Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

Bee Says: As you may have guessed from our wildly ambitious 6 month schedule and the breakneck pace we have ploughed through South America: a driving force in our travel decisions has been to try as much as possible and to always opt for the off-the-beaten-track and less well travelled routes. This was the main reason behind a decision that we made early on regarding our pivotal crossing from Colombia to Panama (and therefore South America to Central America). The options to cross from Colombia to Panama are as follows:

1. Fly from one of the major Colombia cities to Panama City: Appx $300 per person.

2. Travel on a sailboat, taking a 4 day tour via the idyllic San Blas islands: Appx $400-550 per person.

3. The “newly safe” route via Capurgana (the Lonely Planet only declared it safe in September 2013, and have a full page spread in the latest South America on a Shoestring recommending it) that we opted for which consists of:

  • Travel to Turbo, a seedy town in the Golfo de Uraba in the north of Colombia. You will need to spend the night, in order to be at the dock bright and early the next morning to catch…
  • A lancha / panga (speed boat) that travels 3 hours to Capuragana, a beautiful Caribbean coastal resort. Another night here, and then…
  • A second speed boat 45 minutes into the first town in Panama: Puerto Obaldia where you will go through a lengthy customs search and interview, due to the fact this route is still occasionally used by drug smugglers.
  • In Puerto Obaldia you can link up to the 3-times-a-week Air Panama flights to Panama City (which you MUST book a seat on in advance, Puerto Obaldia is only reachable by boat or plane and as it´s sat in the middle of the Darien Gap… is not a place you want to find yourself stranded in!)
  • This route cost us (including all travel/accomodation) $147 per person.

On this trip, I have learnt that backpacking is a constant balancing act between budget, comfort and safety. There is a constant responsibility to stay within your financial means, but without cutting so many corners you endanger yourself. As you can see, taking the adventurous #3 route above was half the price of any other route and with the Lonely Planet heralding it as safe, we decided to take the plunge.

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We had been so excited to test out the new route and then to log on here and recommend it to our fellow travellers. Unfortunately, we are here to do the exact opposite. By reading our story you can make up your own mind, but I would advise everyone to AVOID this route at all costs and suggest that Lonely Planet on this occasion have woefully under-researched the journey. Safe is certainly not a word that springs to mind when I shudderingly re-live the experience.

Nick Says: On paper this trip sounded perfect – not very well travelled, lots of adventure, and a chance to save some mega bucks. It seemed like the type of trip I had enjoyed taking in the past, and got us off the luxury buses and flights we’d been taking recently. In fact, it was nice to have to think for ourselves again! We started nice and early on Boxing Day, getting to Cartagena bus station and finding transport for Monteria (there’s no direct route to Turbo, the destination of the day, meaning we had to do it in two stages). Once crammed aboard our tiny little bus, we set off on the supposedly 4 hour journey. A word to the wise, set off as EARLY as possible if you ever find yourself on this route. It takes forever! 5 hours later we were nowhere near Monteria, and the bus pulled into a nameless station. We were then all booted off and piled onto an even more smaller bus, where the previous 2 inches of leg-room felt like a luxury from a Shah’s royal palace. Bee took the opportunity to go to the loo, leaving me with a Spanish phrase to make sure they waited for her. Obviously cue the bus engine roaring into life, and me desperately repeating the phrase as they drove off with Bee still at the station! For some reason, the driver wanted to park the other side of the road. Slightly agitated now, I looked over in no small relief as a clearly bemused Bee was led by a guy I’d never seen onto our bus and back to me. I’m still none the wiser why it couldn’t just wait for her!

