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!
22 thoughts on “How to Cheaply Travel From Panama to Colombia (or visa versa!)”
Lovely pictures, Steph, especially that sunset!
Hey thanks Leontien, that sunset was a beauty!
The sailing and speed boats are becoming more and more popular, as you are seeing the beautiful San Blas islands. However most of the trips are expensive and cost nowadays around 450 USD or even more. But there are also some smaller tour operator. I did my trip with MIA SAN BLAS a small company (www.miasanblas.com), can recommend them and the only charge 290 USD (with a price list, for what you pay on their website). There must be also others. Thus, if you look for more information in the internet, you can really save a lot of money. Good travels to all 🙂
Thank you so much for this up-to-date info Korbi, a real help for travellers out there now trying to decide what to do. Sounds like you found a good company too – money saving tips are always welcome here, so thank you again for sharing 🙂
Hi Steph and travellers out there,
excellent and inspiring work and blog, congratulations and thanks! Thanks also to Korbi for an update.
We also would like to share our experience because we think it could be interesting and helpful for travellers who are looking for more authentic, individual and economic ways for crossing the border.
Our experience traveling and working in Panama and Colombia!
We were traveling and working in Panama and Colombia for the last 1 ½ years (may 2016 – december 2017). During that period we realized throughout many conversations with travellers, that still there seems to be a lack of information about the border crossing between Central and South America.
Why we love your blog!
Thanks to your blog there is a new community growing which is eager to provide and share updated good quality information about the border crossing from Panama to Colombia. Would be great if this helps to open up the market for the border crossing and while promote the unique local infrastructure of the indigenous area San Blas Islands. Interaction between the indigenous Guna in San Blas and tourists is a win-win situation for both.
Situation in San Blas right now!
These days gringo speed boat companies and sailing boats all charge around 500 – 600 USD and prices are constantly rising. We know that a lot of companies overcharge and that a lot of this money stays in foreigner hands and does not go to the indigenous families and communities on the islands. We think new ways of flexible and authentic local border crossing options between Central and South America is what many travellers are looking for these days. For this reason, we would like to let more travellers know about different options for the border crossing.
New options and future trends!
We would recommend getting in contact with Mia San Blas. They are a family and Guna company who are not only offering tours between Panama and Colombia. They are also in the area and can give good recommendations for individual border crossings and useful hints about the Guna culture and way of life on the islands. They will also help you to connect with Guna on your way and save you from ‘just being a tourist😉’.
Why our experience was more authentic!
The San Blas Islands are Caribbean paradise. One of the main reasons these islands remain picturesque is due to the fact that the whole area is owned and protected by the indigenous Guna. Mia San Blas loves to share this passion for the Guna way of life. They are eager to provide useful information about San Blas in a very authentic and individual way. As Mia San Blas is a Guna company, they are on the islands and their information is always up to date.
If you are passionate about seeing all highlights in San Blas while crossing the border in a more authentic, no-gringo style and more economical way, Mia San Blas is a good address to plan your trip.
Hope that helps travellers for a more authentic and alternative border crossing. Would be also great to hear about other companies or new exciting ways for the border crossing in the future.
Katharina, thank you so much for this incredible update and tons of info. WOW! It’s been a few years since I made this journey from Central America to South America, so I really appreciate the update. It’s great if we can help travellers find new, cheap, genuine, engaged and more conscious ways to travel. All the best
Wow, this is a great article. I wish I had found this site before doing the trip.
I just did the island-hopping speed-day tour last week and couldn’t be happier with it. San Blas is a magical place and I am so glad I didn’t skip it.
I did a 3-day tour with San Blas Frontera, which is owned by a local Kuna guy who grew up in a Kuna village next to Puerto Obaldia and knows the whole San Blas area and culture quite well.
The trip started in Panama City where we got picked up and brought to San Blas. We spent two nights on two different islands (no hammocks, but comfortable beds in super cute huts made from natural material on the beach) and in between visited different islands and a Kuna village. The company helped with the entrance formalities to Colombia and on the third day we arrived in Sapzurro (yes, you really missed out, Steph, when you had to skip this place). We did the trip in a small group of six, which was perfect – I heard of boats going with 30 and more people…
I paid 295 USD which I found a lot cheaper than other options given the value for money. Everything, even the car ride from Panama City and the entrance fees was included. I only had to spend a few dollars for water and soda, which is not included. The boat ride was ok, it’s obviously not comparable to a plane seat but since you only spend short periods of time on the boat it’s totally fine.
From what I understood you can also extend the stay for more than three days or strip it down to two days if you are in a hurry.
Thanks Daniel, this sounds like a great trip indeed. Appreciate you keeping my readers informed of new and exciting options. The price seems pretty good too and with Sapzurro thrown in as well! Jealous!
Hi, I am a bit on a panicking mood as I was not aware that the controls on onward tickets can be rather though for Costa Rica and Panama. What was your experience? I would like to take the boat option and I am flying right now to Costa Rica with no additional tickets to go forward. Many thanks for letting me know
I think you’ll be fine Anja – worst case, you can buy an international bus ticket through the company TicaBus at immigration in the airport! Fear not!
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just buy a refundable air ticket out of the country? If you’re traveling slow it might take a while before you can refund it I guess.
Definitely another option to think about there Sam 🙂
I saw plenty flights today leaving Janusrt from Panama city to Medellin or Santa Marta in Colombia for about $130 to $150. So it’s pointless to go by boat. Just fly.
Thanks for the input Christian – much appreciated
This is an article anyone visiting Panama should watch, thanks for the tips! Also known as the crossroads of the Americas, Panama has much to offer. You can engage in water sports, spend time on white sandy beaches backing out to azure blue seas, as well as outdoor activities such as zip lining or trekking lush jungles.
However, there are tourist-targeting scammers and petty crime to be wary of.
Do be wary of fraudulent hiking tours, drink or food spiking, overcharging restaurants, overcharging taxi drivers, overnight cross border bus thefts, long taxi routes, shoe shine scam, fake police and many more!
Thanks David, a fascinating country indeed, but appreciate your advice on safety and scams, always good to be aware of these.
Hi, I’m traveling to Boca del Toros tomorrow and looking at ways to cross into Colombia a dew days down the track, I stumbled upon the MIASANBLAS article. So I went to their website. Their quoted price is USD275. However with the addition of food accommodation and land transport the full amount is over USD 500.00 for three days and two nights.
I was unable to book anyway as the booking section was somewhat “frozen” I tried to send a message through the “contact” on their website and it wouldn’t go. Underneath was a warning, IN GERMAN, to use a valid email address. I must add that I’m not German, I looked for the translation.
So back to my research
Yes back to research Maria, this does not sound like a good link or company to follow. Travel safe. Steph 🙂
Hey, i’ve been following your website quite a long, i’ve found
it to be super interesting. Im going to share it asap on my facebook
That’s great to hear, thank you 🙂
Someone with a large sailboat well organized for maximum occupancy could make a killing going between Puerto Obaldia and Colombia at a reasonable cost. Strange how nobody seems to have done it yet. No San Blas ripoffs, just engineless transport skimming through clear Caribbean waters. Efficient function as they say.
Seems logical Sam, but I presume there is some reason this isn’t happening already. Likely some “behind the scenes” explanations we’re not party to as travellers, along with possible regulatory / investment issues? Thanks for your thoughts though, Steph