Pan-American Transmissions Part 5: 10,000 Ways From Panama To Colombia, None Of Them Paved

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pan-American Transmissions Part 5

“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.

The Pan-American highway runs from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina with only one interruption known as the Darien Gap. In this void of paved roads and humanity lie 100 miles of rugged jungle terrain that separate Panama from Colombia – Central America from South America. If an overland route does exist, it’s unmapped, lined with poisonous snakes and patrolled by narcotraffickers.

Nobody told me this before Ania and I set out for Tierra del Fuego. Call it ignorance, call it adventure. It’s all the same in the end.

The gap posed a challenge for our journey and we weren’t prepared to pay for a flight. Ania and I spent our free time in Panama City interrogating travelers to find a practical solution. Many suggested the airport. They said it was affordable, but we wouldn’t listen. At some point, we met a woman that crossed the gap on foot. She was alone for seven days in the jungle and slept with a machete in her hand.

She didn’t recommend it.

Then, after extensive research, we learned about the sea routes. Thousands of boats cross between Panama and Colombia every month. Some are made for passengers, others are made for diesel fuel but take passengers anyways. At the time we crossed, boats on Pacific routes charged between $55-$200 a person and boats on Caribbean routes charged $25-$750 a person (tour boat prices rise every year).

On both sides, the cheap rides were on commercial cargo ships. The higher prices were mainly for Caribbean package tours that include snorkeling, island tramping/camping and fine cuisine en route to Cartagena, Colombia.

Ania and I decided to go with Cargo Boat Captain Sierra. We got a piece of paper with his three telephone numbers on it and were told he would take us through the Comarca Kuna Yala (aka San Blas Islands) — a sovereign indigenous territory in the Caribbean made of more than 400 small islands — until we reached a Panamanian military post at the Colombian border called Puerto Obaldia. It would be a five-day ride on a 50-meter steel cargo boat. The cost: $50 a person.

Cheaper cargo boats do exist, but they’re slower, sometimes taking 10-14 days to reach the border. Either way, Captain Sierra was the cheapest we could find at the time and we figured the journey would make for an interesting cultural experience.

Stranded in Carti

After 45 phone calls, we got in touch with Captain Sierra. He said he’d pick us up in a place called Carti at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

He never showed up.

We sat on the dock all day with four Argentinians from Hostal Miami. There was Felix, a law school dropout turned professional juggler, and there was Eleana and Santiago, a nomadic hippie couple traveling with their ravenous one-year-old daughter, Youla.

The six of us had no choice but to sit and wait for Captain Sierra. There wasn’t much else we could do on that tiny port island in the Kuna Yala. Carti was so small it took seven minutes to walk around the whole thing. Swimming was out of the question since water surrounding the island was full of trash and raw sewage (outhouses were built on piers over the sea). And, to top it off, the locals wouldn’t talk to us – especially the women – and the only restaurant in town had already kicked us out for sleeping under the tables.

In the afternoon, I woke up near the dock and watched a Chilean sailor park his yacht. We told him about our situation and he offered to take one person to the border, free of charge. Ania and I weren’t going to part and the same was true for the hippie couple, so Felix jumped on board. We watched him float away into the sunset with dolphins jumping beside the yacht and pelicans flying overhead.

Lucky bastard.

The night came quickly after that. Ania wanted to set up our tent, but the little island was packed full of thatch huts. There was absolutely no space for another structure in Carti – no matter how small it was. As we scratched our heads, a local family took in the hippie couple because they had a baby. Ania and I hoped for the same, but we were left in the street.

We unrolled our sleeping bags beneath a ledge in the school courtyard and laid down with our heads on our backpacks. Locals walked by and shined their flashlights on us, but otherwise, they left us in peace.

It went on like this for four days. Ania and I sat on the dock with the hippie couple, reading, eating overpriced canned food, playing with Youla, feeding Youla, getting shunned by locals, waiting for, hating more, all because of Captain Sierra.

Few boats passed by. When they did, they were usually speed boats that took passengers directly to Puerto Obaldia in one day for $100. It was tempting, but at that point, Ania and I still believed Captain Sierra would arrive at any moment. Every time a horn sounded in a distance we ran to the edge of the dock and scanned the horizon. There was usually nothing. After a while, I started wondering if I actually heard the horns or if I was just getting delusional.

The zombie monotony broke on the third day. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship set anchor off shore and the locals went into mass hysteria. All the women rushed to set up tables outside their thatch huts. They filled the streets with colorful souvenirs and hand-sown fabrics called molas. Little boys put on funny costumes and little girls put parrots on their heads. One older woman sat by her souvenir table with a lemur in her lap. She wore the traditional Kuna Yala explosion-of-color apparel and charged $1 per picture – as did everyone else.

Thick North American tourists were then shuttled onto the island and toured Carti – all seven minutes of it – with the help of local guides. They bought molas, paid for pictures, and the local women smiled. Not once in three days had they smiled at Ania and I and now we knew why.

I asked the cruise captain if he could take us to Colombia and he said no. Shortly after, all the tourists went back to the motherboat and life went back to careless stagnation on the island. The afternoon turned into night and nothing happened for a long time.

