It has been a year since I had left the States. Yet, for my whole life I had never left the North American continent. So far, I have been able to cross countries with my two wheels to the ground. Now, here I stand before the grand continent of South America, looking from the small bridge of land called Panama. I have never been further south than here, and so close to a new world, the enormous, South America, unfathomable to me are the Amazon and Andes range. However, this is where the road ends for me and my nameless bike. Because, past the mega city of Panama, there lies a 100 kilometre stretch of land that has been practically untouched- the Pan American Highway ends before the dense jungle that few men dare to go in. The Darien Gap is the mysterious jungle that not only challenges two wheeled trekkers, it a big hurdle for many migrants south to Colombia or north to Panama.
How would we cross the Gap?
I had this question in mind as Paul and I wears approaching the end of our Central American adventures. For months we heard this rumour about a ferry advertized for a attractive fare at $100 and quite possibly, no charge for bikes, or a low price fee. well, this does not exists whether it is yet to open or never will. Never mind that- we fancied arriving to the ports on the Atlantic, work our charms that would catch us a sailboat for a good deal, maybe for work trade..
What we did not foresee was head-and-heartache and a financial blow to our assumptions to cross this “gap”.
Paul crossed the Atlantic on a sailboat name Modus Vivendi, with a young German captain. There were other reasons than the ticket price that separated us.. Yet, I was determined to find a lower price than 400 dollars.
Options, there were, as I found out. I will get to the encountered individuals with their price quotes and experience, later.
So after 8 weeks of living with good ´ol Leslie and Seth, I wished them farewells at the bus stop in the town, Sabanitas, with the bike and trailer. My idea was to head for the port town Portobello and find my friend , Julia. I met her back in Guatemala, and so it turned out, she was on her way to Colombia. Over email she said she found a quote at 200 dollars.
The weather was overcast, and there was at least one episode of light showers a day. The sea conditions were rough.. according to the latest news, 5 cargo ships broke anchor and beached in Colon.
I headed to the restaurant famous for locating sailors, Captain Jacks. The problem with going to the Captain, is that they try to sell you off the bat, a $500 sailboat ride to Cartagena. And most of the sailors organize with the Captain, and trying to find the captains otherwise is tough, because they usually are on their boats or making errans around town. Turned out, that Julia´s roommate, the French Canadian, Marcus, said he found the captain setting the deal at 2,000 dollars for ten people on board, maximum. This already seemed like the beat deal we were going to get.
We couldn’t speak with the captain that day, so we waited for the next day, then the next, and after day three, our patience was exhausted. It seemed like this offer didn’t really exist. In the meantime we looked for plan B and C.. There were not much options.
In the meantime…
I went to Portobello in the previous week, to scout for a captain. I was directed to the dock to call out for Mono, a sailor who was not exactly certified with the guys at Captain Jacks, but he has been around, sailing between Panama and Colombia. I returned to see mono, this time with German friends who were also looking for the economical price suited for a backpacker with a budget.
It was the same offer as last time, $300 without food served, $350 to serve food.
We agreed to join in at the price. We held out for one more day to hear from the Belgium guy, if he was to really leave on this Catamaran. Next day, he had only bad news to share. The gasket on the motor broke. According to him, it was a piece that is expensive and time consuming to replace.
There´s only one monkey left.. and his name was Mono.
Well, at least we still have Mono! We ran to the dock to catch Mono. He was preparing to leave or the following day. we returned to the dock to load up and give our deposits.
Following morning, a group of 7; three Austrians, two Germans, an American, and a French-Canadian waited on the dock for mono to paddle out on his motor-less dingy to ferry us to his sailboat. We loaded up and departed at 8 am.
I was constantly reminded of the warnings that seasickness was a common reaction on these trips. I was in bed during the first few hours catching up on sleep, so the rocking didn’t bother me, instead, it was very peaceful. However, when got back out on the deck I saw that the girls were already hanging over the rails throwing back previous nights dinner out into the sea. I looked to the sea nearly horrified by 3 meter waves rolling into our left. So I tried to fight with every effort I thought could prevent puking. I meditated, sang songs in my head, and looked far out into the horizon. It wasn’t long until I blew chucks over-board. And so it began..
For 9 hours, we laid like drunken seals on a buoy. Resting on the deck, was the only way to minimize the nausea due to the seasickness. I think the Austrian girl beat us with 5 puking episodes. Yea, we were miserable.
But after those 9 miserable hours.. we were rewarded with a view of paradise. By sunset, we arrived to the island, where many other tour boats were docked. Alas! White sand, palms, coconuts and rum!
We spent one day and two nights at the island. The reefs were far and our captain did not have snorkeling gear or a dingy with a motor that could take us. We swam out to the nearby island, against current and despite possible shark or jellyfish encounters. Back on main island, we were on a hunt for coconuts. According to the captain, tourist cannot take coconuts or else a fine of $500 dollars is imposed. That’s a lot of cocos.. so we asked for them. They were out of cocos at the center of the village, which was only like 3 palm huts. around the other side of the island, there was one man who had the secret stash, so we ordered a coco and a half for each sunburnt gringo in the German dominated crew.
