Getting from Colombia to Panama and Away

When we arrived in Puerto Obaldía in Panama, we had a most thorough customs check just like years ago in Peru. An obese female officer had to stick her dirty hands to all of our stuff including food, spices, and underwear. After that she dropped carelessly a wireless microphone to the ground damaging the delicate device. We had just had enough of Panama within the first two hours we had been there and decided to head immediately towards Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

How to cross Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama? The trip is relatively easy using boats (10 kg luggage limit) with 273,000 Colombian pesos (US$ 155, 131€) whereas the cheapest direct flight (with Avianca airlines) from Medellín to Panama City costs 672,000 Colombian pesos (US$ 382, 294€) thanks to high airport taxes. Third option is to participate in a five-day sailboat tour that costs 880,000 Colombian pesos (US$ 500, 385€) plus drinking water. By walking some parts of the trail you can save a bit of money, but at the same time you risk getting all of your stuff muddy and wet in the jungle.

Here is the cost breakdown for the bus-boat-plane trip from Montería, Colombia to Panama City, Panama:

  • Bus Montería-Turbo 25000 COP (US 14$, 12€)
  • Boat Turbo-Capurganá 55000 COP (US$ 31, 26€) + 600 COP (US$ 0.34, 0.29€)/kg for over 10 kg
  • Boat Capurganá-Puerto Obaldía 25000 COP (US$ 14, 12€) + 500 COP (US$ 0.28, 0.24€)/kg for over 10 kg
  • Domestic Panama Air Flight Puerto Obaldía-Panama City 168,000 COP (US$ 95, 81€)13 + 2235 COP (US$ 1.27, 1.07€)/kg over the allowance of 14 kg.

These were the tourist prices in March 2013. They are not all list prices which are higher. We negotiated some prices by telling the sellers what we are prepared to pay and they mostly accepted. It is a good idea to prepare yourself mentally to be cheated every time your luggage is weighed. If you know the weight and you have decided what you are prepared to pay, they are likely to accept your offer without too much arguing. The worst scam happened to us in Puerto Obaldía with Panama Air. The weight of our possessions had increased overnight 6 kg, Päivi had become 6 kg heavier, and Santeri had magically lost 7 kg.

You can avoid the scam if you leave some of your stuff to your hotel room when you go to check-in for the flight at 8 AM. After the check-in you have some 2–3 hours to re-pack your stuff before the flight. Just make sure you have all your bags in the check-in so they can put their yellow stickers on them after weighing them. When boarding, avoid entering the terminal building because if you step inside, you will have to pay an extra US$ 2 community tax for the use of the useless terminal. Oh, and one more thing. If the Panama Air web booking system goes crazy and issues you a ticket with a wrong date, don’t count on getting that fixed. Panama Air does not bother to answer emails or serve their customers. Instead, hitching a ride from Colombia to Panama on a cargo boat can save you a lot of money, headache, and that’s probably how locals do this otherwise expensive trip as well assuming that you enjoy the luxury of having an excessive amount of time.

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