Rough Seas, Rainforest, and Being Marooned: Crossing the Darièn Gap

Carepa, Colombia

Welcome to South America, sportsfans…I am now officially an intercontinental hitchhiker.

I left the hotel that I stayed at with my friend in Panama City around ten, since I was using the Internet. It took colse to two hours until the desk clerk finally figured out that I wasn’t a guest anymore, and I was asked politely to leave. I was about to anyways, because there was a girl across the lobby that had been staring at the computer intensely for the past fifteen minutes. As soon as I got up, she darted over there and logged on to Facebook as fast as she could, letting out a litte sigh of relief. Now that’s what I call Facebook Hungar.

I left the hotel and began the short twenty minute walk to downtown Panama City. I figured that I would find a hostel there somewhere. (EDIT SEPT 2011: to work) I looked for about an hour and a half, until I finally gave up and spent some of my last bits of money on Internet so I could look up the addresses.

The first hostel I visited was called Mamanella’s, and it was about a twenty minute walk from the Internet cafè I was at. I had to stop and ask several cabbies for directions, even though I had a map, as Panama city has very few street signs. One cabbie told me in English, “Go straight on that thar road, and follow yer nose.” Sounded like a pirate, he did…

So when I found Mamanella’s, I asked them if I could work for them in exchange for enough money to get to Colombia. The owner told me he was sorry, but he didn’t have any avalible openings. He did, however, give me some fresh water, and information on the penalties for stowaways in Panamà and Colombia (they’re harsh enough for me to not want to try it.)

I then walked to the other side of town to Zuly’s Backpackers. Halfway there, it began to pour down raining. I didn’t mind, as it was hotter than Jessica Alba in a G-string that day. When I got to Zuly’s I was again turned down, so I went off to check my last option of the day: Luna’s Castel.

Google Maps fucking sucks. I plugged in the address of Luna’s Castle in there, and it gave me the totally wrong spot. I wandered around for close to four hours trying to find the place, through some nasty parts of Panama City. Finally, a cabbie gave me good directions, and I finally found it, close to two miles away from where Google told me it was.

I was turned down once more at Luna’s Castel. The owner was a pompus prick. While I was there asking him questions about crossing the Darièn Gap, he was being very rude to one of his employees, telling her, “Why can’t you do anything right?”

Here’s how our conversation went:

The owner said condecendingly, “You can’t get any kind of hostel work in Panamà. They’re very strict here. You absolutely HAVE to have a work permit.”

I thought for a moment. “Okay…so where do the people who like to take their boats to Colombia usually hang out?”

“San Blas. But you don’t have enough money to get there.”

“I’ll just hitchhike there.”

“Impossible. The only vehicles that go there are public transportation. And you have to pay the Kuna Yala natives to get into the park.”

“How much do they charge?”

“Six dollars.”

“And how long exactly is the road from the Pan American Highway to San Blas?”

“About forty kilometers. And it’s all dirt.”

“Awesome. Thanks for you’re help.” Asshole.

So I left the hostel, planning on hitch hiking to San Blas the next day. It was starting to get dark, and I was going to need a place to stay. I tried on at least ten different people the “I’m looking for a safe place to camp when there is no safe place to camp” trick, but to no avail. Also, I was starving, not having eaten since my free continental breakfast at the hotel that morning.

Eventually, I just had to settle with a small park in what I was told was the good part of town. I rolled out my bedroll behind a bench, and crashed out (after this shady guy who was just randomly walking around in circles in the soccer field left.)

I was awoken at five a.m. the next morning by some guy washing his car in the parking lot next to the park. I named him Sir Wash-A-Lot, since he washed his car for close to two hours.

I got up after people started arriving in the park to walk their dogs, and I didn’t want to look like a homeless person. So I packed up my roll, and started walking.

I was lucky in the morning. I had 25 cents on me, and I went to try to buy some food that costs 75 cents with it. The lady was super nice and just charged me the quarter, and gave me free coffee!

Energized by the food and caffine, I strode purpousefully south. I walked along the South Corridor (Corredor Sur) until Barny Fife the traffic cop told me that regulations stated that pedestrians were forbidden on this road.

