Escape from CA – Panama City to Carpugana, Colombia

With the Central American soundtrack of car alarms, wolf whistles and repetitive base beat of “boom—ba-bom-bom, boom—ba-ba-bom-bom” ringing in our ears, we set our sights south to the unknown lands of South America. Hopeful of an uneventful departure from Panama a taxi ride to the local departures of Albrook Airport saw us soon checking in for our somewhat expensive USD$120 shitting-your-pants Air Panama flight to Puerto Obaldia, close to the Colombian border. 

If you’re sensitive about discussing your weight in public, this flight may either help you overcome this fear or make it worse. The plane is so small that not only is your baggage meticulously weighed, they then ask the passengers to step onto the scales to record their weight. With a checked luggage limit of 14kg, hand luggage 4kg and an excess baggage charge of $1.65 per additional kilo, we found the fact that we were charged 20kg ‘over’ a little insulting. In all fairness Sarah’s 50kg frame should have surely meant she was granted an extra allowance, when compared with some of the fat bastards who climbed aboard.

Front row seats on the flight to Puerto Obaldia
You could almost reach over and fly it yourself!

As the last to board we were given the ‘premium’ seats right behind the pilots, which we’re sure nobody else wanted as you’ve got a clear view of the flashing instrument panel when something goes wrong (ignorance is bliss right?). Flying in a tiny plane where every bump feels like it’s going to be our last did nothing to help ease Matt’s uneasy mood of being able to leave Panama cleanly without the van in tow, especially when the pilot puts the plane into autopilot and lets go of the controls to read the newspaper. Atleast they didn’t decide to put the opaque sunvisor up as we later heard other happened on another flight…no wonder all the locals sit at the back.

Our tiny plane from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia in the Darien
Landing safely at Puerto Obaldia in our tiny plane

Eventually we bank right and the tiny 650m ocean side air strip of Puerto Obaldia comes into view…followed quickly by a flashing yellow screen shouting ‘Warning terrain, Warning terrain’….ok it wasn’t shouting and we weren’t in danger, but in a plane like that a standard warning was enough to make us edgy. With the rising jungle terrain of the Darien Gap in front of us we bumped in to land safely.

Thankful of this Matt dashes out overjoyed to be back on terra firma.  The moment of truth arrives as the immigration officer, having made us wait over an hour so he could siesta, gives us the required exit stamps so we can dash to the harbor for a boat to Colombia.  Enquiring at the army check point if the seas are normally this rough we’re given a less that reassuring glance and are told most likely there’ll be no more pangas today.

Our tiny plane from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia in the Darien
The tiny runway at Puerto Obaldia

Sitting patiently and waiting it out before resigning ourselves to a night in nowhere-ville, we eventually find three local Colombians who advised their ‘friend’ would be arriving shortly to drop some people off and and would be more than willing to take us on board with them for the supposedly 30 mins to Carpugana on the Colombian side.

Puerto Obaldia near the Panama/Colombia border
Puerto Obaldia, not the most inspiring place to be stuck for the night

Sure enough Capitan Madman pulls up and and for some unknown reason pulls up just off shore rather than at the dock. We can only assume the seas were too high to risk slamming into the jetty, but of course we should still get in the boat right? Right. Racing to get our backpacks into the garbage bags we’d bought just for this reason we lose the fight against the Captain and wade into the chest deep seas with bags above our heads. On the boat he gives us no time to desperately wrap our large packs full of clothes before we’re almost bounced out of the boat.

Happy to have reached Colombia alive after taking a tiny lancha like this through rough high seas, Carpugana
Lancha boat we took from Puerto Obaldia to Carpugana

Not really wanting to relive this moment, all eight of us in the boat spend the next 45 mins in the most terrifying, arse slapping, white knuckle experience of our soon to finish lives. At times it was so bad it had Sarah wishing she had a Latin American booty for a cushion and Matt wishing he’d taped his balls to his inner thighs. We’ll admit, for the first time in a long time we thought perhaps we’d made the wrong decision, choosing the cheap adventure over sensibility. Our inexperienced driver consistently turned the boat the wrong way into seas so high we were almost thrown overboard several times and so much water hit us in the face we thought we were on a Disneyland ride gone wrong.

 Soaking wet backpacks....all the clothes we own!
Soaking wet backpacks but glad to be alive, Carpugana

But of course that all changed when our American comrade onboard pointed out we’d crossed the border – we were now in Colombia and the great continent of South America. Soaked to the bone we were dumped unceremoniously on the jetty in Carpuguna where Matt kissed terra firma (for the second time today) and we retrieved our soaking backpacks. Thankfully we’d had time to put our camera bags in garbage bags as everything else was entirely soaked through, including our as yet unused South American Lonely Planet.

HEED ALL WARNINGS: If the weather is bad this is a shit trip, if it’s good then it’s beautiful.

Never try this crossing in the swell unless you possess a strong will to live and are happy stressing 5 years off your life.

A French guy who’d been with us on the harrowing journey since Panama City took us to Hostel Bohemia a little off the main drag, which was owned by his friend’s. An enchanting old two story wooden house set in the surrounding jungle, the place is home to a relaxed type of traveller, including two girls who shared with us their horror story and back injuries of the 2.5hr boat trip from Turbo, our route for tomorrow. They were so traumatised they had opted to fly back, unable to face the return journey. With another night of power outages, we enjoyed our first Colombian beer before hitting the sack to mentally prepare for tomorrow.

Local transport, Carpugana
Local transportation, Carpugana

Our hopes from the day before seemed to have been answered when after four days of high seas, Poseidon seemed to be on our side.  We’d been forewarned by friends so weren’t surprised when upon boarding the lancha to Turbo the gentleman again weighed our bags. What did surprise us what that either his scales are rigged or we’d gained several kilo’s of extra weight in seawater from the day before. Either way we paid the additional $15 for our luggage and climbed aboard.

 Hostel Bohemia, Carpugana
Hidden and chilled Hostel Bohemia, Carpugana

Pushing our way to a couple of seats in the middle of the boat, we avoided the front like the plague, as this is where the boat is hardest hit by the swell. Cushioned seats were a blessing, however as we were heading with the swell the ride wasn’t anything like the misery we’d imagined. In two and a half hours we took only three major poundings against the waves, with the rest of the trip being rather uneventful and dry, and the only resulting injury, physical or mental, was a blister on Sarah’s finger from holding onto the seat in front.

Having our luggage weighed before the lancha from Carpugana to Turbo
Reaslising we’d acquired a few kgs additional weight in sea water from the day before

Back on dry land we jumped a bus to Monteria, before piling into a collective driven by a Mark Webber’s wannabe Colombian cousin, who spent as much time with his eyes on the woman next to him as he did his foot on the accelerator. Arriving in Cartagena we exited our transport and for the third time that day we were thankful to be alive.


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