If you’re planning a trip that encompasses both Central America and South America, you’re probably wondering about the best way you can move between the two continents.
Normally this involves travel from Panama to Colombia or visa versa.
Sadly, due to dangerous guerrilla activity, lack of roads and treacherous jungle, making the journey by land across the Darien Gap, as it’s known, is pretty much out of the question. (And even I’m saying this, so it must be true!)
This essentially leaves you with 2 choices – to make the crossing by air or by sea.
When I was trying to make the voyage, I carefully reviewed all the options, saving you the time, so here they are…
- 10 Important Things To Know Before Backpacking Central America
- The Ultimate Backpacking South America Packing List
- 10 Reasons Bogota Colombia Should be on Your Bucket List
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#1 Flying to Colombia
You can easily travel from Panama to Colombia in the air, via almost any major city.
The main airline carriers are COPA and Avianca, who are the Colombian airline I made this journey with.
Avianca are normally a little cheaper and I highly recommend them. There are multiple flights throughout the day with times, distances and prices varying of course.
Just to give you some idea, a flight from Panama City to Bogota, Colombia with Avianca will set you back around a minimum of $300 USD increasing up to $500-600 USD ($ USD being the currency you’ll probably pay in).
Don’t forget to check out Skyscanner for the best flight deals – you can easily scan the whole month and find the cheapest day to fly!
Budget Tip for Flying
Don’t worry about having to book these flight too far in advance however, as things don’t seem to shift much in price until the flight is within about 10 days time.
Often, in fact, you are better to wait until you are physically in the country of departure as buying a ticket from there, rather than internationally, will normally guarantee you a better price.
In addition, not booking flights too far in advance gives you a degree of flexibility that is always useful if you’re backpacking.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked a flight and then either not caught it or had to change the date.
So for short flights, especially within Latin America, I advise you book only when you are 100% sure about the date you want to travel.
Personally, when I flew from Panama to Santa Marta in Colombia, I arrived into Panama City booked the flight that night and flew out the following day.
Even with this short notice period, it was not that expensive, as I only paid around $450 USD.
The flight was super early in the morning, but sometimes this is just what we have to do to get a good deal!
Normally a keen budgeter, I would have usually booked the flight much earlier, but as I was totally unsure of my plans at the time, I didn’t want to pay for anything in advance and then have to cough up more because I wanted to change the flight date.
Once I arrived in Panama City and checked the flight prices, I then actually worked out it would be better for me financially to get a quicker flight and arrive in the cheaper Caribbean coast of Colombia sooner, than it would be for me to stay in Panama City paying ridiculous rates in a below-average hostel and city.
Benefits of Flying
The obvious benefits of flying are that it’s quick, easy and safe.
The other great advantage is that it gives you a choice over your destination, getting you straight to where you want to go; if you want to check our Medellin first, for example, flying lets you do this.
Consider flying if you’re on time restraints and want to get into Colombia asap.
If you want to arrive at an inland destination, flying is also a good option. Plus, its scheduled and secure.
Downsides are that flying isn’t very adventurous and leaves you with a larger carbon footprint. I felt like a bit of a fraud flying, although I’m over it now!
#2 Hitching on a Cargo Boat
It is possible to hitch a lift on a cargo boat that will travel from Panama to Colombia.
I’ve had some hard-core traveller friends who’ve crossed between the 2 continents this way and it’s certainly an adventurous, not to mention cheap, mode of travel.
The normal process is to hang around the ports of Carti or Puerto Lindo (a drive from Panama City), speaking to everyone you can to try and ascertain who is sailing when and if they’ll take passengers and/or crew!
This can be a long process, taking anything up to a couple of weeks and you’ll definitely need commitment as well as steadfast determination, not to mention a pretty good grip of Spanish.
If you succeed however, your efforts are bound to be rewarded by a crazy journey and some great stories to tell in the future!
