The Darien Gap: Being cheap isn’t easy

Caution: This is not for anyone who prefers the easy way or a luxurious lifestyle. Traveling in this manner requires an absurd amount patience and the willingness to be subjected to possible unhealthy standards. Its a unique experience that will give you countless stories and save you money. Additionally you will arrive in Colombia without immediate access to Customs or Insurance. Police can stop you and impound your bike, unless you bribe it off (which I did). Seek the standard methods of travel if this is not for you.


Crossing the Darien Gap can be considered the hardest logistical challenge for PanAmerican travelers, not to mention the most expensive. Without going into massive detail, the “Darien Gap” describes the 90km gap in the road from Alaska to Argentina. This gap is found within the Darien Reserve between Panama and Colombia. For political, and now environmental, reasons the road was never connected. The only ways to get from one country to the other is:

Driving through the gap – This is virtually impossible without spending a lot of money, having a support team to bring in supplies, and managing to not fall victim of the hostile jungle, drug smugglers, or guerrilla war-fighters living within. Latest I heard of a motorcycle crossing the individual spent ~$12,000 as a tourist experience (Flights to and from, purchase of a small bike, hiring of a guide, miscellaneous expenses.)

By Boat – This method typically involves tourists setting sail on a nice boat that explores the beautiful San Blas islands for three days until their arrival in Colombia. Motorcyclists can also put their bike onto a sail boat and travel with it. Its a luxurious experience filled with picturesque islands and other backpacking travelers. (Cheapest quote I found was $550 for me, $650 for the bike). Cars have to be placed in a shipping container. Motorcyclists can also put their bike in a container and most commonly it is done with two other cars, to cut the cost for the three vehicles.

Flying – This is the most expeditious manner of getting to Colombia and, to a degree, the easiest. Cars must be shipped still, but a motorcycle can simply be crated and flown with the plane as well, should they not elect to ship the bike and fly separately. I didn’t get a quote, but it is similar, if not much more, than sailing.

As much as I wanted to tackle the Darien Gap, cheaply mind you, I just couldn’t go at it alone. I met an Australian who was riding solo in Costa Rica who seemed like the perfect match to do the trip, which was surprising as the only people I would willing do this with would be my older brother. After some back and forth, he was going way too slow for me and just didn’t seem as invested as I was. So I was forced to use the two last options, but I refuse to pay that much. Thus my crossing adventure began.

THE END OF THE ROAD

My original plan was to show up in the main port town, Colon, and figure it out from there. This has been my mantra for the entire trip – show up and wing it. It was in Panama City, just before Colon, that my path took a turn. Speaking with locals I heard rumor of being able to hire a boat in a small port town, Carti, that was midway between Colon and the border. Not only would this be faster, but I could get into Colombia for just over $300. Sounded like a great plan to me. That night I loaded up on food supplies as I had no clue what to expect and my fishing skill wasn’t something I wanted to break in anytime soon.

The next morning I woke up early and headed for the port which was about 3 hours away. As I drove I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to drive through the gap. Just before my turn I decided I must see the end of the road and stare into the Darien, so I was off on a 6 hour detour. My vision of the gap was very similar of what the road looked like into the DMZ. The South Koreans had built a beautiful highway up to the DMZ which just ended as an incomplete bridge. It was their effort of showing how they wanted to connect the two countries, in which is honestly a continuous pissing contest between the countries to show who is better and who wants to be a whole country again more than the other.dsc_4131

Driving to Yaviza, the town at the end of the road, involved multiple military checkpoints where I was questioned as to what I am doing. My go-to answer was that I wanted to see the end of the road and take a photo. I am just a tourist. My Spanish is pretty brutal still, so I always like to think that my interesting motorcycle distracts the guards. After all, I am typically asked more questions about the bike than who I am. What a great cover if I wanted to be a spy or something. Look at the shiny, confusing, bike. No, you don’t need to look in the containers. This went on for 4 more roadblocks until I reached the end of the road.

Yaviza was a large town surprisingly. After walking around it became very apparent that it was the center of all trade and legislation for the many villages beyond. I eventually drove my bike toward the only bridge across the wide river. It was a foot path hanging bridge that, with no one in the way, I could possibly ride the bike across and into the gap. It was very tempting as I had plenty of food supplies to keep me from dying for a few days. If I had gone through with it I am pretty sure the Senafront (border guards) would be pretty pissed at me. Wanting to avoid deportation or jail time, I opted to just stop in front of a tourist sign for a few photos. It wasn’t long until I drew a crowd who wanted to sit on the bike and talk. One lady screamed “I love you forever” as she approached. She won my heart for a brief moment as we both insisted someone take our photo. As much as I wanted to explore longer, I didn’t really feel like staying in the town and was ready to get to Colombia. It was a 5 hour drive back north to Carti and I needed to get there before dark.

YOU CANT SLEEP HERE, YOU WILL DIE

The road to Carti was through mountain roads that were extremely steep and sharp. I had to drive cautiously, but had a blast dragging my foot pegs around the bends. Once I arrived at the port I could only see little speed boats lining the water. This is going to be quite a difficult task I fear, and I didn’t even know where to start. Pulling up to the main building, I parked my bike and just stood there for a second as I scouted the area to figure out what my next move was to be. Typically when this happens a random person will approach you and I just start with them; A random person walked up to me and it was time to start speaking my best Spanish.

