The following is meant as a practical guide for folks wanting to go from Colombia to Panamá (or vice versa) without the time or money for a five-day, $275 sailboat trip from Cartagena to Colón or a direct flight. Much has been written about this topic, particularly on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, but although we read it all many times before making the trip, we still encountered a few surpises.
1. Take a bus to Turbo. Direct buses from Medellín’s Terminal Caribe leave every hour and take at least nine hours. The only thing unsafe about this trip, even at night, is the potential for landslides. Nevertheless, these are more likely to cause delays of one or several hours than injury or death. Generally, there is nothing particularly dangerous about Colombia. The price is 49,000 Colombian pesos ($25). Buses from Cartagena involve a change.
2. Take the three-hour ferry from Turbo to Capurganá (the last Colombian town). The schedule posted at the port says 8:30 a.m., but the man with the glasses will write 9 a.m. on the ticket, and you can be sure the boat won’t leave before then. The cost is 44,000 plus 1000 for port tax ($23 total). Sign up for the ferry the day before or beginning at 7 a.m. the day you travel to guarantee a seat. Theoretically, if 15 passengers want to go later in the day, there could be another boat, but this is a reach, at best. This is an astoundingly beautiful boat ride, past thick jungle tumbling right down into the Caribbean, as impressive as any landscape to be found in South America. You can pay a guy at the dock 1000 per giant black garbage bag to keep your luggage protected from rainstorms.
3. Get an exit stamp from the Colombian DAS office near the Capurganá port. This is free of charge, and handled by good people who can’t be bothered to wear uniforms.
4. Have someone show you to the Panamanian Consulate, which is otherwise impossible to find. More than likely, the owner of the launch that you will want to take across the border will be waiting for any potential passengers to get off the ferry from Turbo, and lead you to the Panamanian joint himself. There, you will be told that there are no Tourist Cards available, and that there have not been for seven years. The only thing that is available is Visas. The bummer is that Visas cost $30, while Tourist Cards cost $5. After keeping up a healthy argument, we paid the $30 ($30).
3. Take a small launch from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldía (the first Panamanian town), about a half-hour ride. The captain will probably find you before you find him. The cost is 25,000 Colombian pesos per person ($13). Don’t worry about missing this boat, as it will leave only when the captain is good and ready, and has scoured the town several times for potential passengers.
4. Follow the soldiers’ instructions and go to the army base first. Endure seemingly pointless questions and exaggerated waiting times. Then go to the immigration office, several doors down the street from the army office. If you’re lucky, it’ll be open. Otherwise, wait another indeterminate period until the officials become free. The older one with the glasses speaks very good English. This part goes fairly smoothly. If you get fed up with waiting, go sign up for a room and meal at the only place to stay/eat in town ($5 per person per night, plus $3 dinners and $2 breakfasts), a few doors down from immigration.
5. Take the Wednesday or Sunday 11:30 a.m. Aeroperlas flight from Puerto Obaldía to Panama City ($69). I highly recommend booking online ahead of time if possible to save energy, uncertainty and a potential three- or four-day wait in a town where there is, quite literally, nothing to do.
6. Suffer another several hours of immigration, customs and police checks at the airport in Panama City. Panamá is by far the worst country we’ve ever seen for immigration.
The total transportation costs of such a trip are about $130, plus a possible $30 visa to get into Panamá, a night in Puerto Obaldía and maybe a night in Turbo. It’s possible to do the trip in two days, leaving Medellín or Cartagena on a Monday night, arriving in Turbo very early Tuesday morning to take the 9 a.m. ferry to Capurganá and a later launch to Puerto Obaldía, with a Wednesday morning flight to Panama City. But road conditions to Turbo are unpredictable, so best to allow yourself an extra day, which you can spend very pleasantly in Capurganá, and tolerably in Puerto Obaldía.
If you find this information useful, or if it sounds like horseshit, please leave a comment and let us know.