Route Unknown: Panama to Colombia?


It’s really getting interesting now – this new ferry route from Panama to Colombia. The stakes are high; if we can get onto it, and don’t have to send the truck on a normal freight ship, it might save us nearly $3000 and a whole load of headaches like having to board up the bus to protect it from the obligatory thieving that happens in and around freight shipping. But, as of today, no one seems to know when this service is going to start up. In fact, no one seems to know, in fact, where the bloody ferry is – it’s last recorded location was in dry dock in Greece 36-odd days ago. Please, please, please correct me if I’m wrong. The stakes are very high.

As you may or may not know, the Darién Gap is a fifty mile wide section of primeval jungle filled with many dangers. It separates North and Central America from the South and there is no road through. Why is there no road? I’m not sure – to stop drugs flowing north is the commonly given answer (though I imagine a lawless jungle area is good drug-running territory). It’s like just a few miles beyond the Panama Canal, where they have linked the two watery hemispheres together, the Pan American Highway grinds to a halt and you must divert to Panama’s Caribbean port of Colon to catch a boat to Cartagena in Colombia. This 200 km crossing costs more than getting from North America to South Korea, across the Pacific – a fact that should be of some interest to North American based overlanders looking for something truly exotic like East Asia to explore. However, a simple RO-RO (roll on – roll off) ferry such as they have all over the world would greatly reduce travel costs and simplify the procedures since you can travel with the vehicle. So in April, it was announced that there was to be a new ferry service and hundreds of press releases were sent out stating the first voyage was set for 10th May. Well  the wheels had fallen off and that date has come and gone: Some people who had reserved tickets have been told that the ferry won’t start until the end of the summer (I’m not sure when that is in a tropical country). No one is even exactly sure what the documents required for buying a ticket. Some people say they’ve been asked to show proof of an onward flight from Panama. Or maybe that’s Colombia. We’ve been told we can’t take the dog. We’ve also been told we can take the dog. Our plan, at the moment, is to observe what happens on the 31st May – the latest date of departure that is rumored. What a glorious mess! Have a look at Drive The Americas site to check out the evolving situation…

The same kind of thing was happening back in South Korea, looking for a way out – we couldn’t go back to Russia, couldn’t go onto China or Japan. There was always N.Korea. We scoped out the border but it didn’t look good. So that was kind of different to now  – we had no choice but to throw ourselves at the mercy of freight shipping companies. Here we kind have a choice.

It’s more like the time at the junction east of Ulan Ude, Buryatia. The new road that kept us going eastwards in Russia was being built, we knew. But was it actually finished? Travelers coming the other way told us it was nearly finished but it still wasn’t marked on any map and no one could tell us whether it would take us six weeks to get round to Vladivostok or whether it could be just a few days. And meanwhile the 3-month Russian visa was ticking down; could we afford the time to drive south into Mongolia, especially with our trucks just beginning to show suspension problems? There, we thought the stakes were high; I didn’t want to think about what would happen if we overstayed a Russian visa. Just the thought of my dog alone in the dark van down in the customs yard while us humans were locked up somewhere brought tears to my eyes.

Of course, the uncertainty ahead, the route unknown, is very much a part of traveling – even the commute back home from work can present a myriad of geographical options that could result in a missed game of football on TV, say. and, during that journey, you exist in a live state, you are trying to second guess the future, you are at one with time. Not everyone has the luxury of enjoying it though – spare a thought for trans-world migrants whose impoverished families are relying on the limited choices available to someone who could, at any minute, be arrested, deported or worse. Or someone escaping injustice, tyranny…  The biggest mass movements in history were generally disaster zones. Luckily for us this ferry thing is just a ferry.

And if the new Colon to Cartagena service turns out be a complete joke, some kind of hoax that has got legions of over-landers banging on the ticket-office door, begging, frothing at the mouth – one or two of them wondering how difficult it could be to pool resources and start our own bloody ferry company – then, well, no big loss, eh – you have to embrace whatever the future brings. It’s just this Schrödinger’s cat of a situation is such a buzz. And (will it sail?/won’t it sail?) is happening right now!


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