They understood where I wanted to go and one of the boat Captains was called over to address my needs. After long discussion with his companions, which I deciphered as the difficulty of the motorcycle onto a small boat, he reluctantly said it can be done for $900. Shocked, I laughed and replied with a stern no. Not only was that nearly the same price as a luxury cruise, it was only the first of 4 boats I would need to take in order to successfully get into Colombia. “$300 is the most I will pay to the port” I said in Spanish. The Captain quickly lost interest and walked away.

I spent the next hour talking to a few more individuals in my broken Spanish. One got down to $500 but gave me the sinking feeling that my bike would fall into the ocean when loading it. My last hope was to talk to a barge Captain who will be around tomorrow. “Perfecto, puedo dormir aqui?”, which was my attempt to ask if I was fine to camp the night on the beach. A look of horror shot across the guys face as he said it is forbidden. Forbidden being such a strong word, I had to ask why. Apparently a panther had been prowling the shoreline lately eating dogs. If that wasn’t enough to convince me, they also explained that crocodiles swam along the coast at night. Fantastic, if I outrun the cat into the ocean I will just get eaten by some hug-able crocks. As I tried to decide my next move I was quickly pushed into a boat and off to one of the neighboring Kuna islands. This night was ultimately a quick low point as I had no clue what I would do next and the $5 “bed” I was staying in was atop a loud bar with carpenter ants crawling all over it. At least they didn’t bite.

In the morning I managed to find my way back to the port and discover that my bike had survived the vicious wildlife hunting the beach. Breakfast from the local vendor was fried chicken and french fries, a go-to street food delicacy throughout Central America. Unfortunately for me, I was given a +$4 tourist surcharge on my meal which my argument fell on deaf ears. Annoyed, I walked off to finally find the Barge Captain. These hide and seek games are quite difficult when you don’t know who they are and struggle at the language. I didn’t win until about an hour later. He was a scrawny old man with a salt stained hat. Clearly he was a boat operator. We spoke for a bit and settled that the best price he could do was $400 to the border, which was still boat 1 of 4. I protested again and spread my lies that a friend recently left here for $150. This was true, to a degree, if my friend was referring to some random person on the internet and recent being 4 years ago. Either way, he did not budge on the price. I felt hopeless as my aggressively cheap tactic burned a lot of bridges in the small port town. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get anywhere and that the internet riders clearly had a very small motorcycle. Time to go with my original plan of winging it in Colon.

FINALLY HIRED A BOAT

It was extremely frustrating that I had spent the past two days traveling further north all the while trying to find a cheap ride south. Getting frustrated at my previous failures, I sent out a feeler email to the sailing companies to get price and date estimates. The earliest was in 3 weeks and would cost $1,200 which doesn’t include expensive lodging and visa extension paperwork in the meantime. This just wouldn’t work for me, I had to hire a boat regardless. Driving to Colon I would debate in my head the many things I could have done and should have done. Why couldn’t I just be in Colombia already. It is also important to note that in Panama the primary highways are tollways. But these tolls only accept electronic passes. So every time I would approach them I would have to push a red button and explain to the operator one of the many excuses I had: I am a stupid tourist; I lost my pass; My pass isn’t working. Most of the times they would just open the gate after we failed to communicate, other times they wouldn’t so I would just drive around the barrier. Good luck sending me the bill. I will gladly pay tolls, if they make it possible to do so. 3 tolls later, I was in Colon.

Colon is the main port at the entrance into the Panama Canal from the Carribiean. I am sure this city used to be glorious in its prime, but now, from what I assume, it looks like Beirut’s sister city. There were countless numbers of ports throughout the city, so I picked img_20160829_081502a random one on the map that looked like it would harbor small ships. When that port turned out as a loss, I decided to head into a main port where I could possibly ask for some advice. The problem though was that google maps directed me to drive through a secure compound, which I needed to park and get a pass for. I complied only to learn that the compound is the worlds second largest Duty Free area. Without a google search, I can assume the largest is in a place like Dubai. Fortunately, as my motorcycle does, I drew some attention to myself and explained what I needed to find (there are times that I wish my motorcycle was something inconspicuous, such as a goat, but this time it was a winner). A hero directed me to drive all the way down the street until it turns right, then the port is at the end of Calle 5. He then proceeded to count down from 18 to 5, to further illustrate the road I am looking for, despite my many spanish words that I used to confirm I understood.

At the end of Calle 5 was just the size of a port I was looking for. At the gate I asked the guard if it was possible. He said yes, but that there were not any boats leaving currently and that I should come back tomorrow afternoon and check back in. This would be a continuous process until I find a boat. This was exciting, but also frustrating, news. img_20160829_081336Standing at the gate with my bike, I began to search for a place to stay that was well away from Beirut Jr. Not only did I feel unsafe there, the biggest concern was my bike rolling into a container and being lost in the world. Discovering my best option was to return to the hostel in Panama City, I was ready to make the daily commute. Just before leaving I was approached by a young guy that spoke pretty decent English. This was a complete blessing. He brought over two guys who were sailing to Colombia soon and one whom he claimed was the Captain.