The main reason you might like to get across to Colombia this way, apart from a few stories of course, is how little it could cost you.
Normally you will pay only a minimal fee for hitching on boats (to cover the cost of food etc) and often work aboard the ship as payment for your crossing as well.
In reality however, friends I’ve known who’ve done this said it didn’t work out as cheap as they expected, not least because the journey took them over 10 days, plus the time they spent hanging around at the port.
They also said the price of food was a lot given what they ate – nothing but rice and beans!
On the other hand, hitching across to Colombia this way did allow them to get their bikes across to South America and this much was cheaper than having them shipped.
If you’re looking for a crazy adventure, hitching on a cargo boat to travel from Panama to Colombia could be for you.
I’d also say, hesitantly, that it’s a cheap option, but that really depends on the cost you agree with the captain and the length of the journey.
Probably don’t use the hitch option if you’re short on time, don’t speak much Spanish or don’t like roughing it.
You might also want to be aware of crazy captains, as you really will be in their hands!
#3 5-Day Sailing Trips
Probably the most common way of travel from Panama to Colombia for backpackers is to take one of the 5-day tours, which take in the beautiful San Blas Islands, owned by the indigenous Kuna people.
Usually you sail on a catamaran for 3 days around the San Blas before making the 2-day journey across the sea to dock at Cartagena, one of the jewels in Colombia’s crown.
Time at the San Blas is often spent snorkelling, eating fresh seafood and enjoying the paradisiacal environment of these Caribbean islands.
Arrangements tend to vary slightly from ship to ship, with different boats visiting different islands and snorkelling spots.
Other details can also alter, i.e. sometimes passengers are dropped off in other locations in Colombia apart from Cartagena or sometimes tours can take longer than 5 days due to weather, but the basic model remains the same.
Most of the major hostels in Panama City arrange these tours for their guests, helping to match them up with departing boats.
However, demand often outstrips supply, so many advise booking a tour at least a month in advance, otherwise you’ll probably find yourself hanging around in Panama City for a little longer than you had planned.
Sailing Tour Prices
These 5-day boat tours cost roughly $500 USD, including all food, water and any Colombian immigration formalities.
As such, they are a welcome option for many backpackers who consider them a great deal if taking a flight and not seeing the San Blas will set you back at least $300 USD anyway.
There are a few hidden costs involved in the tour option however; normally the boats actually depart either from Puerto Lindo or Carti.
To reach both of these ports you need to travel from Panama City and possibly spend a night out there too, depending what time your tour leaves in the morning.
To reach Puerto Lindo public buses are available, but if you leave from Carti, you must foot the cost of a private 4wd trip there as well (about $60 USD all up).
Disadvantages of Sailing Tours
Again I’ve had friends who have travelled between the continents via these 5-day tours and they had an absolutely great time.
However, I’ve also heard many horror stories of dreadful captains, seasickness and shoddy boat making the crossing a living hell.
Often tours are delayed, so anyone that has made travel plans or bookings in Colombia can risk missing them too.
The other negative is that when you book one of these tours, you are unable to guarantee what boat you might end up on, let alone who will be steering her and this can be a recipe for disaster.
Definitely try and do as much research as you can about which boat you will be going with, although this can be hard given that the hostels selling the tours are just third parties and in no way affiliated with any of the boats / captains.
If you do have a bad time, getting a refund is therefore totally out of the question.
Due to waiting lists for tours, many backpackers, desperate to get to Colombia asap, will just hop on the first boat available.
Again, this probably isn’t a good idea if you read more about some of the disaster trips online.
Sailing Trip Verdict
If you’re keen to get a slice of paradise, then probably a trip that incorporates the San Blas is the one for you.
The tours are a good deal if you want to visit the islands as well.
However, definitely avoid them if you have set or pre-paid plans in Colombia, as there is a fair chance you’ll miss them.