So I had to walk through the city. I finally started to get out of the downtown after about two hours, when the skyline changed from mostly-unfinished condominiums to old church ruins. After another hour and a half of walking, I at last made it back to the Pan American Highway. I walked for about twenty minutes with my thumb out, when a young fellow in a beat up Land Rover pulled over and gave me a ride.

He was a super cool guy. His name was Alejandro, and he worked as an enviormentalist for the Panameñan government. He told me about all the time he’s spent in the jungles of the Darièn Gap doing research and taking photos for books. Then he suprised me by smoking a joint of some really good Panameñan chronic with me. Ahhh, I needed that!

So after he dropped me off, I continued wandering south, at this point totally baked. I even forgot to stick my thumb out for a good fifteen minutes. I stopped several times for some water at local gas stations and resturaunts. At one of the resturaunts, this young kid of about fifteen of sixteen years of age kept of asking me for my sister Ellen’s phone number. I told him to add me as a friend on Facebook and find her himself (so Ellen, if you get a friend request from someone from Panama, my bad haha.)

As I continued walking along the roadside, some guys flagged me down from the table of an outdoor resturaunt and asked if I needed any water. despite just having drank, I was thirstier than Lindsy Lohan on a Friday night, and I came and sat down with them and guzzled water. They asked all the usual questions, name, where you’re from, all that jazz. Then they asked if I had eaten, and I told them not recently. Instantly, one of the guy’s flagged down a waiter and ordered me some food. Nice…

I devoured my meal in less than three minutes. After the guys who bought me the food left, I stayed for a bit and sipped water and smoked. The owner of the resturaunt seemed very interested in me, and asked if I had a place to stay for the night. I didn’t and I told him so.

Just like that, I was staying the night with the owner, whose name was Ray. He seemed pretty cool, and once he closed up the resturaunt, he drove me to his house in the suburbs of Panama City.

As soon as I got there, I took a much needed shower. However, I noticed that in his bathroom, he had posters of…well…men. Naked. And flexing.

Okay, so he was gay. No problem. Just stay away from my bum, and we’ll have no problems whatsoever. And we didn’t, except for when he wanted me to sleep in the same bed as him, and I politely suggested the couch instead.

The next morning, we awoke very early and went back to the resturaunt, as Ray neede to start cooking and such. I was fed breakfast, coffee, and even given nine dollars for food later on! Right on…

So I again began walking. After maybe forty-five minutes, I got picked up in another beat up Land Cruiser, this time with a Panameñan guy named Eric who spoke perfect English and, ironically, owned a transportation company that took people from Panama City to San Blas. How significant. He, too, fed me breakfast, which consisted of cow liver and fried bread…he warned me that the liver had a “strong flavour.” It did.

After dining on another creature’s poison filter, we drove a bit farther down the road. Then, I was dropped off next to a little dirt path.

“That’s the road to San Blas,” Eric told me. “It’s about forty kilometers. Here’s a gallon of water,” he handed me a jug, “and good luck to you.”

And off he sped. I buckeled the jug of water to the front of my pack, and began walking. Forty k’s isn’t that far, about twenty-four miles, but this wasn’t a flat road by any means. Steep, relentless hills ran up and down the entire road. After about an hour of hiking, a truck loaded down with building equipment passed me, and I stuck my thumb out. Thankfully, he pulled over.

He was a pretty cool guy, though I can’t remember his name. He was bringing the supplies to the San Blas Islands, which was good because that’s where I was going. About a mile before we entered the Kuna Yala national park, we stopped to give some of the locals a ride. Nearly twenty of them all piled onto the back of our truck, like infant scorpians clinging to their mother’s back.

We passed the border into the park, and I was charged six of my nine dollars for entry. Good thing I had that…

After driving recklessly across a river that ran inconsiderately across the path, we topped a mountian and all of a sudden I could see the Carribean Sea glistening in the distance, with the San Blas Islands dotting the horizon. I was nearly there!

Before we got to the shoreline, the path deteriorated from dirt to a few indentions in the grass. The driver had to take out several banana trees that had taken root on the edges of the trail, as clearly vehicles this large didn’t pass through here often.

Then, after nearly an hour and a half of driving, we popped out onto a small beach and the crystel-clear Carribean Sea. The driver flagged down a boat, and I began helping the locals unload the equipment from the bed of the truck to the boat, which was flying a gold and red flag with a swastika in the middle. My first thought was pirates, but I later learned that this swastika is on it’s side, and symbolizes the sun. It’s actually the official flag of the San Blas islands.

