We travelled along the north coast of Colombia to southern Panama and then flew into Panama City. It was a fabulous trip. For about the same cost as a pair of plane tickets we were able to spend a week in some of the most beautiful places we have seen so far.
We started in Cartagena, which was brilliant. A fusion of winding colonial streets and super-modern skyscrapers, you could wander for hours enjoying the views but still enjoy a relaxed city with all the modern things you get to miss after a while. From here we took a mini-van (‘por puesto‘) direct to Turbo. With a couple of hours tacked on for a pair of lorries crashing on a winding dirt road in the hills, the trip took about 12 hours door-to-door.
We arrived late in Turbo and don’t think we missed much; any town in this part of the world selling second rate fried chicken I am skeptical of. We took a hotel right by the dock, there are plenty, so that we could get our tickets early. I picked up the tickets at 6.30, but the boat – lancha – left at 9.30 and was full when it went. The journey took about two and a half hours, but was a treat all the way. The boat bounces along just off the coast. In places it looks like forest is rising up vertically out of the ocean, occasionally punctuated by tiny deserted beaches.
Capurgana itself is an odd little mix of stereotypical Caribbean charm, a couple of hotels, and an omnipresent military presence. Seeing teenage boys wander about with very large guns is not the greatest feeling. It does work out that the place is entirely safe day and night, baring some sort of catastrophe. Sadly, having heavily armed young men act as order in a country means that there are catastrophes, as Colombia’s human rights record testifies to.
After a few days of beach and sun and rum mixed with fresh passion fruit we moved to Puerto Obaldia in Panama. It is a short boat ride, 30 minutes, and you can get the boat in time to catch the plane from here to Panama City. Book tickets ahead of time by calling the ticket office in Panama City and using plastic to pay, details can be found on Air Panamá’s website. We didn’t and had to wait two days for the next flight. No great hardship, just two more days on a really, really nice beach. However, the town is a little bit The Hills Have Eyes, plus if you are tight for time it maybe isn’y quite so cool to sit and stew in.
The flight to Panama City takes 45 minutes, the wait in customs when you get there is about the four times that. Most of it is spent sitting whilst they ‘verify’ your passport, whatever that means. If our experience is normal, then they don’t even bother searching the bags of stroppy, frustrated Europeans. Makes it seem even more pointless, but worth bearing in mind if you do decide to start smuggling. They did rather sheepishly apologise when we could finally leave and listened patiently to my rants about Noriega’s history of state sponsored drug running, so it wasn’t all bad.
1: Cartagena to Turbo 10/12 hours $40 (prices per person)
2: Turbo to Capurgana 2 and a half hours $30 including surplus for bags
3: Capurgana to Puerto Obaldia 30 minutes $15
4: Puerto Obaldia to Panama City 4 hours with customs $80
Remember, you can chip straight through from Capurgana to Panama City all in one day, I would recommend it. If you take a couple of days in Capurgana to enjoy the beach and mellow out, it still works out about $200 cheaper than sailing direct from Cartagena.
You can buy anything you need along the way and there are people who will change money for you, although maybe not huge amounts so take airfare. It is worth stocking up on Rum before you set off though, as with a captive market they jack the prices in the wilderness.
It is also possible to carry on up the coast via lancha and then get a bus. There are people in Puerto Obaldia pushing these journeys quite hard as they run the boat. Be careful though, the people on the plane with us said that the Island they went to was extremely expensive, they even charged for access to the beach.