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Published: July 16th 2009
There are three options for traveling from Columbia to Panama, although only two of them are popular 😊 Many people take a 5 day sail/snorkel cruise from Cartagena to Panama via the San Blas Islands ($375 p/p) or a direct flight to Panama City ($250 p/p). The third option is the much less traveled overland route involving boats, buses and planes, which skirts the caribbean coast of columbia crossing into Panama outside of the Darian Gap ($120). We were interested in saving some money as well as having a little adventure so we started researching the route but could find little to no detailed information. We stumbled onto a blog from the previous year that gave the details of a 5 day trip that ended with a flight from a military base in Puerto Obaldia, Panama. That was our goal when we left Cartagena but found a much different aventure ahead. We would recommend only doing this route if you speak fluent Spanish AND do not have time constraints.
Day 1: Cartagena-to Monteria- to Turbo
Day 2: Turbo- to Capurgana (exit Colombia stamp)- to Puerto Obaldia (entry Panama stamp)- to Tubuala.
Day3: Tubuala- to Panama City (tourist card)
that the trip would take longer than expected we tried to cover as much distance as possible the first day. We got up early in Cartagena and took a 6am local bus from Cartagena to Monteria (5hrs). From there we immediately negotiated tickets from Monteria to Turbo. I say 'we' but 'we' would have been eaten alive if it wasn't for our Spanish speaking German travel partner Alex. During negotiation of tickets we had the option of air conditioned seats for $17 or no AC for $12, so we opted for no AC. After the tickets were scribbled we followed the guy out of the terminal to the bus port only to find a pickup truck!! The cab of the truck was the AC and the bed in the back was without..haha!! So the three of us spent the next 4.5 hours (hip to hip) with 8 peoples luggage and some live chickens surrounding us, bouncing down a 4 x 4 dirt road through the countryside. There were 5 people squished into the front cab, plus the driver, with us in the back (9 people total). We were sweaty, smelly, bruised, and covered in dirt by the time we made
it to Turbo. And we are pleased to announced that the chickens survived it as well!!
Turbo is one of the main cocaine distribution ports in Columbia- so it is not highly acclaimed. We found 2 rooms at a hotel by the port for $10 and spent most of the night time hours in our rooms while military personnel armed with machine guns guarded each street corner. We got up early to get our names on the passenger list (incredibly important to do) going to Capurgana, Columbia which is a 2.5 hour speedboat (a big boat with wood seats, a canvas roof, and two 200cc outboard motors). The boat stopped at a military checkpoint for entering the Carribean Sea and nearly turned around because we were overloaded. After whispered conversations between our 25year old boat captain and the military, while the passengers were yelling "vamos" (lets go!) we were given permission to pass. Talk about stressful. We had read in other traveler blogs that we may encounter 3 to 4 meter waves (9 to 12 feet!). Fortunately the seas were calm and after a couple stops at beautiful beach villages along the way we arrived in Capurgana.
was still early in the day so we arranged a boat transfer from Capurgana to Puerto Obadilia, where we would then take a plane to Panama City, Panama. There was supposedly a cash machine in the town we were in, but it was only open during normal business hours between 3:30 - 5pm ??? When it did open I had to electronically transfer money to a guy in a shady bamboo building, which he gave to me in cash at an outrageous fee. Finally, it was time to go. Our hired dug out wooden canoe driven by an aged captain came along with the other passengers: a mexican evangelist and 3 other local columbians. It was a 45 min ride to Puerto Obadilia.
Puerto Obadilia is a bare bones active military base that does not see much tourism. The only restaurant, which was also the only 'hotel' in town served coffee and fried fish. Between the 3 town markets there was a selection of about 10 different canned foods. The 'airport' was far from active (so much for our plan) so we had to keep traveling up the coast. Without too much further detail, we spent 1 night there
in a makeshift dorm petitioned from someones living room and checked out before 8 the next day to try to hail a boat headed north. We were turned down boat passage all morning and by noon had resorted to laying on the beach. However, there was a big wooden fruit and vegetable boat moored out in the bay and Alex (prompted by the Mexican priest) approached the captain for passage and at the last minute he told us he would take us to a village called Tubuala for $25 each. We were excited just to get out of there! It was a 5 hour ride of eating mangos, watching guys salt meat on the deck of the boat while we cruised thru little islands along the coast. After being hit by a rain storm and huddling back in the engine room for a half hour losing our hearing to the mammoth motor we pulled into Tubuala just before dark.
Tubuala was the icing on the cake. We were the only white people in town and towered over everyone by a foot or more. No matter where we went in the maze like bamboo hut village, we were followed by
a small crowd and stared at in amazement. It was very clear that we were far from the tourist trail and on an indigenous island! A handful of the kids (up to 8 yrs old) were still running around naked and the women, who mostly dressed in ornate, traditional beaded outfits, ranging from teens to elderly, didn't seem to mind being seen half naked either. The captain offered to let us sleep on the deck of the boat but we decided to stay with a local family in their one room, dirt floor hut in hammocks that they borrowed from their neighbors. It was 100 degrees, with mosquitoes and spiders as big as your hand that were not intimidated by humans (this was Chrissy's breaking point) It was a long, uncomfortable, sweaty night with dogs and babies making lots of noise. At day break the family began going about their daily tasks around us.
We were informed that an airstrip on a nearby island was servicing flights, so we hailed a canoe from Tubuala. We were to catch the 10am flight, but the canoe did not leave until noon and then the plane didn't show until 4pm!! We were
VERY grateful that it arrived because deep down we were all terrified to stay on that island another night. As we were boarding the plane a giant thunderstorm moved in and this is when John nearly lost it. Our plane was a 15 passenger propeller plane with an open cockpit where we could see the pilots doing everything. We bounced down the short bumpy runway and took off into the clouds for a stomach turning ride. We could see the rain pelting the windshield and the pilot white knuckling the controls as we rode in zero visibility thru a thunderstorm in heavy turbulence with the jungles of the darian gap below.
But we are pleased to report that we landed safe and sound! After 2hours of heavy interrogation by the immigration officials, who were perplexed that gringos came from Tubuala, we arrived in concrete heaven Panama City!!!
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