Amazing Adventure: Crossing the Darian Gap with a Motorbike

One of the San Blas islands
One of the San Blas islands

Crossing the Darian Gap was one of the most amazing adventures I have ever embarked on. Ever-since I decided that I want to ride my motorbike from Chile to Texas, I knew that the road does not go all the way and that I will have to figure out how to cross the jungle dividing South America from the North.

As I did more and more research I realized that there is indeed no way for me to cross on land. Some have tried and succeeded (learn more about it), but for me crossing on land was not an objective and I came to the conclusion that I will have to cross on the water.

The simplest way would be to board one of the gringo yachts that are taking backpackers pretty regularly between Panama and Colombia. These days a crossing costs about 400-500 dollars per person and the bike is being charged the same rate in addition. Generally I try to stay off the gringo trail and the price seemed little too high to me, so I kept on searching and left this option as a backup.

The ride in a small boat that my moto did not like all that much - mainly because the gas is leaking all over the place
The ride in a small boat that my moto did not like all that much - mainly because the gas is leaking all over the place

Claude Saint-Pierre wrote up a decent guide how to cross on a slow boat from Panama to Colombia. That’s the way majority bikers travel, just a few go north. I figured if it’s possible to go one way I must be able to do it in reverse. Sounds logical, but in this part of the world logic does not always get one very far. After more research I became convinced I indeed could cross using cheaper and more interesting cargo boat. It was not clear however how much it will cost or how long it would take. The time was not my main concern, but price definitely was because for this trip the only payment accepted is cash and if you run out of it God help you because most likely nobody else will. I figured I should not pay more than what the gringo yacht would cost ($800) and took a bit less than that for the journey. Some of my money was in Colombian pesos, but majority in dollars that I wisely changed in Medellin instead of being charged ridiculous jungle exchange rate later on the trip.

I left my Colombian family in Medellin on Monday at about 6am and in the afternoon I was in Turbo from where cargo and fast boats are leaving to Capurgana (the last decent size town before one crosses to Panama). I asked how much the fast boat to Capurgana costs and was quoted 55 thousand pesos (about 30 dollars). My research suggested that I could not take a motorbike on this boat, but the guy selling tickets said I might be able to take the bike, but would have to pay for one row of seats which can be occupied by five people. That of course would be fairly expansive and I sure did not want to pay 330 thousand pesos ($180 dollars) to get me and the bike less than half way to Panama’s first road.

The cargo boat I took from Puerto Obaldia Panama
The cargo boat I took from Puerto Obaldia Panama

I started looking for cargo boats which I believe would transport the bike for 30000 thousand pesos ($20) or something like that. Unfortunately all cargo boats seemed to leave the day before and next one heading over to Capurgana was not going to leave for another 2 or 3 days. Nobody really knew exactly when they will leave and the boat owners were even less convinced about the time it would take them to get reach Capurgana. I heard anything from overnight to 3 days.

I did not want to wait in Turbo that long. I started looking for boats going all the way to Panama. In the past these cargo boats took people on board, but apparently that has changed and they are not allowed to have anyone in the boat who does not have a marine license.

With my limited options I went back to speed boat ticket seller to see if he could give me a better price. He said he could not, but the boat owner next morning maybe could. The boat would leave at nine in the morning, so I should show up at the office at seven to see what I can negotiate.

At 7:30am I went to talk to the owner and we negotiated the price of 200 thousand pesos and 20 dollars – since at this point I run out of pesos. He told me to go get some exit stamps at the immigration office that did not open until 8am. Quickly I figured he was just trying to see if more people would show up and he could tell me there was no space or I needed to pay more. I did not even bother going to the immigration and at 8:10 I told him immigration was taken care of and asked where I should bring the bike. He checked the list of passengers and since the boat was half empty decided he was gonna take my money. I paid what we agreed and asked for a receipt. I got one for 55000 thousand pesos. When I requested they write the full amount the sales lady marked that all my baggage is included. I accepted that, but about 5 seconds later I started to worry that I fell for some sort of scam. The lady left the office and the boat owner got into the boat and left the port. The only reason I was not completely desperate was that a) Colombians don’t usually scam tourist and b) some other gringo passengers leaving for Capurgana were waiting for the same boat in the port.

