I’m going to start off by squashing your dreams of finding a Panama Colombia Ferry, there isn’t one as of 2014 and despite repeated attempts, there isn’t likely to be on in the near future. Blame the Cartegna port authorities and the Sailboats that bribe them for entry or so I’m told. But you searched for a ferry cause you’re as cheap as I am and are looking for options.
Maybe you’ve already been to the San Blas Islands or maybe you’re running out of money and can’t take the sailboats. Either way, what follows is your cheapest option to get from Panama to Colombia, again, sorry for the tease, it’s not just a ferry ride.
How to get from Panama to Colombia Cheap
1) Getting to Puerto Oblidia
Option A: In Panama City there is a small airport in Ancon not far from the main bus terminal, there are busses that go there but I’d suggest a taxi is your best option, bring your passport. You might have luck calling to book, but your best bet is to just go to the airport and book with Air Panama.
- Flights to Puerto Oblidia leave about 3 times a week though not necessarily the dates or times posted on the website.
- Cost for the flight is $110.00 USD + extra baggage fees if you’re over, but despite being way over they didn’t charge me.
- Check the flight time the day before if possible, I arrived for my 10am flight to find myself sitting in the airport alone until everyone else arrived to the rescheduled 2pm flight.
- These flights are often booked for weeks in advance so it was just by sheer luck I got the last ticket a few days in advance. Despite being sold out however, my flight had 5 empty seats, try going to the airport to get on last minute if you have no other option (let me know if this works).
- Get some money out before you leave, there are no ATMs until you reach Turbo in Colombia. If you can get COP, all the better.
Option B: Take a boat from Carti $140-190 to Puerto Oblidia lasting 10 to 14 hours.
- Be warned, this is often a rough, sea sick, wet, sunburnt ride.
- I ran into friends in Capurgana that had taken this option a few days before and suggested flying might be better, much better.
2) Crossing the Border
From Puerto Oblidia you take a 45 min ride to Capurgana where you’d be spending the night.
- Cost is $15, though it might be more if the boat isn’t full.
- Buy garbage bags for all your backpacks $1 each at a nearby tienda.
- You shouldn’t have to pay to leave Panama or to get into Colombia for most passports.
- This should go without saying but don’t take anything illegal across this border. They have drug dogs and often go through your whole bag with a fine tooth comb. The only thing that confuses me is why they are so concerned about drugs being snuck into Colombia?
- Hostels in Capurgana Colombia should run about $5 for a dorm bed, you can book ahead or just get one when you get there. The hostels will often also change money for you as most places in Colombia won’t accept USD
- Be careful of the guys at the dock, some of them are known thieves (non-violent) and you don’t want to be hanging out with them, you stuff might go missing.
- Buy your ticket for the boat to Turbo as soon as you get in to Capurgana, $55,000 COP ($30 USD) you’ve a better chance of sitting closer to the back and having a smoother ride.
3) Getting to the Mainland
Capurgana to Turbo
- This boat leaves around 7:30 am and takes between 1.5 and 3 hours depending on ocean conditions.
- You’ll likely have to pay a baggage fee if you’ve got a big backpack or many extra bags, I think it cost me around 8000 COP ($4 USD).
- It’s a bigger boat with a hell of a lot of power, you shouldn’t get to wet but you will be catching air; actually, this was my favourite part of the whole trip.
Onwards from Turbo
- From turbo you can get to Cartegena (with a change), Medellin, or other places.
- The guys at the dock can be a bit aggressive but they are helpful and will take you to an ATM before getting on the bus if you need.
- There might be a bus station in Turbo, we never encountered it and just got on the bus in the street.
Total Cost = Flight ($110) + Oblidia/Capurgana Boat ($15) + Capurgana/Turbo Boat ($30) + Turboboat baggage fee $5 + Bus to Cartegena ($20+$20)
= $200 USD Minimum, your mileage may vary
Considering the next closet option I could find was $350 USD, this was a pretty cheap way to cross the Panama Colombia border. All of the transport was rather pleasant as well and gave me the chance to see some beautiful coastline in the air and on the sea.
Other ways to Cross the Darian Gap
The Darian Gapster is run from Carti to Capurgana for $375 USD. I met a few people in Capurgana who had taken a similar boat and were really happy about it. In all they had spent 3-4 days in the San Blas islands, many of them completely uninhabited, slept in hammocks, had bonfires, and generally had a blast.
A bit more expensive than a speed boat and costing between $400 and $700 USD, this can be the most amazing adventure ever or the worst. I’ve heard a number of stories from people who’ve sailed between Panama and Colombia and there are a few things that determine how much fun you’ll have. The biggest factor in this trip is the quality of captain and due to the transient nature of the sailboats, this can change frequently. It’s best to ask around or check a few hostels to see which are some of the better boats as of late, in this case, it might be a matter of you get what you pay for.
Your ship mates, how rough the seas are, as well as how susceptible you are to motion sickness can also play apart. Aside from taking a motion sickness pill and passing out, there isn’t much you can do about these.
One more note, it sounds like this option is best when headed from Colombia to Panama as you finish off in the beautiful San Blas islands rather than open seas.
Flights run between Panama City and most major cities in Colombia daily starting around $350. You can usually get flights last minute for the same price.
Just don’t. Like the ferry, this option is currently a pipe dream. A few have done it, but most die trying. If the paramilitaries don’t get you the locals might, the indigenous aren’t known for being too friendly to outsiders either.
Going from Colombia to Panama?
For the most part you should just be able to follow the directions backwards, the only difficulty you might have would be purchasing or timing the flight to Panama City. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can buy them in the airport in Colombia as Air Panama should have a desk (if anyone tries this, let me know).