Panama City, Panama.
“So… How are you planning to cross the Darien???”
This question has been repeated countless times both by friends, family, other cyclists and locals alike (never mind the broken record in my own head).
For a bit of context… The Darien Gap refers to an approximately 80 mile wide section of dense jungle that overlaps the border between Panama and Colombia. Various attempts have been made to develop this land and continue the Panamerican Highway through it to connect North and South America by land, all having failed thus far for a variety of reasons. As of now the Darien continues to maintain a strong separation between the two continents. It is full of potential dangers, including deadly animals, deadly plants, and plenty of mosquito born illnesses. There are also many human-related dangers, including various narcotraffic organizations, FARC and other paramilitary presence, and various forms of human trafficking that would prefer to go undiscovered. Many have tried to cross the Darien with rare success by foot, by boat, by 4×4, and even by bicycle. Many have died in the process.
For cyclists traveling the Pan-American route, the Darien Gap forms the only obstacle to riding all the land between Northern Alaska and the Southern tip of Argentina. Most cyclists either get on a plane to Colombia or pay a pretty penny to take a 5-day sailboat tour across to Cartagena Colombia.
NOTE: For my full list of crossing options, skip to the end of this post.
The first known successful land crossing of the Darien by bicycle was by Sir Ian HIbbel in 1972. He wrote a book about this and other cycling adventures, worth a read if you get the time. Since then, many cyclists have tried to cross it and very few have succeeded. Most get turned around at one of the military checkpoints heading South from the end of the highway on the Panamanian side. Lots of potential for misadventure. Lots of intrigue…..
So far along my journey, I’ve adopted the mentality that a land crossing would be impossible for me. Just too risky. I thus held onto a loose plan to paddle around the Darien on the Caribbean side of Panama to land in Colombia, on my packraft. To my knowledge the Darien has yet to be crossed specifically via packraft. After my second bike frame break while in Guatemala however, I sent the packraft back with a friend. Plus I believed that I had missed my window for the ideal time to paddle this route as the Caribbean is said to be quite rough around now with extremely strong headwinds for a person paddling South. So what are my options???
It all started with Andrew Cheyne. I was put in touch with him by a mutual friend we’d both met up in Fairbanks Alaska. Andrew started his bike journey in Capetown, South Africa, and has since ridden all the way across Africa, up and across all of Asia to Eastern Russia. From there he flew to Prudhoe Bay Alaska to ride South. This is a man on a mission, who’s riding huge days (like regularly over 200km a day). When we made plans to meet up, he was a little ways behind me in Costa Rica, but caught up quickly. We rode for one day together to land in Panama City, and began exploring possibilities of crossing the Darien together… by land. His enormous energy, vast experience, and fearless gusto gave me the confidence to imagine that it just might be possible. But we’d need to do a LOT of research…
First stop: Panama’s National Geographic Society. Located in the heart of Panama City, we were told they might have detailed topographic and nautical maps of the mountains and rivers through the Darien. Seemed like a good place to start. We walked into the maps room, and a kind woman was instantly confused by our question. “You want to ride your bikes… through the Darien… to Colombia???” It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time to see those, “you’ve got to be bat-shit crazy” eyes when I ask the question. She showed us the maps she had.
We took photos of them. They weren’t any more detailed than the Open Street Maps topo maps of the area I found. But we grabbed them just in case.
The coolest maps were actually framed on the walls in the lobby of the building. Most interesting of which was a historical map of the Spanish exploration of the Darien, which portrayed a “17th Century Pirate Trail” across the Eastern flank of the Darien mountains… very interesting… But without more information about the route, there’s no way we could risk taking it. Back pocket for now… However, a guy working in the building overheard our conversation and at least gave us a clue for where to go next: Permits. We’d need at least a permit from Senafront (the national border patrol), and perhaps from the national parks department.
While Andrew dealt with some much needed bike repairs, I spent the following day riding around to the national park and Senafront offices. Upon entering the national parks building, I was told I could not enter dressed “like that”. I’d need to come back wearing slacks, and for real, a sweater. I pleaded with the front desk receptionist to call someone down from the office as I did not have access to those clothes (I tried not to laugh while referring to the sweater… in Central America…). He eventually called someone down, who basically told me there was no national park permit needed. Sweet. On to Senafront.
