Figuring out a way of reaching South America is a conumdrum all two wheelers face on their journey south.
Why? Because the Panamerican Highway peters out a couple of hundred clicks west of Panama City. Beyond, a chunk of largely impregnable jungle still divides Panama from Colombia, a swathe of land fabled for both its untouched beauty and the infamy of its residents: various insalubrious narco trafficantes and pockets of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Occasionally adventurous folk trek through, like Karl Bushby. Perhaps even more rarely, travellers kayak around it – like the Riding the Spine crew. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.
Both of these routes have their logistical issues, which can include difficult to procure permits and specialist equipment. They also promise a very real element of danger. Having explored possibilities with a couple of other hardy travellers (we found inflatable kayaks, but shipping the bikes alone was going to cost $750), unfortunately neither was destined to come together within our various timeframes. So in the end, I opted for the more ‘straighforward’ overland route: boating through the Caribbean’s prestine San Blas islands to (finally) reach South America.
The cheapest of these options is to hop on a series of lanchas – local speedboats – and hopscotch across the islands that speckle the Caribbean coast. More info is available here. This can take anything from a few days to a week or more, depending on the connections, and tends to cost around $150 to the port of Turbo. Alternatively, various yachts sail backwards and forwards between Portobello, in Panama, and Cartagena, in Colombia. At around $425 it’s certainly the pricier option, though the journey is stretched out to five days, with the romance of island hopping, snorkelling and fine sea food is thrown in for good measure.
I decided to treat myself to the latter…
Although the cost of the trips are largely the same, the yachts themselves can vary greatly; you can also land yourself with a grumpy captain, cramped conditions and a lack of promised food. Turning up in Portebello, I chanced upon quite the opposite: La Rebeldia, an incredible 67ft boat, complete with B&O sound system and fine dining that included lobster, king crab, baracudda and delicious paella, thanks to its excellent Barcelonian captain and first mate. What’s more, there was so much room my bike could even be stowed inside.
Rough conditions meant I wasn’t always at my best (only dry retching on day one, thankfully!). Here a quick report to give you a feel for this crossing, an incredible way to close the chapter on Central America, and begin a new one in South America…