The conversation played out and I agreed to paying $500 to get me to Capurgana, Colombia, which I would only need to hire one more boat afterward. Immigration and customs were right there, so I didn’t really have to do anything but show up on Monday, which was 3 days away. The older man that claimed to be the Captain looked as if he had just gotten back from a good weekend in Miami. I was fine with it until I was asked for a $100 deposit without having seen the boat or being offered any form of receipt or identification as to who he was. The port authority seemed to know him, so I reluctantly gave him a deposit on goodwill. It was getting late and there appeared to be another storm rolling in. It was an hour drive, and a few toll booths, back to the hostel. I said my goodbyes and then covertly took a picture of the trio.

As luck would have it, within a few minutes of my ride to the hostel it poured on me. I was a little annoyed, but I couldn’t help but dance all the way back with the thoughts of finally having a ride to Colombia – Granted I would still need to figure out the last leg to get out of the gap and onto a road, but that was for future me to worry about. At the hostel I was able to secure a great room with 24/7 A/C and a plug right next to my bed. Better yet, Hostel img_20160823_163624Siriri had amazing hosts who helped me weld and repair a few things on my bike in preparation for South America – all of this for free. What a day. For the next few days I relaxed, slept a lot, and even watched the movie “War Dogs” in the theater. This was the first time I felt like I was at home in America, despite seeing the movie alone with spanish subtitles.

WE LEAVE TOMORROW

Monday morning I arrived at the port by 8am. It wasnt until 3PM that I was able to enter the port and speak with the Captain. This long wait was foreshadowing the next week to come. No longer having a translator, I found my Captain to be quite impatient and very condescending. He didn’t run off with my money at least, but he was clearly annoyed that he took up my request. We figured out the papers needed and he was tasked with getting the bill of lading filled out and me properly put on the manifest. He then yelled at me to park my bike along side my future home, El Bendecido the small cargo boat. There he left me with Tony, one of the workers on the boat, and explained that we will leave tomorrow. Tony and I started off quiet, but eventually we would become comfortable and playful with one another despite the language issues.

The next day came and the Captain said nothing to me. They started loading and unloading supplies, so I decided to hop in and help. I could just sit back and watch since I wasn’t being paid to help, but by helping I would clearly start to earn my keep alongside the crew. When a lull hit in the afternoon, I asked Tony when we will leave. He replied Tomorrow, early. This pattern of working for free, sitting in the sun, walking the town to find food, and being told tomorrow continued until Friday. We loaded propane, barrels of gas, food and drinks, and then random construction material. During the downtime I taught the img_20160901_144506crew how canned corn can be a very effective bait for catching their lunch. I was laughed at until they started to see results. Unfortunately they eventually settled on just eating my can of corn.

It is worth mentioning that Thursday night I was invited to sit along the pier with Tony and one of the workers to enjoy a beer and some annoying Spanish radio station. It was one of the stations that the DJ feels compelled to talk and sing over the music the entire time while also playing repetitive sound board files. How anyone can stand this is beyond me, and unfortunately this was something that was played every night as we went to sleep. Besides the point, as we were drinking beer one of the guys pulled out a baggy of cocaine and asked if I wanted any. I politely passed as I would rather my first drug experience not come from the pocket of a random port worker, but at the same point I feel like that is the typical clientele who provide the stuff. He was kind enough to ask if it was okay for the two of them to kill the bag, which I said sure since it is their life and not mine. Minutes later it was stressed that I shouldn’t tell anyone. Laughing I responded No hablo Espanol. I have no idea who, or how, they thought I was going to tell.

BON VOYAGE

Friday was finally the day that we would truly leave, after sitting in the port for 5 days. It was about mid-afternoon when a large storm rolled in that they finally decided it was time to load my bike. Why they chose the storm as the best time was beyond me. Overlooking the storm, we would have to lift the 500lbs bike up 2.5ft and then back down another 3ft into the boat, all without a crane. When it was first proposed that two of us do this, I explained we needed many more people. They found 2 more. The best idea they could come up with was pushing the bike up on the cement barrier and then push it up on another board to then lower it down 4ft into the boat at a terrible angle. I did not like this idea, but I figured we would give it a shot. After a struggle the bike was now diagonal with its front wheel on a boat resting between the boat and barrier while the rear where was midway up another board onto the barrier. We couldn’t move and I was left holding the bike from falling over with one other person in the rear for support as the other two moved about to get some rope. This would have worked well if the boat didn’t move at all.

Unfortunately there was a large surge in the ocean causing the boat to rise, taking half the bike with it. It quickly knocked me off balance and onto the cement next to the barrier. As soon as I hit the ground I immediately combat rolled away as the bike came tumbling down on top of me. I didn’t see it fall, but the noise was so loud. The only thing louder than my bike hitting the ground was me yelling ‘F$%K’. I had a lot of discontent brewing up over the past 5 days and this finally did it for me. I could care less about the blood running down both legs, it was the bike I worried about. I picked it up and was happy to only see some missing paint as the main damage. We need more people one of them explained. “Of course we do, that’s what I have been saying the whole time”.

