Well, we made it – Savannah, Andre, and I – to Colombia, finally. The logistics of the bus, taxi, and speedboat travel went according to plan, surprisingly. But we were met with some unforeseen challenges along the way that led to a delayed reunion with Savannah in Colombia.
We left La Granja hostel in a caravan – J&C in their rig following us in Savannah to the office of Neptune Lines Inc in Colón, where we would be shipping from. Despite having an appointment to begin the process of loading our vehicles, we waited for a couple of hours for the Bill of Lading (a document issued by a carrier to acknowledge receipt of cargo for shipment) to be processed. Once we received the bill, we could begin with the usual customs procedure of canceling our vehicle import permit and receive the exit stamp for the vehicle in the drivers’ passports (me for Savannah and J for their rig) so that we could leave the country separately from the vehicle. Without this stamp, it would appear that we ditched our vehicles in Panama. The stretch of road where the container warehouses and customs offices were was absolutely insane. The road was under construction and, since a big ship was getting ready to leave, trucks blasted up and down the road. We must’ve lapped this road half a dozen times trying to find the correct offices. Eventually, we gave up and returned to the parking lot where we would be loading the vans and decided to walk. The customs office for our TIP cancelation ended up being right there in the Neptune parking lot, and the immigration office to get the exit stamp for the vehicles was in an obscure building that we wouldn’t have been able to drive to anyway.
We didn’t do things quite in the correct order, but it didn’t seem to matter. After we canceled the TIP, we were able to load the vehicles into the container (before we actually got the exit stamps at immigration). The container was brought to us by this strange implement that lifted the containers and drove them around. Savannah went in first and it was so tight I had to tuck the side mirrors in! Luckily someone went in ahead of me to direct me, there were no more than a few inches of space on either side. I’m not sure how the guy directing me got out, but I had to climb across the bed and hop out of the back doors to get out of Savannah. Once Savannah was secured with ratchet straps, J drove in their rig. It was a tight fit with the two vehicles and they had to remove their bikes from the back in order for the container to close. We closed it up, finished paperwork with Neptune, and watched as it was locked. The lock was simply a pin, but if it was tampered with, it would be evident. Free of the vehicles, we walked back down the road, got our exit stamps, and started the search for a bus to go back to Panama City.
We waited for a while at what ended up being just a local bus station, not a station where you could hop on a bus and go all the way down to Panama City. We took a cab from the bus station to the proper terminal and finally found the correct bus. We had hoped to get back to Panama City before dark, but with how long the entire process took, we boarded the bus just at sunset. An hour and a half later, we made it to Panama City. We spotted an ATM and Andre and I suggested that each of the four of us take out about $250 USD since we weren’t sure how much the crossing for ourselves would cost. We had read that someone had done it for $180 a couple of years ago, so we thought it would be a good margin to go for $250. It was here that some miscommunication began with how prepared each party was to ship our vehicles and embark on a nonconventional crossing into Colombia. J&C said they didn’t have that much cash but would take out as much as they could, Andre and I hoped it would be enough.
We then took an uber from the bus station to the hostel in the city. Andre and I ventured out for some pizza and beers. We returned late to the dormitory and crawled up into a bunkbed to share. Soon though, it was evident we would not be getting any sleep as an older man in the bunk next to us snored so loudly it hurt our ears. We didn’t have ear plugs, so we moved down to the shared living room to try to catch some z’s on the couch. No luck there either, so we just reorganized our packs and waited for the 4×4 taxi to come and pick us up at 5 AM. I had been speaking with the taxi driver over WhatsApp to arrange our ride and when I told him of our plan to cross the border via speedboats (that we didn’t have any reservations for) he replied, “¡Dios mío!” – “My God!”
At 5 AM, our driver arrived and we all piled into the SUV with a fifth person who was getting a ride to the same port to go to the San Blas Islands. This was one of our options, to sail the San Blas Islands with a charting company, but it was out of the price range for our group and we decided to stay together. The drive was about 3.5 hours, not because it was a long ways away (only ~115 km) but because it was a rough road for the last hour and a half. We took a break at the turnoff from the main highway and stopped for some snacks. From there, our driver wound around big, deep potholes on a road that crawled up and over the San Blas mountains to the coast. He told us stories of how the local farmers there have to set off fireworks at night to keep the jaguars away from their livestock! He also told us that in the past, during peak tourist season, he would make this drive 2-3 times per week to bring tourists to the sailboats and that he has been driving this route for 13 years. At one steeper uphill section, we watched an SUV spin out on multiple attempts of getting up. We ended up passing and going around them – I wonder if they ever made it.
