While planning to travel from North America to South America, it is easy to look at a map of the area and assume that the journey from Panama to Colombia is as easy as catching a short bus ride. While the 29,000-mile Pan-American Highway stretches all the way from Alaska to Argentina, there is just one 100-mile section that is not passable by any vehicle. This swath of rather dangerous land separating Panama and Colombia is called the Darien Gap, and it has thwarted many eager budget travelers from their hopes of getting from North to South America via an overland passage.
The Darien Gap is an incredibly bio-diverse UNESCO World Heritage rainforest that is occupied by indigenous peoples, drug smugglers, guerrilla warriors and Panamanian border control. The rainforest is known to flood massively throughout the rainy season, and is also home to poisonous wildlife including the dart frog, pit viper, and many types of scorpions. There are no roads throughout most of the Darien Gap, and only a handful of explorers have made it through with a motor vehicle.
There are ways for travelers to get through the gap using a combination of boats and hiking, but they run the risk of being kidnapped by drug cartels or having a run-in with anti-government guerrilla warriors who may not be happy to see them. If a poisonous animal bites a person making the journey, it could be impossible for that individual get to a hospital in time for treatment. It is safe to assume that an overland journey through the Darien Gap is not on most travelers’ to-do list.
So how does one pass from Panama to Colombia? What are some options for travelers, and which options are the quickest, cheapest, or most beautiful?
The most leisurely-paced passages from Panama to Colombia are via sailboats that depart from the tropical San Blas Islands, just off of the eastern coast of the country. For most, the highlight of these sailing trips is when their boats anchor on the small Caribbean islands that dot the Panamanian coast, offering them some time to frolic in Paradise. The sailing trips usually include at least two days of anchoring in various beautiful locations. After exploring sandy beaches and palm-covered terrain, passengers typically sail for 30-45 hours without stopping, so beware if you are prone to seasickness. The journey ends in Cartagena, Colombia – a favorite destination of foreign travelers and Colombians alike. Captains take care of immigration for the passengers, and entrance to the country is usually hassle-free.
There are a multitude of options when it comes to sailing this route, and travelers have their choice of packages that range from catamarans with extremely basic food options to yachts that serve an array of gourmet meals. The lower priced journeys typically start at around $500 USD, and almost always include meals. Many hostels and hotels can link travelers to different captains, but it is always best to shop around and make sure to get the most for your money.
Sailing from Panama to Colombia is a great option for travelers who aren’t in a rush, enjoy being on the water, and aren’t too worried about their budget.
For many years, travelers have spread rumors about a ferry that carries passengers between Panama and Colombia. Over time the rumors became something akin to a backpackers’ urban legend, affirmed and then discredited on online travel forums. Up until recently, rumors about a commercial ferry were simply just a myth. No such ferry actually existed. These myths even led to scams when fake tickets were sold to gullible travelers for a ferry that wasn’t real. Luckily for travelers, a brand new ferry from Panama to Colombia is currently operating, and it’s not a scam or a myth.
Ferry Xpress began operating in October of 2014, and sails twice a week from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. The ferry is an old cruise ship, and has restaurants, bars, slot machines, and even a dance club. The voyage takes about 18 hours. Arguably, the best part about this new ferry is its price. The cost of a basic seat on the ferry is under $100, making it the absolute best budget option for those traveling from Panama to Colombia. Tickets can be picked up at the Ferry Xpress office in Panama City.
For the budget traveler, ferrying from Panama to Colombia is the best option, and the boat itself is quite nice.
Flying from Panama to Colombia is obviously the quickest option for travelers who are short on time, and is the best alternative for those susceptible to seasickness or simply not fond of being on a boat. The cheapest airplane routes to Colombia leave from Panama City’s Tucumán International Airport. At the present moment, routes from Panama City to Medellin yield the cheapest ticket prices, while flights to Cartagena are the second cheapest.
Flying is a fast and easy option, but there is one important thing to keep in mind when flying to Colombia: Immigration officials are quite a bit harsher on those entering the country by plane than those entering by boat. Travelers who arrive by plane are almost always required to show proof of an onward flight before being allowed through immigration, and are often asked to prove they have money in their bank accounts. Before flying to Colombia, make sure you have either purchased a round-trip ticket or an onward ticket to another country. Sometimes passengers are not even allowed to board their flights without proof of onward travel, and nobody wants to be frantically racing around to buy a plane ticket when they have a plane to catch in just a few minutes. One way around this problem is to purchase a refundable ticket, print out the confirmation to show officials, and then cancel the flight within 24 hours to get your money back.
If you want to get from Panama to Colombia quickly, and aren’t on a strict budget, flying is a great option, just remember your onward ticket!