Crossing from Panama – Cartagena by boat and plane: experiences from BikeTravellers

As most cyclists and other travellers know, the only real gap in the Panamericana is the borderzone between Panama & Colombia, called the Darien Gap.

Physically there simply is no road (there seem to be some tracks), and a lot of jungle. Politically it is a dangerous mess with guerillas and drugs kartels on both sides, so not really recommended anyway.

Though some people have crossed over land, read the crazy story of Karl Bushby (Odyssey XXI)’s crossing and his reflection before you attempt it. The Riding the Spine BikeTravellers did it in canoo’s, which sounds more fun than it apparently was (hats off though!).

There are basically two ways to cross safely:

  1. By plane: several flights from Panama City to Cartagena or other places in Colombia (or for the ones that choose to believe the undeserved bad reputation of Colombia: to Ecuador). Though there seem to be $100 flights, most airlines do charge a lot extra and the hassle can be huge (see Tim & Cindy’s post on DownTheRoad.org here). Besides, for most Panam BikeTravellers, he point is not to fly at all for the length of the trip.
  2. By boat, either from close to Colon to Cartegena or a shorter version from/to closer to the Panama/Colombian border.

Years ago you could be lucky and hitch on a freighter or find a friendly cruiser that needed a crew with the real chance that you might be sitting on a ton of cocaine, especially when travelling West. Nowadays it is business as usual with at least a dozen boats crossing regularly. Prices go up slowly and are now (2010) about $350-$400 per person and a negotiable amount per bike (for motorbikers: you should count on paying double for carring it aboard).

The boats are fairly small, and usually take 4-6 days to cross. they used to leave from Colon, but as that city is deemed by many too dangerous to even visit (really, don’t go there), most leave from the start of the San Blas area, farther east. The trip usually includes a visit to the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Island, a collection of tropical small islands. Then at some point, the real crossing will be made, usually in a straight line to Cartagena (if your boat does not break down like ours), meaning 15-25 hours of usually very, very rough seas, generally enough to make even the toughest cyclist go green before feeding the fish…

We (Ivana & Harry, http://WorldOnaBike.com ) used the boat called SoftAir. Even though the owner wasvery friendly in the email contacts, and gave us a good discount (with the bikes going for free), we got what we paid for, or actually, much less. The food was bad, there was not enough space for everybody (and we were not even ‘full’!), the motor broke down because seawater got mixed  in and the owner got nearly psychotic after I Tweeted about ‘Wild Seas’, which he apparently took personal.

Even after long emails with a full report and helpful tips about how to improve his service, refused to apologise and said it was all our fault, first because we were ‘luxury travelers’ (haha!) and not used to roughing it (hahahaaaa). After explaining that we were actually quite used to roughing it, he changed course and said that we were not used to travel in ‘comfort’ (!) on his boat (wrong again :). Anyway, interested people can get the full communication if they want, but I would not bother: just do not go with them.

To help other BikeTravellers and backpackers I would like to hear some reactions/experiences from other travellers that have crossed by boat or otherwise, so we can avoid crappy experiences as the above.

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First of all you might want to read Family On Bikes‘ Nancy’s excellent overview and reports here, manyuseful tips and it includes her own crossing. They used the motorboat MetaComet and were generally positive about it.

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The HoboBikers have some good info on their site here, they sailed the trutsowrthy Stahlratte, but some commenters reacted to the Zao as well.

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Anna (http://www.thefuegoproject.com/)sent the following about the Stahlratte:

“Here´s our boatinfo:

name of the boat: Stahlratte

food: supergood, prepared by Roli and with help of passengers. We ate lobster one night, there was always plenty of everything, also for vegetarians

crew: captain Ludwig from Germany and his Austrian deckmate Roli. They are superfriendly, professional, helpful, no bad words.

price: 385 dollars. For the bikes an additional 50 USD. For transport to Carti and the boat 35 USD (from Panama) . This includes boatfare, food, passport exit and entry stamps (they organise it for you) and water. Softdrinks and beer for sale for 1 usd per drink on board. You can bring your own if wanted. You sleep in two person ´cabins´. There is a warm water shower and a cold shower.

