

Suffice to say that Tony and I didn’t want to fly, as Tony would more than likely incur a $100 extra cost and I would have to go through the hassle of dismantling him and putting him into a cardboard box.  Nor did we want to dish out $650 (Tony costs $100) to be stuck on a sailboat for 5 days crowded with seasick backpackers as I am accustomed to sailing for free and the experience – though novel and unique for many – for us did not justify the cost.  Finally, the fast boat to Turbo was not running as the seas this time of year are rough and they weren’t running.

What did that leave us?  We’d have to find a cheeky solution to the problem.

A cheeky solution to the problem.

I decided to stage a two front attack on the Darien.  On the first front I began to sniff around for sailboats that needed linesman to crew with them through the canal.  I figured that if I could hitch a free ride through the canal, it would greatly increase my chances of bumping into the right people and finding another free ride to Colombia.  To this end I camped out by Balboa yacht club for a couple of days and asked around, getting some positive feedback but no promising leads, and in the end put up a notice on the empty bulletin board deciding I’d have better luck boat-hunting in Portobelo, a small town on the near Caribbean entrance of the canal

On the second front, I began what I like to call “passive research”.  That is, research that I don’t actually do myself but that I acquire by drinking copious amounts of coffee and tea in hostel common areas whilst eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.  People these days underestimate the value of drinking copious amounts of coffee and tea, as after just a couple of days I found myself tuning into an interesting conversation taking place between a young dutchman with a sailboat and an older Canadian guy who was planning on crossing the Darien on the Pacific side.  Jackpot baby!  I thought to myself and I slowly imposed myself on their private chat by dropping in the occasional choice nautical term or an apt anecdote that alluded to the fact I was traveling on a bicycle.  In a matter of minutes, I was in.

From the Dutch guy I learned that he was going to be going through the canal in a couple of months before starting his Pacific crossing – so he personally wouldn’t be able to help me – but he was able to provide me with some helpful details regarding the best way to go about finding myself another boat to crew on.

From the Canadian, an energetic, effusive, likeable man in his mid-sixties, I learned that 15 years ago he had been one of those adventurous (read: crazy) travelers who had hiked through the Darien.  He was now in Panama planning to cross the Darien yet again, this time along the Pacific Coast, and was just waiting for his three travel companions to arrive in Panama City.  The first was his old friend John – another hardcore crazy traveler who’d be flying in from Canada in a couple of days – and the number two and number three were John’s daughter Ally and her husband Glenn.  Ally and Glenn – it just so happened – were also traveling by bicycle (from Alaska) and would be rolling in early next week.

Niels’ excitement and optimism were contagious, and I listened as he painted me a romantic picture of catching rides with cargo boats and fishermen, village hopping in tiny dinghies and exploring the remote communities along the Darien coast before working our way down the desolate Colombian Pacific coast to arrive in Buenaventura, the most dangerous city in Colombia.  The cost and time frame for the journey were unknown but it would certainly be cheaper than $650 per person.  Even better, Niels thought he had a lead on a boat that would be leaving Panama City next thursday and would take us all the way to Jaqué, a small fishing village near the border.  Would I be interested in joining them?

Yes, I told him, yes I would.

With that decided, I got up to get myself another coffee.



This is the final post for Stage 6 of the Tour.  Check out the Summary Page! for photos and links to all the entries.

Options for crossing the Darien

Disclaimer:  The following has not been researched carefully and are based largely on word of mouth conversations.  Actual costs will vary.  There are of course more variants on the below mentioned options. 


  • International flight from Panama City to Colombia.  Cost: approx $____.  Deals can be found if booked way in advance.  Flight are always full so last minute deals are unheard of.
  • Cheap domestic flight from Panama City to small panamanian town on border (caribbean side).  From there you cross the border to Colombia and then take a series of boats to Turbo.  From there you can continue your journey by bus.  Flight is apparently cheap, but must be booked far in advance as it is always full.  This is known as one of the quickest cheapest ways to cross the gap.


  • Speed Boat from ___ to Turbo, Colombia.  Boat is very fast 1-2 days, and costs around $120.  Getting to ___ however, a 4WD vehicle is necessary.  The full package from panama city therefore costs around $200.  Unfortunately this relatively new service only runs part of the year when the seas are calmer.
  • 5-day Sailboat from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.  Costs $550 per person.  Includes two days in the San Blas Islands Robinson Crusoe style and all food.  Great option for someone with the cash and no sailing experience.  When seas are rough though, it is apparently a long rough windward stretch to Cartagena.  Boats have been known to give up and change course for Sapzurro (in Colombia near the border)due to a boat full of sea-sick backpackers.
  • 3 or 4 day Sail from Portobelo to Sapzurro.  $350  Shorter trip through the San Blas Islands, includes all meals.  From Sapzurro one must make their own arrangements to continue onto Turbo.


  • Almost unheard of, it is very possible to make the journey by boat from Panama City to Colombia along the the Pacific Coast.  More details on the next blog post.


  • Get special permission and hire a band of bodyguards to escort you across on foot.
  • Canoe it: either on the caribbean side, or on the pacific side. Don’t forget the paddle.
  • Hitch a ride on a sailboat from portobelo, Panama city, porvenir, the San Blas islands, or even Bocas de Toro!





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