I’m such an idiot. When I started to plan the trip through Central and South America, I just looked at a map and thought, “Okay, they’re all connected. We’ll just get buses the whole way.” Oh, I was prepared for some really long bus trips, absolutely. But it never occurred to me that there were parts that you simply couldn’t travel overland.
For the benefit of those who, like me, have never given it any thought, I’m talking about travelling from Panama to Colombia, which is separated by a region of dense jungle with few or no roads called the Darien Gap. It is technically, just about feasible to make your way through the Darien Gap on foot, but here are the reasons that most people don’t:
1. It’s about a seven-day journey trekking through jungle, wading through rivers and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes from indigenous village to indigenous village – and no, there are no roads. Carrying all your gear, I might add; and I have found from experience that I can carry my backpack and daypack for about two or three kilometres in the blistering heat at a reasonable pace before I collapse.
2. By the time you’ve got any necessary boats and paid off any necessary villages to feed and shelter you, you’ve actually paid more than you would to fly or go by boat.
3. Apparently, three to five people a month are kidnapped by guerrillas while making this journey. Fun times; I doubt my family would react well to a ransom demand.
Don’t get me wrong, the whole journey sounds amazing. It’s proper, untamed wilderness and there isn’t much of that left in the world. I’d love to do it one day – if I were being paid to do so, was assured of ransom money to back me up, only had a take a small rucksack and had all the time in the world. But none of the above was true, so we had to look at other options.
You can go by boat, but that takes about five days (which we didn’t have), costs about $375 and you’ll very likely get extremely seasick. It’s a choppy journey. So we turned to flying, which we had hoped we wouldn’t have to do on this trip.
I can tell you, some of those flight prices were hilarious. It didn’t help that it was near Christmas, I’m sure, but paying about £500 to go from Panama City to Cartagena in Colombia (check it out on a map; they’re ridiculously close) was not really an option. Brilliantly, we managed to find a flight for about £125. The catch was in the flight details:
Depart Panama City 10.30pm, arrive Cartagena 11.30pm.
Depart Cartagena 11.45pm, arrive Baranquilla 12.10am.
Depart Barranquilla 11am the next morning and arrive Bogota 12pm.
How’s that for a mission? To make it even more of a mission, we decided that it was best to just sleep in Baranquilla airport rather than trying to get into the town and find a hotel for a few hours sleep.
Getting to Panama City airport was funny enough in itself. We got a taxi to the bus terminal, and tried to find the Tocumen bus to the airport. Eventually we found it, and joined the masses of people trying to get on, always a comedy scene with the size of our backpacks. There was no seat for Rob, so the group of giggling women at the back pulled down a wooden seat from the luggage racks for him and wedged him in with them. They also very patiently giggled their way through our attempts to get our bags back down the aisles when we arrived at the airport. And as walked from the bus stop to Departures over the mud and grass, we were uneasily wondering if we were in the right place – there was no proper path, so perhaps people only get taxis to this airport! We were the only ones getting off the bus at that point.
But the flight to Cartagena was smooth, although it was on a plane that seated only forty people. We watched them load our baggage on as we boarded, and an Aussie guy was frantically shouting instructions as to the correct handling of his surfboard. He was not happy with the clunking sounds coming from the hold. When we arrived, we had the typical Latin America long-way-of-doing-things routine – we had to get off the plane, stamp into Colombia, collect our luggage, walk around the building, give our luggage back in… and get back on the same plane for the flight to Baranquilla. Interesting choice, but fine.
And that twenty-minute jaunt was smooth, too… but I was anticipating arriving at Barranquilla. Would we be able to stay there? What if it was a tiny airport that closed for the night? We weren’t thrilled at the idea of having to pay for two taxis and a hotel.
When we arrived at Barranquilla we were greeted by the obligatory taxi drivers who frantically beckoned us to their cabs. But a friendly security very kindly pointed us towards Departures, once he realised we were serious about just waiting for our next flight, although the look on his face showed that he thought we were crazy. I’m not going to lie: the seats in Barranquilla airport are metal, and not very comfortable. But at least they are in lines of four, so we were able to stretch out and make an attempt to get comfortable. We got out our sleeping bags and used our bags as pillows, like the homeless people we are. It’s amazing, actually; there was no one in that airport at that time, but the doors were open, no one was stopping anyone going in. We kept waiting to be thrown out, but no one so much as glanced at us. Very strange indeed.
And we even got some sleep! When people started arriving for their morning flights it was harder, but I’m surprised we got any at all. Our flight to Bogota was delayed, but not by long, and we made it there smoothly just in time to meet our friends who were getting in on a slightly later flight. Perfect! And there I was thinking that perhaps it was a fake flight, and we’d never make it to Colombia!