Panama: Crossing the Darien Gap

Posted by James Anderton on August 24, 2018


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Panama, famous for it's canal and not a lot else, was the least interesting of the countries I cycled in Central America. The majority of cyclists bosh along the Pan American highway and are done with Panama in less than a week. I did much the same. A couple of attempts to explore were either met with bad weather or having to turn back because I wasn't allowed access along private roads. By the far the most exciting part of Panama was getting in. Having to cross the infamous Darien Gap.

Stretching from Alaska to the pencil tip of Argentina, the 48,000km Pan American Highway holds the record for the world's longest road. But there is a gap, an expanse of wild tropical forest, that has defeated travellers for centuries. The Darien Gap. It consists of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest that connects North America to South America. There are many reasons why a road has never been built to connect the two continents. 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 dead end at the Colombian border, but Panama is against the idea. The fear is that it will aid drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. As well as impact indigenous communities and degrade the environment. The gap has done a good job stopping the spread of foot and mouth into North America. Besides, rebels and smugglers along the border would make the effort even more perilous. The Gap is notorious for its guerrillas and drug traffickers. At the end of the day though money talks and a road just doesn't make financial sense to Panama. Panama has the biggest and most active ports in all of Latin America and it has the canal. It does not need a road. Anyway.....what does all this mean for cycle tourers. It means we have to do something other than cycle. A concept we always find confusing.

Map of my proposed journey to cross the Darien Gap

Map of the route I was attempting to take by a series of local boats

There are options. You can of course fly. There are now direct flights between Cartagena and Panama City. It works out as the cheapest option until you factor in the $100 the airlines charge to carry your bike. It is the quickest option but also the least interesting. I dislike flying with my bicycle. It's a hassle. I dislike taking my bike apart. It's like dismembering a loved one. It just feels wrong. A popular option is to take a sail boat. You fork out $400 to a sea captain for a cramped cabin on a rickety ship, spend four days on the high seas, visit the San Blas Islands and have a party. Backpackers rave about the picture perfect Caribbean islands populated by the indigenous Kuna. For a couple of bucks, the locals will pose in their traditional garb and tourists take home pictures of exotic looking people sporting colorful beads and hand woven textiles. Not for me. Plus I get sea sick and find picture perfect islands about as interesting as suburban malls. You could of course just ignore the lack of road and head off into the gap and see what happens. This appeals to my adventurous spirit but sadly I possess a small amount of sanity and had to rule it out. The final option is to take a series of local boats around the gap. This is the choice I went for. Partly because it promised a degree of adventure and partly because it's the cheapest option.

Local boat to take you from Colomboa to Panama

The boat from Puerto Obaldia to Gardi

I took the daily boat from Turbo to Capurgana ($50 with bike, 2 hours). A car free town on the Caribbean sea, only accessible by water and right next next to the Panama border. Nice place I felt like staying but after camping on the beach I took a small boat around the border ($20, 1 hour) to Puerto Obaldia. It's quite possible to walk but apparently there's a steep section of steps that would have been too much for me and my bike. Puerto Obaldia is officially a city. Smallest city I've ever been to. It consists of a ramshackle collection of decrepit houses. Most with damaged but colourful roofs. There is a beach littered with rubbish. One of these ramshackle houses is the immigration office where you can get your stamp. Then came the tricky bit of finding the first road in Panama so I could begin cycling again.

A lot of people fly from here for just $100 but the planes are tiny and won't take your bike in the hold. The nearest road in Panama was 200km of jungle away so I had to take another boat. There is no timetable. The boat ride is organised by a villager without an email address but a local lady told me the boat would be leaving sometime in the morning. I was in luck. I headed down to the beach and pitched my tent as the sun went down. Myself and a couple of other travellers took the rickety boat in the morning. It cost $80 and another $20 for my bike. This was the longest boat ride of the three and I had to concentrate to keep by breakfast down. It wasn't even rocky. Other than that it was a pleasant ride with the seagulls chirping above, swathes of jungle to my left and the sun bouncing off the Caribbean sea to my right. I even managed a little snooze. Luckily there was no head wind and it only took 5 hours and there I was in Gardi on dry land with a lovely looking dirt road that would take me to the main road and from there to Panama city. It was all fairly painless to be honest. Only took 3 days, cost less than $200 and was an interesting peep into life by the sea in remote Caribbean fishing villages. Gave my legs a rest as well.

Main street in Panama border town of Puerto Obladia

High Steet in Puerto Obladia

From there on in Panama was a little underwhelming. Panama City was fine. I checked out a few of Bolivar's old haunts but there was nothing there to make me linger. Crossed the canal over the impressive 'Bridge of the Americas'. Left the sweltering humidity of the Pan American to cycle up to a point where apparently on a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic ocean. I could't see either. I could only see a cloud. I also cycled half way up the Volcan Baru near Boquette and got well and truly soaked. At this point I gave up trying to explore and headed for the Costa Rican border.

Old Town Panama City

Old Town Panama City

Capital:

Panama city. A modern city framed by the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal. Surprisingly pleasant to cycle through. There's a good cycle path down by the water. It is quite the melting pot thanks to the construction of the canal. There is a big Creole and Caribbean community, there are Indians and plenty of Chinese as well as a pretty big indigenous Kuna population.

Roads:

I spent most of the time on the Pan American highway which is all paved and mostly dull apart from the section between San Martin and El Nancito. Even my brief attempts to explore were on good paved roads.

Wild camping:

Easily done but not very appealing. Panama is mostly at sea level and extremely humid and hot at all times of the year. It doesn't really cool down at night. You will need some kind of makeshift fan.

Visa/Border Crossings:

No visa required. Proof of onward travel is recommended. They didn't ask me for it but I met a few people who were. You might get asked, you might not. In such situations I book a flight on Expedia (must be .com), save ticket as PDF and then cancel within 24 hours for a full refund. I exited the country into Costa Rica on the Pan American and it was so quick and easy I can't remember it.

Bicycle Shops:

Plenty in Panama city and other big towns/cities in Panama

Food:

Chicken and chips seemed to be the staple dish along the roads. Panamanian cuisine is actually a mix of African, Spanish, and Native American techniques, dishes, and ingredients, reflecting its diverse population.

Costs:

More expensive than Colombia to the south. Not as expensive as Costa Rica to the north. Accommodation was a little expensive for Central America. Looking at $15 minimum for something basic. Panama is on the dollar.

When to Go:

Humidity is always high in Panama. Rainfall varies between the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country. Some areas on the Caribbean side receive almost twice the yearly rainfall of Panama City. The best time to visit Panama is during the summer dry season from mid-December to mid-April.

Tips:

If you also cross the Darien Gap on local boats then practice your haggling skills when negotiating boat prices. Apart from the boat to Capurgana the prices are negotiable. You will need to speak Spanish. The Spanish for less is 'menos'.

Safety:

No problems in Panama. The drivers are also good. The Pan American comes with a shoulder.

Water:

Tap water is safe to drink in Panama.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.

The Bridge of the Americas across the Panama canal

The Bridge of the Americas across the Panama canal