With the revelation that more people is better, they then stated I needed to pay for extra help. I was done being nice at this point. I told them no, that is the Captains responsibility as I paid him for this job and he was aware of my bike beforehand. I refused to pay more for this absurdity. Fuming, I sat on the boat and remained quiet for the next hour, as did the rest of the crew. When the Captain showed up he brought a few guys to help get the bike in. It went so smoothly and just like that the bike was secured to the boat. Before the help left, the Captain said I needed to pay them. Inside I blew up, but on the outside I just swallowed my pride/principals and paid the guys $10. If I could speak the language this might have gone differently, but at the same point I was just really happy that we were almost on our way. A few hours later the boat started to move and I couldn’t stop smiling.

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We stopped a few minutes later alongside another boat to fuel up. This was a long process and the sun was already setting. With a full tank, we turned around and headed back to the port. I was flabbergasted when they told me “tomorrow we leave….

LIVING LIKE THE CREW

Saturday morning, just after 4AM, we set sail. I didn’t know where each day was going to bring me, but I smiled as I stood along the edge of the boat watching the lights of Colon get smaller with the slow progress of our boat. A simple sunrise came shortly after and the crew was talking in a relaxed manner with one another – I just sat above the storage room reading my book. Later in the morning I would enjoy my first breakfast at sea, which was eggs and rice. When loading the supplies in Colon we had managed to crush one of the boxes of eggs, so the fresh eggs for our trip were replaced with the broken eggs. This wasn’t bad for the first breakfast, but with each day our meals would contain these cracked eggs that would eventually become spoiled and maggots would have to be picked off before they cooked them.

I had learned that this day would be primarily a long day of sailing to get to the San Blas islands. The cargo ship was quite slow and was easily rocked back and forth in the sea swells. This had been the biggest concern of mine when first planning out the Darien Gap crossing. I have had massive sea sickness issues in the past, so for the past few months I had be carrying some sea-sickness pills with me just for this voyage. I took one the first day sitting in the port, but stopped after that since I didn’t want to run out before setting sail. Fortunately the many days sat in port caused me to gain my sea legs and I wouldn’t get sick the entire voyage.

During this long day I sat around digging deeper into the books I had been reading. Later I would see the Captain walking around gathering supplies for lunch as he did all the cooking throughout the time together. Unfortunately the rotting eggs were not going to the worst health condition of this trip. “Gringo!” yells the Captain, who is just an old man from Guatemala that looks similar to a turtle without a shell. This was him calling me into the kitchen to get my food. When retrieving my plate I discovered it was rice, salad, and a chicken foot. Looking at all the other plates I realized that I was the worst off as everyone else got an actual piece of chicken whereas I was the burden so I got the odd bits. Worst yet, it was only one foot. Where was the other foot, I want all the chicken I can get! As the days would progress, I would learn that each meal in which he yells “gringo” would ultimately mean that I get the worst plate. I am not sure why, but the Captain did not like me. During one lunch I remember watching him give leftover salad to the crew and then, while staring at me, dump the remaining salad off the edge of the boat without offering me any.

With rough food conditions, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that the water conditions were pitiful as well. Our water was filled into a large drum in which we would just scoop it out. The crew liked to scoop out the water and add some drink flavoring to it that would mask the poor quality we were about to consume. On the third day at sea I had noticed that rusty paint flakes were being washed off the roof into our water supply. I voiced my concern which went ignored. So I continued to drink rusty, paint chip, flavored water. Its a surprise I didn’t get sick once.

With the daily food routine established, our work routine became fairly repetitive as well. We would dock into a small, trash-filled, island and the locals would come on board. Most would stare at the bike and ask the typical questions, while the others would get to work placing the supply order and paying the crew. With the order decided, half the crew and I boatwould begin unloading supplies from the cargo hold. Cement, sugar, cokes, toilet paper, and just anything else required to sustain the small islands. In time, my work and contribution would gain me just a little bit of respect with the Captain. Not enough to elevate my position from gringo who gets the worst food though. I was even trusted to help dock the boat and properly place all the tie-down points.

“When do we get to the border?” Tomorrow; tomorrow tomorrow; in 3 days. I have no idea when I will ever get there. But taking what information I had, I was able to find a small amount of signal to tell my family that I was fine. They hadn’t heard from me really since I said I am going to a port to figure things out. With the weak signal I had, I was only able to send out “Still alive. Colombia Saturday. No Signal.”.

