backpacking from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia
Once in Panama we both got the obligatory Central American travel sickness involving sweats, and many many trips to the bathroom. Our travel plans for the country were interrupted a little bit with the recovery process, but we did manage to see some interesting places, and meet some very unique people. We spent a week and a half exploring the country, before tackling Panama City to start the process of shipping Phyllis to Colombia. We connected up with another couple, David and Andrea, to share the costs of the container, and travel from Panama to Colombia. There are so many blogs about this process, that I don’t feel the need to explain it again here, but I will say that it costs a lot, and that Panama City is not great for drivers. If you want to read more about shipping- click here. As per usual, we didn’t plan anything, and left all of the organizing to the last minute, so once Phyllis and the VW Kombi were safely loaded into the 40 foot container in Colon we had four days to get ourselves to Colombia. Common ways of getting across the Darien gap (a stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama with no roads, no police presence, and dense jungle) include flying, and sailing. We went the more obscure route and took public transportation the whole way.
From Panama City we hired a man with a 4x4 Land Cruiser to take us to the tiny port town of Carti. This is in the semi-autonomous indigenous state of Guna Yala (formerly Kuna Yala or San Blas). The road was windy, and within an hour we had gone from the Pacific to within sight of the Carribean Coast. That was pretty cool. It winded its way along a ridge top and dropped in and out of low lying clouds; incredibly beautiful. This would be the most comfortable ride of the next four days. We got the Carti and were then in search of a boat operator willing to take us the six hours to the border town of Puerto Obaldia. We had been told that it should cost between 60 and 80 US dollars. The first (and only) man who was heading that way offered to take us for 100 dollars, which we tried to bargain. He was our only choice and he knew it. His price would not move, and eventually he took off without us. Lesson learned, bargaining is a fine art that should never be overdone. We spent the day in the hot and dusty port town, and ended up camping out there. While waiting we met many Guna people who were all eager to educate us about their politics and culture. Not a total waste of a day… we will try again tomorrow.
The next day we found a boat. We were all relieved and didn’t hesitate to pay the 100 asked. The ride was reasonably rough, but we got to stop off at many of the Guna islands to pick up and drop off passengers, and rest along the way. It was incredible to see the densely packed inhabited islands interspersed with deserted ones. I wondered where all the residents got their drinking water though. If I had more time I would have loved to hang out here longer. It looked perfect for snorkeling, and swimming, the people seemed incredibly sincere and hospitable, and the weather was amazing. Step 1 complete, we spent the night in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia and waited until morning when the customs office reopened to receive our exit stamps. Puerto Obaldia felt incredibly isolated. It has power only a few hours a day and seemed to be the type of town where everyone knew each other. There were no cars since it cannot be reached by road, and it seemed to move at a very relaxed pace. The following morning, the customs office opened late, and we were helped by a very serious man with no appetite for pleasantries.
Out of Panama, not yet into Colombia, we hired another boat to take us the 20 minutes to Capurgana. This was the roughest ride of the trip by far. When we reached Capurgana, I was surprised with how developed it seemed despite also not being connected to anywhere else by road. It was much bigger than its equivalent on the Panama side, and seemed to have the feeling of a tourist town without tourists. We officially entered Colombia, and were informed that we had missed the onward boat Turbo, so we stayed for the night. I would recommend Capurgana to anyone visiting the Carribean coast of Colombia. It is beautiful, relaxed, and had some good food and beaches. The diving is said to be amazing, and it is possible to make snorkeling and diving trips to the nearby Guna Yala islands, whose waters are fairly undisturbed and are supposed to be home to some very healthy coral reefs.
The final leg of our trip was the three hour boat ride to Turbo followed by two five hour bus trips to Monteria, and onward to Cartagena. Turbo is a gross, dirty, dangerous port town. When we stepped off the boat we were immediately swarmed with man trying to sell us bus tickets. They tried to hustle us for a cut of the price on to various bus lines. We got a bus, and as we were pulling out on our way to Monteria, the price hustler who helped us jumped onto the bus- perhaps unhappy with the cut he was getting- and tried to punch out the bus attendant. The worker threw him off into traffic and the driver grabbed second gear and peeled out. Holy crap! I was happy to be on the highway out of Turbo. The rest of the bus travel was fairly uneventful. We got into Cartagena at around midnight and slept for a long time. Rested and ready, there have been a few delays, and we are still working on springing our vehicle out of the port. Hopefully by this time next week we are reunited with Phyllis, her rear axle will be fixed, and we will back on the road. No more backpacking for a while.