Border crossing: Panama to Colombia
There are three main ways to get from Panama to Colombia. There's the quick and affordable route, the adventurous and affordable route, and the adventurous and expensive route. No matter which option you chose, be prepared for this to be the most expensive border crossing you will likely encounter in Latin America. Here, we break down the different options, and tell you which one we ended up doing.
Option A) Fly from Panama City to Medellín. For about $150 USD, you can fly directly between the two countries. While this is the quickest and easiest route, it lacks the adventure we crave when traveling. Plus, we were beginning our journey through Colombia in Cartagena, so when factoring in the cost of a bus or flight from Medellín to Cartagena, the price is closer to $200 USD.
Option B) Fly from Panama City to Puerto Obaldía on a 12 passenger jumper plane and take a boat to Capurganá, Colombia. This is the affordable and adventurous route, and the one we ultimately ended up doing. We didn't feel like spending $1100 USD on a four-day sailing trip via the San Blas islands (option C), but we still wanted some thrill crossing the border. We decided this option met our needs and are so happy we took this route. For about the same price as option A, we flew into the jungle of the Darien Gap on a tiny plane and crossed choppy, teal waters into a sleepy Colombian beach town, stayed there for a few days, and then bused it to Cartagena.
Air Panama runs the flights from Panama City to Puerto Obaldía, which leave three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. It's an hour flight and costs $110 USD. You can purchase your tickets online, just make sure to get them a few weeks in advance as tickets do sell out. And remember, this flight leaves from Panama City's Albrook Airport, not Tocumen (the international airport). You're limited to 14 kilos for your checked bag, and 4 kilos for your carry on, and the size of our bags didn't seem to matter (despite some information we had seen online). The lady at Air Panama was really nice and looked the other way when Jared's bag was 2 kilos over, and she never weighed our carry on luggage. Worst case scenario, you pay a small fee per extra kilo. Don't be surprised when they ask you to get on the scale. It's a small jumper plane and they're tallying up every kilo the plane is carrying.
The plane ride was a thrill. We sat right behind the pilots and got to see the beautifully dense jungle pass below. Before we knew it, we were over the ocean and pulling into a tiny landing strip on the coast.
The Puerto Obaldía airport is little more than a piece of tarmac and a hut. As you wait for your bag to be pulled from underneath the plane, someone will likely ask if you're going to Capurganá. Tell them you are, and they will either point or walk you to Panama immigration. Puerto Obaldía is really small, and the immigration office is very unassuming, so if you get lost, just ask a local and they'll help you get there. Since the power was out at immigration, the officer snapped a photo of our passports and sent them to officials in another immigration office to confirm our presence in Panama. We also had to hand over a photocopy of our passports. The immigration officer told us to wait 15 minutes and then stamped us out of Panama. We then waited outside of immigration for the guys who asked if we were going to Capurganá back at the Puerto Obaldía airport.
Once they showed up, they walked us to the docks and loaded us onto a boat. The ride is 30 minutes and costs $20 USD per person. Make sure to bring a big trash bag to cover your bags because they will get wet. The swells were huge, the saltwater washed over us, and we were smiling ear to ear. This is exactly how we wanted to arrive in South America.
Once off the dock in Capurganá, turn right on the road and then make your first left. Walk past Hostal Capurganá (on your left) and Colombia immigration will be a few meters further on your right. Don't be surprised if it's closed for lunch and you're told to come back in a couple of hours. Just grab a beer or a bite to eat and return once they're back from lunch to get stamped into Colombia.
One important thing to note is that there are no ATMs in Capurganá, so if arriving from Panama, make sure to have plenty of dollars to exchange. We found that the store at the beginning of the road that you turn down to get to immigration offers the best deal ($2,600 pesos to $1 USD, when the official exchange rate was $2,715 pesos to $1 USD in April 2018).
Walk around and ask for rates on hostels. We were approached outside of immigration by someone from Hostal Marlin who offered a private room with a private bath on the water for $20,000 pesos ($7.70 USD) per person. The room was clean and comfortable, had kitchen access (albeit with limited cooking appliances), and Wifi, though as we discovered, Wifi really exists in name only in Capurganá and is incredibly slow. Overall, it was the best deal we came across and were pleased with our stay.
A note about hostel prices: Ask if the hostel room includes a fan or AC, and if it does, ask if there is a generator. The power goes off every night in Capurganá and comes back on around 6 am. If a hostel is charging a higher rate than others, it should include a fan or AC that runs through the night.
If, like most travelers in Capurganá, your next destination is Cartagena, you can buy both your boat ticket to Necoclí and your bus ticket from Necoclí to Cartagena at the boat ticket office near the dock or at Hostal Capurganá. They both charge the same rate, so there is no additional cost to buy your tickets from either of them. The boat to Necoclí is $70,000 pesos ($27 USD) and the bus from Necoclí to Cartagena is $80,000 pesos ($30.75 USD). You leave Capurganá at 10 am and arrive in Cartagena around 9 pm.
Option C) Sail to Cartagena via San Blas Islands. If you've got several hundred dollars to spare, you can get from Panama to Cartagena on a multi-night sailing trip through the remote and indigenous-controlled San Blas Islands. Many companies in Panama offer this trip, which usually takes four days and costs about $550 USD per person. We met many people who took this route and heard mixed reviews. Some said it was the best adventure of their life, others said the weather was crummy and the reefs devoid of any marine life. If you've sailed via San Blas, let us know about your experience in the comments below.