HYGIENE WASN’T HEALTHY EITHER

On day 8 it was finally declared that the shower was fixed. I was so excited to finally have a legit shower, which the closest thing to it in the past 8 days was standing under the edge of a building bathing in the rain water. Naturally I was one of the last to get access to the shower, but when I entered the bathroom I couldn’t get the overhead shower head to work for me. This bathroom was small, consisting of a toilet, sink, shower head, large tub below the shower, and just enough space to open and close the door if you are skinny. So I was obviously in the right place doing what I needed to do, therefore I thought it was an dsc_4306innocent question to ask the crew how to get it to work. Standing there in my boxer-briefs, the entire crew laughed at me as they said I needed to scoop the water out of the bucket and pour it on me. That was the “shower” they spoke of. Embarrassed, as they must have thought I was a princess, I went back to the bucket bath with more questions. Do I stand in the bucket? Is this really clean water? If the shower consisted of a bucket full of water, then what in the world was broken for 8 days?

I was clearly a fish-out-of-water when it came to living on a cargo boat. I didn’t truly understand how the toilet worked until one unfortunate evening. Typically in order to flush the toilet we would have to toss a bucket overboard and then pour seawater into the toilet for it to flush. Simple process that would then send it into the storage vessel, right? No. Flushing immediately sends it shooting out the side of the boat and into the ocean. This was learned only after flushing next to a dock and everything thing landed on the pier. Only a few noticed me as I quickly panicked to wash everything away. A good lesson learned and hopefully the Captain will inform all other gringos that they shouldn’t use the restroom when docked.

While the showers and toilets were not clean, at least I could regularly brush my teeth and keep those clean. This small amount of hygiene satisfaction was rocked on day 9 when I found a small cockroach hanging out in the bristles of my toothbrush. I was pretty disgusted and felt violated in a strange sense. How do you clean it? In the states I would just use a new brush and move on with life, but here this was all I had. I just told myself that most likely they had been in my toothbrush the previous days as the boat was covered in the small bugs. Even our dishware, after having being washed, would see plenty of cockroaches crawling all around on them. So I just needed to suck it up and brush my teeth.

ALMOST IN COLOMBIA

On day 10 I was finally told that, without a doubt, we will be to the border of Colombia. I had secretly hoped that the boat was going all the way to Cartegena, but I knew I would get left in a border town and have to take another boat in. Originally they were supposed to take me to Capurgana, the first town in Colombia, but on the morning of day 11 I found us stopped at a small town two hours north of Capurgana. With the boat anchored at sea, the Captain and I took a small skiff to the shore. It became known that this was where I needed to go through customs and immigration for exiting Panama. It was a small cement shack along the coast with two military officials in it. They asked a few questions and eventually stamped my passport. They explained that I needed to go to the aduana inside the town, but the Spanish was so quick that I really had no idea and hoped the captain would guide me there.

The Captain took me towards the town and practically said good luck as he walked off to talk to some people he knew. I have been in this situation before, so I wasn’t too stressed having to walk around to multiple buildings asking if they were the ones I needed. Eventually I found it and returned to the captain ready to continue to Colombia. This was when the captain explained to me that I need to hire a small boat to take me the next two hours. He wanted me and the bike off his boat now. Confused and concerned, I started asking around for help. I found one boat that said they could do it for 300$. This was absurd cost and I couldn’t get the bike off the boat. With my failed attempt, I just stood along the coastline looking at the boat with my bike on it. Soon after the captain returned and yelled at me for not understanding that I needed to also go get my bag off the boat to be inspected by the border police. He yelled and then just left as I got onto a small boat to retrieve my bag.

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With my bag inspected, I was still left with the task of getting my bike onto a boat and off to Colombia. This was the low part of my trip. I had never felt so lost and hopeless before. Stuck on a beach, being yelled at by a shell-less turtle, and not being able to get to my bike that is floating off shore. I just stood there, hoping that the world would resolve itself and I would be riding my bike down Colombian roads. After about 10 minutes of standing, the captain returned and motioned me to get on a small boat heading back to the ship. Once on board he signaled for me to help the crew raise the anchor. Shortly after we were img_20160908_125221moving again and I was left not knowing anything. The captain didn’t tell me anything, so I just was stuck hoping that something good would come of it all. Watching my GPS system, I could see that he was taking us further south toward the final town, La Meil.

La Meil is an absolutely beautiful beach at the bottom of Panama. Primarily it is a quick stop for tourists from Colombia and there was not much more infrastructure than that. Because of this tourist destination, there was a nice dock which we could port at. At last I could get my bike off the boat without the fear of it falling into the ocean. Speaking with the crew and two small boats nearby, I was forced to pay 100$ for a 30 minute boat ride into Colombia. At this point I had spent all the cash I had in my wallet and was forced to raid the hiding spots on my bike to pay for this trip.

The crew helped me roll the bike into the shore and lift the bike out of the ocean into a small skiff. The bike barely fit in the boat, but it was afloat and ready for my next destination. After paying my final bit to the crew for my trip, I said goodbye to everyone except the captain. I don’t know why, but he just didn’t like me and therefore I had no respect for him with the way he treated me. At last, though, I was on a small boat riding 30 minutes to enter Colombia. Almost there.

