Overland Traveller

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How to travel between Colombia and Panama

Sacanagam boat © Craig FastOverland journeys are all well and good when it comes to drawing a big, long and oh-so-satisfying line on a map, but that line often skates over the realities of what is actually on the ground: think spiky mountain ranges, cracked deserts, treacherous swamps and so on.

The area between Colombia and Panama, known as the Darién Gap, looks like it should be a breeze when you see it on a map; logically, there should be plenty of roads crossing the area, a single stretch of narrow land joining Central and South America. Surely there’s a major border crossing there?

Wrong! The Darién Gap is a notorious and vast tract of virtually impenetrable mountainous jungle populated largely by guerrillas and drug traffickers with a healthy sideline in kidnapping (on the Colombian side at least). It’s also the site of the last remaining gap in the Pan-American Highway.

In the words of National Geographic Adventure contributing editor Robert Young Pelton, who was kidnapped and held for 10 days in the Darién Gap in 2003:

Kuna Ayala (San Blas isands) © Craig Fast"The Darién Gap is one of the last - not only unexplored - but one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to... The basic problem of the Darién Gap is that it's one of the toughest hikes there is. It's an absolute pristine jungle but it's got some nasty sections with thorns, wasps, snakes, thieves, criminals, you name it. Everything that's bad for you is in there."

In short, you need to be living under the shadow of a death wish to attempt to cross between the two countries by land. Anyway, there’s not even an official border crossing to present your passport at if you do make it across alive.

Border crossing options

Flying
This is the easiest and cheapest option. You can fly between Colombia and Panama for under US$300 with Avianca and Copa airlines.

Isn’t that boring though? There’s no excuse for flying on an overland trip when there’s an alternative…

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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010