FARC Off: Crossing the Darien Gap Without Dying
There are few navigable tracks. There are definitely no roads. The only existing signs of human activity are the machete slashed clearings made by FARC guerrillas and drug traffickers heading north from Colombia. Gunshots can be heard in the far distance; perhaps a symbolic gesture of intimidation, or merely drunk soldiers ringbarking trees with bullets. Just metres away, a jaguar scrambles up a Socratea palm and thunders his ominous outcry, shaking the jungle to its very roots. Nests of deadly black scorpions take violent swings at your cheap hiking boots and you just hope like hell that your dodgy gaffer tape repair holds the sole in place. Swarms of kaleidoscopic flies lay eggs under your irritated skin, hallucinogenic toads lay provocatively, just beckoning you to lick their backs, and Chunga trees armed to the teeth with poisonous spines, ravenously itch to inject your already irritated skin with swarms of pissed off bacteria. And this is just the jungle's edge!
Welcome to the Darien Gap.
If you ever cross the surprisingly sturdy footbridge that traverses the Rio Chucunaque on the outskirts of the diminishing Panamanian provincial town of Yaviza to enter the seemingly impenetrable daunt of the Darien rainforest, this is exactly the sort of welcoming committee you can expect. This is the end of the line fella! The dead end to the universe's longest known highway. Where civil formalities go to die.
Stretching all the way from Alaska through to Yaviza, picking up again in Turbo, Colombia and falling off the edge of the earth at Antarctica's nearest neighbour, Ushuaia, Argentina, the Pan-American Highway is one long motherfucker. 30,000 kilometres if you don't mind. Perspectively, that makes the Darien Gap one hell of a speed hump.
Measuring 160 kilometres across and 50 kilometres wide, the Darien Gap is essentially made up of undeveloped swampland and inaccessible rainforest. It doesn't sound like much, but just three hours into our doomed mission, we decided that perhaps we were attempting the impossible. As usual, my wife Demelza and I had no real plan of how we were getting across to Colombia, and at the time we didn't particularly feel like being turned into FARC's little bitches. So we headed back to Yaviza. Darien Gap one, stupid gringos nil.
Other than the relatively luxurious option of chartering a catamaran from Panama's El Porvenir to cross the Caribbean to the charming walled city of Cartagena, Colombia, there just had to be a more exciting way to cross the Darien's insane tapestry of headfuck. Who in their right mind would want to sit on a damn boat for five useless days, whiling away the time with beer, crystal blue waters and the occasional tropical paradise of a San Blas island? Sounds excruciating!
Back in the relative safety of our "hostel" in Yaviza, and without internet, we began to plot and scheme old school. How did people organise travel pre-internet?
Demelza and I worked our way backwards. Our end game to this part of the mission was in fact, Cartagena. Once there, we would relax, soak in the colonial history, drink copious amounts of Aguila and ask taxi drivers to score cocaine for us. Until that time, we needed our wits about us. This wasn't going to be easy. So we hit up the locals for some knowledge.
The kind folk of Yaviza mostly pointed us in the direction of one of two very boring and unchallenging methods of crossing into Colombia. According to some locals, these were the only safe options:
An aeroplane. Oh, how fucking imaginative! Thank you so much for your local knowledge. Brilliant advice Jose! The upside of that atrocity, if you can call it an upside, is that within ninety minutes we could be in our hostel in Cartagena getting drunk with other gringos and doing our damnedest to avoid interacting with the locals for as long as possible.
A catamaran. At $550 (USD) per person, trapped for five days on the Caribbean with a bunch of strangers and making uncomfortable chit-chat with people so boring that they're impossible to hate as much as they're impossible to like? Well, we did actually do that once. It was damn good fun though, with some fantastic people who we are now friends with... but no. Never again.
Surely there's another way.
There is! And thanks to one deep thinking local, Gerardo, we gained the knowledge. Let's start from the very beginning...
The leg from Panama City to Yaviza sounds much simpler than it actually is; 268 kilometres of paved highway on just the one bus sounds like a dream three or four hour run, doesn't it? Don't be so damn stupid! Anyone that has ever galavanted around Latin America will tell you, things are rarely as they seem and bus journeys are never straightforward. Definitely no exception here.
First things first. You MUST obtain permission from the Senafront Base (border police) to gain overland clearance out of Panama and into Colombia. This is compulsory; you cannot cross the Darien without explicit permission first. The reason for this pain in the arse, is that the border police are doing their utmost to discourage adventurers from exploring inland areas of the Colombian frontier. The Darien is the most dangerous jungle in the world after all.
Rest assured, if you're not a dirty criminal, permission will be granted. It just won't be easy and there will be some hoop-jumping involved. Here's the thing; the Senafront officials are nonchalant as fuck. They don't care about you or your well-being. So make very bloody sure that your document contains the official Senafront stamp on the front, as you will need to turn it over to the Aduana agents at the border. DO NOT let the Senafront fool you into thinking that you don't need paperwork to cross overland into Colombia; you do. Otherwise, you risk being detained and having to pay out thousands in bribes. Sort the official crap out a few days in advance. This will allow you to enjoy the dizzying highs and mystifying lows that Panama City will inevitably throw at you.
