Crossing the Darién Gap

My friend Marcos and I first started talking about the idea of driving our motorcycles from Austin to Argentina during conversation practice in a Portuguese class at UT Austin. From the beginning we knew that we’d have a limited time schedule, but we knew about the Pan-American Highway, and our initial plans were to generally follow that south. Almost as soon as I began the preliminary route research, however, I discovered that the fabled Pan-American Highway, stretching 30,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina, is not actually complete.

The Darién Gap is an area comprised mostly of swamps and forest on the Panama-Colombia border, where there are approximately 60 miles missing from the Pan-American highway. Although I was surprised by this, my initial response was to just take secondary routes. However that idea was quickly dispelled. The region is, for all practical purposes, impassable, and the only way around is by sea.

On board the lancha
On board the lancha

Despite the lack of roads, a few people have managed to cross it. The first group to do so by vehicles was in 1960, and the crossing took 5 months. Later that same year an adventurer tried it for the first time on a motorcycle but ended up having to abandon the motorcycle in order to cross by boat and on foot. Reasons for not constructing a highway through the area include the prohibitive cost, environmental concerns, fear of increased drug trafficking and spread of disease, and protection of local indigenous groups.

Although there is no ferry that operates as an extension of the Pan-American Highway, there are several options to cross a vehicle by sea. The most common method is to put the vehicle in a shipping container and buy a plane ticket for yourself. Motorcyclists however have more options. You can either fly your motorcycle or put it on a local cargo boat and then fly yourself. Additionally you can travel with your motorcycle on one of the regular sailboats that ferries backpackers back and forth between Panama and Colombia, touring the San Blas islands en route.

Loading the motorcycles onto The Independence
Loading the motorcycles onto The Independence

We opted for the last option. On the day before our boat The Independence sailed for Colombia we arrived in Carti, Panama, and loaded the motorcycles on small fishing boats, locally called lanchas. These lanchas carried the motorcycles out to open water where they were winched onto The Independence. After three days of snorkeling in the San Blas Islands, The Independence set sail at midnight for Cartagena. After 30 odd hours at open sea we arrived in Cartagena where the loading process was reversed. We arrived on Colombian soil in a lancha, unloaded the motorcycles at a small boat ramp on the edge of the city, and then drove to customs to process the proper paperwork. It was the strangest border crossing I’ve ever experienced.

The Pan American Highway in Columbia
The Pan American Highway in Columbia

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Pan-American Highway will be connected in the coming years, but in the meantime the Darién Gap remains one of the most intriguing and least-explored places in the Americas.

For a bit more information on the Darién Gap, see this recent BBC article http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28756378

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