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A bumpy and dusty hour later we were finally in Monteria, and in the waiting arms of the bus touts. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow these guys had found an even smaller bus to cram us onto for our next 4 hour ride – this time to Turbo itself. 6 more bumpy and dusty hours later, we arrived in darkness to our destination. Kindly dropping us at the hotel we wanted to stay at (which we’d been unable to contact before getting there) we set on our way, 12 hours after leaving our Cartagena hostel. We quickly found our hotel, bounded up the stairs, and found there were no rooms available. Dang. So we went back into the delightful streets of Turbo, but this time the guy behind reception came with us in order to show us another potential hotel. After pointing us in the right direction, we got there and found… no rooms. Hmmm. Turbo is not really the place you want to be stuck in at night with nowhere to go… We quickly walked back to the main drag praying something would turn up, and luckily the travel gods listened to us. I’ve found on almost every trip I’ve ever been on that if you place yourself entirely on the mercy of human kindness, you’ll never go wrong. Most people will genuinely want to go out of their way to make sure you’re ok. And so it was with Ron, the first hotel’s reception guy. He had followed us to the second hotel to make sure we were alright, and then spent the next 20 minutes personally escorting us around Turbo to find accommodation, even picking up another lost traveller en-route. Once he had completed his quest and safely deposited us (at a delightful hotel that possibly charged by the hour), he gave us a cheerful wave and was on his way. A true Christmas miracle.

Bee Says: We slept fitfully on our plastic sheeted bed, waking up at 6am and desperately keen for a shower. Only… this wasnt just an Aguas Caliente lie, this was an Agua in GENERAL lie, and we found the shower could only muster a few drops of dribble before giving up entirely. Therefore, as we trundled down to the dock, the main concern on my mind was how smelly I might appear to our fellow passangers. This soon took a major nosedive in terms of things to worry about! We had researched a few blogs prior to the trip, and the consistant piece of advice was to sit near the back of the boat, as the crossing is notoriously choppy. To be fair to Lonely Planet, they had hinted at this… claiming the ride was so bumpy “if you still have your teeth intact at the end of it, itll be a journey you never forget”. For this reason we were sat at the dock, names first and second on the passenger list, 3 hours before we departed therefore feeling confident about our chances at the back row. Sadly when the time arrived to embark, locals with ID cards were called to the boat first and snapped up the luxury back seats, leaving us and a couple of other travellers with the misfortune of foreign passports to be herded onto the dreaded front row.

Within moments of setting off, we had the sinking feeling we’d made a terrible mistake. The main problem was that it was a flimsy 30-seater power boat that had 3 whopping engines attached to the back (legal…?) and so once we set off the power was so strong that the front where we sat, was almost vertical! The ocean had a 3 metre swell  and storm clouds were swirling in, yet it soon became clear that the captain (in his waterproof mac and ski goggles) didn’t care about anything other than gunning the engine, getting us as fast as possible over that crossing and pocketing the money. This meant that every wave we hit, we were launched into the air and would come crashing back onto the wooden seats with a crack. This happened over and over. Locals were crying, people were screaming in pain, it was absolutely traumatising and a waking nightmare of collective fear. Waves came from every direction and every few minutes we would be launched so high off our seats that you’d have this sickening few seconds of total awareness before you landed of just knowing how much pain was about to course through your body… but there was nothing you could do to stop it. I have certainly never felt anything like it, and before long I was hunched over with every nerve ending from my head to the base of my spine shrieking. 

Because Nick is constantly putting my needs above his own, when he realised how wounded I was feeling, he twisted round to comfort me. He spent ten minutes just lifting me out of the seat to try and absorb the shock impacts himself. He sang little made up songs in my ear and whispered how brave I was being. It was at this moment that we got smashed by the hugest wave yet, sending Nick in his twisted position back into his seat with a crunch, swiftly followed by his agonising screams. Something was very wrong. We had a terrifying few minutes thinking he had broken his back or slipped a disc, and we were in the middle of nowhere with an hour left on this hellish journey. There was a small glimmer of fortune in that shortly after we pulled into a small fishing village to refuel, and at least we could check that Nick could stand and hobble, reassuring us slightly that he hadn’t broken anything. It wasnt reassuring really though, as he was white as a sheet and murmering in pain. As we boarded to set back off, we pleaded with the locals, but no one would give up their back seat for injured Nick (I dont blame them) so he had to take a seat next to the captain. He found the back less bumpy, but was absolutely drenched for the duration alongside his i-pod (sorry, k-pod) and Casio watch. Which do you think survived? Good old Apple! I remained upfront and had an agonising hour of being apart from Nick and having horrific imaginings that he was in so much pain he might faint and fall overboard, and generally fretting none stop that I couldnt comfort him or even see him.

