Do you have a recurring fantasy of an epic road trip from the US to Colombia and beyond? Well, be prepared when you get to Panama. You can’t get there from here.
We’re as serious as a heart attack: It’s impossible.
It’s true that the Pan American Highway runs from Alaska down to the tip of Argentina. On paper.
But if you look at the map carefully, you’ll find one impenetrable, 90-kilometer gap in the road. It’s right at the border between Colombia and Panama—the Darién Gap.
Crossing the Darien Gap jungle has been called the world’s most dangerous journey.
Can you drive from Panama to Colombia?
No, you cannot drive from North America to South America.
Although the continents are connected by land, there is no road linking Panama and Colombia.
The Pan American Highway stops at the Darien Gap, an undeveloped area that spans the border.
Building a road through the wilderness in Darien has been discussed for over 100 years. But, after some extensive research, we understood the many reasons why there’s no road between Panama and Colombia.
The main reason you can’t drive to Colombia from the U.S. or Mexico is that authorities believe that a paved road would aid drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. Plus, there’s the fear that it will impact indigenous communities and degrade the environment.
What’s even more complicated is the logistics of the whole thing.
For one thing, road-building through this area would be prohibitively expensive because of all the mountains, swamps, and dense jungle.
For another, the area is environmentally sensitive, one of the wettest regions in the world, and inhabited by native tribes who want to protect their land.
There is also a safety issue, as dealing with immigrants, rebels and smugglers along the border would make any road-building effort even more perilous.
So, where does that leave us?
With lots of swamps and zero roads, you’re faced with either crossing the Darién Gap by 4×4 or finding a different option.
Can you hike through the Darien Gap on foot?
The straightforward answer is: yes, you can cross the Darien Gap on foothen.
But, realistically speaking, the trek is difficult and dangerous, and that’s why we urge you to reconsider this decision.
See, Panama’s Darién Gap hasn’t been nicknamed one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere for nothing. Even the most experienced hiker should be aware of the following points when attempting to cross this part of South America:
- Treacherous jungle
- Virtually impassable mountains
- Impenetrable swamps
- Overgrown, often unmarked trails
- Almost totally uninhabited land (if you get lost or injured, you’re on your own)
- 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 (we wish we were exaggerating)
Finally, don’t underestimate the risk that unfriendly wildlife can pose, even if you think you know all about jungle-dwelling animals.
We’re talking about snakes as big as your arm, man-eating cats that are larger than the snakes, crocodiles, and caimans in the rivers.
Also, you’ll have to make sure to avoid biting ants and spiders that can drop down your shirt without warning … you get the idea!
A few optimistic people brave the risks and attempt it every year. I don’t know how many succeed … but we think that there are enough documented cases of people disappearing permanently to discourage any notions of our trying it ourselves.
Just do a websearch on the term “darien gap missing tourist” and you’ll see what we mean.
Life is precious. Besides, we have an aversion to bug bites and prefer to sleep in real beds.
Darien National Park tours
When someone warns us against going somewhere, we always wonder if they are being dramatic or if the area is truly as dangerous as they claim.
So, when we had a chance to take a four-day trip to Parque Nacional Darién, a nature reserve, we seized the opportunity with both hands. With a proper guide who knew the area, we could visit “el Darién Panama,” safely.
The best part of the entire trip was a 7-kilometer hike through virgin tropical rainforest with an informative and entertaining local guide.
But that one burning question wouldn’t leave me in peace. I just had to get the scoop from someone with firsthand knowledge, so I asked our chatty guide if people ever 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.” For obvious reasons, guides who help people enter Colombia by land don’t go around announcing their services in public!
And yet, I did manage to find a Darien local who “might know a few people who do that.”
He then described the journey to us.
Omigosh. Can you say ordeal?
Tips for crossing the Darien Gap on foot
Here’s the advice our guide gave us when I asked him about hiking through the Darien:
- Hire a local guide who knows the area
- Travel during the dry season (December through April)
- Never do it alone, even if you’re used to going on difficult hikes
- Be prepared to pay a lot for the experience (he quoted $5,000!).
- Throw any possibility of comfort out the window.
- Expect about three days of serious trekking.
How to cross the Darien Gap on foot
Before we go any further, let’s be clear:
All information shared on As We Saw It for informational purposes only. We cannot be held responsible for any actions taken as a result of reading our articles. You’re an adult. You are responsible for your own choices and behavior.
Got that? Great. Now, let’s move on!
Crossing the Darién Gap starts with a drive to Yaviza. This town is at the Panama end of the Pan-American Highway.
During this part of the trip, you should expect to be stopped by the police repeatedly. At each stop, you’ll need to provide your name and a copy of your passport.
Once in Yaviza, you’ll spend a half day hiking to a river.
The next day, you’ll be navigating rivers in a rustic boat.
The day after that involves more hiking to the Panama-Colombia border. That’s when your guide will bid you goodbye and quietly return the way he came.
Now, you’ll be completely on your own.
Oh, and by the way. Now that you’ve entered the country, you’ll need to figure out how to get your passport stamped.
Sound like fun? We don’t think so, either.
How long does it take to cross the Darién Gap on foot?
If you’re still determined to take the risk, you should know that crossing the Gap on foot can take anywhere from three days to an entire week.
That is, if you’re not faced with any challenges along the way.
Sadly, many immigrants choose go down this route to seek a better life in North America. In 2022 alone, 141 people have perished due to the dangers that this route poses, according to a United Nations report.
So, think twice before making this tough decision.