We made it to the small town of Puerto de Carti, and it didn’t appear that there would be any lodging possible. Our driver found someone with the last boat of the day going out. He quoted us at $70 USD per person to boat to Puerto Escocés, a town near Puerto Obaldía (our destination port on the border of Panama). We thought this was a bit steep, and settled on $60 USD pp. The boat was small with a tarp roof. In the front were 4 or 5 kids who looked like they may be heading back to one of the small coastal towns from school. Andre, J & C sat in the second to last row, and I sat in the back between the captain and a stack of cans of paint. We were given life jackets and our packs were wrapped in tarps and stashed at the front of the boat. Each row of seats had a big plastic tarp that I wasn’t sure of its purpose at first. They filled the boat to the brim after all passengers got on – sacks of potatoes, crates of juice, cans of paint, etc. I guess to bring basic supplies to island villages.
As soon as we made it over the break, the waves got really big and after the boat climbed up over the wave, we would crash back down slamming the bottom of the boat against the water. The boat appeared to made of fiberglass and on some of the bigger crashes, I would wait to hear a crack. I was worried about C, 7 months pregnant, as my own organs felt shocked at each hit. We soon figured out what the sheets of plastic were for as the sea splashed up into the boat, spraying our faces and dousing our clothes. I felt like I was hiding behind the sheet of plastic to fend off the water. As the sea became more rough, I’d peer up at our captain amazed that he could navigate these wild waves. At times when the sea spray became really bad, he would put on goggles to be able to see and steer around the breaks. Occasionally though, we would surf along the top of a big wave and I was convinced it would capsize. I looked towards the coast to try to access if I thought we’d be able to swim to the coast if we did indeed capsize. The coast was rocky and the waves crashed against them spraying water up into the sky – probably a negative on survival there. Sometimes if a wave was too big, the captain would kill the motor so we could roll over the top. It was both thrilling and terrifying. The kiddos in the front however, were totally chill on this entire trip. If a small speedboat did go down in the Caribbean, I doubt it would make international news. But maybe it doesn’t happen at all?
Occasionally the captain would take a break and we would float in between big wave trains. On one of these breaks, he replaced a 3 inch screw that had fallen out of the throttle box while he was driving. Another was to address the cans of paint spilling around my feet – I noticed earlier but didn’t say anything, and it turned out there was nothing to be done anyway. On one break, C moved to the back and sat in the captain’s chair (which the captain wasn’t using anyway) to try to minimize the jarring of the bumps. Andre lost his breakfast over the side of the boat, a couple of times, but was a trooper the whole way through. Later in the day, we began stopping at different island communities and either people or supplies would be unloaded. I kept an eye on google maps to see where abouts we were along the coast in relation to where we needed to go to get to the border.
The Caribbean sea is more rough from December to February than the rest of the year, and worse in the afternoon (apparently, according to hear say). Around 4 PM, after about 5 hours on the boat, we docked at an island known as Caledonia, next to Isla Seletupa. The captain could take us no farther and we would need to spend the night here. He promised to return at 6 AM the next day to take us the rest of the way to Puerto Escocés, and maybe even all the way Puerto Obaldía depending on the sea. As we pulled up to the dock, we saw a huge group of children gathered on the dock. As we were unloading our packs, we saw a canoe race of women from the village. It was the Panamanian holiday of Mother’s Day! However, we were told that the islands were considered separate from Panama so we wondered how much culture, like holidays, were shared.
We were caught a bit off guard with the change of plans but felt like we wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway. We could not boat ourselves (obviously) so we had to trust it would work out. There was a hostel on the island that we could stay at. At first, the cost was $1 per night per person (according to the captain). We grabbed our bags and walked through the town towards the hostel, which was on the opposite side of the dock. The island was very small, with thatch houses along narrow dirt roads. When we arrived at the hostel, it was a mission for the captain to find someone that had a key to open the metal gate enclosing it. Besides the curious stares from members of the community, this was another clue that there hadn’t been any visitors to the island for a while. As we were waiting, we watched some people set up a speaker system around the volleyball court where a mothers’ tournament would begin in the evening. They also used the loudspeaker to try to locate someone with a key to the hostel. About half an hour later, a young man came with the key, opened the locked gate, and showed us our rooms.
