You might thought the Pan-American Highway was stretching all across the Americas. Actually, about 30,000 km official and unofficial roads are linking Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia —the Americas southernmost point—, excepted in one singe place, where it is interrupted by a dense tropical forest, called the « Darien’s plug”.
Crossing the exceptional Darien Natural Reserve, the 225 km long border is probably one of the most mythical. And it will probably remain so for a very long time. The geography and the topography of this region, but also the exceptional features of this reserve make it extremely difficult, expensive and ecological devastating to build the missing junction.

Nevertheless, there are some options for crossing the border.

Important
No matter how you plan to cross the border, be aware that you won’t be authorised to enter Panama without a proof of onward travel out of the country, within 90 days. This proof might be a Tica bus ticket to Costa Rica, but it’s definitetly safer to have a plane ticket. If your plane does not leave from Panama, the immigration officier could also ask you to —at least— show a Tica bus ticket attesting you’re planning to leave the country.

By Plane

This is by far the easiest, the fastest and usually the cheapest option. Copa Airlines and Avianca provide many daily connections. The lowest prices for a one-way ticket range from about $150US to $225US depending on whether you’ll be leaving from Panama City or Bogota/Medellín.

By Boat

The Cruise

Paradise Islands, fine sand, turquoise waters and giant starfish, the cruse aboard a sailboat or a catamaran is definitely the best way to cross the Colombia / Panama border. During this 5 days or more expedition —according to your desire and your budget—, you will stay at least 3 days in the extraordinary archipelago of San Blas. And because it has exactly 365 islands, the Kunas – the inhabitants of the islands – have fun saying that they have an island for every day of the year.
The trip can be done in both directions. Departures are either from Cartagena or from San Blas Islands (transport from Panama City included).
From Cartagena, it takes about a day and a half navigation to reach San Blas and vice versa.
The cruse is also the most expensive option. Count about $ 550 for 5 nights and 6 days with all meals included. It is nevertheless possible to find cheaper last-minute cruises.

La Lancha

Despite many rumors circulating these recent years, there is no Ferry connecting Colombia with Panama; but on the other hand, it is possible to cross the border with « small » motor boats (called lanchas).
Let’s be honnest, while reaching the border from the Colombia side is pretty easy, it’s another story when it comes to travel on the Panama side. If you plan to cross the border this way, make sure you’re not in a hurry because it will take a minimum of 3 days, if you’re lucky and much more in general.

#1 Cartagena de Indias
From Cartagena, take a bus or taxi early (COP$20K, 1h) to the Bus Terminal.
From the terminal, take a bus to Monteria (COP$35K, 5h) with a bus change (immediate connection) at Santiago de Tulu.
From Monteria, take a minibus to Nicoclí (COP$35K, 2h).
Stay overnight in Nicoclí.

#2 Necoclí
Located on a small tip in the Lion sound, this nice, mostly quiet, small seaside village can be a nice basecamp to explore the area.
Sleeping
I slept in the Hotel Las Palmas – single room, $7,5US/COP$25K with fan and breakfast included.
It also has a restaurent.
Calle 50, #49-5

#3 Going to Capurgana
The lancha (boat) ticket can be bought on the departure morning but it can be safer to buy it the day before.
The agency is located in front of the only pier of the port (muelle) of Nicoclí, which is located south of the city, on the beach along the Calle 46.
The one way ticket costs COP$ 70,000 (~ $20US) and includes 10 kg of luggage (COP$1000/kg extra).
The departure is at 8:00AM, arrive about 30min in advance.
The trip which takes about 1h30 is usually quiet in summer (July – August) but may be more hectic in winter. The boat also makes a stop in the charming little hamlet of Trigana before arriving in Capurgana.
Capurgana is definitely worth a visit for a day or two or even more.

#4 Capurgana
It is in Capurgana that you will have to go to the Colombian customs —located in the heart of the small village—, to get your exit stamp. The schedules are quite irregular and the immigration office sometimes is closed without any real reason.
On the other hand, customs officers are rather accommodating and it is quite possible to have your passport stamped a day or two before you actually leave the country.

