Crossing the Darien Gap

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Mission accomplished!! Thanks for all your positive vibes - you can all uncross your fingers and toes now! Yes, we made it, and everything in the van is intact! But for any of you perhaps thinking of embarking on a similar journey at some future date, let us backtrack and provide a few details* wasn't all a piece of cake.

We had been told by the shipping agent to have the van at Puerto Caldera, a small port on the Costa Rican pacific coast, by early Tuesday morning in order to complete the necessary paper work. Sparkling clean, and emptied of all foodstuffs, we complied, only to be told to return the next morning at 9 am as they were running behind schedule due to port congestion. We headed off to "put in time for a day" and to find lodgings for the night. We were lucky to have the company of Adrian and Tanja (a nice young Swiss couple who had been travelling throughout North and Central America for the last fourteen months) who were shipping their Mercedes van on the same vessel.

MV "Libra Leader" arrived early on Wednesday morning, but the port was still busy loading a container ship, so she had to anchor offshore until the dock was free. Within five minutes of our arrival on Wednesday morning we had provided the port agent with copies of all the documents required by customs. We were then told to wait until 3 pm for further instructions. As they say, patience is a virtue - especially when one doesn't know how long the wait will turn out to be. Luckily, we had books with us, as well as a snack or two to keep us happy. Finally, after two full days of waiting, we were allowed to drive our vans through the port gates to have them inspected and ready to load when the ship arrived.

The port agent had indicated that a turnaround time of four to six hours would be sufficient to offload the new cars destined for Costa Rica and to load our two vans. We were therefore quite ecstatic to see our ship berth at 6 pm - but unfortunately the timing coincided with another of those torrential downpours, so unloading was further delayed until midnight. We could see the ship from our hotel, so awakened and walked outside at midnight, 2:30 am and again at 5:30 am to check whether it had left. It finally set sail at 6 am....only about 24 hours late. By 9 am we were back in the port to pick up our Bill of Lading, and were then free to find a bus and make our way back to San Josť for the flight to Quito the next day. (If the shipping had been further delayed it would have really complicated our flight arrangements, as there are only a couple of flights a day and they are generally all fully booked well in advance).

A note of interest. Based on reports from previous travellers, we had budgeted up to Cdn $5000 for the Darien Gap crossing (with the possibility of having to ship by container).We were extremely fortunate, therefore, to be able to ship the van with NYK for only US$250, plus $105 for agents fees. Compared to the cost of flying to Quito - US$760 plus $52 airport tax (for the two of us) - we felt that the shipping was an extremely good deal.

Landing in Ecuador - a whole new continent - was a much anticipated thrill for us. The ship wasn't expected to arrive at Esmeraldas until Sunday, so we had two full days to explore the capital city. Quito is a modern, cosmopolitan city with a population close to 2 million, and has a well-preserved colonial centre that was declared a world heritage cultural site by UNESCO in 1978. It has a wonderful location, high in an Andean valley flanked by mountains and snow-capped volcanoes, and although it is only 20 km south of the equator it enjoys a perpetually springlike climate thanks to its altitude of close to 9,000 ft above sea level. It was a delight to be back in the vibrant and colourful combined Spanish and indigenous cultures of the highland Andes, and everything was very reminiscent of our three years working in the Peruvian altiplano back in the late 70s and early 80s. Especially evocative was the Sunday morning demonstration, but this one quite peaceful and lacked the tear gas and rock-throwing that had greeted us twenty five years ago on our arrival in Puno! We will certainly be coming back to spend more time exploring this interesting city, and arranging for a special trip to the Galapagos Islands.

By midday on Sunday we were on the bus to Esmeraldas. First climbing out of the city into the mountains, and then the dizzying descent down the western flank of the Andes to the coastal lowlands. The scenery was stunning, and our enjoyment was only slightly dampened by car sickness and the "near misses" on the steep and winding road. After a brief stop for a late lunch, we arrived in the grubby port town by early evening, and quickly found some even grubbier accommodation.

The ship hadn't arrived as scheduled on June 6th, but was expected by early Monday morning, so we were there waiting by 9 am. Security was extremely tight so we had to cool our heels waiting for the agent to accompany us inside the port gates. By 10:30 am the ship had docked, and within a couple of hours our van was being driven down the ramp. You can't begin to imagine our joy at seeing our little "home on wheels", fully intact. Just a final inspection and a few papers to be signed, and we would be free to continue our journey. Meanwhile, we could amuse ourselves watching an adjacent vessel, the "World Swan" out of Manilla, being loaded with wood chips bound for Japan - by countless truckloads from a nearby steaming mountain of chips (a process that would apparently take four days). Well, as we said before, patience is a virtue. By 5 pm we were promised that all would be completed by 8:30 the next morning!