Following day, we set sail to complete the rest of the tour. We shuddered to the though of 24 gruelling hours back on sea. We stopped in one of the last Panama towns for passport exit stamps, El Provenir. Back out on sea we were already drugged up with Dramamine and had our spots picked out to sleep. It wasn’t so bad this time, for everyone. No one blew chucks, and some of us laid comfortable on the front of the boat. The waves were a lot smaller too, about a meter. The event that made my whole trip, was seeing dolphins swim next to our ship. Incredible moment! for hours we crossed, passing by the little dotted islands- they say there are as many islands as days on the calendar. We navigated along the Gap, but far enough that between mainland Panama and the islands, both were hardly viable. In the night, some were a bit panicky about sleeping inside, because the rocking of the boat was more intense. I wasn’t as seasick, perhaps thanks to the Dramamine, so I slept inside. However, my head was next to a big pole, and i didn’t have much options to sleep any other way. The big waved rolled back in, making it a rocking night for everyone. I was a bit half asleep throughout the night, for i was keeping my head from banging into the pole, and I think someone fell on me as they were on their way to use the toilet.
7 am we arrived to Colombia! Hola Sur America!
We arrived in Sapzurro, a small fishing village, and one of the first towns after the border to transport our gear from the sailboat, onto a small boat. The fear continues.. the waves near the shore were rough, and the operator of the boat cuts right into the sea. So we headed for Capurgana on our first bumpy ride in Columbia. We arrived to Capurgana a bit soaked and hungover. I was soaked, because at the dock, my small trailer wheel rolled off into the sea. Of course I jumped for it to the rescue. We signed up for a dormitory room for the seven of us, and later signed up for the next morning boat ride to Turbo, a town across the bay.
Yes, a slice of paradise was very nice.. but for the price?
Looking back, I was hopeful that I could go with the most economic deal, but the transportation offers were competitive.
What I ended up going with:
$300 for a boat fare from Portobello, Panama to Capurgana, Columbia. 9 hours to the island, 2 nights and one day on the island, and 24 hours to Colombia.
$9.20 for my 3 day food supply. I still had leftovers after I arrived in Colombia.
This includes a boat ride from Sapzurro to Capurgana, which cost about $13 alone. 20 minute ride.
$6 for one overnight in Capurgana. Couldn´t avoid it, we arrived late to catch a same day departure for Turbo, which is a once-a-day departure at 6 am.
55,000 pesos for a one person fare from Capurgana to Turbo. 3 horrible hours on the choppy sea.
35,000 additional fee for my bike and trailer.
Following this is a bit fuzzy to recall.. but it was almost
30,000 pesos for a bus from Turbo to a connection in Monteria, then 40,000 pesos per person for a van to Cartagena. Both horribly bumpy rides. It took 4 hours to get to Monteria, then 6 hours to arrive to Cartagena.
5,000 pesos for the driver, because he would only take us to the outside of the city at the terminal. He made a stint about going into the city so late.. so we agreed to pay for the extra hour ride.
···1,800 Colombian peso= 1 USD
So I might as well should have taken the tour with Paul.. but I had to find out for myself what deal I could have gotten. I considered taking a flight.. but at $350 to Cartagena, it would have been a shame to fly over such a beautiful area.
The captain was ok. Not counting that he was an ass. Most captains are a bit crazy and rude, for good reasons. He gave me a lot of complains over the bicycle being an inconvenience. However, it was nicely packed in a pink tarp and strapped to the railing, and it dot not obstruct the walkway. Perhaps the worst service was that he did not cook for the Austrians, who payed $50 more for what was suppose to cover meals. Fortunately, they brought their own food. Did they complain? I am sure, but it wasn´t any of my business. I saved $40 for bringing my own food, and besided, on the sea with sickness, it´s not like we had appetites or balance to cook inside a rocking boat.
And compared to some others..
Paul– he paid $400 for a direct ride to Cartagena, including 3 or 4-ish days on the islands. maybe I should have gone with this…
How Cynthia did it– Cynthia, my Argentinian friend who came from Colombia to Panama, rolled her eyes at the sound of a $400 boat ride. For her, she paid almost $120 to take a boat from Turbo.. then she hiked through this little known jungle from La Meil to another town in Panama, then took another boat, to which I cant remember, but then she got a ride to Panama City. She didn´t visit the islands, which I belive she didn´t care to.
How the Malaysians crossed it– I met a nice couple from Malaysia at our hostel in Capurgana. They paid for the $500 boat ride from Portobello, destine for Capurgana with 5 other Swedish passengers. Unfortunately, for them, the sea conditions were so bad (they were a couple days ahead of us, we missed the bad weather), that it delayed the tour, and because the Swedish guys were in a rush, they were dropped off in Capurgana. How did their captain argue this? The Malaysians booked with a hostle in Panama, and according to the website, the captains are responsible for getting passengers ¨to Colombia¨ and they later said it did not guarantee getting to Cartagena. Bummer! Fortunately, they did get to see the San Blas islands.
How the Israeli did it.. O yes, his name was Amit. He said that he took a flight from Panama City to Puerto Obladia for $90, and luckily got the special deal, also nabbing a spot early because there was a waiting list. Then he got a boat from Puerto Obladia to Capurgana for $20. Then took the same transportation as us; a boat from Turbo, a bus from Turbo, and avan from Mendoza. As we were trying to rest on the bumpy bus ride, he told me that he thinks for what he saved, it wasn´t worth it. He said he would have rather kept his $350 direct flight to Cartagena. I don´t belive he visited the islands.. and when we arrived to Cartagena, he refused to pay for the 5,000 peso charge to the driver, who made a taxi drive into the center of town.
So glad that´s over with! For me another day in the San Blas would have been great, but I was happy to land, on land. We arrive to Cartagena before midnight in the center of town in one of the hotter neighbourhoods. I signed online to find Paul, who was waiting for me in a hotel just a block down. Since then, we have spent a wonderful week together in the romantic and exciting Cartagena.
No more small countries to cross! We got a big continent ahead of us.