Hitchhiking around the Darien Gap – Jungle Fever

Darien Gap nahe Carpurgana
Darien Gap nahe Carpurgana

The speedboat station in Turbo was crowded like the Tokyo Metro at rush hour. I was there on time, 08:30am but of course there was no sign of something leaving the station anytime soon. So I got me some ham-cheese curls, a coffee and decided to have a cigarette. Colombians are not strongly supporting smoking. They answered my morningly air pollution by mocking me by stagy style coughing and evil looks.

Finally back on a good old speed boat

Bootstation in Turbo
Boat station in Turbo

After one hour the “boarding” started. The crowd became even denser. I aquired a big black plastic bag for my backpack for 1000 Pesos (around 30 Cent) in which I put my backpack. I entered the boarding zone as my name was called. As I was packing my stuff a friendly worker approached me. Took my backpack, weighed it and demanded 10.000 Pesos. I asked them, why? Well, it’s more than 10 kg. I was already on the boat. My Colombian seatmates signified that there was no such thing like overweight luggage. “No hay plata! No hay plata!” (No money!). I was close to grabbing my purse but stopped inconspicuously. My backpack was already loaded (at least I hoped so) and so I just ignored their demand for more money. It worked. Escaped the tourist trap properly. Damn scammers everywhere… really.

The boat was in a similar state as the one I rode from Trinidad to Venezuela. Just with better equipment. The benches were equipped with cushions and a seat back and it had three outboard engines that were real monsters. Still, the ride was as uncomfortable as the last time. An ongoing up and down through the waves. The one noticeable difference was, that the Colombians celebrated every splash, every hard bounce with cheering, laughing and applause. These people were going on holiday. The Venezuelans had been going home.

When I arrived in Carpugana I was in the middle of the Darien Gap. There were three more villages further from here: Sapzurro, La Miel and finally Puerto Obaldia. Between Sabruzzo and La Miel is the official border of Panama and Colombia. The immigration though was at Carpugana (Colombia) and Puerto Obaldia (Panama), meaning that I had to check out here before I could continue. Of course I had forgotten that. Very determined I went from the boat to the very first shop, packed myself with water, had a Sprite and started walking towards the jungle path. Somewhere already in the jungle I remembered about the stamp and had to walk all back to the immigration office again. But then I finally started.

Walking the Darien Gap

So I was heading to Puerto Obaldia on foot. I knew it would be around 2-3 hours between the first and the second village, and another 30 minutes crossing the border to La Miel (first village in Panama) and further from there some more hours to Porto Obaldia, although that last part I was the least sure about. Anyway, I wanted to do that the day after. That’s why i just started. The path was well made, there were even signs, but it was muddy. After a while I found myself to be in the deepest jungle. Jungle, incredibly moist and uphill. I was till wearing long trousers that were completely wet before I had even done the first half of the hill. Jungle is just the same as a vast Bio-Sauna. This short hike took a lot out of me.

Darien Gap nahe Carpurgana
Darien Gap near Carpurgana. Finally beach again.

The sign at the village boundary said 30 minutes. You have to cross a mountain. From the top of it, it was only 40 minutes to the next village. Okay. Someone wasn’t sure about the distance. It took me an hour to get there. As I arrived I had to take a bath in the ocean, get rid of my t-shirt and switch to short trousers. That made the situation more bearable. I had a fish for lunch and continued to La Miel. Further to Panama. It was a rather unexciting path. A lot of exhausting steps upwards and a lot of exhausting steps down again. A short conversation with one of the three military outposts, reassurance that I will come back (what I did definitely not had in mind) and then I was in Panama, Juchee!

And oh, how beautiful Panama is!

Well, it was ok. La Miel wasn’t the pearl that I expected and every step was controlled by the military. My question for the path to Puerto Obaldia was answered briefly with “No hay, no hay” (There is no path). But of course it was there. 2 hours on foot I was told by a local. Meaning 4-5 hours for me. I also understood that the military doesn’t want to see me in the jungle.

There comes a boat, oho!

I checked out the area. There was a duty free shop in La Miel where you could get primarily cheap whiskey. As I was just heading for the next beach to set up my tent I spotted a cargo ship. Should I try to hitchhike it or rather enjoy the paradise around? Of course I had to hitchhike! If there is a chance to get a ride I will not let it fly away.