Esmeraldas has the reputation of being the most dangerous city in Ecuador - everyone from the hotel manager to the taxi driver, and even the ice cream vendor, warned us to be extremely careful at all times on the street - so we were rather anxious to be on our way. Thus we were somewhat frustrated the next morning to find the paper work still hadn't been completed. By this time we were working with our fourth official, and each one was eager to demonstrate that he was more important than the last one. Nevertheless, within two hours we had finally obtained all the necessary approvals, signatures and stamps and were at long last allowed out through the port gates. So, now we're back on the road and ready to begin a whole new series of adventures!

* For anyone who is planning this crossing in the near future, e-mail us and we'd be happy to provide complete details.
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Comments on

How to cross the Darien gap?
Easy, cause there is mainly one way.
If you are driving, you must ship your car, if you are backpacking you can fly or sail.

To ship your vehicle there are two ways, ro-ro, means roll on roll of, aka without a container ( we don't know much about this one but I am sure it is similar procedures) or put your vehicle in a 20 ft or 40ft container. We put ours in a 20 ft container, you can do solo about U$1300 or you can try to find a partner and share it, still the cost is about U$1100.
You can ship it to Cartagena, Colombia or Guayaquil, Ecuador, the cost is about the same, Colombia is a bit cheaper since it is a lot more common.

We used a lady called Tea Kalmbach, she is reliable and she knows what she is doing. To be honest is the best of the worse. That's the real truth, but she is good and honest, she will tell you things as they are. Truth is, it is time consuming and lots of paperwork, but it is easy if you contact her, she will walk you thru the whole process. You need 2 days to ship and at least 2 days to get it back, No way to do it in less time, we tried!!
Her email is

Be careful with the companies that seem cheaper, make sure that what you are being charged includes unloading charges as well, we heard of several companies charging $700/$800 but then you need to pay another $500/$600 at port to unload your car. When we did it with her, we paid her $1275 and then just another $100 in paperwork and stamps in Cartagena.

What about you?
Well, you cant get on the boat with your car, so there are 2 options.
You can Fly from Panama ( I think Tea also helps people get good rates, ask her)
You can have the experience of your lifetime and book yourself and your fellow traveler on a Sailboat to Cartagena.
The trip goes as follows...
You go from Panama City on a 4x4 to Carti, once you get there ( 3 hours) you get on the boat and start your amazing journey through the San Blas, or Kuna islands for 3/4 days. Then you sail for aprox 36 hours in open water and you get to Cartagena!! ( bring Dramamine or Stugeron) Pretty amazing and honestly the experience of your lifetime!! (check our pics)

We used a company called Sailing Koala

Fabian is a great captain, he knows a lot about sailing and has been doing this for over 12 years. Also he will wait for you at the shore in Carti, so you save some $$, the Kunas will charge you for everything they can!!
We had a great time, ate great food and were so lucky that we were only 5 passengers. Usually they are 8+ and also the crew. Make sure you know how many people will be traveling on the boat and how are the sleeping arrangements, Fabian gives everybody a room. He has a 42 ft Catamaran, with 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, even though they usually use one or two, basically to save water.
If you are a couple you most definitely will have your suite.
The food is good, not great, I should say it is not their forte but they try hard and you will be eating Lobster, Crab and Fish mostly every day. You just have to ask. Also if you can cook they will let you try cooking, just bare in mind it is not that easy to cook on a boat!

This are some tips I copied from a reliable website.

Most of the boats right now are going to Cartagena. The prices are all per person and include all meals and non-alcoholic beverages and usually all immigration fees. With most boats we advise you take your alcohol and snacks with you when you leave Panama City.

Most of the boats are leaving from Carti in the San Blas islands and therefore involve an additional $40 in travel fees to reach Carti where the boat leaves from. This includes $25 for a jeep to Carti, around $5 for a launcher to the ship and around $8 in Kuna taxes. Be aware there are no cash machines in Carti so all money must be withdrawn in Panama City.

Some boats go to Sapzurro which means a trip all along the coast and more island time usually, without the long open sea crossing to Cartagena. From Sapzurro you will take as couple of launchers to Turbo and then a bus either to Cartagena or another destination, this costs approx $70, and about 20 hours.

A few boats leave from either Portobello or Puerto Lindo in Colon, which are reachable by bus for $5-10. From here it almost a days sailing to the San Blas islands which is why many Captains have decided to leave from Carti as to give people more time in the islands.

The trips range from $375-$500 depending on the quality and duration.

You can contact Stuart at Mamallena Hostel in Panama City and they will give you all the info. They really know a lot.

Hostel Mamallena
Panama City and Boquete, Panama
Casa 7-62 Calle Primera, Perejil
Phone:(507)6676 6163 cell

You can definitely do this trip from Cartagena to Panama City, just reverse the order!!! In Cartagena you can contact

If any questions let us know

Car transport on

When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox
and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any manner you possibly can remove me from that service?

weytwtt on


Dennis on

i just read your story and pretty awesome you could do it so cheap! We are currently travelling in a Kia Sedona and be around the beginning of December in Costa Rica or Panama, and we're heading to Ecuador or Columbia, depending what will be the cheapest for us to cross. If you can give us some more travelinfo about the shipping, that would be awesome. My email is

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