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After what felt like forEVER we docked in Capurgana. The stories we began to hear from locals who noted Nick´s condition were fast-flowing and harrowing; ranging from the uncomfirmed reports that two weeks earlier 14 people were thrown overboard and some were left out at sea, the numbers of people who arrive with smashed teeth, ruptured spleens… oh and that days previously a Taiwanese lady was so injured, the military had to airlift her out (as the worst part is that Capurgana is so isolated it can only be reached by boat or plane – no roads) Take the tales with a pinch of salt, but it was shocking to hear that even the hostel owners and tourism officials raging so publicly about this cowboy operation!

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Nick Says: Now I’ve had my fair share of incidents while travelling – ribs broken by a Thai boxer, a night in the Darwin A&E dept, chased by wild dogs, attacked by Indian jungle bees, and a mishap with a pot-hole in Albania. But this was the most scary and painful of all. The pain was sickening, and coupled with the genuine terror that I might have done something permanent! So I almost wept with relief when I discovered I could still walk. i just couldn’t do much else. Seizing up and with limited mobility, we got ashore at Capurgana. Luckily my reservations I had fired off hopefully into the void several days earlier (and never heard back from) came good, and we were soon ensconced in Luz del Oriente, a fantastic hotel right by the dock in Capurgana. After settling into one of their Lord of the Rings themed rooms (ours was Gandalph. No explanation or apparent reason at all why this Caribbean resort had produced this small tribute to Tolkien), the owner provided us with ice for my back and the advice that I should get myself to the clinic for ‘the injection’. The fact that there’s a well known injection for people in my position and pain says it all really. So we hobbled into the ramshackle health hut, where a lovely Colombian lady doctor made sure nothing too bad had happened, and then invited in a nurse. Who proceeded to pull down my board shorts and stick a needle into my bum. So this was ‘the injection’. After handing over $20 for that privilege, I then received a prescription for lots of amazing drugs designed to help me, and settled onto the floor for two days of recovering before the next part of the trip.

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In any other context, Capurgana would have been a potential trip highlight. It’s a remote, unspoilt, Caribbean gem. The water looks lovely (and is apparently warm), the people are super friendly, and there a ton of activities to do. But not for me or Bee, who spent our time recovering from the trauma of our crossing. Unable to even dress myself, Bee had to become my carer. I could hobble down to dinner (where the table had to be dragged over to me, as I waited whimpering for food) but that was about the extent of my adventures. In fact the only good thing about my stay in Capurgana was that I was able to get an amazing hat with a crab on it to replace my poor Panama hat, which was another victim of the Turbo boat. When I had bought it we had jokingly put a bet on how long it would last. Neither of us expected a mere 4 days! He burned brightly and briefly.