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ARRIVING INTO COLOMBIA WASN’T SMOOTH

The small skiff pulled into the busy dock of Capurgana, which was a northern-most town of Colombia that attracted tourism from Cartegena, and I immediately realized that I needed help getting my bike out of the boat. The only guys on the pier that were willing wanted 30$ to help me. I was pissed as Colombia is supposed to be extremely cheap img_20160908_145134compared to Panama and I was almost out of money which this town didn’t have an ATM. I told them no, which they just said ok and walked off. They had won, it was apparent that I needed their help and so they had the upper hand. I called them back and said I could do 15$. A few agreed and helped lift the bike out and guide me as I road up the stairs. It was then that I met the first person on this voyage that could speak some English. Gabriel was a sand sculpture artist that is paid thousands of dollars to build sand castles. One took him 3 months and he was recently commissioned to make a few for the Rio Olympics.

Speaking with him I explained that I need to get to the nearest town with a road. Cartagena would be nice, but it was apparent that I wouldn’t get there. I only had 115 or so dollars left on me, which gave me a lot of stress. I was hungry, tired, and just ready to get back on the road. The current offers on the dock were 250$ to take me to Turbo. I knew this was expensive and even the kids I befriended confirmed that they were ripping me off. Then Gabriel stepped in and explained that there is a refugee boat that arrives each day in the morning full of people and returns empty. It would be my best bet to hire a boat for cheap. The ones for the day had already left and ideally I do not want to enter the town of Turbo late as it is a very dangerous town. Gabriel helped guide me to a cheap restaurant and then to a hostel that he had used in the past which would only charge me 10$. I was left with just barely $100 dollars for the voyage to Turbo. Hopefully it would be enough.

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The next morning I was up early and already on the pier asking for offers to get me to a road. All of the prices were outside of my budget, but it was worth a shot to ask. Around 11 Gabriel showed up and said that the refugee boats should be here soon. These boats would bring people from surrounding islands, Cuba, and Colombia and drop them off at Capurgana. From there they start their long walk to the United States. I had just spent 3 months driving that, I couldn’t imagine having to walk it illegally. Within 20 minutes, the first of two boats showed up and all the passengers unloaded.

Gabriel took the reins now and came to me with good news that one boat will take me for 100$ for the 2 hour ride to Turbo. I was so thankful for his help. I gave him what little change I had left and my deepest thanks. Unfortunately I was out of money for hiring help to load the bike into the skiff. The whole time at the pier I had been friendly and made a few friends which were willing to help me load the bike. Loading the bike into this skiff was difficult due to the different seat platforms within it. I did as much work as I could to help from inside the boat as we lowered it in. 1-2-3, lift…. Immediately I was on my back with a loss of vision. The boat floorboard slipped out from underneath me and sent my head slamming into the bench with the bike falling onto me. As smoothly as I could, I stood up and tried to shake it off. I wanted to vomit. It was clearly a concussion, but I was too embarrassed and focused on getting the bike in the boat, which we did so in a few moments. With the bike settled, one of the many onlookers offered my some pain medication. I politely declined as I am stubborn like that and didn’t want to make a big deal out of the huge lump on my head.

At this time I was off the boat and saying last words to Gabriel when the boat started to drive off. I was shocked and confused. Did I just get my entire bike and stuff stolen? Gabriel realized my panic and explained that they will be back to pick me up in a second and that I should get some food. I had a dollar, which was enough for a small sandwich. That was the last of every currency I had. I was now set to arrive into Turbo with no money, but I would at least be on the road again. I barely got my sandwich when the boat returned ready to depart.

The two hour ride was smooth and uneventful. I just tried to fight the sickness and throbbing headache I had as the boat bounced all around. I had too much to do when I get into Turbo to be sick, so the boat ride was the only chance to feel sorry for myself. Unfortunately it was then that I noticed I had crushed my precious Kindle, which was in my pocket when I decided to have a concussion. Just 10 minutes out of Turbo, we were img_20160909_133445stopped by the Coast Guard. They asked questions and checked my passport. I was able to find immigration the day before so I was at least entering the country legally, however I had no paperwork on my bike. I was worried this would be a problem but we were soon waved on to enter the port.

The port of Turbo was as ugly as they described it to be dangerous. Dilapidated boats were piled next to one another and there was barely any room for our small skiff to float up the river. With some navigation and experience, the boat arrived to an empty spot alongside a road. Finally, I was there. I had made it to roads that would enable me to explore South America. The skiff Captain called a few people over to help get me out of the boat, which was fortunate as I had no money. I was on edge with all the warnings I had received about Turbo, which was reinforced with the look of the town. The locals were asking me the typical questions as I changed on the street. I needed to put my hot gear on so I could safely ride away with my concussion.

In 30 minutes I had my bike put back together and was wearing all my gear. I said a friendly goodbye to those around me and headed into town first to find an ATM. I was hot, tired, sick, and my head hurt more from the pressure of the helmet, but it was an amazing feeling to be back on the bike. In town I was able to find a bank that was right next to a supermarket. There I was able to buy food and water with my replenished wallet. I had barely eaten or drank the entire day, so this was well worth the extra time in Turbo.

I’M LEGAL, MY BIKE ISN’T

With a full wallet and belly I started my two day ride north to Cartegena. My bike was still in the country illegally, so I needed to get to there in order to have my bike become legal. This stress was amplified within an hour as I came across a military checkpoint asking for my paperwork. I had no import papers or insurance paperwork to give them, I was clearly breaking the law with an illegal motorcycle. I desperately explained my trip and how I was heading to Cartegena in order to get my paperwork resolved. We laughed at a few comments and they then became distracted with my motorcycle. This is always a good sign as you can then become friendly with them and get let off with a warning, which I did thankfully.

