To quote Wikipedia, The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama’s Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia’s Chocó Department in South America. Scotland tried to colonize it in the late 1600s and subsequently failed, went bankrupt and got annexed by England because of it. If there’s anything to learn from this and other accounts, is that if you want a place to really try your luck, the Darién Gap is for you.
Ah, but surely, there must be a small road or something in there, no? And what about just going to visit? To quote Nat Geo contributing editor Robert Young Pelton, who was kidnapped with two backpackers by a death squad:
“The Darién Gap is one of the last—not only unexplored—but one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to… It’s also one of the most rugged places. The basic problem of the Darién Gap is that it’s one of the toughest hikes there is. It’s an absolute pristine jungle but it’s got some nasty sections with thorns, wasps, snakes, thieves, criminals, you name it. Everything that’s bad for you is in there.”
That’s not to say people don’t go there now from Panama on a bus to hike and see some intense biological diversity. But crossing into Colombia, is a different matter altogether. There have been a few successful expeditions, but boats were used extensively. Regardless, the indigenous people oppose the building of a road, the Panamanians like it the way it is because it protects them from Colombia (hard to invade a country when there’s no roads), the US likes because it prevents the spread of diseases from South America, while Colombia likes it because it’s a barrier against drug trade. There’s this account of a more recent crossing, but I can’t attest to its validity or common sense.
So. In order to cross, you need to ship your car. You can do this in a container or roll it on a boat and roll it off (RORO). There used to be a Greek ferry, the Nissos Rodos, but that left long ago to Turkey to make some actual money. Another ferry, the San Blas, took cars once, in a 7 day trip, that was supposed to only take 24 hours. Afterwards, and to this day, it only takes people and motorcycles, having succumbed to plenty of red tape.
After doing some research, I decide to share a shipping container. Containers cost a little more than RORO, but it’s considered a far safer option. There’s two or three shipping companies; Wilhelm and Seaboard are the most commonly used. You can do the whole process by yourself, or hire an agent that will guide you through the grips of bureaucracy. I decide to take the easy way out and use Tea Kalmbach (she’s an independent agent for Seaboard Marine). Her daughter, Amy, who lives in Panama City, is the one that actually helps you. And once in Colombia, you’re on your own.
On Monday, Feb 3rd, I meet her and my fellow shipping container buddies, Ciro and Gina, at the Yacht Club. Both Ciro and Gina are from Argentina, and they’re travelling from Mexico, where they’ve lived for a year, back home. They’re also clowns, which is cool because I have a clown painting in my bedroom. From there, we go early in the morning to a police station to get the cars inspected and start the paperwork. Long pants and closed-toe shoes are necessary. Since Ciro and I don’t have the right amount of photocopies, we need to go across the road to make some more. Amy advises to leave all valuables in the car, since we’re in a very dangerous neighborhood. I start laughing because umm, it’s just across from the police station. Nobody else laughs, so I leave my cellphone in the car. We get lucky, because right at that moment there’s two policemen with shotguns patrolling the corner. Still, while inside the shop, which has more bars than a prison cell, a guy enters and asks the shopkeeper what we’re doing there. He nods and then walks back out. Ciro and I look at eachother and ask the lady to hurry up with the copies.
The cars are inspected, and we’re told we need to come back later that afternoon to another building nearby to cancel the permits and do even more paperwork. On Wednesday, we meet Amy again at the Yacht club, and we all drive to the port city of Colon, to the Customs and Seaboard offices.
We hit a total number of three offices, all of which have to be driven to, and each one takes about an hour. Even Ciro, who is Argentinian, is grateful for having Amy around. I think even with his Spanish, it would have taken us twice as long to figure out everything. The bureaucracy and stacks of multiplying pieces of paper is mind-boggling. I will spare you the details. We finish around 1PM and Amy drives us back to Panama City. Part 1/2 finished. Total cost $1000 for shipping (Tea’s cut: $340 – I find this out later) + $60 for some permit/stamp/piece of paper.
Once in Panama City, you can either fly to Cartagena, or take a boat. There’s tour boats (~$550) which stop in the amazing San Blas islands for a day or two, and include meals and some lodging. These tours can also be done vice-versa, from Cartagena to PC. I meet probably the most typical of these boat captains at the Mamallena hostel in Cartagena, where he’s come to pick up his new travelers. He looks through the stacks of passports he’s given by the hostel, and in a strong Austrian accent, “Ahhh, I see 3 girlz und tvo gays. I throw de gays overboard yea? Ooo let’z look at de girlz. Ooo, Canada, eh? Und Germany! I hope they is shaved yes?”. There’s also the more local speedboats, which are faster, but with a lackluster safety record, also cheaper. Since during this time the seas are very rough, and it’s a lot cheaper ($370), I decide to fly non-stop with Copa Airlines from PC to Cartagena on Thursday. I’m glad I made this choice, since some people I reunite with in Cartagena, tell me of the horrible voyage they had on the tour boat (70% of people puking), people that took the speedboat tell me of the whole day and night of constant banging against the waves while being drenched in a constant onslaught of salt water (85% of people puking), and even two Germans that I meet later on, and who traveled with their motorbikes on a ferry, couldn’t even be bothered to take pictures – the *big* ferry was so rocky (50% of people puking).
The cars ship out on Friday and are supposed to arrive Sunday/Monday. We get lucky, and they do. On Monday, Ciro and I go to the port to start the paperwork. Since Amy is no longer with us, we’re given this sheet of paper as our guide:
Since we can’t complete all the paperwork in one day, we come back on Tuesday at 8AM, and we’re actually able to pick up the cars around 3PM, after paying another $160 to the port.
Ciro has some things missing from the van, I’m missing my hand sanitizer and chewing gum and the locked glove box was probably forced, since I can’t open it anymore. I’m sure it happened in Panama, since it Colombia they pretty much opened the containers in front of us. This is not the first time to happen with Seaboard, Know No Borders also had things stolen from their van. I email Tea and the Seaboard rep, and they ask if I’d like to make a complaint. When I say, why yes, of course I’d like to, I receive this reply from Seaboard:
“Did you have a customs agent Panamá? If you are, maybe you can check with him.”
Thanks for the handoff Seaboard, but I gave you a car, and I received it in lesser of a condition.
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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.