The Darien Gap – Contraband and Smuggling

It has turned out to be an adventure, but not perhaps the jungle trek or island hopping adventure I had hope for. After exploring the region as best I could, I went early to the peer to take a boat through rough waters around the point of land that separates Colombia from Panama (on the Caribbean side), to the tiny jungle community of Puerto Obaldia.

Yep - the pilot was asleep (air Panama)

I had booked a flight with Air Panama from Puerto Obaldia to Panama City and the flight was scheduled for 11:50 AM.

The rough-water transfer takes somewhere between 30 mins to one hours – spectacular coastline, but hard to photograph due to constant ocean spray and need to hang on!

The ‘launch’ or open boat requires 5 passengers minimum in order to make the trip to Panama – any fewer and the ticket price increases. I left the port of Capurgana with three other people (so only a minor change in price), but then we called in at Sapzurro and dropped one off. The price increased.


The other two fellows I was riding with were typically friendly Colombians: one from the border region going to Panama to purchase goods to sell at home and the other was from Bogota going to meet friends in Panama City for a few days.

It would appear the fellow from Bogota is now in Panamanian prison for smuggling drugs.

The army was present for my flight

We arrived at the tiny jetty in Puerto Obaldia and were immediately greeted by the extremely serious Panamanian border service (SENAFRONT). Other travellers seemed to arrive as well, but I have no idea from where they could have possibly come.


The customs revision was extremely serious. I surrendered my passport and a very thorough, yet professional guard went through absolutely everything I had. The lucky fellow was able to finger through my dirty socks and did his best to dismantle both my backpack and computer bag.

Puerto Obaldia’s lovely architecture 🙂


In one of the world’s major points of smuggling (of people, goods and insurgencies) I was relieved to witness real controls. However, as the possessions of the nice fellow from Bogota became more suspect, neither myself nor the other gentleman with whom we had sailed was released. We had arrived together.

I didn’t learn his name, but my Bogota friend was suddenly from Medellin and for some reason was carrying a white-powder vitamin supplement. This obviously didn’t seem the best product to bring to one of the world’s strictest borders. Some of the powder was taken away for testing.

All yours for a bargain!

Then, aside from his clothes, he produced a large box with – what looked like – placemats decorated with Christmas images. Typical of these sort of events I just stood there with nothing to do or say. It was probably 32 degrees (90 fahrenheit) and 100% humidity.


After about an hour, we became a group of six and lined all our bags up in a strict row. The dog went to work sniffing. I was permitted to removed mine after the dog showed no interest at all – but she did walk over my computer several times!

And still I stood silently as we played pick-a-bag until until the dog clearly identified interest in the Christmas placemats.

The fellow beside me is now in jail (minimum 7 years)

The next time I saw our suspect travelling companion he was in handcuffs, but he did not see me. I was released first and had to walk over to actual passport control – it turns out the SENAFRONT post is separate from immigration control.

The surreal experience continued when I walked through streamy and decrepit Puerto Obaldia to the airline check-in and then to the airport. The two are at other ends of the town and no one was very helpful. This was a sudden change from very formal Colombia. I am certainly not speaking for all Panamanians, but around that area people glowed with utter indifference. Their energy sapped from heat and boredom I suspect.

Once at the tiny airport I was charged a $2 airport fee – not excessive, but perhaps they could use the funds to buy some toilet cleaner. The waiting room was quite full. And yes, with Cubans. From Cuba. In the middle of the most dangerous and isolated border region in the Americas.

Apparently Cubans can fly to Ecuador (President Correa was their friend) and then travel overland through Colombia, Central America and Mexico to the United States. They must have the best knowledge of the Darien Gap (I have subsequently met Cubans in Miami who have made this journey).

Two hours late, the plane arrived. My other travelling companion’s name was not on the flight list and was removed from the plane … that left me wondering about him, too.

The tiny plane bumped along to shinny Panama City where, along with my new Cuban friends, we went through the whole passport event once again – almost two hours as I suspect they contacted Interpol.

I still cannot imagine having to (or wanting to) smuggle my son through ten countries in hope of a slightly better life.

The Darien Gap:

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I really did try to find an over-land option, but the response was always an absolute NO or even laughter. So I went with my ‘Plan B.’ I choose not to take the ferry (which no longer runs) or a luxury catamaran from Cartagena, rather I traveled down to Colombia’s fairly remote region of Uraba. I had previously visited Uraba as an invitee of the regional government and definitely thought the region worthy of more time.

Despite having no hope of walking to Panama (aside to and from the tiny free-port of La Miel), I was able to spend a few quality days on the edge of the Darien Jungle.

I was based in Capurgana – a small fishing community across the bay and very close to Panama. The few days in Capurgana really felt much more like a beach holiday than an adventure. Easter week is a big deal in Colombia and the community was full of nationals on vacation. There were a few foreigners, but I stuck with the Colombians I met and had a fantastic time in the heat!

Note: I found it difficult to find good information about this travel route and information I did find along the way was inconsistent. Please contact us for help or more specific details about the Darien Gap or travel between Panama and Colombia.

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