So after unloading all the stuff (there was quite a lot) the pilots of the boat agreed to take me to the islands for free, since I was being so helpful. The tiny boat, overloaded with supplies, lumbered slowly off into the sea.

We arrived at the main island in about thirty minutes. I helped them unload, and then I was free to go. Impossible to hitch hike to San Blas…that prick clearly didn’t know who he was dealing with.

The island was very small. It probably wouldn’t take you more than fifteen minutes to walk around the whole thing. However, it had a small hotel, an airstrip, and a police substation. I went to the police and told them I was looking for a way to get to Colombia, and that I didn’t have and money. They seemed very concerned for me, and assured me that they would be on the lookout.

There were many sailboats from around the world anchored all around the island. So, not knowing what else to do, I changed into my swimsuit and swam out to them.

I went up to each boat and asked them if they were sailing south. None of them were, and I was swimming around for close to three hours, even going out to an American vessel that was anchored close to a quarter mile from shore.

I asked Canadian, Austrian, German, Dutch, American, and Australian boats, and even swam the half a mile to the next island over and asked those boats. No luck. So I paddled on back to my island and took a much-needed break.

This wasn’t a bad place to be stranded, really. It was a tropical island paridise that most people would have gladly paid thousands of dollars to visit for just a few days. And I had gotten here pretty much for free. I rehydrated by enjoying several beverages provided by the local trees, until a wrinkeled old lady came out to me and told me to stop drinking all of her coconuts (no tomar mis pipas!)

I sat at the end of the dock and watched the sun set over the distant mainland. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement. A large manta ray leaped out of the water, hung in the air for a moment, and then splashed gracefully back into the perpetually warm Carribean Sea. This was, indeed, the life.

That evening, I went to the hotel and mingled with some of the guests. For a bit I hung out with a group of French and Argentinan people, who shared their lobster and rice with me. They were very nice, and the conversation was an odd mix of Spanish, French, and English, as everybody at the table spoke at least a little of all three.

After they went to bed, I went and sat with an old Austrian sea dog and his American friend, who were here on a boat and were just stopping at the bar for some booze. The Austrian guy bought me a beer and told me stories of modern-day pirates, which include tales of the notorious Redbeard of the Carribean, (he kills everyone aboard, takes the money and/or gold, and sinks the ship) and how exactly those Somolian pirates got .50 caliber machine guns for their little speedboats (the Chinese, of course.)

I went to bed in a little hut on the beach graciously provided by the local law enforcement, and slept well. I was awaken abruptly the next morning by the police capitan, who told me to hurry up and get my stuff, he’s found me a boat!

Excited, I packed my things as fast as I could and ran to the dock. There was nothing there but a little wooden boat with two motors and three guys crammed into it. Where was the ship that was going to take me to Colombia?

Apparently that was the ship. Figuring that it was better than nothing, I tossed my bag in and hopped onto the stern. The twin motors rumbled, and off we shot, south.

At first, the ride was quite pleasant. There was a nice sunrise, and the salty sea air smelled delicious.

To my right was the thick, untamed jungles of the Darièn Gap, looking more mythical and omnious than ever. Coconut trees dotted the shoreline, fading quickly into impenetrable virgin rainforest. The Gap is truly one of the last great frontiers of our world, and I know in my heart that my life will not be complete until I risk everything and venture across.

To my left was the San Blas islands and the seemingly endless sea. San Blas consists of more than 300 small islands, many of them looking like the steryotypical Gary Larson islands that his unfortunate charactars are often portrayed marooned upon. Often, the entire island is simply a few square meters of sand, a tiny beach, and one or two tall coconut trees growing inexplicably in the middle.

We stopped once to register with the next police substation, and then continued south. Now the sky was clouding up, the wind was blowing much harder, and there was no sign of the oft thought of tranquil Carribean Sea. Instead, our tiny boat was tossed and turned violently about in the angry ocean. However, the pilot seemed to take no notice, and plowed full steam ahead into three and four meter swells, soaking all of us with sea water. Sometimes on the other side of the swell there was naught but blank space, and our boat would careen haphazardly into open air, the propellar changing pitch as it went from churning the rough seas to spinning pointlessly in the wind. We would hang in the air for a moment, before slamming forcefully back into the water, nearly causing me to fly out on several different occasions.