Kuna Indian village
Kuna Indian village

Turns out the captain just drove out to fuel the boat. When he came back we loaded the bike. And I quickly learned that loading was not included in the fare so I had to give tips to a few guys. I only had a few pesos left so they looked little insulted. When we started boarding the boat guards tried to weight my backpack – most gringos pay for extra kilos, which don’t come cheap at all. This is when I pulled my ticket and showed them that baggage was paid for. After a bit of arguing the lady who wrote it on the ticket stepped in and said I really did not have to pay – after all I was paying for most of the boat already 🙂

Next sticky point was going to be passing through Armada checkpoint. I have been told repeatedly by various people that bike could not be transported in these speed boats. I figured however the rule is cargo ships can’t carry people, but people boats can’t carry whatever cargo they want. Still when we were waiting for about half an hour at the Armada checkpoint I figured that I will either have to bribe the officials or the captain will tell me he did bribe them for me and I will have to pay whatever he tells me to pay. I was worried for no reason, we just waited for two Argentinians who missed the boat and now were catching up with us.

Shortly before Capurgana the boat started to have problems with its engine. Then the engine stopped and I realized how huge the waves were. It was a nice calm day, but without the engine running the sea played with our boat like it was a toy. Some passengers were getting seasick. One Colombian asked me for orange pulp I was gonna throw away. Apparently chewing it helps seasickness. All I could think about is that if the boat flipped over, nobody would ever fish out my bike. They fixed the engine somehow and shortly after 1pm we were in Capurgana where only people willing to lift the bike wanted to see my dollar notes in advance. I gave them couple bucks, they started lifting it using the headlight and of course broke it. From the dock about 20 stairs lead up to the upper dock and so instead of paying more for lifting I started the bike and asked my new Argentinean friend for a gentle push and in about half a millisecond the bike zoomed up the stairs like it was made for bike trial.

I would have loved to stay in Capurgana for a couple of days. It really is a pleasant town with nice beaches and you can do nice hikes there (to Sapzurro etc.). I knew however that I needed to get to Panama’s side as soon as possible. I could not be spending money in Capurgana without knowing what I might negotiate in Panama’s border port Puerto Obaldia. For that I decided to spend just one day in this Colombian town/village. On Wednesday I headed to immigration to get my exit stamp. The Colombian papers for bike were expiring the next day – but nobody wanted to see them anyway.

The trip to Puerto Obaldia costs about 25000 pesos per person ($14). The best I could do was negotiate 100.000 pesos for me and the bike (about $60 dollars) and I also made sure it includes all the loading fees. They said loading sure, but unloading in Panama could not be guaranteed. If I had more time I could look around and find a better price, but this was gonna be a bigger boat – I thought. When I got to the dock I found out the boat was pretty small and I could probably ask any fisherman to drive me for about half of what I paid. The bike would not fit easily and had to be put sideways at which point the full tank of gas started leaking. In previous months I debated if I should transport it almost empty, but in the end I had no idea where I will get dropped off in Panama, so better with a full tank was my final decision. Well, that tank was not gonna be that full anymore. What was gonna be full of gasoline was my air-filter chamber as I found out later.

Lifting the bike from a canoe to the cargo boat
Lifting the bike from a canoe to the cargo boat

As we were approaching the shore I started to understand why they would not guarantee unloading in Puerto Obaldia. We did not land by a dock, but on a shore. Lifting a bike from a boat that is getting hammered by sea waves is not that much fun. Fortunately some locals helped out and when the bike was on the ground, of course, started asking about their dollars.

In Puerto Obaldia I immediately began requiring about cargo boats that go towards Colon. It seemed that they left just the previous night and who knew when next one would come. I found fairly nice hotel on the ocean. It did not have electricity but unlike my dirt-cheap “hotel” in Capurgana had running water. “For $6 a night I could spent a few days here without messing up my budget”, I thought while drying the air-filter soaked in gasoline.

Suddenly a green boat showed on the horizon. The hotel owner told me that it is a cargo boat and a big one. For sure it will go to Colon. I got pretty excited! I waited for it to land at the docks but it did not come to the docks. It seemed that the docks are broken or not fully finished.

I found the boat owner at the immigration desk instead and wanted to chat with him. I first asked for a price per person so he could not quote me some ridiculous price for me and the bike. The going rate was 70 dollars with all food included. He did not know how long it would take to go to Carti, which is where he said I need to go. From there there is a road. When I mentioned my bike he grinned, dollar signs flashed in his eyes and said bike was like a person so the same price for it. I followed him around the village as he greeted all his customers and friends and in a spare second he gave me his attention I tried to see how we could lower the price. In the end we came down to $120 and I made sure it includes loading and unloading. He guaranteed both. Unloading was gonna be easy, but to load the bike was gonna be tricky – the docks indeed don’t work. I should be ready at 7am next day.