It was a rusty, small cargo ship with around 10 crew members on board. I asked for the captain. A jung man showed me the guy. Where they were heading? To Colon. Oh my god! Colon. It was about double of the distance that I had to make to get to the next road. If I could join them? The captain was speaking very fast. I didn’t understand a word. Just that we would talk about it the next morning and that I need the approval of the military. Nothing more easy than that. I talked a little to my young contact and he assured me, that the captain would take me to the immigration in the next village.

Boot Darien Gap
Is this my boat!?! Or not? Hitchhiking with this through the Darien Gap?

So I had a talk with the secretary at the military office. No problems there. They wanted to see the departure stamp, sure, if I had 500$? 500… what? Nope. No money. I will not pay here. Oh, I need it for the immigration. In cash? Of course I didn’t have the money and who would be as stupid as to carry 500$ around?

Military dialogues

That’s how all the fun started. Since soldiers are not allowed to think he had to ask the commander. And of course that did not match the rules so I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. But I have the money, but not in cash. I just need internet to check that. No, not possible. No money, no continuing of the journey. I have to walk back to Colombia to get the cash from the ATM. That was some dilemma since the lift was already here. And the worst thing you can do to me is to sabotage my lift. So I didn’t accept without struggling.

Friends had told me that the commander was a cool person and just his soldiers were rather stupid and incompetent. So I just walked into the commander tent, found him sitting on his hammock and explained my situation. He showed understanding but was like “You can go there, but not from here”. A little naive I asked if it was possible then? He mumbled … yes. That must have been the unofficial sign that we are breaking the rules now. I went back to his soldiers and told them confidently and triumphantly that I was allowed to go. The commander came and confirmed and there was my official exit permit.

Next step was talking to the captain. He seemed to be fine with it and just mentioned tomorrow morning, tomorrow morning. A clear sign that it is not as safe as it seems. But what could I do? Anyway I was allowed/had to sleep next to the commander office.

Where is Walter?

Before hitting the bed I made an excursion to the opposite beach. La Miel has two beaches. One with the duty free and one full of garbage. And two houses. On of it was Jimmy’s, an American. The other one was Walter, a Colombian who wants to create something there. Jimmy wasn’t around (I expected that since two acquaintances had been living there some weeks before) but Walter was.

I have to give you lovely regards from Walter, I promised to mentioned this here. Walter lives there on the beach with two cats, a dog and a self-dug fishing pond with 13 islands, each populated by 1-3 palms. Looks like a small swamp. He had dug that monstrous pit all alone with a shovel. Also there was a horse and various unfinished projects.

So I was hanging around with Walter in a hammock and we had good conversation. At some point the rum made it into his hands (that’s good for chilling), a coconut was opened (he had a lot of them) including nearly a loss of one of his fingers through an overconfident use of the machete. While smearing blood everywhere he conjured a cocktail with fresh coconut milk. Sun was setting slowly and we had some fried Bananas, with Tuna, Mayonnaise and Ketchup. Sounds awkward, was very tasty.

Relaxen bei Walter in der Hängematte
Relaxen with Walter in the hammock

Walter is a good-hearted person and I was told to tell the world that he is eager to meet people, has a lot of space and charity and a very lonely existence at the end of the world. I am sure he likes to host people, doesn’t want money, and if you need information write to me. I promised that to him and maybe I will go there again by myself. And to be honest: The guy deserves a woman. He’s an awesome and caring person.

Catchin da lift!

This corner of the world, within the Darien Gap, is definitely remote and beautiful. No cars but roaring subwoofers in all villages. Maybe some time ago a subwoofer agent came through and sold them all every second house superb overdimensioned sound systems. Each village seems to have a sound system to sonificate at least 5000 persons running all day long with 10-20 village-people in front of it drinking beer listening to Caribbean music. It’s interesting as long as you don’t have to sleep in front of it. Which I had. On my forced campsite next to the military office. It was hard to get some sleep. But: The next morning the cargo ship will leave. Fact. I planned on getting up at 6 to not miss that. And I had no alarm clock so I had the get up somehow before 6 to pack my stuff to get my next ride. That one was everything but guaranteed…

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