Reaching Colombia through the Darien Gap

I left all of you in Panama as I fell sick in Panama City. I probably got back on my feet too soon but I just couldn't stay in bed anymore.


Back in Panama I was scheduled to visit the Red Cross. I had walked all the way to their office 2 days prior to falling sick. I walked through a neighborhood in Panama City which is known as San Miguel. As I entered that neighborhood there was no doubt that this was not the best part of town. Many people stared at me as in disbelief to my presence. But I tried to avoid too much eye contact and if it was unavoidable I gently smiled and nodded to people. And I mostly got a smile and a nod back. At some point I observed a man threatening another man with his fist clenched in a stretched arm...ready to hit. The man being attacked was clearly old and poor. The man hit him twice and I then observed the old man jump away as he only had one leg. I guess I could have intervened but in a situation like that in a neighborhood like that you better mind your own business. A few minutes later some heavily armed police officers waved me over to ask what I was doing. I explained and they also looked at each other as in disbelief before they let me go. I eventually reached the Red Cross on the other side of San Miguel in a much safer area. I presented myself and we agreed that I would come back a few days later. The reason for this visit was because I had received no reply to any of my emails and Panama was country numb 50 so I thought it mattered.

I got a taxi back to my hostel and as we passed San Miguel the taxi driver warmed me about that neighborhood and told me never to go there. Dangerous. Very dangerous! If he had only known...

2 days later I was meeting with the Red Cross at 2pm. When I woke up in the morrning I woke up with a headache and tried to treat it with water. But at noon it hadn't gotten any better and I took some aspirin which I rarely do...and then I headed out to meet with the Red Cross. After the meeting I got back to the hostel and that's when the fever took over. I do not know how high my fever was but it must have been really high! My brain functions were more or less absent and I got worried after a few days. But then the fever dropped and the symptoms turned into a bad cold. At this point the staff at the hostel sent me off to a doctor to get checked for dengue or other diseases. The doctor cleared me after having received and checked some samples and I was informed that I had been hit by a virus. The doctor then sent me off to get some medicine at the pharmacy. At this point I just felt like having someone take care of me. I didn't want to carry my weak body around shopping for medicine. Just finding food was hard enough work. I had been given a prescription for 3 different drugs and as I turned up at the pharmacy I was told that they only had 1 of the 3. I continued to the next pharmacy, and the next, and the total I had to visit 8 pharmacies and I was almost ready to cry. But I made it back to my bed and rested up 3 more days.


Even the weather seemed to sympathize with my health 

The Darien Gap is a break in the Pan-American highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within the south of Panama and the north of Colombia. Even today any inland routes through the Darien remain highly dangerous and takes on proportions for an adventure in itself. It has been crossed several times in history...but such people come well prepared, well trained and spend months crossing. Sometimes with fatalities or kidnapping as a result. So, I wasn't going overland...

My original plan to cross the Darien Gap was to head for the port city of Colón and look for a freight ship there. Colón is Panamas reply to Sin City if you go by the rumors. Unfortunately I fell sick and lost a week in bed so I wasn't going to spend too much time looking for a ship. Instead I asked around and received almost no help!! Selling nice boat rides to tourist must be big business because I was offered a lot of sailboat trips across the Darien Gap at prices around $400. That is a lot of money in Panama!! Eventually I tracked down a man who could sell me a fast boat ticket for $150 which is still too much money but I wasn't saving anything waiting around.

This was the itinerary:
4:00am collection at the hostel (additional $30)
8:30am boat departure from Carti on the Caribbean side.
4:00pm arrival at Panamanian border and immigration
4:30pm departure to Colombian border and immigration
5:30pm arrival to Colombia


Hiding from the storm

None of that actually happened. The driver collected me 23 minutes late with no excuse and stopped all over town to collect more people. We eventually reached Carti which reminds me of a bus station for small boats. It did not seem organized at all and I think I was eventually ushered onboard a random boat that had space. We then headed out into the ocean but shortly steered towards a nearby island as a storm was coming. AND WHAT A STORM! Good call on the captain! Well done. Rain and wind was terrorizing our little island and I was increasingly getting more and more unsure about if the roof would hold the little basic hut together which we had found for shelter. Hurricane season is not something you want to mess around with. After another 40 minutes we were back in the boat.


The beauty of the Caribbean coastline

The waves were relatively large. Especially in comparison to our small but very fast boat. I figure we must have been jumping waves at around 40 kph! The boat ride was uncomfortable but an experience and as the weather cleared up it was absolutely gorgeous!! (But very uncomfortable). Every island and the entire coastline looked like something from a magical movie. One island in particular looked like the island from Peter Pan. Another island looked like Treasure Island. Actually most places looked a lot like somewhere a pirate would hide a treasure...and in some cases...who knows?