Finally after about four hours of this, we stopped in Puerto Obaldìa to get our passports stamped. Mine was totally soaked, and the immigration guy looked at it disagreeably as he searched for a place to stamp my exit visa.

After leaving Puerto Obladìa, we motored on for another twenty minutes, crossed into Colombia, and stopped in the seaside village of Capurganà. This was apparently the last stop for the boat, so I grabbed my bag and hopped out.

I soon learned that I was not past the Darièn Gap yet; in fact, I was right in the middle of it! Capurganà has no roads leading out of it, and all of its food and supplies come in by boat from Turbo. In fact, there are no cars at all in the town!

So I was going to need to find one more boat to Turbo, which was the beginning of the South American side of the Pan American Highway. Getting to Turbo would open up the entire continent to me!

There were no more boats heading to Turbo until the next day, however, so I was going t have to stay the night here. Capurganà seemed like a very nice town. There were a lot of tourists and sailors from every corner of the globe there. I met a couple of Canadians, an Australian, and a couple from Alaska.

I converted the two dollars I had left into Colombian pesos, and was suprised to get more than 4,000 back! Colombian currency is apparently worthless, with 1 peso euqalling about 1/20th of a cent. I bought a pack of smokes ($2,000 ) and thirty minutes of Internet time ($1,500.) After that, I decided to venture into the jungle to go and find a place to camp for the night.

I walked nearly two hours into the lush rainforest, far away from any human habitation. This was the real, hardcore, jaguar-filled jungle, my friends, and I was pretty much in heaven. I found a small clearling that seemed like it would be a good place to pass the night. Just as soon as I set down my pack, I saw a flash of movement to my left. I investigated farther, and to my immense delight, saw my very first poison dart frog in the wild! He was very small, only about the size of a quarter, and was black with small, brilliant green spots. I poked him gently with a leaf, and he chirped indignantly and dissapered into the leaf litter.

After stashing my pack, I went to explore farther into the forest. I passed many single-file lines of the famous leaf-cutter ants, the tiny insects almost invisible under chunks of leaves easily ten times their size. I followed one line nearly two hundred meters, (careful not to tread on Mother Nature’s little labourors) until I saw them dissapering neatly into a small hole under a rotten log covered with colourful moss. One worker had clearly misjudged the size on his leaf cutting in realtion to the hole that he had to fit it into, and spent nearly a minute trying to force his too-large clipping into the hole. Eventually, some other ants pulled him aside (you’re holding up the line!) and helped him chew it in half. Clearly the new guy…

I soon came to a crystel-clear rainforest stream, and decided to follow that for awhile and see what I would find. There were many basilisk lizards near the edge of the stream. As soon as they would hear me coming, they would dart across the water and into the thick ferns on the edge, their broad feet making it easy for them to walk on the surface as if it were dry land, earning them the nickname “Jesus Christ Lizards.”

I came to a deep pool after about ten minutes of following the bed, and decided to go for a swim and wash off all of the dried salt that was all over my face and body from the boat ride here. I stripped off all my clothes and splashed gratefully into the cool, clear water, breathing a sigh of relief.

After deciding that I was sufficently clean, I got out, lit up a cigarette, and air dried. I stood naked on the edge and watched three brilliantly coloured tropical butterflies, clearly subspecies of the Heliconius genus, fight over what was apparently a really swell twig to pass the night on. One of them was black with orange bands, and the other two were black, irridecant blue, and yellow. They fought viciously (for butterflies) for close to ten minutes, all of them seeming to want to settle on the very end. Finally, the orange and black one gave up and settled on a small offshoot, while the other two battled on the fifteen more minutes. Eventually a consensus was reached, and they both settled on the very end with less than a centimeter between the two insects. This happened at about the same time I finally killed the large mosquito who had been busily attempting to remove several pints of blood from my ass for the past twenty minutes.

By this time I was dry. I dressed and hiked back to camp, arriving just as night was falling. I fell asleep listening to chirping frogs, buzzing insects, and the faint flutter of bat wings…basically the sounds of the rainforest that I had been dreaming about since I was five and I learned that all the coolest snakes in the world lived in the jungle. I had sweet dreams.

