Travel options between Panama and Colombia without sailboat
Replies: 6 - Last Post: Jun 25, 2012 5:03 PM Last Post By: SoloHobo
Jun 15, 2012 8:21 AM
My girlfriend and I just crossed from Colombia to Panama via the Turbo-Capurgana-Puerto Obaldia route. Before attempting this trip, I tried for ages to find thorough information on this topic but it's all spotty so here is all the information I could get while I was there. Before I start, a disclaimer... if you don't have a lot of time, and even more patience, don't attempt this. Almost nothing is reservable, everything is late or cancelled, electricity is rare, internet almost non-existent, food is expensive, and the majority of the locals are the most unfriendly people I've met in 17 countries in Latin America. It's a frustrating, exhausting experience and in the end, probably cheaper to fly or sail.
Medellin to Capurgana is possible in 15 hours, but its gritty. We took a night bus to Turbo. It cost 60,000 COP each and took 9.5hrs (this time depends heavily on different factors, however we were stopped at least 3 times because of checkpoints and road construction and still managed 9.5hrs). There are buses at 8pm and 9pm from Medellin that arrive at 5:30am and 6:30am. Turbo is not as bad as I expected after reading all the hate, just a dirty little port city. In high season there are 2 boats to Capurgana, at 6:30am and 8-9am - in low season, only one at 8:30am. The boat now costs 55,000 COP + 650 COP per extra kg over 10kg. It took 2hrs 45mins to reach Capurgana. Arrive early to the port in Turbo and get your name on the list. This can be a very rough trip. They sell garbage bags at the port for 1000 COP each. Buy them and cover your bags, they (and you) will get wet.
From Capurgana/Sapzurro you have the following options for getting to the 'connected' parts of Panama:
1. Book an all-inclusive, 3-day trip through San Blas. Darien Gapster offers this trip for around $200 and I've heard good things, however it happens about once per month from what I gather so timing may be a problem. Alternatively, talk to Gecko Posada in Capurgana. They offer a similar trip for a similar price and when you have 5 or more people, you leave. There is an Italian guy named Fabio who runs Luna Verde hostal in Capurgana - he offers the same trip for $60 more and requires 8 passangers. He gets bad reviews on the internet and after meeting him, I don't have a good feeling about the guy. In Sapzurro, at the South end of the shoreline there are a couple hostals (Chileno and Paraiso I think are the names) with friendly owners that also have info about similar trips to San Blas but I didnt collect any solid info from them.
2. Lancha to Puerto Obaldia and onward from there. Costs 25,000 COP + 600 COP per extra kg over 15kg (however I saw other people dispute this and not pay) and takes 45-60min. Expect a search of your bags in PO....
Puerto Obaldia. Haha, it was like a bad dream. The location of the town is actually not bad...dare I say it even has potential. However the town is filthy, suicidally boring, lacks accomodation and food (although it's stocked with cheap beer and rum) and the people seem to loathe outsiders. After one day surviving on oreo's and peanut butter you'll do anything to get out. There is one hotel across from the Air Panama office that charges $8-$12, negotiate this. There is a small 'restaurant' near the water, past the football field that serves fish and patacones for $4, but only when it actually has fish. From PO you have more options...
1. Flight to Panama City. It actually IS possible to buy a ticket for this flight by phone: 507-316-9000. Don't expect to actually leave on the same day you reserved, this flight is perpetually cancelled. It costs $92 (tax included), takes about 90 minutes, and leaves Tuesdays Thursdays and Sundays in the mornings. You are allowed 30 pounds (imperial system in Panama) of luggage, all excess is charged at $.75/lb from what I calculated. Expect serious immigration hassles when you arrive in Panama City - it took us 2 hours to get through. If you get to PO and don't have a reservation, find 'Wendy' who works for Air Panama and get your name on the list for the next available flight. Ask her about it every time you see her after this...we ended up getting an earlier flight than we were listed for.
2. Get on the boat to Cartí. Have fun with that, I've heard horror stories. It costs $100 and can take anywhere from 6-10hrs, depending on the sea. The boat leaves when there are 10 passengers (although they settled for 8 when I was there). From Cartí you catch a bus or 4x4 to Panama City - 2hrs, $25.
3. Get on a cargo ship. If you're looking for adventure, here you go. I met a guy with a motorbike who did this the other direction. He was forced to do a mid-water trasfer (with bike and all) to a smaller boat once he arrived to PO. The ship apparently takes 3 days to Cartí and supplies the San Blas islands on the way. I don't know details about price but this may be your cheapest option if you want to check out the islands.
4. Self-guided through the San Blas. You can hire a lancha and captain to take you to a nearby island and from there sort out your own accomodation and oward travel. Each lancha costs between $20-$50 and accomodation varies. Keep in mind that the Kuna people love ripping off travellers. You will pay to access every island and i've heard food/accomodation is generally expensive. All up, I bet you'd spend $300 for a few days; if you have a group, tents, small appetite, good negotiations skills and speak fluent Spanish, you might get away with $200.
5. Fly from Isla Mulatupo to Panama City. There are daily morning flights for $87 (tax included). I assume excess baggage is similar to PO. You can buy a ticket for this flight using the same number as above. Hire a captain and lancha to take you to the island. Cost and time depend on number of passengers - more people, bigger motor. By yourself you'll pay $100 and it'll take 2 hours. Get a group together and you'll pay about $30-$40 and it'll take between 45-90min. You'll have to leave the day before and stay the night there.
For us, Capurgana and Sapzurro were not nice enough to justify the hassles of this trip. The bottleneck is Puerto Obaldia. If you want to go Pan-Col and you manage to get on a flight to PO (which was not reservable as of 6 months ago) then this is a good, cheap travel option. I can't say the same for the opposite direction.
Jun 15, 2012 12:23 PM
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