A Harrowing 48 Hours Stuck in the Darien Gap - Part 2

by Clarita on February 22, 2012

A Harrowing 48 Hours Stuck in the Darien Gap - Part 2

We set off to leave Sapzurro for Puerto Obaldia in Panama, vaguely confident that everything was going to be ok with the flights to Panama City. Despite not receiving an official confirmation from the airline, people in town kept telling us to be tranquilo and that there was nothing to worry about. After all, no one had ever returned from Puerto Obaldia. And we were about to find out why.

Upon reaching the port for our short and sweet 45-minute boat ride, our driver was looking worried. We'd seen a bunch of military guys arrive the day before, and it transpired that these guys were in fact the paramilitaries. The Darien region is renowned for the high presence of guerillas, military and paramilitaries, and we were right in the thick of experiencing the power hold of these groups on the country and its people. A paramilitary leader had been killed by the military the day before and this resulted in the entire area being shut down, to go against these enforcements was to quite frankly place yourself at risk of severe consequences. This also meant that we were unable to take our boat around the heads and into Panama. The only option being, as our boat driver whispered to us, was to cross the border with Panama by land. I groaned hearing this as my backpack weighed half of my body weight and the walk was up an incredibly steep hill.

So we set off with 2 Danes towards La Meil in Panama. Red-faced and puffing, we reached the jetty only to find that there was no driver. A French backpacker, also in our predicament tracked a guy down and we jumped into a tiny lancha (speed boat) across choppy and drenching waters to Puerto Obaldia.

Upon arriving into Puerto Obaldia, we immediately wanted to get out. It was dirty; there was so much rubbish floating in the water, and the people looked miserable and were immediately hostile towards us. The border requirements were strange. We were first ordered to walk onto a foam mattress and back again by a military guy with an enormous machine gun. We thought that they were having a joke at our expense; however, we were told later that it was to clean our shoes after being in dirty Colombia !?! Before getting our Panama stamp, we were instructed to show our credit cards and money (for which we only had $10 between us), a bit of an unnerving prospect.

Arriving at the Air Panama shed aka Internet cafe, we immediately realised that there was going to be a problem. Wendy at Air Panama (unfortunately, we got to know this lady well over the few days!) told us that there were no 'gringos' booked onto the flight, for which we all debated. However, she was not budging. Somehow, the French guy managed to get a ticket, so we joined him to see if we could bribe our way onto the plane. After all, we were in an almost lawless part of the world. So we tried sneaking through the barriers to the tiny airstrip, even trying to persuade the pilot to smuggle us on, but to no avail. Minutes before the plane left, a guardian angel was sent to us in the form of the French guy. He handed us $200, knowing full well that with only $10 to survive on we were as good as dead in this town.

As the 4 of us saw the plane take off and disappear into the distance, we felt an overwhelming sense of desperation. I cornered Wendy to book us onto the next plane, which left in 3 days, but to our dismay it was full, in fact there was not space for another 2 weeks! There was no way that any of us would want to be in this hell hole for another 2 weeks, nor could we afford to. So we parked ourselves in front of the Air Panama office. We magically found some confiscated gas canisters for our little stove in the office and we chowed down some 3-minute noodles as we discussed our options over many hours as to how we could get out of this mess. While looking homeless and desperate on the street corner, we were approached by an off-duty military guy who offered to take us to the closest town on his boat the next day. We obviously jumped at the opportunity. He even bought us a beer each, but our confidence dwindled as we watched him get more and more drunk in the local pub throughout the day.

In the late afternoon, we had the bright idea to fish for our dinner, after all we had no idea how long we would be stuck for and needed to save some money. So we caught crabs and snails, bought fishing reel and tried our luck over the pier. Unfortunately, we had no success and dinner ended up being another bowl of pasta complete with tinned veg. The people of this town have no available fresh food - lacking in vitamins and surrounded by military. It's no wonder they are so miserable!

We slept in $3 a night accom complete with rats and mossies. Waking early and glad to be getting out of this town, we waited for a couple of hours for our 'Captain', but to no avail. He was most probably nursing a massive hangover. So back to square one to try and work out a way out.

Luckily in the afternoon, our escape from Puerto Obaldia came in the form of 2 Argentines and a hilarious girl from Holland who kept everyone's spirits up by doing yoga on the beach in front of the militaries and chatting to every local that she passed no matter how unapproachable they were. With 7 people, a boat driver would take us on a 7-hour journey across the choppy Caribbean seas to the first town with a road. At $100 a pop, our driver was raking in the cash, knowing full well that we had no other options available to us. At this point, though, we did not care, we just needed to get somewhere with a road out and a cash machine.

After 2 nights and days of stress and malnutrition, we headed out on a bumpy speed boat towards civilization and through the beautiful San Blas islands, voted one of the top tropical destinations in the world. Unfortunately, we did not have the money to stay on the islands, but this was serious Robinson Crusoe territory - islands consisting of a couple of palm trees and white deserted sands. Pure paradise after a harrowing 48+ hrs.

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by Eric
About 5 years ago

Thanks for writing this article. I was nervous about how to make the transfer with 2 other people. This helped alot!

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by Josefina
About 7 years ago

thank you very much!!!! do you have any more information about Costa Rica that might be useful??thanks again!!

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