A quick glance at a map of the Americas makes it look like it should be fairly straightforward to travel overland from Alaska to Patagonia. Unfortunately there’s just one, teeny-tiny problem with the route: the Darien Gap.
The Darien gap is a 100-mile stretch of jungle between Panama and South America where the Pan-American Highway was never built. But not only will you need a machete and local guide to get you through the uncharted jungle, you’ll also have to avoid guerrilla groups, drug cartels and other life-threatening dangers en-route.
Many first-time backpackers to Central and South America are shocked to learn about the Darien Gap when planning their travels. But just because it’s not safe or smart to cross overland doesn’t mean there aren’t other options to make travel between Panama and Colombia possible.
Here are the most popular ways to cross the Darien Gap:
Perhaps the most obvious solution to the problem, flying is also the quickest—and sometimes least expensive—way to cross the Darien Gap. Flights average around $400 between Panama City and Cartagena, but of course that can vary. I recommend using Skyscanner to search for the best deals; I recently purchased a flight via Skyscanner from Panama City all the way to Rio de Janiero (for the World Cup) for only $600!
This is easily the most popular way for backpackers to cross from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa). The five-day boat ride takes you through the stunning San Blas Islands, leaving a few days for snorkeling and island hopping along the way. It’s not cheap, coming in at about $500 for the trip, but factor in that the price includes accommodation, transportation, and food. This isn’t a luxury cruise; the market largely caters to backpackers. Your experience will depend upon the sea conditions, the boat and captain you go with. Take some time to research your options and don’t just go with the first company you hear about. 2Backpackers has a great guide to sailing across the Darien Gap that will walk you through the entire process.
By Cargo Boat and Lancha (Speed Boat)
If you’re up for an adventure and on a serious budget, then you may consider crossing the Darien Gap by using a combination of cargo and speedboats.
By cargo boat, the entire process can take from 5 to 12 days, as there is no set schedule and the boats will make multiple stops along the way. The best way to get more information about what boats are sailing—and where they are sailing to—is via word of mouth, either in Panama City, Cartagena, or another nearby port town.
The lanchas, or speedboats, travel from Carti to Carpurgana and then Sapzuro to Turbo for around US $200. They are fast and can cover the route in 1-2 days, but they are also small. If the waves are rough, you could suffer from some serious seasickness.
I have not taken this route myself, so I hesitate to say that this method is unsafe. However, if you’re a solo female traveler I recommend at least finding a travel companion to attempt the adventure with.
Although a bit of an inconvenience, crossing the Darien Gap can be a fun and adventurous addition to your Latin American travels.
Have you crossed the Darien Gap before? Which way above sounds the most fun to you?