#5 Going to Puerto Obaldia
It is at the pier of Capurgana that you will have to find someone to take you by motorboat to Puerto Obaldia.
Departures: normally daily at 7am and 1pm
Price: COP$ 25 000 but ask before jumping in the boat.

In the afternoon, some Panamanian working in Capurgana —the tourism Eldorado— return home and can embark you.
Do not hesitate to negotiate because it’s almost sure they’ll try to get the most out of it.
For my part, I finally paid COP$ 35,000 ($10US) when they initially asked for $50US.

Important: there’s no ATM in Puerto Obaldia, so make sure you have enough dollars to be able to stay there for a couple of days, maybe a week and to take a boat. The plane can be paid while arriving in Panama City.

It will take about two hours along the beautiful Darwin Reserve to reach your destination.

#6 Puerto Obaldia
First, as you get out of your boat, you’ll have to pass by the Panamanian immigration.

There are 2 checkpoints:
In the first one, your baggages will be fully checked out, literally. I had to put all my stuff out of my backpack.
It can be intimidating but although they take it very seriously, the military staff was nice.
Then, when this is done, you’ll be invited to go to the immigration office, located half a mile away, near the village center.
In this small office, near the church, you’ll have to present your passeport, your proof of onward travel, your credit card (or $500US cash) and fill in a form.
Note that the office closes at 4PM.

Once this formality is over, you’lll quickly understand why the locals used to calll the village Puerto Muerto: Dead Harbour.
You’re literally in a village siding a military base, so it’s absolutely not a safety issue but the tiny village is encircled by the dense tropical jungle on one side and rocky reefs on the other. Still, there are a few small hotels, two restaurants, a café-bar and a bakery, but trust me, there’s absolutely nothing to do in Puerto Obaldia, excepted finding a way to leave this place.
When I was there, the village had only one Wifi point, paid, extremely slow and accessible only in the evening.

#7 Finding a boat
Now you can start to find a boat to take you to the San Blas Islands or even to Carti, where the road joins Panama City.
And obviously, the best way is to ask the locals in the village, to go to the small piers and ask the fishmen.
Always cross-check the information, find the names of the boatmen likely to make the trip and go meet them.

Usually, there’s a boat connecting Puerto Obaldia with Carti, but the boat is mostly likely to leave when enough passengers (6 – 10) have been gathered. Which can take several days.
Price: $100US
Duration: 6-7 hours, depending on sea conditions.

Sometimes, sailboats or locals make the ride to San Blas or Carti and could bring you along.
Whether you’re going to Carti or San Blas, make sure to agree on the destination with the local. If you’re going to San Blas, make sure, you will be dropped off on an island that have boat connections with the other islands. San Blas might be a paradise, you don’t want to be stuck on desert island.

#7′ By plane
If for some reason, you should not be able to make the trip by the sea, the village has an airfield with almost daily connections to Panama City for the same price as the boat. It is also possible to pay for the plane ticket when you arrive at Panama City Airport.

#8 Carti
While you arrived in Carti, you can still decide whether you’re going to the San Blas or to Panama City.
San Blas: water taxis will take you to the island of your choice.
The prices will range from $10 to $20US and the trip will last from 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the distance to your island. Also count $22US as entry fee in the Kuna community. Some islands may also require specific entry fee.

By the Jungle

Disclamer: Just to make sure, any information shared here is for informational purpose only. Going for this option is your sole responsibility as the Darien Gap is said to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Crossing the Darien Gap is technically possible but highly discouraged. And rightly, the Darien Natural Reserve is known to be a lawless area where several mafia and paramilitary groups operate, taking advantage of the zone’s isolation to smuggle weapons and cocaine. With its steep mountains, rivers, wildlife and inhospitable vegetation, the Darien remains a must for many migrants en route to the United States of America or Canada. And even with the help of smugglers who know the area well, many will leave their live there.

From information gathered, the journey would take from 3 to 6 days with walks in rivers. Therefore, it is recommended to do it during the dry season and obviously, you don’t want to do it alone. The guide will cost you about $5,000 US.

Tours

But if you still looking for some safe adventures in the Darien Natural Reserve, agencies are organising 4 days/3 nights tours from Panama City to the Darien’s Panamanian side.
Cost: $1000US