The big pre of this boat is that it is huge, and fits bicycles below decks (no spray water) and usually also carries motorbikes (there were 9 on deck during our trip.)

www.stahlratte.com

cheers, Anna”

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Amaya Williams (http://WorldBiking.info) Added her experienced by plane:

I’ll add my two cents to this discussion.  We flew to Colombia and it ended up being cheap and relatively hassle free..but then again I think a lot of that was due to luck.   Here’s the details…

flying across the darién gap
A quick flight between Panama City and Cartagena will be your guaranteed cheapest option.  Aires Airlines, a discount Colombian airline, is the best way to go.   We paid $145 for the one hour direct flight to Cartagena.  Baggage limit is 30 kilos per person, and excess kilos are charged $4 per kilo.  With a few smiles and some friendly small talk, you may be able to get out of paying any extra fees.

You must book your flight on-line to get the cheapest rate.  The Aires website doesn’t always work well, so if your reservation doesn’t go through the first time, keep trying. There’s a toll road linking downtown Panama City with the airport.  Although there are plenty of signs forbidding cyclists to ride there, nobody stopped us.

We wrapped our bikes in bubble wrap, but were told they should be boxed.  Again, with a few smiles and profuse apologies, they took the bikes. Cartagena’s tiny airport is almost smack dab in the middle of the city.  Arriving late at night and cycling to a hotel should not be a problem.

I also posted information on other options for traveling between Panama and Colombia, including sailing with multiple small boats…check it out on my web site here:

http://worldbiking.info/country_information/Biking_Panama_country_information.html

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Roland and Belinda wrote:

We took our tandem bike and bob from Panama city to Medellin on a plane. The airline Aries charged us an additional 100 dollars but we were aware of this cost already. The whole process we was very smooth and without any hassle. Sure boxing the bike was a pain, but in the end they did not even measure it. Anyways just thought we should add our experience to the mix.

www.cyclingwithsally.com

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PedalPanam (Phil) wrote the following:

” Hi all, Phil and Manu had asked me about our experience on the Darien Gapster, so here is an excerpt of that email to them.  i’m posting this here as opposed to the more recent ‘Darien Alternatives’, as it is similar to what Byron did, so easier to compare the difference of doing it with all local boats like byron, or with part tourist lancha like we did.  The Darien Gapster went from Portobelo to Sapzurro, after that it is a small lancha to Capurgana, and a larger lancha to Turbo.

***

The darien gapster worked out pretty well.  we packed our 4 bikes up with cardboard around the delicate parts, derailleurs, handle bars, etc.  took pedals off, and straightened handle bars.  we were able to fit all 4 bikes in the front row of the boat. just assert yourself when it comes to packing the bikes, remind them you’ve done this before!  they would have fit better had there not been a 50 gallon barrel of petrol on the floor.  The bikes survived that portion of the ride mostly unscathed.  my brake lever covers got a little worn down by the bumps, but this could have been avoided if i protected them more.

Our trip was the inagural ride with paying tourists, so we got a pretty good deal.  $175 for the ride, $30 for the bike each.  this included 4 out of about 8 meals, unfortunately the places we stopped the prices were much higher than we had encountered on the highways in panama.  but to be fair stuff does cost more as it is out in the middle of nowhere.  so bring groceries and have your stove handy.  and beware of the other hidden costs. IE nights at hostals before and after, etc.  They have a cooler with pop, juice and beer for $1 each. $5 rental for snorkel gear.  i know they will be changing prices in the future, so please get the info straight from them.

Paul and i took one route from panama city to portobelo, greg and dylan took another.  from the stories, greg and dylan’s route was much more picturesque and definitely worth checking out.

We left portobelo early tuesday morning, stopped for breakfast at an island when we got to san blas.  then to another island to wait while our passports got processed.  that night we camped on the beach of a kuna family’s plot on an island.  wednesday we went to an uninhabited island for several hours.  never really been snorkeling until then, but other folks who had said it was some of the best they’ve ever done. little current and incredible reefs.  we swam to a nearby island that had at most 5 coconut trees on it.  wednesday night we spent at another kuna island, but this one had one end that was set up more for tourist use (flushing toilets as opposed to outhouses on the pier that go right into the ocean).  great time walking around the village, saying hello to folks but generally not being able to communicate more than smiling and laughing.  thursday we had another while on the water, spent some time at an island for swimming and lunch, and then got to sapzurro by dusk.

I felt safe in the hands of marcos the captain, but communication lacked at times.  if in doubt about anything, ask adam first, marco’s strength is driving the boat and his relationship with the kunas after years of travel in the region.  it was their first outing, and i know they were eager to hear our feedback to improve for next time.

Unfortunately i don’t what they’ll do with bikes in the future, after all, the bikes have to use up a row of seats, and that could mean lost opportunity for passenger fares.  but on the other hand, that still leaves 14 seats free, which i thought was a good number for the trip.