The hostel was built out over the water with a dozen or so small rooms with beds. Each couple took a room and we were then told it would now be $10 per room. Soon fresh linens and pillows were delivered from various cheerful men and we were settled in. Andre and I decided to walk around the island to explore. We found a few small stores, but it appeared most of the buildings were dwellings. As evening came, we noticed people celebrating on their porches and in the streets as words became slurred and eyes glassy. We were engaged in a few conversations with people where we both spoke some Spanglish, but it was difficult to converse at times with the apparent level of intoxication. It was quite a celebration!
We watched the women’s volleyball game for a bit, then were approached by a man asking us if we’d like some food. Andre, pretty hungry at this point, responded with, “Yeah, I’ll take some chicken!” We started following the man to his restaurant but were soon warned by J&C that he had approached them as well and they didn’t get a good feeling about the place. We decided to trust their gut reaction and decline for dinner. We returned to our room and instead ate some bread, crackers, and an apple that we had brought. We found the bill in the room, now $10 per person per room and paid up quickly before it might change again. We agreed something felt a little off about wandering any more in the village. Perhaps it was the level of attention we received being white tourists and feeling like we were intruding into a community that maybe didn’t expect people like us to rock up on a local boat. Whatever the feeling stirred from, we decided to stick to the hostel and watch the sunset from the end of the pier.
J&C joined us at the end of the pier and told us that after this next boat ride to Puerto Obaldía, which was quoted at $35 pp, they would be out of money. There were no ATM’s between Panama City and the small town in Colombia that we hoped to immigrate through. We took stock of the cash Andre and I had, and realized we would not have enough to completely cover them all the way to Colombia on top of the cost for getting ourselves over, but could spot them at least for the boat ride from Puerto Obaldía to Capurganá, Colombia. It would be tight though.
That night, I awoke to noises just outside of our room. We had left the window open for some air and a breeze, but it had no screen. I saw a shadow in front of the window and shouted “Hey!” waking Andre up, and the shadow moved to the end of the dock. A few minutes later two shadows returned to the window and shined a light in on us. Drunkenly, they asked “Cervezas?” (Beer?), we replied no and they left. We slept lightly for the rest of the night. The next morning, C said she awoke to someone entering their room before she jumped up and they ran off. We hoped our boat would arrive on time and that we could leave the island soon.
Half an hour late, but right at the dock off the hostel, our captain and his son arrived on a small speedboat. I confirmed the price that they had quoted the day before, although I’m not sure how much negotiating we would be able to do since we would be stuck there if they decided not to take us farther. They agreed and said they would take us all the way to Puerto Obaldía, so long as the weather permitted. We quickly tossed in our packs and agreed to pay half up front, and half when we reached the border port. The sunrise was stunning as we set off into the waves. This time, instead of a thick sheet of plastic, Andre and I had an old Thanksgiving Day plastic tablecloth to protect ourselves from the spray. J&C sat in the back for less bumps. No one lost their cookies on this trip, though I did feel my stomach drop with some of the bigger waves. The skies were moody as we neared the port, only about an hour and half after leaving the island.
The captain turned off the motor of the boat in the bay of the port, we could see people on the docks and the buildings. This was a military port and he suddenly seemed nervous. He asked if we could pay the second half now, but C said that we were still in the water about a half mile from the port and we would pay when we got all the way there. I don’t think he would have pushed us off or anything, but I do think he was nervous about exchanging money in front of the military personnel. He restarted the motor and took us the rest of the way, but anchored the boat away from the docks and backed up onto the shoreline. We hopped out with our packs, paid him, and followed him to customs. Here we would get our exit stamps in our passports and find a boat to take us around the border to Capurganá, Colombia.
