If you have been entertaining any fantasies of driving an epic road trip on the highway that runs between Alaska and the tip of South America, be prepared when you get to Panama. You can't drive to Colombia from there.
“Are you serious? You really can't drive to Colombia? But it's right next door!”
Yes, we're serious. Sure, it is true that the Pan-American Highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska all the way down to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego National Park at its tip. On paper. But if you look at the map carefully, you will find one 90-km break in the road in Panama, the virtually impenetrable Darien Gap.
Why is there no road through the Darien Gap?
Building a road through the Darien Gap has been discussed for over 100 years, but the mountains and swampland in the region make road-building expensive. Rumor has it that Colombia wants to invest over $600 million into a road that will basically dead end at the Colombian border, but Panama is against the idea. The fear is that it will aid drug traffickers and illegal immigrants, impact indigenous communities and degrade the environment. Besides, rebels and smugglers along the border would make the effort even more perilous.
So with no road, you need another option.
Can you hike through the Darien Gap?
Yes you can, but there are myriad reasons to avoid it. Darien Gap has not been called the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for nothing. Let's start with these reasons:
- Treacherous jungle
- Virtually impassable mountains
- Impenetrable swamps
- Overgrown, often unmarked trails
- Almost totally uninhabited, so if you get lost or injured you’re on your own
- Unfriendly wildlife, such as snakes as big as your arm, man-eating cats bigger than the snakes, crocodiles and caimans in the rivers, biting ants and spiders that can drop down your shirt … you get the idea.
- Countless mosquitoes, sometimes carrying diseases like malaria and dengue fever
- Highly questionable water quality
- Limited food availability (eat local plants or carry your own)
- Nearly 100% humidity
- Crazed drug traffickers
- Desperate paramilitary Colombian guerrillas
- Paranoid government police
- Risk of kidnapping, rape, torture or murder
A few people attempt it every year. I don’t know how many succeed … but for us there are enough documented cases of people disappearing permanently to discourage any notions of our trying it ourselves.
Besides, we have an aversion to bugs and prefer to sleep in real beds.
As long as you're in the area…
We strongly recommend that you plan some down time before and after this adventure. Spending some time looking around Panama City and enjoying Cartagena will really give you a feel for the cultures. The two cities will be a nice before-and-after, urban contrast to the Gap.
They told us to avoid the Darien Gap
Any time someone tells us we shouldn't go somewhere, we are intrigued because things can be exaggerated for drama's sake. Obviously people live there, which makes you wonder if the province is really as dangerous as they say. So when we had a chance to take a four-day trip to a Darien nature reserve, we seized the opportunity with both hands. We could see a bit of “the Darién,” safely.
The highlight of our tour experience was a 7-kilometer hike through virgin rainforest, escorted by a knowledgeable and talkative local guide. But that one burning question wouldn't leave me in peace. Finally, wanting to get the scoop from someone with firsthand knowledge, I asked him if people can hike through the Gap all the way to Colombia.
After a surprised look he said, “I don't recommend it but yes, it is possible.” After pressing him further he offered this advice:
- Hire a local guide who knows the area
- Travel during the dry season
- Don’t do it alone
- Be prepared to pay a lot for the experience (he quoted $5,000).
- It will be uncomfortable and take about three days of hefty traveling.
How to get from Panama to Colombia on foot
As you might imagine, helping people get into Colombia this way is frowned on by authorities, so such guides don't advertise their services. Still, we did meet a Darien local who “might know a few people who do that.”
He described the journey to us.
Omigosh. Can you say ordeal?
Before we go any further, let's be clear. All information shared on As We Saw It for informational purposes only. We will not be held responsible for any actions taken as a result of reading our articles. You're an adult. You are responsible for your own decisions and actions. Now let's move on.
Crossing the Darien Gap starts with a drive to Yaviza, the town at the Panama end of the Pan-American Highway.
Expect to be stopped by the police repeatedly. At each stop you will need to provide your name and a copy of your passport.
Once in Yaviza, spend a half day hiking to a river.
Then spend the next day navigating rivers in a rustic boat.
The next day involves more hiking to the border.
At which point your guide will bid you goodbye and quietly return to Panama the way he came.
Now you're on your own.
Oh, by the way, now that you've entered the country, you still have to get your passport stamped.
Sound like fun? We don't think so, either.
To get from Panama to Colombia, here are your other options
- Fly – Planes are obviously the fastest and easiest way to get to Colombia, but not nearly as adventurous as hiking the Darien. There are non-stop flights between Panama City (PTY) and Cartagena (CTG). Find prices here.
- Cargo ship – Cargo ships sail from Colon and/or Portobello to various Colombian port towns. Yes, you can travel by cargo ship.
- Ferry – For a short time Ferry Xpress ran a car ferry between Colon and Cartagena, but service has been suspended.
- Speed boat – This is not for the queasy; the water is very rough. You fly to the border town of Puerto Obaldia, then take a 3-hour boat ride to Turbo, Colombia. Buses run from Turbo to both Medellin and Cartagena (8-10 hours).
- Sail from Portobello to Cartagena – This 4-5 day journey includes a visit to the beautiful San Blas islands. Costs compare to a plane flight. Many companies offer services, such as Captain Jack's, San Blas Adventures and Panama Travel Unlimited, and of course you can ask at your hotel/hostel or use Google. But don't automatically choose the cheapest ride without checking the details; you might get what you pay for.
- Do a hybrid journey – According to Runaway Guide, you begin with a domestic flight from Panama City (PAC) to the city of Puerto Obaldia (PUE). After getting an exit stamp you can take a 30-minute motor boat to Capurgana. From here you take another boat across to Turbo, where you can then take a bus down to Medellin.
How do I get my car through the Darien Gap?
The only way to get a vehicle around that stretch of non-road is by cargo boat. We have heard has it that it is an expensive, confusing, and exhausting experience but have no first-hand knowledge. You can watch a video about it here.
How to visit the Darien safely
Panama's Darien province is a unique destination and worthy of any curious explorer. We heeded the advice to go with a tour group and booked the Coastal Darien Explorer tour with Ancon Expeditions. We found it to be professionally run and well planned. As well, our lodgings were comfortable and they are happy to accommodate special diets. (Except for ours: It seems the cook had a hard time understanding that when we said we don't eat pork, that includes ham and bacon.)
Be prepared for a primitive experience once you arrive, because internet is nonexistent, cell signal is highly unlikely and electricity is only available overnight. Not having electricity wasn't as much of a problem as we had expected though. We had lights and power to charge our devices and best of all, air conditioning in our bungalow.
The photos in this article were taken during our trip to the Darien, while we were hiking on (relatively) cleared paths on our lodge's property. We had it easy compared to those who hike through the jungle. And in case you are wondering, especially after that experience, we have absolutely no desire to spend three days hiking through the steamy rainforest, fighting mosquitos and dodging the FARC paramilitary all the way to Colombia.
Nope, not for us. Give us a quick plane ride any day.