Crossing the Darien the Unconventional Way
by Tannerthetraveler on October 12, 2011
My adventure started in the same way many adventures start, in an effort to save money. I had been in Panama City far too long trying to find a cheap way to cross the Darien and still see San Blas. I had tried just about everything I could on my own and everything seemed really expensive. When I got back from one of my failed attempts to find passage, I ran into two other travelers who were going up to Miramar to try to find a boat the same way I had just failed to do in Colon. I hadn't checked out that port yet so I decided to tag along.
We made our way up and were a bit surprised that the port town we arrived in was just a tiny village. We found a place to stay, a place to eat, and proceeded to try and find a captain. We ran into a Colombian who was going the same way, so he could help us ask around. A lady invited us to church with her, and she would introduce us to some captains, if we couldn't find one we would try our luck the next morning at 5 am. We went to church. It was quite late when we got done, and we weren't introduced to any captains, but we got our voyage blessed, which could be helpful.
We woke up in the morning to meet a captain to take us to Puerto Obaldia, a city in Panama just south of the Darien. We found one and he told us that it would be $50 for 4 days on a freight ship and that he would take us there at 8:30. The Colombian even managed to talk him down to $42 each. We had heard from various Internet sources that paying this much was expected for a freight ship voyage to Puerto Obaldia, so we were right on target with our budget. Little did we know that this was the beginning of an odyssey.
Much to our dismay, the captain took our money and marooned us on Porvenir. The jerk even tried to ask me for lunch money afterwards. The Colombian hopped on a freight ship, but it cost him $200. We didn't have that kind of money. We spent the rest of the day trying to get on various lanchas that came to the island, but they either weren't going in the direction we were or were trying to screw us out of our small amount of money. We talked the most of the day with a few military people on the island and they were some cool dudes, way cooler than the Kuna Yala would turn out to be. He even told us that it was safe and possible to hike the Darien if we stayed on the coast. Unfortunately, we couldn't spend the night on Porvenir, because the hotel was too expensive and you can't camp on a military base, so we had to find a way to leave.
We met an Argentinean who was trying to get to Panama City and he joined our party for the day. As the sun was setting, a boat came along that was going to Wichib Wala, a neighboring island. We hopped it, arrived, and looked around for a spot to camp out. I cast out a fishing line into the trash infested island surroundings and we bought a bit of food. It was time to turn in. Before we could fall asleep, one of the locals came up to us and told us to leave the island. He told us to go back to the port and find another boat. There wasn't another boat, so we prepared to sleep on the dock. We would strike out for either Isla Carti, the other main port, or the mainland the next day and begin our journey. I bought 5 pounds of rice, 5 cans of beans, and two cans of vegetables in order to stock up. Luckily for us, we were invited by another local to spend the night in hammocks at his house, so we didn't have to sleep on the concrete. My hammock collapsed.
In the morning, we discovered that there were starfish in the harbor, which was pretty cool, and immediately found a boat to Isla Carti and started looking around. Our Argentinean left the way we came. We ran into a Taiwanese guy and a Spaniard on Isla Carti who were heading the same way. The Spaniard would be with us for the remainder of the journey, and the Taiwanese guy left us almost immediately to find a boat to another island and we witnessed him circumnavigating Carti and returning to the same port as we left. We found one boat, for $100 a person, but it was full, and once again we couldn't afford it. We spent the remainder of our time on the island looking fruitlessly for a boat, or lancha. We heard that Puerto Carti on the mainland was better for catching a ride, so there we went.
By this time, we had learned that none of the local Kuna Indians had any idea about anything, and that they either would try to screw us or leave us behind. We were told a ridiculous amount of false information for the entirety of the trip. Sometimes they would consult each other for hours just to come up with believable stories. It was getting late, so we built a fire on the beach, cooked some rice, and prepared to sleep. Sand got everywhere. It was in our bags, all over our bodies, and occasionally in the food. The worst was yet to come. As the sun started to set, the sand fleas came out. They were relentless, they followed me into my tent and my friends out onto the cement dock. The only person unaffected was the Spaniard.
