The network of roads known as the Pan-American Highway runs from Alaska to the tip of South America – except for a break of about 105 kms known as the Darien Gap spanning the border of Panama and Colombia. The marshlands of the Gap are the domain of mosquitoes and drug smugglers ferrying cocaine from Colombia to the Pacific Coast of Panama, headed for Mexico and, ultimately, the United States. The only transport is by boat, there’s little to no police presence and no legal border crossings. In short, heading south by land is not an option.
Flying is utilitarian but hardly fun, so we thought travelling by boat was worth investigation.
The Comarca (province) de Guna Yala comprises a 373 km long narrow strip of land wedged between the Darien area and the Caribbean coast of Panama and an archipelago of 365 islands parallel to it, ending at the Colombian border. By boat, it’s just over 100 miles in total, north to south.
The Guna are an indigenous people who have maintained their own traditional beliefs and way of life into the modern era. They had limited contact with colonialists, but following Panama becoming an independent country in 1903, successive governments tried to stamp out their culture. Widespread police brutality and the granting of rights to outsiders to seek minerals, rubber, turtles and banana concessions on Guna land led to deep discontent. In 1925, the Guna declared independence from Panama, calling itself the Republic of Tule. Two days later, the government agreed to a peace treaty which committed to protecting the Guna culture and paved the way to the Guna becoming the first indigenous people in Latin America to gain autonomy.
The region is sparsely populated. Just 44,000 people live in the province. Three-quarters of those live on 48 acre-sized islands, and the rest in small settlements on the mainland strip. The remaining 317 islands are uninhabited.
365 coconut islands lazing in the warm waters of the Caribbean sounds like a recipe for mass tourism, but the Guna have strongly resisted tourist development. There are a few lodges and home stays on some islands but this remains a refreshingly unvisited area. We weren’t interested in an island holiday experience, but four days hopping through the islands and ending over the border where we could then continue south through Colombia was definitely appealing.
Day 1: We left Panama City at 5am in a 4WD headed for the port of Carti. The road was pretty good for the first hour, but then turned to dirt. This didn’t cause our driver to change speed, even as the road increasingly came to resemble a seemingly endless, ever steeper roller coaster.
The port was nothing more than a muddy parking area with a small pier. The sky had clouded over and it began to drizzle as we loaded the packs onto a speed boat which would be our means of transport from island to island. We’d been advised to line our packs with one heavy duty garbage bag, and double bag them outside. When we saw the boats, it was immediately obvious why. The bags weren’t being stored in a hold, just piled up and strapped down at the back of the boat.
Luckily the rain cleared quickly and we sped along for a couple of hours to our first stop: tiny, picture perfect Pelikano Island. We jumped off here for a swim and a couple of hours lazing on the sand under a palm tree, then a lunch of grilled fish caught and cooked by the family who owns the island.
Mid afternoon we hopped back on the boat and headed to Coco Bandera where we spent the night. There’s not much to the island – just a large hut with hammocks for travellers, a kitchen hut, and a couple of huts where local families live.
Dinner was sensational – all you can eat lobster and salad.
Sleeping in a hammock was surprisingly comfortable.
Day 2: We motored along for several hours, passing boats that ranged from local craft to the occasional swanky yacht.
We motored past several of the populated islands. Some are close-packed villages and others are just a few traditional huts.
We arrived at our next stop, Dubbir Island, another classic ‘tropical island paradise’.
For some, it was an opportunity for energetic interaction with the locals.
Others preferred to contemplate the meaning of life. Or was he pondering the delights of another night sleeping in a hammock?
Day 3: We sped further south through the archipelago passing more uninhabited islands. The boat kicked up a fair spray and it wasn’t always a dry trip.
Late morning we reached lovely little Atitub Island.
We snorkelled around the outcrop nearby, wondering how big a lump of rock has to be before it is considered an ‘island’. Visibility wasn’t the best but the water was a delicious 29 degrees and conditions were perfect for a languid circumnavigation.
Locals routinely use canoes to move between close islands. For reasons unknown someone thought it might be fun to paddle to the next island instead of using the speed boat.
So we paddled over to Caledonia Island, one of the larger community (populated) islands where we had dinner in a local restaurant and spent the night in a real bed. Luxury!
The local kids learn traditional dances and have competitions with groups on other islands as one part of maintaining their culture.
Day 4: Leaving Caledonia, we continued south, stopping at the Panamanian border post where our passports were stamped and our bags were given a thorough going-over by a large Alsatian sniffer dog while we were left wondering why anyone would try to smuggle drugs into Colombia.
As with the island stops, it was a conga line to get the bags on and off.
Then a quick scoot south brought us to Sapzurro and we were in Colombia.
It was a pleasant little place with a town beach and a few shops.
And then to Capurgana where we visited the immigration office to be officially stamped into Colombia. With the exception of a small trickle of foreigners arriving from Panama by boat, its visitors are almost all domestic.
It had a rough around the edges feel, but we liked it and decided to stay an extra day and do some scuba diving. We did two dives, the second one in waters back over the Panamanian border. Not the best diving we’ve ever done, but we haven’t dived since Madagascar in 2017, so it was just good to get back under the water.
Next day we caught another boat to Necocli and an all-day bus to Cartagena. It had taken us six days to get there, and we could have flown in a few hours, but that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.