The Senafront office to which I was directed was supposedly 20km outside of the city along the Panama Canal. Good excuse to see the canal at least! I got a peek-a-boo view over a fence during a short stretch of road…
Rolling down the quiet side road to Senafront, I was stopped by a heavily uniformed soldier at the guard station. He was completely confused as to why I was there, but extremely nice about it. He called his superior, who told me I’d need to come back with a written, printed request detailing my planned route to hand deliver to the man in charge of such things… and I’d need to do it wearing none other than slacks and a sweater. What’s with the sweaters down here??? I’m not seeing ANYBODY else wearing them! Anyway, I at least knew what to do next. I turned around and headed back to the main road.
As I turned off from the main road, a motorcade was entering with some weird dude on the back of one of the bikes with these big rabbit ears mounted to his helmet, carrying an old heavy flag with tassels all around it. No idea what that was about. But I think I was actually at the training grounds for new recruits for Senafront, and this was some sort of hazing ritual. That was my guess.
Across the street from Senafront was a large municipal park, so I thought. I walked to the gate and asked if I could enter just to get some water. As I walked in, I heard a variety of interesting animal sounds and quickly realized it was actually a zoo. I generally HATE zoos for obvious reasons, but since I was already there, I gave a quick look around. Some beautiful birds, but seeing them in their cages just made me sad.
Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (SeNaFront). I saw a sign off of the highway as I was returning to the city that afternoon… I figured it couldn’t hurt to just poke my head in and ask to make sure the other guy’s info was correct. Turns out it was completely IN-correct. Once directed to the officer in charge of the Darien area, I posed my question and was quickly and calmly informed that Senafront no longer requires any kind of permit to enter the Darien. They used to charge money for a permit in years past but ceased doing that as it was determined to be illegal. Good news for me, as I wouldn’t need to write a written request… nor purchase slacks and a sweater.
Big sign outside the office. Ironically looked like the ad for some new Disney movie.
Back in town, Andrew and I had met 3 other cyclists at a bike shop who were keen to get to Colombia. We set up a planning meeting at our hotel to consider the options. I had gotten in touch with a couple of cyclists who’d crossed it a couple of years back and received a lot of detailed information about their route. I knew exactly who to ask, where to get the required guide through the Panama side of the Darien, where we’d need to rent boats to get down the unwalkable sections of jungle that are covered in small waterways, and how to get out the other side. But the biggest questions I couldn’t get clearly answered were: How much will it cost, and how dangerous is it REALLY?
Those two questions ended up breaking down the whole thing to the beginning. No matter how many details we had, there were still no clear stories that it wouldn’t be highly dangerous. And I for one became clear that I didn’t have enough attachment to this little stretch of land so as to risk my life for it.
Given my strong attachment to keep the bike on ground (or at least sea) level, the flight option was out. This left boats…
I decided to take advantage of this being the narrowest point of land between Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and ride across to the Caribbean to scout out sailboat and motorboat options in the small port town of Portobelo. But to make the ride a little more interesting, I decided to tag along with my new Venezuelan friend Axel on a mountain bike ride with a local group that would bring me 1/2 way there…
We rode some fun rough 2-track roads up into the mountains outside the city, ending at a huge cave with a perfect swimming hole inside it.
Then out to a lake for a little more sun and soaking.
The other riders all hopped in their cars for the city and I continued on to Portobelo.
Beautiful old forts used to guard the port during the gold trade. Now just relics. Sailboats in the background… a good sign?
Upon entering Portobelo, I got a really strong, good vibe. That was substantiated by the sign off the main road for the “little school of rhythm”. As a percussionist…. that piqued my curiosity!
Turns out this little stretch of Panamanian coastline is home to a very strong African Congo culture. The significantly higher level of melanin in the average person’s skin tone than anywhere else in Panama was striking. I spent one day in town, learning that finding a cheaper sailboat to Colombia was doable from there. I also found out that Panama’s Carnaval would be starting up in a few days, and Portobelo has a huge celebration that combines with its annual Congo celebration of drumming and dance. Time to shoot back to the city for my stuff and get back here!
I rode all the way back to the city the following day, told Andrew about my experience, and he was in for the exploration. We rode back out together, and his backside was all I ever saw of him. Damn, this guy is fast!
Back in Portobelo, we found a super cheap place to crash for a few days through Carnaval, then we’d look into boats… But I think Andrew ended up being on a different track. The Congo festival didn’t seem to excite him as much as it did me, and I think once we let go of the land crossing he was keen to just get down to Colombia. He rode back to the city the following morning to catch a plane to Medellin. Too bad. I really liked hanging out with another crazy cyclist!