A woman with heavy makeup stamped us out of Panama in an office that was cooled to 14 degrees C. We were shivering waiting in there after being doused from our boat ride. The process was easy, way easier than exiting with a vehicle, and within minutes we were officially done with Panama. A helper had been hanging around us offering a boat during this process, and after we asked the customs woman the usual cost of a boat ride around the border, we agreed to pay his fee of $20 pp. Andre and I spotted J&C and hoped they would be able to find an ATM in Colombia to pay us back and get themselves the rest of the way. It wasn’t the actual cost of the loan that was stressful, but that cash was completely lacking in these remote areas and this was the only way to pay for services to cross.
This boat was the smallest yet and we had no plastic covering. At first I didn’t even think we would be given life vests. But they were dug out of the front and we put rain jackets on under the life vests to stay dry. I carried my purse during the boat rides with our passports, vehicle documents, cash, and Savannah’s key so I stuffed that under my rain jacket. In the crazy chance the boat did flip and if our packs were lost, it would be a huge bummer if important stuff was in there. As we crashed through the waves, I watched the packs bounce and gain air at each drop. They were not tied down this time, though luckily they never were tossed out of the boat. The boat ride was about 45 minutes around a wild looking point along the coast. The jungle creeped over the cliffs above the sea and I wondered what it would be like to explore in the no man’s land between the two countries. It was beautiful – green, lush, and completely wild.
Capurganá appeared suddenly amidst the vegetation and we saw maybe a hundred boats anchored off the beach. Capurganá is a tourist town with daily boats bringing visitors to and from Necoclí, a city on the other side of the gulf. Once we reached here, we knew most of our uncertainty was over. With daily boats and offices to purchase tickets ahead of time, it was no longer unknown if we could find boats and where we would get dropped off. We paid the young man who guided the boat effortlessly around the border, through some impressively huge waves, and hopped out. J&C were hoping to get across to the mainland that day, but after some looking around we could only find a boat to Turbo, which was significantly farther South than Necoclí. Eventually, our rigs would be shipped to Cartagena, way up North. Andre and I decided we would rather wait for a boat to Necoclí than have to spend more time on a bus from Turbo to Cartagena. We did find them a boat to Turbo for that day, but they decided to follow suit and wait for one to Necoclí.
We quickly found immigration to get our passports stamped. We were supposed to have completed an online migration form 48 hours before arriving, but didn’t have enough service to do it on our journey. They let us get our stamps if we promised to complete the online form at least before exiting the country. We were soaked at this point and asked if there was a restroom for a place to change. An officer showed me to the back patio of the building and motioned behind a radiator for where I could change. I asked about a toilet, desperate to pee at this point, but she just motioned to a bucket of water next to me. Assuming I had no other choice, I squatted behind the radiator and peed, then dumped the bucket of water on it to rinse it down the drain. In passing, I failed to warn Andre of my puddle and he accidentally changed in it… oops! I can’t say I’m proud that I peed on the floor of a Colombian immigration office, but I’m sure I’m one of only a few!
We walked around Capurganá looking for a hostel. Without money now, J&C were hoping to find a hostel in which they could do an exchange – either a TikTok or Instagram video or some type of advertisement. Andre and I felt uncomfortable being a part of this interaction since we could pay and didn’t like being a part of a deal. Capurganá had been completely shut down for 8 months through the pandemic and we felt like we should support the services in the tiny town, which could only be reached by boat. They never found an exchange, so we all ended up at a hostel run by a Swiss couple. The husband shared stories with us about driving around all of Africa in the 70’s before google maps was a thing and all he had were paper maps. Pretty zapped from the trip, we opted for a private room.
We ended up staying for two nights in Capurganá. We had received news that the vans were delayed in Panama and that the new estimated date of arrival was the 16th, not the 14th. We sent our agent all of the necessary documents from the Capurganá hostel for her to begin the import paperwork. Unknown as to why, J&C did not. We were figuring out that our relationship with the other couple was strained so we did our own things for most of our time in Capurganá. They were wrapping up a job of creating a Youtube video for a hostel in Panama, of which they needed to be paid for in order to pay their half of the import shipment once it arrived in Colombia. We left them to it.
Andre and I spent our time exploring the tiny town and its surroundings. One morning, we set off to find some fresh water pools that the hostel owner told us about. We had thought we found them, but later realized we had actually found “the pool of the Gods.” We knew when we hopped in that it was salt water so it must not be the springs we were told about, but it was a really cool, protected pool with the sea occasionally splashing in. We spent most of the morning marveling at the waves and feeling the force it sloshed us around with.
