Toggle Sidebar

How to Cross the Darien Gap Between Panama and Colombia

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.

View of shoreline in Darien, Panama

“Are you serious? You really can't drive to Colombia? But it's right next door!”

River in Panama's Darien Gap

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.

Jungle and water in Darien province

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

Large, colorful spider in web that we saw while hiking the Darien Gap

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.

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.

Welcome sign above the road entering the Darien Province in Panama.

Expect to be stopped by the police repeatedly. At each stop you will need to provide your name and a copy of your passport.

Typical police roadblock in Darien, Panama, checking papers.

Once in Yaviza, spend a half day hiking to a river.

Hiking along a creek in the Darien Gap

Then spend the next day navigating rivers in a rustic boat.

Water-level shot of the wake created by boat on a river in the Darien

The next day involves more hiking to the border.

Two people, sweating from hiking in the Darien Gap.

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

  1. 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.
  2. Cargo ship – Cargo ships sail from Colon and/or Portobello to various Colombian port towns. Yes, you can travel by cargo ship.
  3. Ferry – For a short time Ferry Xpress ran a car ferry between Colon and Cartagena, but service has been suspended.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)

Van ride to Darien Panama
We had a comfortable van ride for part of the way, then took a boat the rest of the way to our lodge in the Darien.

Lunch served at Punta Patino Lodge, Darien, Panama

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.

Want to learn more?
Plan:

  • The folks at Get Your Guide are the world’s largest online platform for booking tours, attractions and activities. They may not offer any trips to the Darien, but you can still visit the Embera. To see your Panama options, click here.
  • For £2,899, Secret Compass is running a guided jungle expedition through the gap from 17 – 30 March, 2018.

See:

  • For more sightseeing, take a look at our Darien photo album.
  • To get an idea of the geography, Google has a map of the Darien.

Read:

For more about crossing the Darien Gap, here are some related books and articles.

Up for other adventures?

Here are three Panama experiences we think you'll enjoy.


Is it possible to cross the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama? No road goes through the dense, hazardous jungle, so what are your options?

Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

You may also like...

31 thoughts on “How to Cross the Darien Gap Between Panama and Colombia

      1. I suppose if you want a bungalow erected at every stop you could pay 5K. For those who want to do this do it from the other direction starting in Turbo to Capurgana Colombia. If you are at least a fair Spanish speaker, and not faint of heart I’m pretty sure you could find a guide for a fraction of the price. It’s a migrant trail and they surely aren’t paying 5K.

        1. Actually, Dennis, we agree with you. While we lived in Latin America, we found that it’s not uncommon for opportunistic locals to take one look at us and decide to overcharge us. We came to call it “being gringoed.”

  1. Taking the boat through the San Blas was definitely a great choice for us! Your photos of the jungle look awesome, but don’t really make me want to trek through it myself! I don’t really fancy disappearing in the Darien Gap, especially when the alternative is so beautiful!

    1. We don’t fancy such an ordeal either Jo, and that’s why we flew to Cartagena. You went to Colombia the other smart way, by boat. We would recommend either of those alternatives first, for sure!

  2. I have no desire whatsoever to cross the Darien Gap and your list of reasons certainly drove home the point. I am just not that adventurous. Give me a quaint European village with a clean bed and hot water, thank you very much. 😉

  3. Nice write up guys. We’ve got two friends who crossed the Darien Gap on foot. They definitely did not pay $5’000, and it took them 7 days – a mix of hiking, kayaking and squatting on small boats. They didn’t hire expensive guides or military escorts. They just showed up and hoped for the best. We met them in Guatemala and they told us of their intentions then. It was pretty nerve-racking when they put on FB that they are about to enter the Darien Gap, and we all sat around anxiously for 7 days, waiting for another status update. But they made it, had an incredible time and met some cool people. That being said, this Canadian couple were fairly nuts.

    1. Hello, thank you so much for your comment! I am looking for any information I can find on how to cross the Darien Gap on foot, if there is any way you could put me in touch with your friend who did it I would be so appreciative! Thanks a bunch! Tjthejuggler(gmail)

      1. Hi TJ, Gosh I wish we knew the answer, and I hope you come back to share your own experience with us. A while back I emailed NOMADasaurus to ask that same question. This was the response:

        I looked up our buddies and they have been inactive on Facebook for almost the entire year. I sent them a message but not sure if and when I will hear back. From what I remember they literally just showed up at the last town before the Darien Gap and asked around. They made it sound pretty easy.