I do wish them the best in their endeavor, but it just might be hard to fill the boat up every time.  that could be good for cyclists though, there would always be a place for bikes, and they’d happily take the surcharge for the bikes.

The first night at the hostel in sapzurro was free camping included in the price, but you’ll necessarily have to spend another night in either sapzurro or capurgana.  the immigration office in capurgana, the next harbor east of sapzurro, opens after the ferry leaves from capurgana to turbo at 7:30 AM.  though sapzurro was nice and relaxed, and we spent 2 nights there (be sure to find the senora Tila who sells coconut popsicles near the dock), to decrease the amount of bike-boat related stress, i’d head over to capurgana with all your stuff, buy your tickets beforehand (especially since a dozen other darien gapster backpackers will also be heading in to town as well, the lancha might get full) and find a cheap hotel for your 2nd night.  that way you can be at the dock at 7:15, instead of having to take a lancha from sapzurro to capurgana at 6:30am.

Paul was lucky and got on the boat the morning we were supposed to leave, but there was no way greg, dylan and i were going to get on the boat with our bikes and bags.  we spent another day there.  the first time we had bought tickets for 50,000 pesos (~US$25) for the passenger part, and that they’d asses the bikes in the morning.  we found out that the small print on the ticket says passengers are allowed 10kg each, plus another 500 pesos per extra kilo.  the whole process is really ridiculous, there is no order on the dock.  so the second time we gladly accepted the boat owner’s offer for a flat fee of 50,000 pesos for the bike, with nothing extra for weight (i think that is what byron paid as well?), even though i can guarantee our bikes and gear weighs less than 100kg! makes me wonder if we should have just avoided mentioning the bikes, bought two passenger tickets each…

less crowded boat, more space for the bikes!

Remember, your last chance for an ATM is off the main highway in sabanitas, panama before turning off to head east to portobelo.  you next chance for an ATM will not be until Turbo.  Make sure you have enough for a few extra days, you never know where you’ll get stuck!

turbo to medellin was great, we did it in 6 riding days (some really short days, to spend time in Santa Fe), although you could do it in easily 5, possibly 4 but you’d get to Medellin burnt out.  the road was quiet, real beautiful.  i took notes about the way and i’ll try to post those at some point.  one other option is to take a bus or bike to cartagena, but we were anxious to get back into the cooler mountains and skipped it.  can’t see it all!  costwise, i think you could get to cartagena via turbo for less than directly on sailboat, but the hassle of three boat rides and three bus rides certainly takes its toll (maybe Paul can chime in, that is what he did).”

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Byron wrote:

I just arrived in Medellin via speedboats along the coast, so I’ll fill in the details for anyone who’s interested:

1.  Ride to Carti from Panama city.  About a day and a half ride, with by far the steepest grades I’ve seen all trip.  I was barely able to push my bike up some of the hills.  Catch a boat at the end of the airstrip to get to the island ($5)

2.  Speedboat from Carti to Puerto Obaldia.  The guy who ran my hospedaje knew the captains and arranged me a spot for the next morning.  The trip is about 8-9 hours, but as I was the only one carrying on the Puerto Olbaldia, we spent the night on the captain’s island, about an hour away.  The speedboat was kind of like a water taxi for the San Blas islands, and we stopped at about ten on the way. ($100)

3.  Get your exit stamp in Puerto Obaldia

4.  Boat from Puerto Obaldia to Carpurgana across the border ($15)

5.  Get you entry stamp in Carpurgana.  Stay the night.  Many hotel/ food options.

6.  Speedboat from Carpurgana to Turbo.  This boat leaves every morning at 7:15 and takes a couple of hours. ($50)

7.  Ride from Turbo to Medellin.  Really scenic road with a couple of serious passes but no crazy grades.  The locales varied on whether it was safe or not, but I didn’t have any issues.  There is also a small landslide danger as the road is often cut into a cliff.

Feel free to ask if there are any questions. Cheers, Byron

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Add your stories in the comments or email them to info @ BikeTravellers dotcom and I will add them above, thanks!

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  1. Harry’s avatar

    From Marten Ijzerman:
    Just to let you know that Aires Airo doesn’t have any direct flights to Cartagena at the moment (september 2010)
    The shortest flight will take you more than 8 hours, you have to stop twice first in Perreira and then in Bogota, in Bogota you have to change planes.

    Direct flights are available at Copa Airlines and Avianca, but way more expensive and they also charge 100 dollar a bike

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