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After what seemed like an instant, it was time to leave South America behind and enter Central America. It wasn’t really the way I had anticipated doing it, but it was dramatic. Using previously unsuspected strength, Bee managed to haul both our bags, both daypacks, and me down to the dock, where we got in a tiny motor-boat destined for Panama. What a difference a captain (and lack of three super-charged engines) make. Despite even larger waves, we skillfully weaved our way through the ocean with barely a bump. I think we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was even ready to let him off the fact he may be smuggling Class A’s along with us and our luggage. Within 45 minutes we were putting ashore in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia, the first major settlment in Panama. Although there was really nothing major about it. I remember thinking that I couldn’t see where the airport would be, which was a worry considering Bee’s dislike of tiny aeroplanes… But these thoughts were quickly chased out of my head as we waded onto dry land (no docks here) and trudged into customs. Luckily we were prepared for how thorough they would be, otherwise it would have been a shock after the light-touch ways of the South American borders. We had to unpack everything we owned and show them to a stern looking man (cue confusion over what Bee’s contraceptive pill was. She finally explained in Spanish that it was for ‘no baby’ causing much hilarity for the woman queuing behind) who would flick through everything. It was a good opportunity to see just how much tat we’ve gathered up so far. I NEED that wooden ludo set dammit! Then we set on our way to the border control. What a difference a passport makes. We had travelled over with some Colombian tourists, and they had to provide print-outs of bank statements, $500 in cash, and answer quite a lot of questions. One look at our EU passport, and we were waved through without a care in the world. The Colombians were quite rightly a bit miffed, and asked why, which just made the official demand even less of us. I might have well have saved myself 50 quid on the Yellow Fever vaccination for all the good it’s done us here. Anyway, once through that gauntlet we could finally check in. Except it was hard to find the Air Panama office, There was this shack down a road with an Air Panama sticker on it, but that couldn’t be it could it? Well, obviously it was.

Bee Says: I like flying. I dont like small spaces. Get me on a standard Boeing jobby, the type we have zoomed around from the Galapagos, and I am a happy sky soarer. However, the thought of the teeny tiny propeller planes has always turned my stomach, to the point that we didn´t bother with the Nasca lines as I wasnt sure I had the guts to get in one. We had booked our flight to Panama City online and with Air Panama. We had been told the flights get busy, so I had assumed we would be getting a standard big plane that would be packed with passangers. The first hint that this might not be the case, was when we headed to the Air Panama shack, to check in our backpacks. They were weighed, and we turned to leave, when the local man (who turned out to do EVERY air related job single handedly, from check in, to baggage handling to donning a flurescent tabard and waving the plane in…) tapped me on the shoulder and explained that I needed to be weighed too. I laughed in his face! I thought it was a joke! From his frosty face I swiftly realised it was not a joke, and sheepishly stood on the scales whilst making horror-movie faces at Nick over my shoulder and saying through gritted teeth “JUST how SMALL is this plane if they need to weigh ME??”

Like good air travellers, we had given ourselves two hours to “get through” the airport. Turns out, in this case, the airport was an empty room with a fan in it, next to a landing strip. Oh and gaurded chummy Panamanian military man, who chatted away to us in Spanish whilst gesticulating wildly about the varying temperatures in North Panama. This would be great, except he regularly used his huge rifle to gesticulate with. Right at us. As we waited, a plane landed and out hopped a comically large number of soldiers from the tiny 20 seater vehicle. I looked at Nick and shook my head sadly. “No way can I get on that”. As it turned out, I should have begged them to let me in it, clinging to the wing and refusing to let go… because suddenly a tiny Hummingbird flew into view. Oh I’m sorry, an aeroplane disguised as a bird. It was SO SMALL. I didnt have time to freak out, as the pilot herded me into one of the EIGHT SEATS.

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We were lucky enough to be seated right next to the pilots, who both looked about 19, and spent the majority of the flight rotating between huge arm stretching yawns or rummaging around on the floor for a lost pen. Despite my doubts, I actually enjoyed alot of the flight. The views were incredible. Unluckily we hit a ton of thick cloud turbulance 30 minutes in, and I was the only female onboard to make it through the few-hundred-feet-drops without crying! Note how the man next to me is also weeping, leaving Nick to comfort his teenage daughter who was in a real state by this point. It is times like this that my Spanish homework really pays back, as I knew how to say to her “you are so brave” and I hope she believed it.

