Sailing the Darien Gap and Cartagena

by lwsaville

For cyclists traveling from Alaska to Argentina all the roads converge in Panama and there are just a few options to cross the Darien Gap, a wild lawless gap in the continuity of the highway system connecting the Americas. Braver souls have crossed on foot but it is strongly discouraged (check The more common ways are around, on either the Pacific or Atlantic side, or over in a flying contraption. The Pacific route tends to yield more interesting results because of it’s patchwork nature and it’s being less traveled but can take quite a lot of time and is potentially dangerous (see a really excellent blog that Logan turned me onto). Another downside to the aforementioned choice is that you end up in Buenaventura way down on the Pacific coast while the Atlantic side commonly puts you back on ground at Cartagena, allowing you to experience quite a lot more of Colombia . The Atlantic side can also take quite a lot of time using the patchwork method of speed-boats and cargo boats. Being as I have a time frame in which to get to Bogota to meet up with Heidi, I choose the route of paying a sailboat on the Atlantic side lots of money to cook me food and navigate while I live the dream.

In La Paz Mexico I got lucky and was able to find a free ride across to Mazatlán by working as crew with a guy who was alone and needed help on his boat. My experience crossing from Panama to Colombia couldn’t have been more different. Apparently chances exist to find deals various factors make this difficult. The boats also leave from around 5 separate places and this makes it hard for a cyclist (especially when a few of the spots are not just down the road, but are separate enough to have to leave Panama in two different directions) trying to show up at a dock. The general sailboat cartel they’ve got running charges ~$550 pp. The boat I sailed on is supposed to house 16 guests but rode a bit lower in the water with 21 (two with motorcycles and 1, yours truly, with a bicycle. Do a little math; they do the trip every week, bicycles cost $50 and motorcycles ~$500). Having thought and expected with my previous boating experiences to have a large amount of down time with few distractions, I was certainly met with something else altogether.

Another interesting bit was getting to the dock. I insisted on being able to cycle to where the pick up the other people arriving by “jeep”. There’s not a lot of information on the road to Cartí. It doesn’t appear on some maps or on Google Earth. Asking around people immediately talk of the hills and do hand motions to signify that it will be a lot of up and down. I left two days before I needed to be there just to be sure. The road out of Panama City to the turn-off doesn’t warrant any talk. The ~40km stretch from the turn-off really was a roller coaster of challenging grades and one of the most interesting and fun roads in my recent history.


The opening pitch of the road to Cartí which confronts one immediately after the turn-off. Compared to the road from Panama City to the turn-off it’s a slap in the face.


Large spider in the act of eating some prime morsel it caught. Going to zip up my tent with extra care….


More of the curvature of the road. Would’ve loved for it all to be like this but on the bigger ups and downs they’ve taken out the pavement on the lowest part, presumably to keep people from turning the road into a racetrack.


Really steep road. I had to resort to a zigzagging method that brought the grade down to something I could manage. Even then it was a struggle at points.


The owner at an eatery along the road (you see there is something along the road to Cartí!) who let me camp in the parking area. Here he appears as a mean mug but is actually a really nice and curious guy (Mexican photo face syndrome).


Off in the distance you can see the Gulf of San Blas. This is on the other side of the continental divide.


Looking down the divide. Much different than one would see the divide in Colorado.


Bearded and glistening like a supermodel, but dirty.


Really elegant looking reptile out to sun himself at the dock where I camped waiting for the rest of the boat guests and our ride to the boat. There are quite a lot of really wild areas in Panama.


Motoring out past the completely settled Kuna islands of San Blas. Settled so much that they build out from the beach. Can’t really imagine growing up in a place like this.


A crab bought from a local Kuna man for our dinner. I would like crab a lot more if it weren’t so much work. Still very tasty.


One of the islands (uninhabited I think) and brooding clouds.


A large fish being cut up by the cook after the owner/captain shot him with a spear gun on one of the reefs we visited.


The fish had a leathery and thick skin.


The island again.


The cockpit where 21 people would try and cram in at mealtimes.


Client supervision of anchor handling. Slept in the trampoline one night.


Dawn of the last night on board when we’re at anchor outside Cartagena. Arrived late in the night.


More sleepers in the cockpit. I slept to the left of the guy in the lower part of the photo.


A couple of tug boats in the harbor outside of Cartagena and a bit of skyline. We’d arrived.


-Snorkeling on various reefs off the San Blas islands. If I pretend I kind of feel like I’m flying. I also, for the first time, tried diving down and had a blast.

-A moderately assured arrival date to Colombia. Another strength of the sailboats.

-The road to Cartí, very little traffic and seeing a bit wilder Panama.

-Going to South America!


-So many people on the boat (nice folk but…)

-The captain/owner was a sexist jerk.

-Really bad sun-burn (yes, my fault)

-Having to pay a load of money.