crossing Darien Gap - most difficult border crossing ever
Season 6: Project Alaska1 February 2022
In order to reach Alaska on my motorcycle, and enter Central America, I had to cross the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is a remote area between Colombia and Panama that consists of mountainous jungle, filled with poisonous snakes and treacherous swamps. This is the only interruption of the Panamerican highway, the world's longest motorable road, which links almost all of the Pacific coastal countries of the Americas.
For many centuries, the Darien Gap has attracted criminals, migrants, explorers, scientists, and other dubious characters. The area is dominated by narco-traffickers and anti-government guerrillas: the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) still controls the south-to-north route that is used to move weapons and cocaine.
Biggest barrier for overlanders
This 70-kilometer strip of land is therefore the biggest barrier for overlanders traveling in between North- and South America.
There are stories of people who risked it all and crossed the Darien Gap on a motorcycle. Probably the most famous story is that of a team of 4 US army paratroopers. They crossed the jungle a few years back. But before they crossed it, they had prepared their journey for two years. They invested a lot of time in gaining the trust of the officials, border patrol agencies, guides, and fixers. Knowing their story, I decided that doing it this way on my own, would not become my story.
By air or by sea?
With the overlanding option out of the window, I was left with two other options to cross the Darien Gap, by air or by sea.
By now, I've got quite some experience with shipping my motorcycle by air. I have done it three times already. The first time was from Malaysia to Oman, something nobody had done before, according to the airport officials. The second time was from London to Buenos Aires, which is a well-known route. The third time I flew with my motorcycle from London to Quito in Ecuador, again a less common trajectory. I know from experience that shipping a motorcycle by airplane is not an easy task. It may look easy watching my videos, but it takes a lot of time and planning to pull it all off. And then I'm not even talking about the costs of such an operation. Needless to say, having my motorcycle shipped to Ecuador not too long ago, I did not want to go through that whole process again.
That left me with the only remaining option: crossing the Darien Gap over sea. For many years, this route has been a popular option in the overland motorcycle community. Several options existed in which large sailing ships would hoist motorcycles onboard and after a few days of sailing via the gorgeous San Blas islands, you would arrive in Panama. Easy, enjoyable, and more affordable than flying.
Finding my own boat to cross with
But then came the pandemic, and none of the larger sailing ships were running anymore. There was only one option left for me if I wanted to keep my motorcycle with me at all times. Organize my own crossing with a little boat that would take my bike and me all the way to Puerto Cartí in Panama.
Given the size of these smaller boats, there were a lot more risks and unknowns. I had to put a lot of (financial) trust in people that I didn't really know. On top of that, I wasn't crossing the gap in the best of times. From December until March the sea in this part of the world is rough, choppy, and dangerous. The longer I waited, the worse it would become, the locals that sail this route told me. With that in mind, I rode through Colombia faster than originally intended, so to make the crossing as soon, and therefore, as safe as I could. Hopefully.
It took a lot of time and effort to find locals that would use their boats for legal trips. Besides crossing the Darien Gap on foot, thousands of migrants are also crossing the Darien Gap by boat. These crossings are illegal and when caught, the captain of the boat would go straight to prison. But the high demand for boats by migrants drives up the price, and captains can earn up to 5000 dollars for one crossing, making it tempting for some to get into this risky and illegal business. And well, for me as a solo traveler trying to cross legally, that price was way out of my budget, and in that case, it would be even cheaper to fly. Finding locals that I could trust was a very important and crucial step in the whole expedition to cross the Darien Gap over sea. Luckily, I came into contact with Juan Carlos and his family and friends, who make an earnest living with fishing and are not interested in doing anything illegal.
Crossing Darien Gap
Even though it turned out to be 3 nerve-wracking days on sea, with countless stops to retie my bike with more and more ropes because of the rain, wind and choppy seas, I felt safe in the company of my new friends. I even felt safe with them, when another speedboat with three masked men came speeding towards us waving around a huge machine gun. When I finally reached Puerto Cartí in Panama, I realized this was by far the longest, most challenging, and riskiest border crossing I'd ever done in my entire life. And I didn't even cross through the jungle of the Darien Gap!