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The bumps werent fun, but I have to admit, the rest of the flight actually was! The most rewarding part was seeing Panama City suddenly jut out of dense jungle, and our pilots gave us a real sight seeing treat as they landed us with mindblowing views of the Panama Canal. By the time we landed I was on the biggest adrenaline high of my life and just gobsmacked that I had spent an hour in that tiny tincan of terror and hadn’t had a nervous breakdown, especially as I was still quite jittery after the boat of doom and fretting about Nick’s back! In fact, I would get in one again (maybe on a clearer day)… just maybe not for a few weeks. We have had quite enough excitement for a little while.

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Nick Says: We had been warned that getting through customs once at the airport in Panama City could take upwards of 4 hours. And so it was with only a little enthusiasm I greeted the announcement that we had to go into the special police offices behind a little door in arrivals. Luckily for us though, but unluckily for them, it was our Colombian travel buddies they were interested in. While they were both hauled in for lengthy interviews with a man with a gun, me & Bee sat around for half an hour, answered a question about when I was born (which I didn’t even understand) and then skipped on our merry way. After 4 days of travel, a near disastrous boat journey, and an adrenaline pumping fall through the skies in a tiny tin can, we had made it to Panama. We were in Central America.

Was it worth it? Well I guess we’re several hundred dollars better off and we’ll have a story we can tell forever (if we had flown the blog may have been a bit shorter), but overall I don’t think I’ll be repeating this particular trip. While not scared to get back in another speed boat, I’ve definitely got a healthy respect for them now, and will be demanding to sit at the back! Getting soaked is preferable to permanent back injury. We’ve also been told horror stories about the sail boats, although also some tales which made me want to do it too. So for ease of use, and most importantly safety, we would recommend you fly from Colombia to Panama (or vice-versa). I love pushing myself, and love travel adventures, but at the moment this trip is too dangerous for us in good conscience to say go for it. I hope they sort the boats out between Turbo and Capurgana, and I really hope nothing bad happens anytime soon there. Although I think it already may be.

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26 thoughts on “Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

  1. Martha

    oh my goodness!

    I am close to tears reading parts of this story. This is not what I was thinking you were going to be describing!
    Seems like what probably got you both through okay is your mature approach to timekeeping and punctuation for each step of the way.
    I can’t possibly even picture your speed boat ride, but am so glad you made it all the way, and so lucky that they had to stop to get petrol. – also you never mentioned how handy it must have been to have been traveling with such little luggage, you would have lost it on the boat if it was so big?
    Hopefully you can treat yourselves with something nice with some of the money that you have saved, and yes, report this route to Lonely Planet.
    Much Love and keep safe,
    Martha x

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Ah you sweetpea! Thanks for your lovely supportive words Marvellous Martha. We were really heartened by the outpouring of comments and messages after this blog and it really helped pull us out of our sulkyness! And yes you are right, we constantly thank our stars that we bought tiny bags. We have heard of lots of bags going missing from boats/buses/holds and the fact ours can fit in the overhead storage and therefore stay in our eyeline, is perfect! x

      Reply
  2. Eleanor Jane

    Oh my gosh, what an adventure! You guys are both so brave. I hope Nick has recovered from his mishap and maybe we’ll cross paths in Central America in a couple of weeks!

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Thanks beautiful! Definitely let us know your dates here, we would love to rendezvous for a rum cocktail!

      Reply
  3. Cathy

    Wow! What a true adventure but one I would not like to do! Hope that you have both recovered and able to carrying on with the journe! X

    Reply
  4. Jackie Lowe

    Sounds horrendous….but all part of the experience (you’ll be able to dine out on it for years!!)……..and, like childbirth, you’ll forget the pain very quickly.
    Take care, keep smiling and stay well.
    Jackie

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Thanks wise owl Jackie. And you are right, it will certainly be the story we tell the most in the future and hopefully get a lifetime of sympathy from it, hehe!

      Reply
  5. Avril MacNaughton

    Hope your back is getting better Nick and you have both now recovered from the rather eventful part of the trip. have fun during the next stage.