When you're ready to head off, taxi it to the Albrook Bus Terminal out near the international airport. Negotiate a fare with your driver first. Or, if you enjoy argument as a form of learning Spanish swear words, don't. Albrook is a gleaming modern terminal with plenty of facilities, but make sure that you purchase your ticket to Yaviza at least two days in advance. Tickets can only be bought from the terminal. Unlike most of Central America, you can't just turn up and expect a seat on the day.
There is only one bus to Yaviza per day and it departs at 3am. Just shrug your shoulders and say, Hey, that's Latin America for you. It is reasonably safe to travel by bus at night in Panama, but if you are feeling edgy, stash your passport well away from you and spread your cash evenly across your body and day back. In my early days of bussing around Central America, I would carry a dummy wallet with expired cards and a small amount of cash in case something ever went down; nothing ever did.
The bus trip itself costs less than $20 (USD), but you're getting what you pay for... not much. Don't expect too much sleep either. The buses in Panama are called Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) for very good reason. But, like a wild and dirty weekend, even though your back will get sore along the ride, at least what you're riding inside of is pretty. Some of the buses are hot!
Two permanent police roadblocks along the journey, although an annoyance, will give your back a much needed break. Roadblocks are as normal as the police are corrupt in Latin America, and usually occur as you're entering into a new province. Chill out though, it's cool. Simply make sure to take all your gear off the bus for inspection, have your passport ready to go, and throw your marching powder out the window before you do anything else.
Finally, take plenty of food and drink with you on the bus. There's no opportunity to stop anywhere, and try not to drink too many Balboas prior to the trip as there are no toilets on board. The sweet lady at the bus terminal ticket counter will tell you that the trip will take four or five hours; it's a lie. With the roadblocks and other weirdness that goes on, you're looking at eight or nine.
Once in Yaviza, if any official looking types ask to see your documentas, just show them. If you're single and male and it's been a while since the old pipe was cleaned, then this town may be just what you're looking for. Hookers everywhere. The bars are great too, albeit very rough and tumble. Other than that, Yaviza has nothing.
Escaping Yaviza can be interesting. There are two options:
There is a plane that departs once a day to the border port of Puerto Obaldia, but these tickets must be booked days in advance as the small aircraft only has the capacity for eight passengers.
The other, more fun option, is to do what the locals do; lancha hop. A lancha is essentially a whole lot of precarious wood that's kind of nailed together and has hard wooden seats and a souped-up outboard motor that may or may not start.
Get your lancha tickets early; at least 24 hours prior to departure. Where the boat takes off from, that's where you buy your tickets. Now, read very carefully, this is important. On the day of departure, arrive at the lancha super early. The reason for this is that you will very much want to be occupying a seat at the back of the boat; forget the front. Make it happen. This is because sitting at the pointy end of the lancha can give you vicious whiplash. No joke. As the vessel bounces off the waves, the nose rockets skyward and plummets back to the water with a smack that's harder than your mama's wooden spoon. The locals are well aware of this and, being naturally pushy anyway, will do everything in their power to own a back seat. Many Latin Americans are notorious line-cutters and can be quite blatant about it, especially if you're a gringo. Don't let this happen. Without being a dick, stand your ground.
The trip to Puerto Obaldia takes approximately four hours and is one wild ride! Reaching speeds of up to sixty kilometres per hour along the water when you're seated lower than the Gates of Hell, makes it feel like you are doing twice that speed. Add to that the superball like recoil off the waves, coupled with the exaggerated screams of the local women, and your entire experience will be cracking value for the $12 (USD) boarding price.
Puerto Obaldia is right on the Panama/Colombia border crossing and is buried deep in the heart of the Kuna Yala indigenous region of the Darien. Despite only having a population of less than 1,000 inhabitants, it is very much worth spending 24 hours here if you can find somewhere to stay. Venture out into the jungle and meet some tribal clans. No Spanish is spoken out there and their native tongue is damn near indecipherable, but they are super-friendly people and are very open to showing off their unique and industrious ways of life. If you ask or gesture nicely, most families will be more than willing to put you up for the night. There seems to be an unspoken obligation between the villagers to help outsiders in any way possible, and it's a clear automatic trigger they possess to forewarn you repeatedly of potential dangers and where not to go. Bang! Bang! is the same in every language; it's universal.
Don't worry about food for this portion of the trip either. The Kunas will fill you up with fried plantains, fish caught fresh from the river, rice and more fish from the river. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. You'll stay in a native, stilted hut and sleep on a hardwood floor, but don't let that put you off. The whole experience is a beautiful thing. Just make sure to have plenty of insect repellant.
Puerto Obaldia itself is ramshackle to say the least, yet is not without its charm. Most locals here do not have jobs (other than the airfield and lancha port, there is literally no industry) and rely on government grants to survive. Be sure to have plenty of cash on hand as there are no ATM's in town and the internet is scarce to the point of non-existence. There are a couple of very basic hostels in town, but at this point of the trip, a bed is a bed.