At the end of that horrible night, we all were covered head to toe with bites less than a millimeter apart. We itched everywhere and had horrendous sunburns to boot. Life was miserable. We decided that even if we had to walk, we would not spend another day in that place. After a few hours, we found a boat to Nargonal for $15 and he would hook us up with a boat there that was going further south. Of course upon arriving they tried to screw us out of our money yet again, but this time they cared when we motioned to hop off the boat. We got them to settle for $30 for 4 hours in the direction of Puerto Obaldia. We paid half up front. Thirty minutes into it, they decided that it wasn't a good deal and they wanted more, but we refused. They tried various tactics that all failed and they became flustered. They threatened to maroon us yet again if we didn't pay the other half. They stopped multiple times in the middle of the ocean trying to rob us and we almost got into a fight with the others on the boat.
Eventually, 3 hours into the journey the boat stopped, we reluctantly paid, and we stepped off onto some random island. The captain of this boat offered to let us stay at his place, but we refused on the grounds that we would probably bring harm his way if we were in close contact with him. That island was kind of cool. I became a celebrity chef by cooking ramen on my camp stove. We were the main attraction in the town. We talked to a freight boat that came in about giving us a ride to Puerto Obaldia. They agreed to the price of $30 for 3 days and we yet again set to sleeping wherever was out of the way. Another guy offered up the use of his place and we slept in comfort, (aside from the itching), that night. In the morning we hopped on the barge and proceeded to help them drop off their cargo at various island stops. For some reason, the boat stopped at 2 o'clock for the night. They didn't even unload until the morning. We slept on top of the boat and left the next day, made more stops, and ended up on another island in the middle of the afternoon. The boat was only on the water for about 3 hours a day.
We met a local fisherman who was going to catch us the meal of the trip--lobster, caracal, and tons of octopus. It would be ready at 6. One of my main goals on the trip was to eat cheap lobster and I immediately agreed. This was going to be so much better than the rice I had been eating 3 meals a day. For some reason, at about 4 o'clock, the boat decided to leave again. I had heard of one guy getting marooned without his stuff by leaving a boat at a time like this, but I didn't care. I wanted lobster and leaving the guy hanging seemed wrong. I jumped ship, found the guy, paid him, and got the raw materials for a great meal. We made one more stop and then headed to the real port for the night. I stood on top of the boat and thoroughly enjoyed the ship going experience. We arrived at the island of Calidonia, cooked the meal, and were pretty excited for the day ahead of us. We slept on the boat again and in the morning headed for Puerto Obaldia. Our journey was almost over.
I had just enough money in my pocket to make it to Capurgana on the other side of the border, where we were told an ATM existed. Life was good. Arriving at Capurgana we were mislead on the prices of a meal, but other than that it was fantastic. The beach was beautiful and not covered in trash like the islands in San Blas. We even ran into the Colombian from the start of the journey, he was going back to Panama the next morning. The only problem was that the only place to get money was out of order. We were officially broke in a foreign land. Luckily, we met a woman who would give us a loan for our lancha ride to turbo, which we could pay back upon arriving. We met the boat and crossed at 7 in the morning, and it was hell.
The boat flew over 3-6 foot rollers and came crashing down every couple of seconds. It was fun at first, but after a few minutes the pain of the journey started catching up with us. The trip took two and a half hours of nonstop misery, but we made it to turbo, got some cash, and got on the bus to Monteria, our last stop before the promised land of Cartagena. Our Spanish friend headed for Medellin, so we said goodbye at the terminal in Turbo. Our stop in Monteria was relatively uneventful. We had to take a minivan and pay a little more because there was no more buses. We arrived at 1:30 the next morning and paid a cab to take us to a hostel. My friends stayed up the rest of the night to avoid paying for a room for a few hours, but I slept in the hostel. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and proceeded to write this story. After over a week of travel, it is time to see what Colombia has in store for us.