If you do know your moves in advance and you can book the tour weeks ahead of time, this might also be good, but if you rock into Panama City and need to get to Colombia asap, I’d say give it a miss.
Beware of seasickness too!
#4 4-day Speedboat Tours
These are shorter, less readily available boat trips, which also take in the San Blas archipelago as you skirt closer to the coast, island hopping all the way until you arrive at Sapzurro in Colombia, instead of Cartagena.
These trips normally take only 4 days and seem to be less popular, perhaps because they are less comfortable – I’m not sure where you sleep, but I’m guessing you string a hammock up on the islands.
They do however, avoid the arduous open sea crossing of the 5-day trip and you are therefore less likely to get any serious sea-sickness as a result.
Once you get to Sapzurro, it is then a $70 USD and 11-hour journey to get to Cartagena via boat to Turbo and then a bus.
This is a long and uncomfortable journey, but very straightforward if you are used to Latin American travel.
Sapzurro itself, however, is meant to be a beautifully underdeveloped, road-free, vehicle-free seaside village. I would’ve loved to have checked it out and recommend you do the same if you get a chance.
I don’t know anybody who has experience of getting across the Darien Gap this way and there’s not much information on the web about these trips.
This possibly means it’s a discontinued option for travel from Panama to Colombia.
However it’s still worth inquiring about them when you get to Panama City.
Luna’s Castle Hostel in Panama City advertise it on their website. This is also a great place to stay.
Get more info first, but looks like a potentially cheaper, quicker and better boat option for travel from Panama to Colombia!
#5 Flying to Puerto Obaldia, Panama
This is the option I really wanted to take. Flights from Panama City to the border town of Puerto Obaldia are run by the domestic carrier
Flights from Panama City to the border town of Puerto Obaldia are run by the domestic carrier Air Panama and are cheap, costing only about $75 USD.
Unfortunately, they only run a couple times a week, currently Monday and Friday and seem to be booked up well in advance, which is the reason I couldn’t travel across the border this way.
Sadly, it is impossible to get hold of the company by phone or email to confirm a booking and I have also heard of their system issuing you with a wrong ticket, which it is then impossible to get changed.
I have also heard you have to pay excess for heavy luggage, which seems to apply to any bag that hits their scale.
But hey, this is Latin America!
Nonetheless, if you get the chance to travel from Panama to Colombia this way I would recommend it.
Once you arrive in Puerto Obaldia, which is in the Darien region of Panama, you go through exit customs and then board a $15 USD boat to Sapzurro.
It is here you will clear Colombian immigration.
As discussed above, Sapzurro is meant to be an incredibly beautiful part of Colombia that I wish I had seen.
I would definitely recommend staying here a few days and enjoying the paradise setting.
For good or for bad however, Sapzurro is a remote village, only accessible by boat, and it therefore takes a whole day of travel to get to Cartagena or Medellin, so if you’re in a hurry this route is best avoided.
Puerto Obaldia Verdict
Adding together the total price of a flight to Puerto Obaldia, a boat to Sapzurro, a boat to Turbo and then a bus to Cartagena, this option weighs in at under $200 USD, which makes it excellent deal given it will ensure more comfort, security and safety than hitching on a cargo boat.
Sure you miss the San Blas Islands that the boat trips offer, but you do get to enjoy the wonderful Sapzurro instead and it’s certainly a more adventurous and off the beaten track mode of crossing the border. I think it could be a winner!
#6 Taking a Tour
Or finally, you can choose the easiest and most stress-free option when it comes to travelling between Panama and Colombia… and that is to take a tour.
Tours that move between both countries will organise this annoying border crossing for you and this means you can get everything organised in advance and just relax.
It will also give you the opportunity to experience some guided time in both these countries and see their best bits as well as learn a lot more about them.
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So those are your choices when it comes to cheap travel from Colombia to Panama.
Which one are you likely to take?
Also for anyone whose already made the crossing, please let us know about your experience!