My home and "bed" for a few days
My home and "bed" for a few days

I pulled my bike to the shore at about 8:30 am. I waited till about 10:30 when a small canoe came to the shore. Two guys who came were strong and the canoe had more space so the loading was actually easier than the last unloading I did day earlier. As we paddled towards our cargo boat I could not stop thinking how much pain it will be to lift the bike. Before we started lifting I had to stop them to take a picture. There was a possibility that the bike might be going for a swim.

Two guys pulling the bike from the top of the boat and three of us lifting the bike from the canoe. The canoe wiggles on the water, moves away from the boat then someone pulls it back closer. The bike is scratching against the boat but it is moving up. The break handle is getting bent, something is in the way and we cannot pull it over the corner. Wait lift here. Oh, yeah. The bike is one the boat!

After the lifting drama the life will be very tranquil for next few days. No reason to ask when we will be in Carti or how long we will stay where we are. I can almost see how time has slowed down and how hours suddenly don’t mean much. On one island we sell food, on other we collect debt, on another island we collect about million empty coke bottles. You can be in the middle of nowhere, but you can’t escape Coca-cola. We stay at one island for two days, no idea why, not sure if anyone does.

The food is basic – rice mostly, potatoes sometimes and something simple with it: canned tuna or a fish someone caught. I have books to read, when I start the third one – the crew thinks I am a reading champion. They don’t read. They prefer music on their mp3 phones. I listen to conversations of our crew or other crews: how taxes in America are bad, how local police are idiots, how customers always have excuses not to pay debts on time, how one can pass for one’s cousin to go on a date with a girl… I am not in rush. I paid my fare and if I get to my destination tomorrow or in one week does not make the least of a difference.

FINALLY ON THE SHORE!!!!
FINALLY ON THE SHORE!!!!

It’s Monday evening – my fifth day on the boat. One sailor is telling me that I can see Carti from the island where we are docked. The road passes right trough those mountains. We will spend the night here. Oh wait we are moving. We we will be in Carti before sunset. Turns out that Carti is an island and so from there I will have to take one more boat before reaching the land. No more boats I want to scream! Before I go sleep I overhear one of the sailors that he asked around and they want to charge me $40 for crossing. “To hell with that”, I say to myself. I will wait on the island all day if I have too, but I will not pay more than twenty bucks.

In the morning the a small passanger boat pulls to the dock. When I talk to them they want thirty dollars to cross. In the end we agree on twenty with everything included. Loading is easy and I don’t allow them to put the bike on the side. After 10 minute ride unloading is tougher… there is tons of people on the docks but I already got used to the fact that nobody offers help around here. Somehow we manage to pull the bike up. It got scratched here and there but it’s on the mainland. After all the gas leaks and moving it around let’s see if it will start. It did! Now leaving port $1, leaving the indiginous reservation $10. One hour later I am on Panamerican Higway and heading to Panama City. I am in a different world: I see a famous red and yellow sign. Nothing could contrast more the last five days on the boat. I am stopping at McDonalds for breakfast.

Transportation Cost:

Turbo – Capurgana $130 (or 240.000 Colombian pesos)
Capurgana – Puerto Obaldia $60 (or 100.000 Colombian pesos)
Puerto Obaldia – Carti US$120
Carti island – mainland US$20
Passing through Kuna indigenous reserve: US$10
Total: $340 (does not include hotel stays and food except food on cargo boat from Puerto Obaldia to Carti)

Excelent road from the shore (Carti) to Panama

Excellent road from the shore (Carti) to Panama

Simple steps for crossing from Colombia to Panama:

  1. Get to Turbo. Almost impossible to do any leg work previous to getting here.
  2. In the port check price for a speed boat to Capurgana – can they take bike as well? For how much?
  3. Check if you can find a cargo boat that will take the bike to Capurgana. Should be a fraction of what the speed boat people will charge you.
  4. Load the bike and head to Capurgana. Wait here for your bike to arrive if it is not on speed boat with you of course 🙂
  5. Get exit stamp from Colombia here. Take scheduled boat to Puerto Obaldia or hire your own boat.
  6. Get Panama entry stamp in Puerto Obaldia. Do temporary import for your motorcycle here at Aduana – its free exept few cents for copies. (have the Colombian copy of the temporary vehicle import with you. Don’t throw it away when nobody asks for it in Colombia)
  7. Wait for cargo boat willing to take you to Carti. Be prepared to take up to a week or maybe longer. You might be quoted all kinds of $$$.
  8. In Carti hire a boat to drive you across to the mainland.

Tip: Simple and cheap hotel in Turbo is called Florida – few meters from the port. It has useful administrator Jhon Botero who have seen all sorts of people and vehicles cross.

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