Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Crossing continents to South America

Crossing continents to South America

With a few days of partying, visiting pristine beaches and boat taxis to neighbouring islands in Bocas del Toro it was time to move on.  My next destination was Panama City where I would then venture onward towards Colombia which is the first country in South America and is directly beneath Panama. This meant a short flight Puerto Obaldia, a boat taxi to Capurgana and across the Gulf of Uraba by ferry to Turbo.

I wasn’t able to buy a ticket directly from the bus company while on Isla Colon but these are available through a few different agencies. The most common agency is Taxi 25 which is one of the larger water taxi operators and their office and dock is located near the police station. If they are closed you can reserve through either Bocas Marine or Undersea Panama tourist agencies. The price is $33 and this includes the boat taxi to Almirante and a minibus shuttle to the bus station from the dock. There is a morning bus that leaves Almirante at 8:00 a.m and an evening bus that leaves at 7:00 p.m. Most people try to take the bus during the day because the views travelling through the cordillera are supposed to be some of the best you will see on any bus anywhere. If they are as good or better than the views I experienced between David and Almirante they are sure to impress! I prefer night buses because I get to where I need to be and enjoy the day at my destination or in this case get a head start on the next day of travelling if that’s my plan.

I arrived at the Taxi 25 dock with my ticket in hand at 6:00 p.m and once the two boats were loaded with the passengers and a lot of bags and luggage we were quickly motored across to Almirante. I was charged the nominal fee of $2 for my board to be loaded onto the boat as this was an easy cash grab for the captain of the water taxi.

Once in Almirante I boarded a minibus that was supposed to bring us to the bus station to get on a motor coach that ran directly to Panama City. It took nearly twenty minutes for our luggage to be loaded on the roof of the minibus after we arrived at the dock in Almirante and I was charged $5 extra for my board. This seemed expensive for a short shuttle to the bus station  and when I complained about the price the driver told me that there had been a change of plans.

Unfortunately the bus workers were on strike and they had blocked off the main bridge that went to the bus station.  This meant that we had to ride the minibus the full 12 hour drive to reach Panama City. I didn’t care about this so much as I learned a long time ago from travelling in other countries that as long as you are on a bus and it is moving in the direction you want things could be a lot worse!

The driver was obviously making a big fuss about this and wasn’t too impressed with having to work an extra 24 hours and having to drive such a far distance. A few hours into the drive I realized that the driver had no idea where he was going and likely had only operated between Almirante and David. This became obvious when he was using his radio to communicate with other truck drivers and following them through the rainy mountain roads so he knew what roads to use to get us to Panama City. It was a long night with the constant radio communication blaring through the speakers but I was just happy that the driver was getting the help he needed to get us there.

The crew on the bus trip from Almirante to Panama city was mostly people I had meant from being in the same places at the same time over the few days I was hanging out and partying in Bocas del Toro. This was the back half of the bus to get an idea of how packed in we were!

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Part way through the drive and dying to use a restroom we finally stopped at a truck stop. I made my way to the facilities but the smell was so bad that I couldn’t get within 15 feet of it and decided to water a nearby tree. Luckily that was all I needed to do because I would have vomited well before reaching the door of the restroom.

After a few dry heaves and another walk past the worst smell I have endured in a while I decided I should probably eat something. The truck stop had a market style buffet where you can mix and match whatever you wanted. The servings were large and I got a half chicken, beans and rice and salad. After about half an hour the bus driver blew the horn a few times and everyone hurried back onto the bus. We waited for the same truck we had been following up until this stop to start moving and we stayed behind it for the rest of the trip.

Once we reached Panama City at around 8:00 a.m we were dropped off at the Albrook Mall bus terminal. This is located near the Albrook airport and I quickly got in a taxi there as I had a flight booked to Puerto Obaldia. This is the first step if you are wanting to enter Colombia by land if you don’t want to take the multi day sailboat trip that goes between various ports from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. These sailboat voyages cost between $400 – $550, often take 4-5 days depending on weather and include a one day visit to the San Blas islands. I don’t think spending 5 days underway and $400+ is worth the time or the money when the highlight is a one day stop mid voyage. More information on the sailboat option can be found at Panama Travel Unlimited.

The internet is full of misleading information on getting to Colombia while avoiding the Darien Gap. This is considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth and is also the only undeveloped stretch of the Pan-American Highway that runs from Alaska to Chile. Not to say that it hasn’t been done before, but it’s the general consensus that it’s not worth it unless you are out to prove something or want a true expedition. The most notable crossing was done in 1975 by Robert L. Webb who was an American that used a Rokon 2-wheel drive motorcycle to complete the passage through thick jungle, marsh and rivers.

Not wanting to do the sailboat voyage I took a taxi to the Albrook Airport which is only a short distance away from the bus terminal and this costed me $2. Once I arrived I went to check in for the flight that I had booked online a few days before and they told me that the flight was overweight and because I had bought the last ticket the best they could do was to refund my money or give me a standby reservation for a flight a few days later.

I soon saw what they meant about the flight being overweight and from the look of person that they were talking about I was happy that they made this decision instead of cramming us all on the small plane and putting us all in an unsafe situation. Something that is often done in these countries. Had I been able to take this flight the fare is $75 and was one hour in duration.

Not wanting to waste any more time and realizing that Colombia wasn’t in the cards for this trip I had to make my next decision. I went across the road to Postnet which is Panamas version of Mailboxes etc. and booked the next one way flight to Quito, Ecuador. This costed $680 and I would leave at 3:30 pm that day and arrive 2 hours later.  These flights range from $400 – $700 one way and aren’t much more for a return ticket. This is widely considered to be one of the most expensive one way tickets someone can purchase especially considering the proximity of each city. The reason for this is obviously the difficulty and lack of options and inability to travel between Panama and Colombia by land.

After I printed out my confirmation I walked back across the road to the airport and hailed a taxi to take me to Tocumen International Aiport which was located roughly 45 minutes outside of the city center. This costed me $25 and it was a good drive that went along the shoreline before we got not the main highway. Once arriving at the airport I checked in for my flight and went through the usual hassle of having a one way ticket and no proof of return to my home country. The reason many countries require this is that if you are denied entry they can ship you home and you’ve already paid for this!

I kicked up a fuss as usual in these situations first in my Spanish and then in English once they could find a representative that also spoke English. It’s times like these that you realize that a higher level of Spanish is necessary to deal with people in a business setting as compared with checking into a hotel or ordering meal at a restaurant. I convinced them that I had a one way ticket back to Canada from Lima, Peru that I had already purchased and that I had enough money to cover a ticket home if I was denied entry. After almost an hour of dealing with this my bags were checked and I was soon waiting for my flight.

Gone on a whim…