Cudos to you, Juan Carlos and his family!!! Perhaps providing info on how you were able to find Mr. Carlos can help fellow adventure riders in crossing the gap. I understand not providing your cost to travel but I'm sure Mr. Carlos would appreciate the business and would be happy to provide his charge. They were indeed fast thinkers when approached by a waving gun. What a heart pounding few episodes, thank you for sharing the experience!
Panama also has an impressive police unit on smaller bikes, if you happen to get the chance to view a training demonstration of the skill in riding two up back to back while holding a gun, do it. There might even be a YouTube video of their skill in training. Aside from the wildlife in the country, they were the highlight for me! I witnessed them riding alongside a passenger bus with the rear police standing on the seat to look into the windows of the bus.
Looking forward to the next episodes, especially if you decide to go through Belize. Be sure to look up "Alternate adventures and motorbike rentals", Emma is a gem and a great place to visit if you need to work on your bike!
Until we meet, stay safe and enjoy the ride.
well it was nerve wrecking just to watch, I can´t imagine how it was for real. But you did it! Thumbs up for your courage!
As spring is coming to I´m starting to think where will I go, if situation allows it. Romania is in play for some time and my friend who was there is encouraging me to go with him.
Enjoy your journey and stay safe
Greetings from Slovakia
Why didn't you enjoy Colombia longer, until March or even longer? I always find it a pity, even questionable, when travelers hurry so much instead of travelling more slowly.
Hello again Noraly....In the end are you able to share with us what it cost you to cross the gap? In an earlier video you mentioned something about $72. but I suspect it was substantially more than that. Thanks for your frequent updates on progress. It's really a shame you couldn't have explored more of Columbia and Venezuela before heading north again. Bonne Chance Mon ami.
Hi Bunkmuffin, I don't share the costs of my travels. It can be different for anybody, depending on your personal situation, the situation in the region, and the situation in the world. Think of prices for fuel, for instance.
I am new too your adventures, you are a very plucky lady to do these types of traveling .would have loved to do in my youth back in the early sixies but was not really possible then.my bit now with bikes is helping at the races on the isle of man where i live.
Thank you Noraly, for this detailed report of your crossing. I wondered how you managed to find this crew, goodwilling and reliable. And you say, it took much time, and I understand. This part of the world, as others, is where people are tempted to make a living on other people's distress, and "offer" (with high fees as you mention it) crossings to illegal immigrants. Maybe the gofast boat with three armed men aboard was a team who didn't want concurrents, or militia ? Anyway, your crew made it possible to cross without harm. We all thank them for this. I must say watching your videos, from S1 to now, is really teaching about relationship with local people. You find your own way, and get in touch with reliable people. Certainly avoiding the (few ?) others who would put you in more difficult situations. Thank you for your positive attitude that show in your reports. You really are a strong and willing lady ! Respect and courage !
From a distant place like India, I could feel the adventurous risks that you take with a strong positive attitude. You are truly in a YOGIC state with travel and hence enjoy every bit! My prayers always with you.
Noraly you never fail to impress me. Been watching you from the beginning. Your riding skill as well as videographer skill is second to none. I have leg problems and can't ride now. Hopefully again someday. But I can enjoy the trip with you! Watching you is like taking a tour with the nicest [but also the smartest and most determined] rider ever. I also love the insight on the geology from a professional. You are so inspiring and always have that Lets Go attitude. Love you and wish safe travels.
I watched your videos since India and I thought what a crazy women. Well you are still a crazy women. Hopefully your journeys isn't as suspectfully as Lampa Peru. I was thinking they were going to do to you what they did to Joan of Arc! Journey on and be brave but safe, Noraly of Netherlands.
I just watched your most resent video today and wow what a ride. I had to agree with a lot of the comments that you have a lot of patience and determination. Guatemala is the only country besides Canada that I have been to outside the US. There is a lot to see there so I hope you will be able to take some of it in. God speed as you continue.