Then, out of that nothingness, a Russian appeared. His name was Sasha. He was waiting for one of the $100 speed boats. We bought a few beers and he told us a story about some people he knew that were crossing to Colombia on package tour boat and got stranded. The captain had let them off on a deserted island and sailed away with all their belongings while they swam and tanned in the sun.

They were stuck on the island without food or water for five days.

“Okay, I guess we don’t have it so bad here,” I said.

After that, Sasha told us about a train that runs straight across Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railway. A week-long journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan for $200.

In that muggy tropical air, over those warm beers, I took a moment to picture the Russian arctic tundra in my head. Siberia sounded damn good after three days in Carti.

Saved by Azalea 1

Luck came with the sunrise. I woke up early the next morning to find Santiago shaking my leg.

“Get up! Get up!” he said. “We found a cargo boat. It’s leaving for Colombia in 30 minutes. Get your stuff together and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Her name was Azalea 1 and she looked so beautiful in her rusty coat, floating over that raw shit water in the morning light. The six-person crew was pure Kuna Yala. Some barely spoke Spanish. The captain charged $75 a person for a three-day ride to Puerto Obaldia. It was more than we wanted to pay, but the five of us jumped on board, thrilled by the idea of actually leaving Carti.

The engine started, the exhaust pipe spit out black smoke and I smiled as I watched the island fade into the morning haze.

I then took a minute to inspect our cargo. The amount was impressive. Despite being just 30 meters in length, the Azalea 1 was hauling such an extensive variety of products that it could only be matched by Wal-Mart. Gas canisters, door frames, bed frames, refrigerators, washing machines, tricycles, beer, sheets of corrugated metal, televisions, mattresses, potato chips, tuna, gasoline-powered generators and about 100 sacks of dry cement mix. We had everything, but space.

On our way to Colombia, the boat stopped at different Kuna Yala ports to drop off supplies. Each time we docked, the entire population on the island swarmed the boat and watched as we pulled items out of the hull. They wanted to see if the chief would finally get that television he ordered for the community center. They wanted to know how many beers they could drink until the next cargo boat passed.

Santiago and I helped the crew unload supplies. Just imagine trying to fit a full-size refrigerator in a canoe. This is how island people live.

At night we would dock at a pier and cook dinner. The captain told us we would eat fried fish and rice throughout the journey, but he mostly fed us canned hot dogs. He’d mix them with chinese noodles and call it “pasta bolognese.”

I’ve never ate so badly in my life.

After dinner, Ania and I walked around the islands with Youla and laughed as entire villages surrounded and poked the strange light-skinned child. We found the other Kuna Yala islands to be much more welcoming than Carti.

When the time came for sleeping, the captain told us we could pitch our tent on land, but we made a bed on the boat deck, beneath the crew’s hammocks, so the captain couldn’t leave us stranded like the Russian’s friends.

The morning routine involved coffee and fried platanos. After that we’d go out to sea again. Each day was a battle against regurgitation. The Caribbean was unusually rough at the time of our voyage and it made Ania, Eleana, Santiago and Youla sick to the bones. I resisted, but it took great effort. Meanwhile, the crew laughed and drank warm beers.

Hello Colombia, It’s Nice to See You

Between the canned meat chemistry, the seasickness, the constant inhalation of diesel smoke and the sleeping on a hard steel deck beneath sailor asses, the cargo boat trip lost a little of the romanticism we originally envisioned before setting out to sea.

Regardless, it worked.

We reached Puerto Obaldia, got our passports stamped by 16-year-olds with rifles, and crossed into Colombia on a small boat that made Eleana vomit one more time.

In the end, the voyage was much more than “an interesting cultural experience.” We learned the limits of our bodies, our digestion and our patience. At the same time, we saw how closed indigenous cultures adapt to capitalism and tourism. It’s ugly, but necessary.

The trip was also much more expensive than we originally thought. The bus to the Comarca Kuna Yala was $25, the entry fee for the territory was $6, the boat to Carti was $2, the cargo boat to the border was $75, and the small boat to the first Colombian town was $15. A total of $123 a person, not counting the $30 speed boat we would later take to reach Colombia’s mainland.

But none of those stressful matters, financial matters, rest-of-the-world matters meant anything when we reached Capurgana, a small Caribbean fishing village just south of the border. The town was true, secluded, unspoiled tropical paradise. Ania and I melted into its white sand beaches as sweet mango juice dripped from our fingers.

It was there that we found our Argentinian friend Felix juggling with his feet in the bright blue sea. To our surprise he was with Pepe, another juggler from the Hostal Miami crew. Pepe said he took a $90 plane from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia and then paid $15 for the boat to Capurgana. It was a three-hour journey compared to our seven-day sea odyssey.

Sure, sleeping in the street on indigenous land and sailing the Caribbean on a rusty cargo boat made for a good story to tell at the bar, but if I had to do it again, I think I’ll just take the damn plane.

Coming up next from Pan-American Transmissions: Capurgana, Taganga and Colombia’s Sweet Caribbean Cacophony

By Diego Cupolo

Read Part One of Pan-American Transmissions (Northern Nicaragua) herePart Two (Southern Nicaragua: Bargain Paradise) here, Part Three (A Cheap Bastard’s Guide To Traveling) here, and Part Four (Panama City Booming) here.


About the Author

diegocupolobiopic3Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at

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