Other ways to cross the border between Panama and Colombia
Planes are obviously the fastest and easiest way to get to Colombia. They’re not nearly as adventurous as hiking the Darién, but you won’t have to fear for your life from your comfy plane seat!
Luckily, there are non-stop flights between Panama City (PTY) and Cartagena (CTG). You can check flight prices here before planning your trip.
Remember to fill out the Colombia Check-MIG Form before boarding your flight to the country.
Don’t understand why you should do that? Read more about it in our article.
Yes, you can travel by cargo ship. Cargo ships sail from Colon and/or Portobello to various Colombian port towns. We were surprised, too, when we found out!
Quick speed boat
This is not a trip for weak stomachs; the water can be very rough.
You’ll 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. The trip usually takes between 8 and 10 hours.
Sail from Portobello to Cartagena
This is a fun multi-day journey as it includes a visit to the beautiful San Blas islands. Costs compare to a plane flight.
Plus, many companies offer this adventure, so ask at your hotel/hostel or search the web.
But don’t automatically choose the cheapest ride. Verify the details or you might not get all that you expect.
Do a hybrid journey
According to Runaway Guide, you begin your journey across the Darien Gap with a domestic flight from Panama City (PAC) to the city of Puerto Obaldia (PUE).
After obtaining your exit stamp, you will then 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.
Be prepared for rough seas, though.
Have you heard that there’s a ferry between Panama and Colombia? Don’t believe it. Ferry Xpress ran a car ferry between Colon and Cartagena, but no longer. Ferry service has been suspended.
How do I get my car across the Darien Gap?
The only way to get a vehicle past that stretch of non-road is by container ship. If you’re interested in shipping a car to South America, read this article first.
Prices to ship a car to Colombia from Panama can vary depending on several things. These include your car’s size, whether you can share the container with other travelers, and how quickly you want it to get there.
As a rough estimate, you should budget about $1400.
If you want to compare shipping prices, IVSS is a company that allows you to do that while planning your trip.
How to visit the Darien safely
Panama’s Darién province is a unique destination worthy of any curious explorer. It’s probably the best place to experience indigenous Panamanian culture.
Yet, it’s best to have someone who knows the area show you around. You won’t see much—or get very far into the region—if you try to do it yourself.
I would have liked to share a link so you could experience it yourself, but the tour is no longer available. To save you some research time, here are some other organized Darien tours to consider:
Here’s what our Darien Gap tour was like:
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.
The tour we booked was professionally run and well planned. As well, our lodgings were comfortable, and they were happy to accommodate special diets. (Except for ours. The cook had a hard time understanding that people who don’t eat pork also won’t eat ham or bacon. Still, we didn’t go hungry.)
Be prepared for a primitive experience once you arrive, though. The internet is nonexistent, cell signal is highly unlikely, and electricity is only available overnight.
Quite surprisingly, spending the day without electricity wasn’t as much of a problem as we had expected. After dark, the lights came on, and we were able to charge our devices and batteries.
But best of all, there was air conditioning in our bungalow!
We took the photos in this article during our trip to the Darién while we were hiking on (relatively) cleared paths on our lodge’s property.
To be fair, we had it easy compared to those who trek over the border, but it was still a hot, sweaty, and sticky hike.
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 trek over the border, but it was still a hot, sweaty and sticky hike.
And, in case you’re wondering, we have absolutely no desire to spend three days hiking through the steamy rainforest. No one wants to fight mosquitos and dodge the FARC paramilitary all the way to Colombia.
Nope, not for us. Give us a quick plane ride any day!
Plan your Darien trip: Our recommendations
To balance out so much rough activity, we highly recommend that you take some down time, both before and after this adventure. Maybe spend a week or two on a Panama road trip.
And in case you’re wondering: Can you drive over the Panama Canal?
Yes, you can drive across the Panama Canal with a car.
Three bridges have been built over the Panama Canal:
- Bridge of the Americas, built in 1962
- Centennial Bridge, built in 2004
- Atlantic Bridge, built in 2019 and the only one on the Atlantic side.
Not only will you learn a lot about the two cultures, but both cities will also provide a nice urban before-and-after contrast to the wilderness of the Gap.
Now that you know how difficult and dangerous it is to cross the Darién Gap, are you still determined to do it?
Well, if your love for danger is urging you to give it a try, keep the safety tips in this article at the forefront of your mind. Otherwise, you can play it safe and cross this wild part of the planet by plane, boat, or other safer methods.
|PANAMA TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS
|✔ Tourist bureau: The country’s official website is Tourism Panama. Besides offering tons of attraction ideas, they can tell you about special events and give you lots of travel ideas.Also check for city discount passes and tickets.
✔ Travel Guide: This book is a top seller on Amazon.
✔ Flights: Panama City’s Tocumen Airport code is PTY. Check prices here.
✔ Accommodation: Tripdavisor is a massive price comparison site. Check Vrbo for apartments.
✔ Airport transfer: Use a taxi or Uber, or book an airport shuttle for a little more. They greet you in the airport, help with bags, and take you to your hotel.
✔ Visas: Find out what you need and apply here.
✔ Travel insurance covers medical emergencies, cancellations, flight delays, baggage delays, lost luggage, and more. A wise investment. Check prices here.
✔ Getting around: Panama City has buses and a metro, and the country has an extensive public bus system. You can also take Uber or rent a car.
✔ Tickets & tours: Find dozens of fun ideas on GetYourGuide and Viator
✔ Organized trips: G Adventures has insanely affordable small-group tours + guaranteed departures.
\✔ Currency. Panama’s currency is known as the Balboa (/B.), but it only exists in coinage. In reality, the country uses the US dollar.