Finally we reached Panamas border and immigration. But we arrived too late and had to stay the night. I had made friends with Belen from Venezuela and David from Chile who were both on their way home through Colombia. So at least I had company. We spent the night at the small border town.

The next morning our paperwork was completed and for $15 we could continue to the Colombian checkpoint. This was only 30 minutes away. But as we arrived early in the morning the boat from there had already left so we had to stay a night at that little village. 


A pelican at the immigration office

Apart from this taking more time it was quite okay. Because these outposts lay in paradise with palm trees, white sanded beaches, mango trees, no cars, no traffic at all from anything else than horses. So we had another night in paradise before heading to a city in Colombia called Turbo the next day. And that officially became country #51: Colombia!

Now, if I had to cross the Darien again I would book a 4 day luxury sailboat trip with everything arranged for around $4-500. That would be a cruise through the paradise called San Blas with bonfires on beautiful beaches and guitars and hippies and all of that. But if I had to do it again on the cheap with what I know know then I would do this:
1) I would take the bus or similar to Carti (the bus terminal for boats)
2) I would negotiate my own price for the boat and probably land around $90 for the entire trip.
3) I would then suffer through the same uncomfortable boat ride to Colombia.

But no one in Panama City will tell you about the above 1+2+3. Oh, and before I forget to tell you; if you do cross the Darien Gap like me then bring food. I mistakenly thought that there would be plenty of options to get food at islands and small ports. I went hungry for the entire day instead.

Okay, so in Colombia I jumped a bus that after many many hours arrived at Medellin which is a massive city and Colombia's 2nd largest city. It lies beautifully in the Aburra Valley and is a very modern and interesting city in my opinion. I had booked a bed at an extraordinary nice hostel however at the low cost of $12/night. It was a common price for hostels but I had been unfortunate with the location. At least during the night it was not safe to be outside with drug addicts, homeless people and criminal minds at large. The thing is, that I sort of perceived all of Colombia to be a little like that before I arrived.


Overlooking Medellin

The country's name is/was somewhat synonymous with violent and powerful drug cartels and paramilitary activity, kidnappings and every little evil insect that you could dream of. And I love that I am WRONG!! :)

Colombia is first of all worth visiting just for its magnificent beauty of steep mountains covered in trees and the beautiful valleys that lie in between. The many small lakes and the many rivers add to that beautiful landscape. What I saw at the coast was absolutely outstanding!! The untouched beaches, gorgeous islands, clear warm water...I went swimming for the first time since I left home and my Scandinavian body got burned pretty well under the sun. But that could have been from the casual volleyball too :)

Colombia fields

The view from a metro station at Medellin

The key factor for me is that in this country people smile and are polite! I guess I have experienced a lot of that...coming through Central America but for some reason it feels different in Colombia. Perhaps people here smile with their hearts too? The food is great. I haven't tried a lot but I love the fish soup which is widely available. And I cannot get enough of the rice with beans and meat. It tastes fantastic.

I have visited Medellin and Bogota. The 2 largest cities and they are both very beautiful and very modern at the same time. It is easy to get around and there is culture, art and museums to be found everywhere. The streets are commonly decorated with artworks and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the free botanical garden in Medellin.

Traffic in the mountains is not great. But I guess you can't get it all.


Heading up to Arvi

Before leaving Medellin I decided to head up to a nearby mountain city called Arvi. The metro took me all the way to the cable cars and from there it was up, up, up. Inside the cable car I casually began conversation with 2 British girls who turned out to be twins on holiday. And since we were going the same way (up) we continued talking and ended up having a fun afternoon together in a biological reserve where we spent very little time on plants and butterflies and much more time racing down a 320m wire with a top speed at 70 kph. FUN! We spent the rest of the day talking before heading back to Medellin where they invited me to join them for salsa classes. But I was getting up early for a long bus ride so I declined...which I somewhat regret.



The ever so lovely twin sisters: Rachel and Charlie


Bus terminal at Medellin - I have seen a few.

It was a very long bus ride to Bogota which lies high up in the mountains at 2,660m making it the worlds 3 highest capital. So being here is definitely a change of climate as I am wearing as much clothes as I was in Europe back in October. I have not done much else here in Bogota other than take care of some of all the administrative tasks that come with this massive project. Sometimes it is truly overwhelming and I wonder if it is all worth it. But today I had a nice Skype conversation with my girlfriend and that made the sun shine a little more. Literally, as it was raining this morning and the sun was out in the afternoon :)


Not far from Bogota center...a city with 10 mill!!

The next country on my list is Ecuador which will be interesting as it will also be the first time that I get to cross the equator by land. But Ecuador is more than 1,000 km away from here through dense jungle and high mountains so it is set to take as much as 48 hours by bus to reach the border. I hope I get a window seat! :)  

Best regards
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - trying to make a difference...if even just a small one!




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Once Upon a Saga
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