Later in the day, we did a ~7 mile round trip hike up and over a ridge to Sapzurro. Sapzurro was just a bit farther North and also had no roads leading to it, most people arrive by boat. It was the farthest Northern town in Colombia’s reaches West of the Caribbean Sea. This was by far one of the sweatiest hikes I’ve ever done – not due to the difficulty but the incredible humidity in the dense jungle. We heard howler monkeys and saw red throated lizards and lots of leaf-cutter ants. When we reached the top of the ridge, we could see both small towns of Capurganá and Sapzurro. The lookout tower at the top also provided a bit of much appreciated breeze. We dropped back down the other side of the ridge to the sleepy town, but only stayed for a half hour or so. It seemed to be on the shoulder season of visitors and most of the shops were closed. Also, we had to get back before dark for Andre’s impromptu tattoo appointment! I’ll let you read about that, here.
J&C decided to stay an extra day in Capurganá when we took a boat over to Necoclí. This boat ride was way more chill than the previous speed boats and only had about 6 people on it (the capacity was probably 60). It took an hour and a half to zoom across the gulf to the mainland. It was interesting that we could always see land on both horizons of the gulf, it was only 40 miles across.
Once in Necoclí, we escaped the bustling shoreline where loud music, potent smells, and throngs of people crowded. It was Saturday after all. We headed for a hostel way up on the North end of town – Hostal La Mariápolis. We had read from iOverlander posts that it would be hard to leave this hostel given how chill and comfy it was. We were greeted with a whole pack of dogs, a couple of cats, and an incredibly kind woman who ran the hostel with her sister. We settled into a private room in the basement of the house that was just feet from the sea. It wasn’t anything fancy, and looked more like a bunker than a room, but it had a fan and a big window and was a space to ourselves. I had begun to feel under the weather on our last boat ride across so we spent two nights here before getting on the move again.
One night when I was feeling the most sick, I watched the stars and waves all night from a lawn chair on the beach. As crummy as I felt, it was nice to be comforted by the sea and the cats and pups that would check in on me occasionally. One downside to this town though was the constant loud bass that echoed through the streets and bounced around in your skull. It was the weekend so I guess there was a party just down the road, but that music didn’t stop all night and up through the morning the next day.
During our time at the hostel, I spent a lot of time in the hammock writing in my journal about the pros and cons of a job offer in Santiago, Chile. Andre played a lot of solitaire on the table nearby.
I still wasn’t feeling great, but it was time to do the last leg of the journey up to Cartagena. The rigs were still expected to be delayed, but we still wanted to be there on the 14th. J&C had already arrived in Cartagena as well. We walked from the hostel to the terminal, which appeared to simply be a parking lot on google maps. Once there, we arranged for a ride up to Cartagena via a bus system called Sotracor. We committed to a price with a broker (I guess that’s what he was?) and waited for a bus to arrive. However, once one did arrive, he told us we should not get on this bus, but the next bus. Suddenly, the driver and broker were arguing over us and two people nearby started filming us on their phones. Fogged by being sick and both of us unable to keep up with the quick conversation, we made the call to just get on the taxi bus available, after confirming it was in fact going to Cartagena and the fee was set. We think the broker may have gotten a commission if we took another bus, but we weren’t sure and decided to get on the move.
It would be a 6 hour bus ride in total to Cartagena. What we didn’t know was that it would be broken up. The first bus was a minibus that could hold maybe 10 people max. One poor guy was barfing in the row ahead of us into a plastic bag, though I wondered if he was just hungover since his puking began before the crazy driving. There was another guy watching videos on his phone without earbuds… and eventually a baby puking into his mother’s hands. It seemed like the operators were prepared for this as they kept passing out plastic bags. We hit one police checkpoint in which the minibus was searched and our passports were carefully inspected. Eventually, after nearly everyone else got off at small towns along the way, we were dropped off at another terminal. Thankfully, our driver assured that we paid in full and stamped us another ticket to travel the rest of the way to Cartagena. He could have easily kept the 80,000 Colombian pesos each ($20 USD) and continued on his way, but didn’t. He told us the big bus would come within an hour and to hold tight in the office until then.