        Sorry we can’t be of more help.

        We assume “the last town before the Darien Gap” would refer to either Yaviza (where the Pan-American Highway ends) or La Palma (the capital of Darién Province, which takes more work to get to).

        If anyone else reads this and has more information about hiring a guide or other logistics about crossing the Darién Gap, please chime in!

    2. Hi. Can anyone give us the contact details of the Canadian couple who managed this. Me and a friend are going to try to cross Dariens now that the war with FARC is over. We have no guides, just GPS and a compass and map. Our budget is practically nothing, (my friend has been travelling for two years with no money) however one obsticale for us are the rivers. Does anyone remember the names of the villages along the way, where does one take a conoe and how much does it cost?
      Thanks 🙂

      1. I’m sorry, Yasho, we don’t know the name of the Canadian couple and NOMADsaurus has lost contact with them. Aside from asking around once you are near a river, the only other suggestion we have is to post the question on Quora and hope someone there might know.

        If you do find out, please let us know the answer and we’ll share it with other readers.

  4. I did this trip in 1992 with a bicycle – two of us. It cost about $150 each. Drug trafficking was less of an issue back then. We had cycled from California and were on our way to Ushuia. We rode from Panama City to the end of the road and hiked, biked, canoed the rest of the way to the Rio Atrato, where we caught a motorized boat to Turbo. I think it took about 8 days from Yaviza to Turbo. We carried almost nothing except our bikes, a mat on which to sleep, and some food, which was not enough as we were not really able to buy food in the villages we passed through. At one point we were so lost we abandoned our bikes in the jungle between the border and La Katios Parque but soon found the right way and returned for them. I had PTSD for weeks after this adventure.

    1. Omigosh, I don’t blame you; I’d have PTSD from that too! It makes for a great story, though. Knowing what you know now, would you have done it?

  5. Some internet posters confuse walking the gap, which properly means taking inland trails between Riosucio, Cacarica, Colmbia and Pucuro and Yaviza in Panama, with the safer coast-hopping options (Turbo, Capurgana, La Mielt etc).

    The inland route is highly controlled by drug gangs as is a main cocaine and arms smuggling point between the FAR/Urubeños in Colombia and Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. No-one enters the trail without their knowledge.

    A backpacker trying to walk this route in 2013 went missing and his body recovered in 2015, he had been shot in the head. see this blog: http://travelswithmitzi.blogspot.com.co/2015/07/lost-in-darien-gap.html.

    1. Bingo! That’s what we think, too. Actually, the original title of this story was “Crossing the Darien Gap: Are You Nuts?”

      We stayed at a lodge on the coast of the Darien as a part of a tour and hiked 7 kilometres through the surrounding rainforest. Our guide cut the path ahead of us as we went and it was still a sticky, hot, buggy, grueling trek that left us gasping for water despite the humidity. I can’t begin to express how uncomfortable we all were. Hiking through untouched jungle might be an enjoyable Appalachian Trail-type challenge under other circumstances, but the guerrillas in this area are not to be messed with. Thanks for the link.

  6. Wow what an experience! I enjoy your travel blogs and photos. Love from your cousin, travel on !

    1. I’m glad you enjoy our photos and stories, Hope. We really enjoyed visiting the Darien but camping in the jungleand risking our lives just to get to Colombia on foot is not for us. Some people like it though, more power to them.

  7. Very interesting post, Linda! First of all, I felt like I was there with you, trying to cross the Darien Gap. I kept reading thinking that you might have decided to hire a local guide to take you to Colombia, but then I realized you were wise enough to stop at the border. Phew, what a relief! I am not adventurous at all, as opposed to my husband who would go to any length to get himself in trouble and be able to brag about it later. Secondly, I didn’t know anything about the Darien Gap, so I found out a lot from reading your post. South America is very wild and you need to exercise a lot of caution when visiting it. Don’t you think so? At least that’s my impression.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Anda. No, we just took an organized tour because our son Jimmy was visiting and we knew the Darien would be just his type of thing. It sounds like he was a lot like your husband – always looking for the action.

      In regards to your question about South America, our experience has always been positive, though I’ve heard that Venezuela is problematic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow As We Saw It on