At 8:30 am, the ground staff at the domestic airport in Panama City still struggles with the Monday morning sleepiness. Only a few indigenous women in colourful skirts and bead accessories and a number of business travellers are waiting for their flights to the San Blas Islands or to David. We are far too early for our flight to Puerto Obaldía, a small settlement deep in the jungles of the Darien Gap, near the Colombian border. At the check-in counter a poster showing gas cartridges, oil canisters, rifles and paint buckets informs us that “hazardous items must be properly declared before being taken onto the plane.” Susana Ponce, our check-in assistant, is wearing her orange security vest leisurely over one shoulder. She also has an invalid 2007 id and security card for the airport dangling around her neck. We decide not to think too much about the safety procedures at this airport.
In the checked-in waiting area we slump into the dark blue plastic chairs and try to ease our nervousness about the “light aircraft” (the term used on our ticket confirmation) with a free cup of Duncan Highland Instant Coffee. The walls are painted in an non-matching different shade of dark blue and decorated with four tourism promotion posters, all at a disturbingly different height and variation to the right angle. By 9:30, the plane to David has left. All the remaining passengers – a local family in bright blue and neon green shirts, two young Spaniards and couple of solo-travelling men – are like us clutching the heavy plastic boarding passes labelled Panama – Puerto Obaldía.
Border traffic over the Darien Gap
“To Colombia?” A greying officer in a light yellow shirt beckons some of us to his makeshift desk. In the absence of a proper immigration office at the domestic airport, Miguel Juvirez is doubling as an immigration inspector. Now he is noting down our data in a faded ledger. “There are usually five or six people going to Colombia every day that there is a flight to Puerto Obaldía,” he willingly answers our questions. “But in the other direction, the plane is always full, and the majority of passengers come from Colombia.”
The light aircraft turns out to be a Twin Otter (300 series) with only 20 passenger seats. We take the two front seats, from where we have a free view into the cockpit. It looks rather well-used, and the pilot sets to work as if steering a ride-on mower over a weedy meadow.
Puerto Obaldía, frontier town of the Darien Gap
In Puerto Obaldía, we land on such a short stretch of tarred road that it seems at first that the plane might run right into the palm trees ahead. Next to the airstrip there is a playground, and a few houses line the only street of the village. “Where do we get our exit stamp?,” we ask one of several men standing around. “I will give it to you when the Colombians have given their ok.” The guy tips meaningfully to his red baseball cap. It has “Panama migracion” embroidered on it.
We do the round of offices, consulate, military checkpoint, exit and provisional entry stamps. In the town we chat with everyone remotely involved and with the only local woman wearing a T-shirt instead of traditional garb. She misjudges our age by 20 years, and apparently our gender, too. How else should we interpret her question whether there are a lot of effeminate men in Europe?
Then we follow another guy with a red baseball cap and three young local women to the boat that is going to leave for the beach resort of Capurgana in Colombia. A few other passengers have already assembled on the beach. The open outboard motor boat is already waiting and they are wrapping their luggage in large black plastic bags. A sensible precaution, since the sea around the Darien Gap is rather rough and the one-hour boat ride wet.
Capurgana, a Colombian beach resort
The next morning we are waiting for the next boat, which will bring us from Capurgana to the town of Turbo. “Are you speaking Portuguese?,” a girl asks us curiously, assuming that we must be Brazilians if she doesn’t understand the language. Sharon has been in Capurgana for a week of snorkelling and beach holidays with her family. In the evening they strolled along picturesque streets lined with juice stalls and jewellery vendors and had dinner in one of the fish restaurants.
To Cartagena and the North Colombian coast
Today the waves are even taller, and we sit in the front row of the boat. After ten minutes, the fun part of the rollercoaster effect wears off. Like the happy holidaymakers behind us we fall silent for the next two hours. When we alight in Turbo, we still face a 6-hour bus ride. We have to travel over mostly unpaved roads before we reach Montería, a stop-over for the night. A modern Pullman-bus then brings us to Cartagena. Wow: a dreamy walled town on the Caribbean coast, with pastel coloured colonial houses in palm tree-shaded streets. Tropical fruits are sold in veritable mountains from little carts, and tiny cups of coffee are offered at every other corner.
We liked the Caribbean coast of Colombia so much that we stayed on longer than we had planned. Occasionally we make visits to the Tayrona National Park and the beach resort town of Taganga. We have now made our way to Villa de Leyva. Imagine, that’s only four hours bus ride from the Colombian capital city of Bogotá.
NB: Our boat trip around the Darien Gap was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.