We grabbed some snacks and cold drinks and watched a soap opera in Spanish on the television in the room before we were told that the bus had arrived. It was already mostly full when we boarded. We brought our packs on with us and found our way to the back of the bus. It was still a few hours to Cartagena and with more room to let our heads bob, we were able to nap a bit along the way. The bus traveled quickly with only a few stops near Cartagena. Eventually, we were dropped off in a terminal on the outskirts of the city. From here we found a taxi and rode to the hotel we had reserved. The place was called Marques del Pedredal and originally we only booked one night. We found out though that Savannah had still not left Panama and we would be waiting in Cartagena until Dec 20th. We never did find out why the ship was so delayed in Panama. We booked a few more nights and explored Cartagena.
We walked through the lovely streets of old town Cartagena. I bought an orange dress and Andre bought a dress shirt, both made of light, flowy material to stay cool in the oppressive heat of the city. We walked under streets covered in umbrellas and lined in art. We checked out a mall that once was a bull ring; I was surprised at how small the ring was. We got drinks at a rooftop bar for sunset and walked under a Christmas tree light show.
We saw some sloths in a park downtown. Apparently they’re likely to be pets that were released outdoors after getting too big, which is sad but hopefully they’re happier there than in a house? And we saw some monkeys and iguanas.
We tried the local coffee in a bookstore and smoked half a cigar in the rooftop pool of the hotel (we decided we’re not cigar people). We indulged in some local food, took a sunset cruise around the city, watched a lot of movies, wrestled a lot to let our energy out, and awaited for Savannah’s arrival.
We had left our laptops in Savannah since we didn’t think they would survive a speedboat crossing. When the job for Santiago was posted, we walked into Boca Grande (the skyscraper part of the city) to find a cybercafe for me to apply. I foolishly never uploaded my most recent resume to Google Drive, so I had to search through the last time I emailed it to someone and edit it from there. It was about $1 per hour to use a computer and internet, but the internet was so slow that it took me about 2 hours to edit my resume and cover letter and apply. I got the job, it seems really cool, and I start in March!
Eventually, we moved hotels to be closer to the port for when Savannah arrived. Once here, we were told the ship was coming! Here we found out though that the documents were still not sent in from J&C and that we would be delayed even more. If not vaccinated, a covid test was required, which was also not being completed. Perhaps it was because they still didn’t have the money, but without the documentation we were delayed even after the ship arrived. We were getting pretty frustrated with the lack of professionalism J&C expressed towards our partnership, which ironically was something they boasted about and even tried to educate us on.
Finally, we got an appointment to open the container and free our vehicles. Andre and I packed up everything in our packs and booked it to the shipping yard. An agent met us there, but all parties had to be present to open the container. J&C arrived an hour late and narrowly avoided a complete cancelation of our appointment. We were in fact able to open the container, but the port shut down before we were able to complete customs. The vans stayed in the shipping yard that night and we looked for yet another place to crash.
The next morning we met at customs for our agent to complete the temporary import permit. Once completed, we waited at her office until another appointment was available, since we could not complete everything necessary in our first one. This lasted into the afternoon, on the eve of Christmas eve. We were finally able to get an appointment to drive the vehicles away, and end our travel partnership with J&C. I had to wear a funky vest and helmet to break Savannah out of the shipping yard. It was so good to have her back and all of our things!
However, it is illegal to drive in Colombia without car insurance. With delays into the holidays, we missed the opportunity to insure Savannah. So, we’re here in Cartagena until Monday when the offices open again. Once we get insurance on Monday, we’ll have to gun it down to Bogotá where Andre flies out on New Year’s Eve. It’s a 28 hours drive from here to there, so hopefully there aren’t any delays so he can make his flight. We had planned on climbing outside of Bogotá, but won’t have time now.
We learned a lot from this experience, mostly to vet travel partners before we hitch our wagon to theirs. But nonetheless, it was quite the adventure. I’m sure this type of crossing has been done before, but probably not by many. I’m really proud of how Andre and I worked together and pull off this feat. For now, we are enjoying our time together on the outskirts of Cartagena while Savannah waits in the parking garage to be legal and on the road again. Surely being stuck in Cartagena is not the last hurrah that we imagined for our trip together, but life is like that sometimes. We’re fortunate to have had so many adventures already on this trip 🙂
Updated map of campsites, here!