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Thanks Avril, it certainly knocked us both for six, but we are well on the road to recovering and it already feels like it happened AGES ago, we just need to repalce it with new, happy memories!

      Reply
  6. Jenny

    Bee!!! What did I explicitly tell you before u set off?! No dodgy border crossings!! A fascinating read, you definitely deserve to win blog of the year,but please, it is more important to me that you come back safe!
    Super jealous of your travels (well, most of them!) love reading about your adventures, although still super excited for your return!
    Lots of love, Jen xx

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Agh jenny i KNOW right! But surely even you would have been lured in if Lonely Planet is heralding it as 100% safe and tested! We are pretty mad at them over that, as they really havent chatted to enough backpackers (or locals) about the reality. But dont worry, we have just booked a swish border crossing bus to get us to Nicaragua despite being shown how to do it cheap on public transport, and with some sort of golf buggy over the border (!) so I am behaving myself now.
      I’m still having the absolute best time of my life, but looking forward to being back in exotic Manchester with you and telling you all the ‘behind the scenes’ bits…! x

      Reply
      1. jenny

        I have just discovered a new coffe/cake shop at the end of my road so it has our names stamped all over it for behind the scenes gossip!! Make sure u book me in for a weekend on your return, lots of love to u and nick x x x

        Reply
  7. Philip Kirwan

    Thanks so much for this harrowing and well written article. Will definitely be checking out the blog more. More importantly, I will definitely be avoiding this route! Thanks guys and safe travels

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Pleased to say Nick’s back is much better now. Wish we’d had an article like ours to read about the trip – not worth the $100 saving p/p really…

      Reply
  8. Joel Sparks

    Great read, thanks or sharing! I hope your back is all healed up. Just did this trip with my GF despite your warnings, because we’re cheap, and we were lucky with the weather. It’s not too bad under the right conditions (ours, I guess!) and was definitely worth the $200 savings and added adventure for each of us.

    I made a video of the transport on our trip if anyone wants a good idea of what they’re in for before committing. It was raining pretty decently on the leg to Puerto Obaldia.

    Reply
      1. Bee Post author

        hello, Nick here. Thanks so much for this, brilliant to get someone else’s perspective on it (and the excellent video). I think the time of year and weather makes a massive difference to any route to Panama – some of the horror stories we heard from people who sailed across at a similar time were as bad as our experience. Back is still not completely healed, and to be honest I’m not sure you could pay me to do the route again, but it does make for an amazing travel story to share with people (and a great blog piece to have written).

        Reply
  9. Kasha

    Thanks for the great post. Hope Nick has recovered well. Do you know when the sea might possibly be calmer to do the boat trip more safely?

    Also do you know of any companies and perhaps cost involved to the a ground journey from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia? I am guessing maybe there is a Jeep or some sort of 4WD that can to the trip? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Hi Kasha,

      Nick here! Thanks for the comment. I have recovered pretty well, although still a few twinges now and again. As for when the sea is calmer, I think it’s better outside of December/January. This is just going from what we have been told by other people doing the trip though – as always, it’s best to do research on the ground. As for a ground journey from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia, there is no way to do this journey that I know of. It’s flying only I believe. An alternate route would be sailing to the San Blas Islands first. Hope that helps! Let me know how you get on. Nick

      Reply
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  12. Gloria Nickel

    OMG…I made that same boat trip from Turbo in 1980…brings tears of pain and fear to my eyes to this day!!! You described it exactly! I never thought I would make it off that boat alive…

    Reply
    1. Bee Post author

      Hi Gloria, thank-you so much for the comment! That’s so crazy that the boat journey hasn’t changed since then. It was three hours of terror, which of course makes for a great story, but I’m glad I”m here to tell it. How was the area back in 1980?

      Reply
  13. Emily

    After watching “Romancing the Stone” last night I returned to your travel blog and this is what I happened upon! Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner couldn’t have been braver themselves!

    Reply

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