Riding with a concussion was a good challenge. I still felt sick and tired, but I needed to get some more distance down. I had become accustomed to staying in hostels, but I was in South America now which meant wild camping should easier and more feasible compared to crowded Central America. Using the iOverlander application I had a good idea for a beach side campsite outside a small town. That was my destination, and it was only a few hours out.

The ride to the site was beautiful, despite my pain. Rolling hills of green and well paved roads. I even stopped at a small restaurant to get my first taste of Colombian food. There were a few cops there, so I parked near them to hide in plain sight. No questions were asked, though they did have a good look over of my bike. Unfortunately I met their coworkers an hour later at my campsite. The sun had just started set when the cops showed up. They informed me that it is not allowed to camp there and that I needed to leave. Not the luck I was looking for when feeling miserable, but they didn’t ask for any paperwork which made it easier. Fortunately I had spotted a hostel as I pulled in, so I didn’t have to go far to find a new place to sleep.

That night I had communicated with Randy, a guy I met in Central America who is waiting for his truck to arrive in Colombia, who was staying at a nice beach spot south of Cartegena. Since I wouldn’t get into the city until late Saturday and everything is closed on Sunday, it seemed like a good idea to meet up with him on the beach as I waited for the customs office to open on Monday. I was wrong.

THEFT AND IMPRISONMENT

Saturday morning was smooth and I arrived to the parking lot without much issue. Here I explained that I wanted to go to one of the beach hostels, but that I want to take my motorcycle as well. Randy had informed me that there is a walking trail behind the hostel and that he had seen some locals with bikes on it. Therefore, I should be able to get my bike there without having to leave it exposed in a random jungle parking lot. One of the locals, for a dollar, agreed to guide me which was needed for my first time as I entered a labyrinth of foot-trails through the jungle.

Seeing Randy at the hostel was a welcoming sight. It was someone I knew and that spoke English. Everything was looking up as I only had an hour and a half ride into town the following day to get a hostel and wait for the customs to open on Monday. We got caught up on each others stories and enjoyed the luxuries of a cheap tourist beach. Later that night we played a few conversational drinking games with people we had met at the hostel until it was bedtime.

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With the morning rising, I was awoken by Randy in a slight panic. He had been robbed in the night in which someone took his bag with his wallet, miscellaneous items, and his satellite SOS gadget. Worst yet, the thief had apparently pressed the SOS button which sent an alert to the company who, late a night, called his parents to inform them that their son has declared an emergency. Naturally they were in a panic as he is in Colombia and essentially alone. Randy explained that his SOS beacon would activate the Air Force to come searching for him. This was a little far-fetched and I explained to him the true process an Embassy would do for a lost American, based on my experience working for them. They would simply dispatch local police to investigate and then eventually escalate it to a security officer from the nearest US building to inspecting.

Sure enough, local police had been dispatched and reported that they had found nothing, to include not finding Randy. I wasn’t surprised by this poor search and we had Randy communicate with his family to inform the company that it was stolen and he was fine. Now, however, we had potentially a GPS tracker on the thief. So it was time to explore the local jungle of houses to find Randy’s stuff. The company provided us with the final GPS img_20160911_141746locations on the device before it was turned off. This ultimately led us to a dead end as it was apparent that the thief pushed the button, panicked at the alarm, and threw the water-resistant device into the bog. It was gone and so was all hope of finding his stuff. Playing detective a bit more, we determined that the thief had climbed up the side of the cabana and just grabbed anything they could from the edge. Unfortunate for Randy, fortunate for me as I had plenty of exposed valuables.

By mid-day we were both exhausted with the trouble. Randy now had no money to make it back to Cartegena by boat and had no desire to sit on the beach any longer. I was ready to go as well so I offered that he could ride on the back of the bike and I would take him into town with me. I wasn’t too sure on the helmet laws in Colombia, but from what I had seen in the past two days was that a helmet wasn’t really required. Accepting the risk, we loaded up and left the beach.

Thirty minutes later, after just passing the only bridge to access the beach area, we rode up onto a police checkpoint. I just knew it wasn’t good and so quickly I told Randy to let me handle it. After all, I have successfully talked myself out of issues in the past. We were pulled over by a female officer who immediately asked me for my paperwork. Once I told her I didn’t have any she directed me to park on the opposite side of the road and enter the police area. This wasn’t good at all.