At the hostel, I met a Spanish traveler named Raul who was in Portobelo working for a nonprofit organization for the last few months. He was taking a couple weeks of down time before heading out of town, so we bummed around town together. One day we rented a dugout canoe (called cayuko) from a local to ride out to a hidden beach with another friend. The owner hand cut our seats for us right then and there!
I guess the hidden beach wasn’t as hidden as we thought. Still, really beautiful. Raul stretching out after a very tippy paddle on a tiny cayuko.
Back in town, the carnival festivities were up and running. I went for a walk to check out the stage and follow a small comparsa parade (think conga line, but for real). When I returned the owner of the hostel, known by everyone as “Black”, immediately started painting my face black with charcoal. We’d be playing the role of a particular character in the Congo festival pantheon, that of the clown/tricksters that mess with all the crowds wherever they go. They all commonly wear funny hats, so Black strapped on his trusty cook pot. Raul being a trained clown threw together a balloon hat. I made due with my spare bike tire. Honestly, it felt really weird to walk around a town that was 90% black as a white person with my face painted black. I wanted to tell everyone, “I didn’t do it! Black did it, complain to him!” But I just had to bear it.
The Congo dance circle. This is right in the middle of the town square, with a dirt floor. Packed with a huge chorus of women singing, a row of drummers pounding out the congo rhythm, and a constantly shifting couple of dancers in the center.
The Diablitos. They represent the Spanish conquistadors who enslaved the Africans and brought them to Portobelo. Part of the historical ritual, the diablitos run all around town with free license to enter any unlocked door and whip people’s ankles with a small rope whip. At the main carnival stage, they all joined together to chase people around and whip them. Quite a sight.
After a couple of days of continuous carnival tomfoolery, I was ready to get back to my goal of finding a boat to Colombia. I went around to the dock and spoke to some captains, and all said the same thing: You can find a sailboat for under the standard package tour cost, but they’re rare and not always completely safe. None would be leaving Portobelo for at least a week. Sigh. I need to get out of here. They did however tell me that if I could get over to the last road-accessible port town of Carti, that I’d much more likely find either a sailboat or even a motor boat that could just carry me down the coast to the Colombian border for much less money than a packaged tour.
The only way to Carti was riding all the way past Panama City and back out to the Caribbean Coast South of it. Okay. Back on the bike. Back to Panama City. Again.
On a whim, I contacted a Venezuelan Afro-Cuban drummer I’d met online a few weeks before who said he’d be in the city sometime that month. Turns out he was in town to play a religious ceremony and invited me to come stay with him and his son. Pepe Peña is not just any drummer. He’s a very established drummer with 2 sets of consecrated bata drums (the kind I’ve been sworn to play). We hit it off instantly and he invited me to stay to play the ceremony with him. But before that, we met up with some other local percussionists for a jam in their studio. Super fun! Little did I know that the studio was the practice space for their salsa band that was playing for Panama City’s last night of Carnaval that night… We hopped in the band bus and headed down to the show…
Pepe’s son, Pepito!
Pepe (center) and his son (right) with members of the most popular salsa band in Panama, Orquesta La K’Shamba.
So after a couple of days of waiting around, we played. I’d not touched a consecrated bàtá drum in about 3 years. I’d not played any bata music since a little hit in Mexico, almost a year ago. But Pepe was amazing. So warm, welcoming and excited to have me be a part of the energy.
Sigh. A wrench in the plans, but an important touchpoint. It had been nearly a year since I’d been home to visit my family in Boston. My Father’s health had yet again taken a downward turn, and it felt important to be there to support him and my Mother through a challenging time. Given the ease of direct flights from Panama to Boston, I took the opportunity and booked.
Needless to say, it was quite a shock to go from 100 degree Panamanian heat to -5 in Boston. And that was the tip of the iceberg. No bike. No travel. And a lot of family dynamics. In attempts to be proactive, I instigated some very challenging conversations at home. I bought a cheap mountain bike on craigslist to keep my sanity. All in all it ended up being a really important visit. Lots of growth on many levels.
Nearly 3 weeks later, I got back on a plane to return to Panama. The Darien still lay between me and Colombia, but one thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to be dottling for a minute.
South America Ho!!!!
