Darien Gap Forest

Darien Gap: Crossing it in Style

A Traveller's Introduction to the Gap

Boat

Every traveller of Central and South America has had to come to that inevitable narrow strip of land that stands between them and the next leg of their journey. It is called the Darien Gap. This stretch of jungle between Panama and Colombia is the one single location where the Pan-American Highway – which runs from the Strait of Magellan to the north of Alaska – is interrupted.

That’s right, there’s no road through here. You can try to walk through on the footpath, but not only should you be deterred by the intense jungle foliage, but also by Colombian FARC rebels. You could take a flight from Panama City to a city in Colombia, but then you’d be missing out on the awesome San Blas islands of Panama.

I opted to cross the gap in style with a Colombian sailboat captain, his catamaran, and 7 other backpackers. Allow me to detail my adventure to give you an idea of how it could be done from Panama to Colombia.

Where To Go for the Boats Across the Darien Gap

In most cases, you’ll have to go to the rough city of Colon in order to meet your captain and vessel. In my case, since I’m somewhat of a vagabond traveller, I had made it as far as one of the islands in my search for a free way across the Darien Gap. The boat I eventually took picked up the other passengers on the beach at the end of the Kuna Yala National Park.

The Kuna Yala National Park – Oceanic view

Island

I left Panama City by thumb and quickly met a Panamanian in a wicker hat who was beyond friendly, and very accommodating of my travelling style. When we reached the turnoff from the Pan-American that would take me into the national park and onto the beach at the end of the road, my new friend not only decided to pay my 6 dollar entry fee, but also insisted on driving me the entire 40 something kilometres from the highway to the beach. As we drove across the length of the national park, at the highest point, we saw both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Getting to Carti Sugdub or El Porvenir

Now, at the beach there’s only one dwindling concrete dock, a single building, a few cars, islands off the coast, and beach for as far as the eye can see. Being an ultra-cheap traveller, I did not pay my way to get to the islands, which you can do, but rather helped load a dug-out motor canoe for passage. Little did I know that the island I should have wanted to get to was El Porvenir, the administrative capital of the comarca, or autonomous region, of Kuna Yala. I ended up at Carti Sugdub.

Carti Sugdub

Island

This island was no bigger than half a football pitch, and was completely covered by short-standing dwellings of thatch, sugarcane and palm. The Kuna Indians make up the autonomous population of Kuna Yala, which includes 365 islands, known as the San Blas, 36 of which are populated. The two Panamanian policemen did not want me on this island. The islands are protected, and it’s rare for a tourist to arrive without a guide (but it’s OK!). Once you get to one of the San Blas islands, you can pay 40 bucks for a 4-6 hour motorboat ride to the border, and onward to Turbo, Colombia. My plan was to hitch a ride.

The Kuna Indians

Carti Sugdub is populated by the Kuna Indians, who are famous for their mola clothing, which represents the colours and designs they once used to paint their naked bodies. The Kuna flag is an orange and yellow banner with a black, left-facing swastika in the middle. Don’t confuse it with the Nazi symbol! Although the swastika does appear in both forms across a variety of religions worldwide.

The Colombian Boat Captain

After a few days of working at the local restaurant for meals and asking motorboats to take me to Colombia, without luck, a big white catamaran arrived at the island’s dock. Although the captain would not take me to Colombia for free, he offered me a discount. It being my birthday that week, and with the captain telling me the wonders of the 6 day trip across, I decided to bite the bullet and go along with him.

Backpacker Sailing Trips

Porthole

I swore to keep my mouth shut about the discount. We picked up the other backpackers back at the very beach I’d arrived on several days earlier. We were 8 backpackers in total. There are over 40 sailboats that make the journey between Colombia and Panama through the San Blas islands, all of which cater to the backpacker travelling style. Trips can cost anywhere from 100 to 500 dollars. My trip lasted 6 days and the others paid 450 dollars. All food and beverages, and equipment is included.

The San Blas Islands

After a quick stopover at the administrative island of El Porvenir, we began our sailing of the incredible Caribbean San Blas. These islands are surrounded by turquoise waters, with very clear visibility. Our captain had two kayaks, many snorkelling sets and a wealth of knowledge about the Kuna islands. We ate coconuts, lobster and shrimp. We visited islands that were inhabited by one or two families, and islands that were completely empty of humans.

Crossing to Cartagena, Colombia

After a few days in paradise under the sun, we made the open-sea crossing to Cartagena. This city had to be the best place to arrive in South America. The old city ramparts still remain, giving a really hypnotic and romantic introduction to the continent. One final night on the catamaran, and then the South America adventure really began. All this I did, and you can too!

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