Walking up, we were greeted by 4 more police officers who told us to sit down at the table. They then poured us a cup of orange soda and seemed to have a relaxed demeanor, which helped ease me some and give me hope of talking my way out of it. The next 15 minutes involved me speaking my best Spanish trying to plead with them as to why I had no paperwork and that I will be getting it all done tomorrow morning. This didn’t seem to change their mind as they informed me that we were to be arrested, given a $400 fine, and my bike impounded. My heart sank as I did the math and realized that the fine would then bring my entire crossing to nearly the same cost as a luxury sailboat experience. Beyond that, I did not mind being arrested but was worried about my bike and stuff being taken away and exposed to theft. I needed to find a way out.img_20160824_180405

In my panic, my Spanish became expert level and I could understand every bit that they spoke to me. I mentioned to them that I would gladly pay the fine here, hinting towards a bribe, but that was ignored. We had broken the law and would be arrested. “Can I just leave my bike behind the building and go get my paperwork? The fine is too expensive. I can pay it here.” This pleading went on for another 10 minutes until, finally, the officer next to me blatantly stated that I could pay them a bribe. Finally. Thank you. Wow, that’s all I have been wanting to do this whole time.

With a smile, I began to pull out my wallet before the officer stopped me. “No, no, no. Not here. You must go behind the building and put the money in this blue envelope.” Sure… there is a process for bribe payments I guess. “Ok, is 100 pesos okay?” Outside of their process I had just confirmed with him that I would like to pay the five of them 100 pesos, roughly 30$, in which he agreed. This secret process made no sense, but regardless I told the other officers that I would like to go behind the building and use the bathroom.

Returning with the bribe envelope, I asked the officer if he had dropped this blue envelope on the ground. He took it, opened it and counted the money, and finally said ok. We were given explicit instructions that we were not allowed to pass the road and that we could only take the bike back to the beach. There I would have to take a boat into the city for my paperwork and only then could I return. Ecstatic, Randy and I loaded up on the bike ready to leave. Jokingly I asked the officer if I could go the opposite direction just a little bit. He said no, in which I then asked one last time with a smile. “We will arrest you”. “Thank you officer, have a nice day!” as we drove back to the beach.

THE FINAL HURDLE

Taking a series of boats to get us into town was exhausting but much easier than going into a Colombian jail cell. We found a hostel to use and I was set to get everything done the next day as I wanted to have my bike back as soon as possible, seeing how it was abandoned on the beach where Randy was robbed. Within a few days I was expected to fly out to Australia for my brothers wedding and yet I still didn’t have a place to store my bike. I had a lot to do in the next week, but the biggest hurdle would be to get the bike legalized.

On Monday I was one of the first in line to begin customs paperwork. The customs officer spoke a little English and was confused as to why I entered Colombia the way I did. After explaining it all to him he agreed to allow me to import my bike into Colombia. Within 30 minutes I had a temporary pass to legally drive my bike back for inspection. The only thing I had to do before getting my bike was to find insurance. Two hours and 3 insurance buildings later, I had my insurance and was full of excitement to go get my bike.carta

It was too late to take a boat, so I would either have to wait until tomorrow or take a taxi. I opted for a taxi, in which my driver was name Charlie, “Like Charlie Brown” he proudly stated. Charlie was a typical young Colombian cabbie who would curse at traffic and cat-call every woman he saw. I was not a fan of his approach, but he told me it was 50 pesos to get to the beach. During the long ride I explained to him my story and that I was so happy to be going to get my bike. Beyond his womanizing persona, he didn’t seem too bad of a person. It wasn’t until he stopped in the middle of the jungle, 5 minutes from the parking lot, that I became concerned.

“Ok you pay me now.” I handed him 50 pesos and was just ready to go. “No, I said 100 pesos. You don’t understand Spanish, you are wrong.” he told me as I began to argue that previous arrangement. Taking a moment to think, I realized that I was in a bad situation with an overly aggressive ‘Peanuts’ character who wanted to take $15 from me. I could just get out and run to my bike, but there was only one road out and he could be waiting for me. He won, I had very limited options. I gave him the extra 50 and just got out of the car and walked to my bike. Small loss, but I was finally at the end of my journey.

After 12 days of being on a boat, 3 days of logistics in Colombia, 5 kindle books, and $757.00USD, I was finally riding my bike legally away from the beach and into adventure. I was excited to finally get pulled over to show the police I have all my paperwork. Yet on the other side of the bridge was no police and entering into town the police checkpoints just waved me on by. Of course, I am now legal and no one cares. Dancing a little on my bike, I smiled as I reflected the crazy voyage and how I managed to get across the hardest logistical challenge cheaply and without taking the easy path. I am ready for South America.


8 thoughts on “The Darien Gap: Being cheap isn’t easy

  1. What an adventure! Did you have any other issues with the way you came into Colombia with your bike? We found a cheap yacht that literally dumped us on the beach in Cartagena. There are rumours flying that they are going to attempt to impound our bikes and fine us today. We did it for $800 but we only got a 10th of the adventure and stress you did! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Oh awesome, well kinda of course. So your best option is to leave the bike somewhere safe without driving it much. Only the Transit Police enforce the paperwork, in which there are a few checkpoints around town. I was only stopped once in Cartegena. If you visit the DIANA you can get the paperwork you need and be legal. Hopefully it isn’t too difficult, but when in doubt act like a tourist and pretend you don’t understand and want to do the paperwork. Enjoy the ride!

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  2. Cheers mate! Loving your adventure by the way! Shame you are a long way in front of us! We are always keen to share beers with other biker

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