The next morning, I awoke to find a tiny pair of holes and a bit of dried blood on my ankle that definently wasn’t there the evening before. Clearly, I had been visited in the night by the original Dracula of the jungle, the notorious vampire bat! To be honest, I was quite pleased, happy to help out Mother Nature’s little Impalers with a bit of warm blood every now and then. I packed up camp and hiked the two hours back to Capurganà, wondering where my sharp-toothed little friend was now…

Upon arrival to the town, I found two boats that were leaving for Turbo that morning. However, they were both overloaded with tourists and locals, and the drivers didn’t seem too keen on taking on an extra passenger for free. So off they motored south, effectively marooning me in this tiny little Colombian village in the middle of the jungle.

I talked to the police and a few of the locals, and pretty soon all 200 people in the town knew that there was a gringo with no money here looking for a boat ride to Turbo. The townsfolk were all very nice and fed me some much-needed food, which was great of them since I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in nearly three days.

I hung around by the dock all day, and every time a new boat would arrive, three or four locals would run up to it and ask if it was going to Turbo, and did it have room for a passenger? They were really great people, all of them. I wasn’t able to find a ride that day, and one man put up a nice little tent in his yard and insisted that I stay for the night. I felt I really didn’t have a choice, since he was very old and had already gone to all that trouble setting it up for me.

Towords the evening, the local immigration place got wind that I didn’t have any money. I had visited them the day before to get my entry visa, and they just assumed I had some cash. They brought me in, and threatened to send me back to Panamà, since I had a tourist visa, and that ment I needed to have money with me. They eventually didn’t deport me, but told me to pass Colombia as fast as I could, and that if I didn’t find a boat to Turbo tomorrow that they would send me back to Panamà.

Now I really, really needed a boat. When I woke up this morning, I found a small passenger boat that fortunately agreed to take me to Turbo. I waved goodbye to my generous Colombian friends, and sped off into the sunrise.

We arrived to Turbo in about an hour and a half. This boat ride was much more pleasant than the ride from Panamà, as it was a bit bigger and the sea was much calmer.

Turbo is pretty much a shit hole. The sea turns brown once you get close to the shore, and garbage litters the water. As soon as our boat pulled up to the dock, five or ten locals crowded around the dock, pointing at people and shouting “Bogotà?” or “Medellìn?”

I got off, thanked the pilots,and pushed past the taxi peddlers. I began my walk out of town, and soon I was back on the good ole Pan American Highway, headed south to Medellìn!

I passed a guy on a motorcycle ideling on the side of the road, and he asked me where I was going. I told him Medellìn, and he offered to give me a ride for about twenty k’s. This was in fact, my first hitched ride on a motorcycle, and I was pretty happy about that.

After he dropped me off, he gave me $2,000 pesos for some food, and sped off. I walked for about an hour more, past endless banana plantations, until I got picked up by a nice lady and her young son. She drove me about half an hour more, and even gave me $10,000 pesos, which I am spending right now on Internet.

So after nearly three months of hitch hiking on cars, the backs of pickup trucks, big rigs, motorcycles, and even boats, I have at last arrived to South America.

Next stop: Ecuador

The Modern Nomad

EDIT SEPT 2011: I don’t think I realized how lucky I actually was to get out of the San Blas so quickly. A few months later a friend of mine came by to try this in San Blas and was stuck there for WEEKS. He eventually ended up having to negociate a trip on a sailboat, which he paid a reduced price for. The Gap is a hard nut to crack, that’s for sure.

And if you wonder why I spent my money on Internet, it’s because I consider the completion of these posts to be of very high importance. I do not want my tale to go untold.


5 thoughts on “Rough Seas, Rainforest, and Being Marooned: Crossing the Darièn Gap

  1. dude, that’s freakin awesome, but you get that a lot I guess. Anyway I’ll be on my way up north from Argentina pretty soon, kinda doing your travels in reverse. Your blog is great inspiration. keep it up.


      • for another week or so I’ll be in Cordoba. Then I head out east and then north to Brazil. where’re you now? and what’s your destination..that is if you have one.


      • I’m in Punta Arenas, Chile, southern Patagonia; Destination is….everywhere! haha. But actually taking a break and working for awhile here in Pta. Arenas…you ever want to visit, my door is open.


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