The Darien Gap is an area of land about 100 miles long between Panama and Colombia. It creates a break in the Pan-American Highway and is such a dense, impassable, (supposedly) guerilla-filled jungle that just about no one goes in there. When it came up in riding forums and conversations with other adventure riders, we heard a lot of different, competing information. We knew it was going to be an issue for us and it was often on our minds, looming ahead of us as we rode south.
So when we got to Panama and it was time to start looking for passage to Colombia, we decided to take everything we heard and read (Yes, we actually read up some about this part of our trip before we got there) and just kind of… forget it and see what we could come up with.
Our first stop was in Panama City. We went to the hostel people said would have information (Mamallena) and, while they did have information, they said it would cost more than we wanted to pay ($900) and there were no options for the time frame we were hoping for (within 2 weeks time).
So we rode to Portebelo and went to Captain Jack’s (a hostel) hoping for a new angle on the dilemma. We were basically told the same thing there that we were told at Mamallena.
The next morning, however, at breakfast we started talking to a few people who were just talking to a couple guys with a boat that could possibly be just what we were looking for. Sure enough, about half an hour later, the same two guys they were talking about came walking down the main road and we struck up a conversation. We all but agreed to go with them right then and there when they we started talking money and they offered $1200 for the two of us with bikes. Saving $600 meant a lot to us.
The night before, at Captain Jack’s, a captain we got to talking to told us some horror stories of having to cut motorcycles free of the deck of boats to save the vessel and crew. And even though he warned directly against going with a small boat like what we’d just decided on and the Brazilian men we’d made the deal with would be relatively new to transporting motorcycles, we felt good.
We had to get the bikes onto the named the Amigo. This required us bartering with some guys on a dock to bring a launcha (small boat) over and we picked up the bikes and put them into the small boat. Then we held the bikes steady as we made our way over to the sailboat. From there we had to winch the bikes up onto the deck and tie them down.
We left the bikes on the boat until later that evening. As dark fell, we made our way back to the Amigo. There were about 5 other people, not including the captain and first mate, also taking the Amigo to Colombia. That night, everyone except us and the crew got incredibly seasick and we had to smell and step around vomit for a while. When we woke up, we’d arrived at the San Blas Islands. Here the crew of the Amigo anchored the vessel and we were free to swim, fish, and adventure onto one of the 365 islands that make up the chain.
Early the next morning we set sail again. We journeyed through the dark to Sapzurro, Panama arriving early in the morning. From a bay in Sapzurro we were only another launcha ride away from Colombia, Capurgana to be precise. This ride would be much longer, exciting, and the cause of much bickering. Once we anchored in the bay there was no wait. A launcha was out to meet us immediately. Our captain bartered the price of thirty five dollars to get the bikes ashore. We lowered one of the motos into his little boat. We had several ideas on how to stabilize the bike; this did not matter as the captain had his own terrible plan. It went something like this: center that thing on one of the seats, get in an awkward position, and hold on to it. He then took off faster than I appreciated (yes, in certain circumstances there is a speed I do not appreciate). We then crashed through some fairly rough waves while the captain yelled at us for being in a posture far too efficient, normal, and comfortable to be balancing a motorcycle on a dingy in the middle of the ocean. As we finished the first trip the rain (yes of course it was raining) began to increase and soak us and on the return trip it stung the face. In just another 20 minutes we gave a sigh of relief as the second moto made it to the dock.
Now that we’d already used his service, the launcha pilot would reveal his new price. 35 dollars transformed to 80. For his short term of employment he had decided to more than double his fair. It is important to note that this man did no manual labor at all during the hoisting or dropping off of the bikes. It may seem like 80 dollars is not much, in comparison to prices of other services in the region, but it was. When I told him I was not willing to pay this increase and handed him $40, adding $5 to the deal. He chuckled and told us to wait until the captain of our sailboat arrived and we would sort this whole thing out. We met up again before our vessel’s captain arrived. I offered even more than the $40 and he did not take it. I left the money on the table and walked away. He, for the time being, did the same. Friends nearby told me once he realized I was gone he grabbed the cash. He came and found me and tossed the cash back my way with an attitude. I chuckled, put the money in my pocket, and thanked the man for his free launcha service and walked on.
This ordeal was far from over. The town of Capurgana is very small; a few blocks really. There is no escaping anyone who has any sort of motivation to find you. The next man who found me was a police officer. Of course, right behind him lurked the shifty launcha man. The officer asked me what had happened and I told him my side of the story. Upon hearing what I had to say, the officer seemed to say with his expression and posture, “Sounds about right.” He turned to the beady eyed launcha, said a few words, turned to me, smiled, and walked away. The launcha now scowled at me and, again, I could tell that this was not the end of the fight. For the time being Nathan (my little brother) and I had some peace and used the opportunity to grab the first land cooked meal we’d had in a few days.
The wait for our food was short and, on about my third bite in, I was “found’ by another individual. This man was not in any sort of uniform and lacked the calm discerning demeanor of my new friend, the police officer. This new fellow in a nike polo shirt was also accompanied by our short, angry, bald, launcha buddy and further behind him was the friendly officer. This man told us he was the customs official of the port town and demanded we hand him our passports… right there… in the middle of this hostel restaurant. Being a bit of an experienced traveler, there is NO scenario that would lead to me handing my passport to a man in a Nike polo yelling so loud that his spit is landing in my food-especially at a bar. The humor of this ludicrous request was not lost on me and I began to laugh out loud. This obviously hurt the ego of the Nike customs official. Seeing that we knew his jurisdiction did not follow him out from behind his desk, his temper rose and he stomped off back to his small kingdom.
