By: Steven Stoltz and David Taylor
2410 Buena Vista
Rapid City, SD 57702
Countries: Panama and Colombia
Trip Dates: July 23, 1992 to July 5, 1992
Trip Rating (1 to 10): 8 (interesting…)
Route: Panama City, Panama to Turbo, Colombia
Mode of Travel: Bicycle
Cost: $350 per person (all inclusive)
Travel Time: Less than 2 weeks.
A once in a lifetime bicycling opportunity which turned into more of a walking/carrying the bicycle journey once in the jungle.
Hotels, Restaurants and Shopping Information:
Panama City: many cheap hotels to choose from
Chepo: no actual hotel but can stay in a missionary house by hospital on edge of town
Torti: lodging possible before town (10-15 km) but we stayed at a private home in town
Meteti: hotel/restaurant complex (quite nice) on left side of road as heading south
Yaviza: “Las Americas” (?); ample food available; stock up here for the trip to Colombia
After Yaviza, in the Darien jungle, one has to rely on the locals for food and accomodation if you didn’t bring your own.
Cristales Range Station: lodging and food available
Turbo: plenty to choose from
Biking Trip Essentials:
Panama City has ample supplies; bicycle plus only one rear pannier or better yet, one could strap a backpack on top of the rear rack; tent for the 2 of us, long pants, long shirt, baseball cap, pancho, mosquito repellent, flashlight, cameral, journal, maps, plenty of money, small piece of rope, extra food such as cans of packed meat and peanut butter (high calorie food), machete; use puncture resistant tubes because there are many thorns on jungle trails.
Although we did the trip technically in the rainy season, we saw very little rain. There were few mosquitos or ticks; very humid but in the jungle canopy it is shady; difficult bicycling in the jungle; lots of thorns on trail which caused endless punctures.
Panama City—Everything can be purchased here (although you might wait until Yaviza to purchase canned food, although more expensive) including maps at Instituto Geografico Nacional “Tommy Guardia” opposite University. Since we were on a bicycle tour of Central and South America, we shipped all our extra panniers to Cartagena, Colombia via Panalpina (international shipping company)—offices in Panama City and at cargo airport (on way out of town heading South, one can simply stop at the office at the cargo airport, give them all your extra stuff, and they will box it off for you and send it off to Colombia—reliable). Cost of shipment for both of us (i.e. 6 panniers +) was US$89.
Panama City to Chepo—paved to Chepo, Biking essentially flat, hot.
Chepe to Torti—after Chepo, road is unpaved but no problems for our mountain bikes; actually met another bicycle tourist who was just heading to Yaviza, then taking a boat to Colombia; long day, hot and the road got muddy after rains.
Mototi to Yaviza—road deteriorates on this section with much looss, cut jungle and beautiful surroundings. Just before Yaviza road improves again and then you’re there.
Yaviza to Union Choco—cross river in canoe ($1/pp) and then bicycle to Pinogana. We took a right hand trail which brought us to a dead end at the Rio Tuira in between El Real and Pinogana but fortunately a boat came by and we caught a ride directly to Union Choco ($15/pp) where one can obtain lodging and food.
Union Choco to Pucuro—we took a boat the whole way but I’m sure the possibility exists for bicycling part of this stretch. Boat ride ($26/pp) was fun but we had to get out of the boat often and push it up river as we approached Pucaro. Pucaro is a lovely village but the chief seemed to have a chip on his shoulder and was very unfriendly. Not much to eat except fried bananas, tea, fish, and some rice.
Pucuro to Paya—we rode this section which took about 8 hours involving a lot of pushing and carrying of the bicycle although the first part was easy single-track riding; stream crossings were no problem, just carry the bicycle across river on shoulder; short hills can be steep and involve more physical effort carrying the bicycle than just backpacking. We rested one day in Paya but there was very little to eat, a nice river to bathe in.
Paya to 2nd river crossing in Colombia—locals will show you the way out of the village and over the river. No need for a guide, just read all the classic info crossing the Darien gap and you’ll have few problems; Trust your trail sense! A machete came in handy several times when trees had fallen on trail, but be prepared to climb over fallen vegetation with bicycle. Nice camp site next to 2nd river crossing once you’ve crossed the Panama/Colombian border. Notice the red Corvair automobile on left side of trail, in jungle just before Palo de las Lotras.
2nd river crossing to Cristales—when you meet the stream for the 3rd time, don’t cross it, but stay on the same side of stream; walk down to your left for 70 yards and continue on trail to your left; trail crosses stream several more times ( 7 or 8) and then continues through jungle, eventually reaching Rio Cacarica after a long day. On the other side of the shallow river is a green Los Katios park sign (mosquito). Follow that trail (you will pass 3-4 more signs) for about 45 minutes with bicycle to the Cristales Ranger station.
Cristales to Puerto America—Be prepared for hassling on the price of a boat to Rio Atrato. Adequate food at ranger station but they were real jerks on the price of a boat. Eventually they took us to Puerto America ($35/pp) through swamp land which was great for seeing bird life. Accomodation at Pto America right up from boat dock (beds with mosquito netting; good food; poor exchange rate for $ to pesos). Fast, high horse pwer boats leave for Turbo every morning stopping at dock at Pto America–fun, high speed ride ($7/pp).
Summary: Bring plenty of cash with you because the trip isn’t cheap, but it is fun and an adventure. In the summer months, don’t expect to see any other tourists going through the gap; a lot faster backpacking than bicycling. Be prepared for a headache when obtaining your goods from Colombian customs after shipping stuff from Panama