HOW TO CROSS BETWEEN PANAMA AND COLOMBIA WITH A BICYCLE:
1. BY AIR
Various airlines offer quite cheap flights from Panama City to either Medellin or Cartagena, Colombia. At the time of my research the cheapest available option was on Avianca Airlines, which had a flight to Medellin for about $120USD and no extra fee for the bike. BY FAR the cheapest and fastest option. Pro: fastest and cheapest option. Con: Most boring option.
2. BY AIR THEN BY BOAT
AirPanama has flights to the Caribbean border town of Puerto Obaldia for about $110 (without bike charge, pretty sure it’ll be more). You can then get your exit stamp and hop on a lancha (small motor boat) to Capurgana, Colombia just over the border ($15USD). From there you take another lancha across the large bay to Turbo (+/- $20USD) from where you can ride South. Pro: pretty fast (you could get to Turbo on the same day as leaving Panama City); you land almost exactly where the Pan-American highway picks back up in Colombia from it’s pause across the Darien Gap. Con: I think this is the silliest option to try with a bike. You have to break it down to get it on the plane, pay extra fees, then still deal with 2 boats to get back to a road in Colombia.
3. BY MOTOR BOAT DOWN THE COAST
Ride or get a ride from Panama City to the small indigenous Kuna town of Carti. From there you can easily find a lancha (small fishing boat) to carry you and the bike down the coast for a very bumpy 7-9 hour ride to Puerto Obaldia. Make sure it takes you there so you can get your exit stamp to avoid fines. Either have them continue or grab another lancha to Capurgana on the Colombian side and get your entry stamp. Then catch yet another lancha (usually a super fast, high horsepower speedboat) across the bay to Turbo. Ride from there. Note: Bikes and salt water are not friends. These boats splash a lot. Bring a tarp to cover your bike and lots of rope to tie it down well. Don’t expect the lancha captain to have anything in this regard. Pad your bike well, and I suggest making sure it’s standing up somehow rather than on it’s side — it has more resilience to the bouncing in that position. Cost: Should be $100-150USD/person (bike included) to Capurgana. Boat across to Turbo should be another $20 or so. Pro: Super fun adventure, you get to see Kuna territory and the San Blas islands, and reasonably cheap. Con: Bike can get damaged due to trauma or salt exposure. For a reliable boat and a great captain, ask for “Negro” at the Carti docks. Everyone knows him.
4. BY CARGO SHIP TO CARTAGENA
If you’re lucky you can find a cargo ship from Colon (the North side of the Panama Canal) to Cartagena. This is a cheap to free option, but very inconsistent. I heard of a friend who was waiting weeks before getting on a boat. Pro: big boat means less hard on your bike in big surf. Con: Slow and inconsistent schedule.
5. SAN BLAS ISLANDS SAILBOAT CRUISE
Various companies offer 4-5 day sailboat cruises from Porvenir (an island just off of Carti on the Caribbean Coast) to Cartagena Colombia. Usually they take 2-3 days for snorkeling and island hopping in the beautiful San Blas Islands, then beeline for Cartagena for 2 days. You’ll be crammed on a mid-sized sailboat with a bunch of other travelers, usually more on the budget-conscious side (though this is the most expensive way to cross). Cost is usually $5-600USD/person and the bike generally incurs an extra fee. Pro: you get 5 days on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Gorgeous tiny islands and warm waters. Your captain takes care of all customs paperwork. Con: you get 5 days on a sailboat in the Caribbean. People get seasick for days, plus you’re stuck on a tiny boat with a bunch of people for a long time. For more information, check out Captain Jack’s boats.
6. CROSS THE DARIEN BY LAND
As stated in this post, this is by far the most adventurous and by that right dangerous option. There are 2 main routes that can be used to cross, one being the most popular that connects from Yaviza through El Real, Boca de Cupe, and Paya via small boats. You then hike your bike through rough jungle for 30km from Paya to Puente Americas and push a tiny boat through swamp out to Cacarica. From there you can take a lancha either North to Turbo or South to Riosucio and bike from there. Pro: High adventure. Coolest route. A for effort. See places most people will never see. Con: Extremely dangerous due to narcotraffic and paramilitary presence, potential for getting turned back at various points by either Panamanian or Colombian military. Many natural dangers. Potentially expensive (bribing guards, guide fees, boat rental fees, illegal immigration fines).
7. CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE!
Nick Gault and Carey Gray paddled to Colombia on a dugout wooden canoe (cayuko).
Others have paddled it in kayaks.
I’ve yet to see it done on a packraft or stand up paddle board. But I’m sure someone will….