At this point, a short stump of a man who had been standing nearby for support; a man who turned out to be the port manager, (he sells fairy and launcha tickets, and knows the coming and going of ships) decided to take a short turn at us and hurled a few choice curses at us and also stormed off like a mad hobbit. After the enemy had cleared, the officer came to our table and again we would have a pleasant conversation as we finished our brunch.
A short while later we were “found” yet again, this time a familiar face. Our captain was now involved in this issue. He was concerned that somehow our unwillingness to be taken advantage of would fall back onto him and did not want this scenario to play out any further. They’d told him that if we didn’t pay the amount the launcha man asked for we wouldn’t be allowed into Colombia and they’d have to bring us back to Panama.
We’d come to like our captain. We didn’t want to cause trouble for his business or make things more difficult for him. We also didn’t want to give into Launcha Man’s scheme. After a long conversation that got somewhat heated, we finally agreed to pay close to, definitely not the full extortionate fee, the requested amount. Launcha Man smugly took the money, realized it wasn’t exactly what he demanded, but accepted it nonetheless.
We then began the process of getting our visas sorted. This meant that we had to walk into Nike Customs Man domain. He was not happy to see us. He refused to stamp our passports and told us to go away. The specifics of what he was saying were lost on us, so a friend we’d made on the boat translated for us. According to Nike Man, if we didn’t have enough money to pay Launcha Man, then we definitely were too poor to enter his country. We replied that this was not a matter of money, but of principle and a man honoring his word. This did not in itself win him over.
There wasn’t a specific moment in the debate that won the day for us. It was a long, arduous ordeal of trying to get Nike Man to not hate us and press a stamp on our passports. I think he eventually did it just to get us out of his office.
We’d see Launcha Man around town a few more times. We didn’t like that.
Now came another difficult part of our bypass of the Darien Gap. Sure, we were in Colombia, but Capurgana doesn’t really have roads to the rest of Colombia. There we boats that could easily bring us to the closest city that is connected to the rest of Colombia by roads, Turbo, but they couldn’t transport us with our bikes. We asked everyone we could think of and found that our one of the workers at our hotel knew people who would arrive in about a week and would be able to transport us with bikes.
One of the major benefits of traveling on the Amigo was the time we were saving. Waiting a week would cancel that out. But our only other option was to put our bikes on a moderate sized cargo ship and follow after them the next morning on a passenger speed boat. We don’t like being separated from our bikes.
My brother and I debated the issue for a couple hours. In the end, we decided that even though it made us really uncomfortable, we would send our motorcycles ahead of us. This would be the first time we separated from the bikes. Part of us thought we might never see them again.
We rolled and lifted our motorcycles onto the cargo boat after negotiating with the captain. I think it was about $60 per motorcycle. We anxiously watched as the boat left and tried to enjoy the rest of the time we had in Capurgana. We figured that even if we’d made the wrong decision, there was nothing we could do about it anymore.
The next morning we got on a ridiculously fun passenger speed boat to Turbo. I thin that was a little under $30 a person. It was a pretty intense ride. At times I remember thinking that I’d been on tamer roller coasters.
We arrived quickly in Turbo and, as we were pulling up to the dock, we saw our bikes on the cargo boat we’d placed them on the day before. We were immediately comforted by this and felt that things were looking up.
We grabbed our stuff off the speed boat and piled it all on the sidewalk next to the dock. Nathan went over to talk to the captain with the money we’d agreed to pay him. Nathan came back a short time later saying we couldn’t get our bikes yet and that I needed to follow him.
Effectively, the situation was this:
The captain agreed to get our boats to Turbo; a task he believed he’d already accomplished. He was therefore entitled to the money that Nathan brought him and, thus, took it from him. While we were in Turbo already, the bikes were not yet on dry land. The captain did not think this was, personally, his problem. His job was done. His crew, however, would be required to transport the bikes to land from the boat and this task could not be done for free.
This was conveyed to us by a very self-important and confrontational crew member while, over on the other side of the boat, the captain sat and smiled.
The bikes were on a boat that was connected to another boat by a plank that was connected to the dock by another plank. So getting the bikes off the boats would require steady hands and, likely, more than one set of them. We argued about the fairness and ridiculousness of the situation, but they weren’t budging. We said we’d take the bikes off ourselves, to which they replied that we were welcome to.
When we actually did start trying to get the bikes off the boat, they began helping us and we managed to unload both bikes relatively quickly. The leader of the crew then demanded money. Aaron tried to make it clear to them that he understood this was a service and a tip would probably have been coming to them for it, but that holding our bikes ransom was wrong and certainly unappreciated. He gave them about $20 and we prepared our bikes and tried get a couple blocks away from the docks before stopping to figure out where we were.
We didn’t go through proper customs at Capurgana and thought we’d be able to take care of it in Turbo, but we quickly learned from some police in a truck that Turbo didn’t offer that service. So we rode south.