The Passage to Panamá: Were We the Last?

We might have been.  While we were riding on Fritz the Cat, there was a message over the radio that the Cartagena immigration wasn’t letting anymore sailboats with backpackers on board leave port.  This was reportedly because they are trying to get the government-run ferry between Colombia and Panamá restarted.  We had heard many rumors that this ferry would be starting within a few weeks and cost around $100 and such but it still had no website, information, etc.  The ferry would greatly decrease the price of the crossing and would undoubtedly be a blessing for all of us poor fellows searching for the cheapest way across the dreaded Darien Gap.  Whether or not more tourist boats will cross is still unknown, but I would just suggest not to have too tight of a schedule if you are trying to sail.

Until the rumors of the ferry are proven true, there are still only two (recommended) ways to cross from Colombia to Panamá: either by private boat (like Fritz) or by plane.

By Boat:

Here is a rundown of the cost of sailing with Fritz the Cat:

$488 per person payed in USD.

$6 for a National Parks fee.

$3 for the boat from Fritz to where the road is

$25 for the 4×4 to Panamá City

Total = $522

Included on the boat are all 12 meals plus unlimited fruit, water, and lemonade until it runs out every night.  Activities include the two days cruising around the San Blas Islas.  Fritz also takes care of all the immigration stuff and you don’t pay anything to enter Panamá.

By Air:

For this I’m going to assume that you don’t care which Colombian city you fly from and you want to see the San Blas Islands in Panamá.  The cheapest flight I was able to find today was about $350 from Bogotá, Colombia to Panamá City, Panamá.  Add onto that the $66 airport departure tax and probably pay for a bag so lets say $450 for the plane.

The trip to San Blas is $50 for round trip in the truck from Panamá City, plus $6 for the boat round trip, plus two nights lodging on the Islands $20 per night.

Rough total = $496

If you add food to all of this then the total will be far over the $522 of sailing.  Even if you don’t want to see the San Blas Islands (well worth the money) then the $450 + 12 meals is still going to be more than the $522 for sailing.  Any way you look at it, the boat is the better deal.

Sure, there are other ways to get to Panamá.  One is by heading to the shady Colombian town of Turbo, taking multiple boats through different mosquito-ridden backwater villages until finally getting into the first town in Panamá, Puerto Obaldia.  There is no road out of Puerto Obaldia, so from there you can take a domestic flight to Panamá City for around $100.  This is possible, but no one really recommends doing it, so try at your own risk.

The price of these sailing trips has soared in the last few years, but we think it is still a great value and a great time.  Maybe the new ferry will start; maybe everything will stay how it’s been, but for now we feel lucky that we were some of the last (or the last) people to experience this amazing adventure.

Read about our voyage on Fritz the Cat.

1 if by land, 2 if by sea, 3 if by air, 4 if a combination of all these modes of transportation

Our ticket to Medellin, Colombia is a one-way ticket.  We want to travel overland throughout all of South America for one year after arriving.  The plan is to end up in Venezuela or all the way back in Colombia again in October 2012 to end the adventure.

Then how are we going to get home?

We have two options:

The Boring Option:  Buy a one-way flight ticket back to the states from Venezuela or Colombia.  Lame.

The Fun Option:  Continue the traveling over land and sea!  A little geography for you–there is a small section of rainforest connecting Colombia and Panama (South America and Central America) called The Darien Gap.  According to Wikipedia (which is not always reliable, I know) “The Darien Gap is a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama‘s Darién Province in Central America fromColombia in South America. It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide. Roadbuilding through this area is expensive, and the environmental toll is steep. Political consensus in favor of road construction has not emerged, and consequently there is no road connection through the Darién Gap connecting North/Central America with South America. It is therefore the missing link of the Pan-American Highway.”  While some brave/idiotic souls have successfully trekked through the Darien by jeep or on foot, every source I’ve ever read strongly advises travelers NOT to attempt it.  Not only is there no road, making it a long, hot, and difficult trek, but the geography, isolation and lawlessness of the area makes it a perfect passage for drug traffickers, guerilla groups, and other unsavory characters.  Basically, you’re just asking to be kidnapped or killed if you enter the area.  Not to be melodramatic, but you’d have to have a death wish to go there.  NO ONE DOES IT.

So, those problems make getting back to the US entirely overland impossible.  But what you CAN do is take a BOAT from Colombia to Panama!  Although there’s no commercial service, it is apparently very common for travelers to catch rides on private sailboats going from Cartagena, Colombia to Portabelo, Panama.  The trip takes 4-5 days, and you usually get to stop at some paradise-like beaches in the San Blas islands on the way.  As someone who’s never been sailing for more than a few hours, that trip just sounds like such an adventure!  The cost for the passage is usually around $300 per person.  Then, once we arrive in Panama, we can easily take buses all the way through Central America to arrive back in the US, and see more beautiful and new places along the way!  Zach calculated the estimated cost of bussing it all the way back to Texas from Panama to be about $400. So, with the $300 boat ride and the $400 busses, that fits perfectly into our $700 return trip budget.  What that doesn’t include, however, is money for food and accommodations all through Central America.  What it will come down to is whether or not we have enough extra money to afford those living expenses while extending our trip through Central America.  If we’ve got the money, we’ve got the time!

Obviously, I’m all for the FUN way to get back!  It’s a long way off, but I’m definitely planning to try to live a little under-budget all through South America so that we can afford to add Central America on to the end!  Let’s hope it can happen!