On your day of departure, the lancha will take you to the final point before crossing the border, the stunning La Miel. The literal translation of La Miel into English is The Honey, and it doesn't take a genius to work out why. Stay here for a week. Read a book, whatever! This is travel brochure material without the wanky tourists, exorbitant hotel prices and those ridiculous floating bars that you can swim right up to. I mean, seriously? Pull up a coconut palm, sip on a beer, read a book and, the ex-travel writer in me is about to unfurl here, marvel at the deep blue of the magical Caribbean as you inspire your soul under the gazing charms of the romantic sunset. Still got it.
From La Miel, just walk across the Colombian border in a blaze of non-eventfulness, where you'll bump into another isolated seaside town, Sapzurro. Just make sure you have your papers stamped at Puerto Obaldia or La Miel first.
Sapzurro is quite similar to La Miel, so if you're in a chill-out frame of mind, it's a great place to hang. Otherwise, keep moving.
From Sapzurro, you must take another lancha to the slightly more facilitated town of Capurgana. The boat leaves Sapzurro at 6:30am, so remember to queue up early in order to nab a back seat. Purchase your tickets at least one day prior. The trip takes about 45 minutes.
Capurgana is an excellent opportunity to catch up on some laundry, withdraw some cash and bombard your Facebook friends with some pretty amazing photos. But please, no more pictures of your bare feet with the Caribbean in the background. I'm begging you! Capurgana isn't the worst place to hang around in for a couple of days, but on the same token, you won't be missing anything out of the ordinary if you do decide to move on quickly. You may even bump into a gringo or two in one of the town's many sleazy bars.
The very last lancha you will ever want to ride on also happens to be the final lancha you will need for this epic mission. After this lancha ride, the hard part's over. At 7:30am, the daily lancha to the rough city of Turbo departs Capurgana, so same deal as before. Get there early; buy your ticket the day before. This trip takes around two and a half hours and is waaaay bumpier than any of the other boat rides; a final slap in the face to send you off with.
*Note that there is a 10kg bag limit on all the lanchas, but for a few extra pesos, the handlers will turn a blind eye.
Now you're kind of heading into one of the more shiftier regions of Colombia, but if you keep your head and don't do anything stupid, then you'll be absolutely fine. The city of Turbo is nothing special to look at and can be real lowdown and dirty at the best of times, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't check it out. Yes, it's a seedy town, but with seed comes good, dishonest fun. If your Spanish and your wits are good enough, throw yourself into a game of Toruro in one of the local dive bars. This is a basic twist on the old three-card monty that you may have seen on the streets of many European cities. Fair warning: These guys will try to screw you and they'll most likely succeed. But if you can afford to lose twenty bucks, plus the fifty you'll spend on rum, then a pretty good night of debauchery will be had by all. You'll see what I mean once in the back room of some of the bars. I'll let that be a surprise.
Having said all of this, do not go out in Turbo late at night. Daytime and late evening are fine, but after midnight things can get pretty hairy. Drug gangs from Medellin roll into town to intimidate their rivals, and gunshots can often be heard right across town. Drunk locals aren't usually violent, just downright hilarious, but best to play it safe and be tucked in by midnight.
Now that there are these things that resemble roads again, with your hangover lingering like your new girlfriend's kid on what was supposed to be a sure thing date, you will need to catch an early bus from Turbo to ensure that you don't arrive at your final destination, Cartagena, too late. Chicken buses run out of Turbo in the direction you need every ten minutes and most will get you to the city of Monteria, where you'll be able to transfer almost immediately to something slightly more comfortable. The Brasilia bus company are most likely your best bet. From Monteria, the roads are smooth all the way into Cartagena, and your seat will be snugly cushioned around your blistered and aching butt. The air will seem cleaner, the opposite sex will appear more attractive, and you? Just don't look in the mirror.
If all goes smoothly, which it won't, you should be arriving in Cartagena in the late evening; just in time to hit the best damn local bar in town. I have no idea what it's called. Sorry. It's the one directly across the main road, opposite the square that's outside the main entrance to the old city. There's usually only a couple of staggering locals milling around, and the decor can only be described as the projectile vomit from an extremely colourful clown who has overdosed on LSD. You'll find it.
Cartagena is cool, if not a bit of a tourist mecca. It's a stunning city and most definitely worth the visit though, especially to chat with the taxi drivers. They run the city and will get you anything your sweet little heart desires.
So, while it may be true that the Darien Gap can become pretty scary the further inland you venture, if you stick reasonably close to the east coast, you'll be golden. Even your own home town can be dangerous so, as always, don't listen to the paranoid media crap. Sneak away from the coast and into the jungle for a couple of hours each day and you'll come away with a much better grasp on the most dangerous jungle in the world's fantastical charm and its blood curdling history. And if you do hit trouble with the rebel armies, just tell them to FARC off.
Sorry. That's just silly.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, why not subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.