Exploring from Colombia to Panama

Travelling from Colombia to Panama with a top adventure-travel outfitter, James Henderson recces a new itinerary. Photographs by Richard Dunwoody

One of the 370 islands in the San Blas archipelago, Panama
One of the 370 islands in the San Blas archipelago, Panama

What? Colombia?”

Colombia fans watching the World Cup in Montería
Colombia fans watching the World Cup in Montería

I privately rifle through my internal database of geopolitical destinations, which quickly returns one of the most dangerous places in the world; Medellín, the Farc, Pablo Escobar and his cronies flash by in my mind. “Just our sort of destination,” says Jonny Bealby breezily. “We’re not exactly fly and flop.”

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We’re in the London offices of Wild Frontiers, a small travel company founded and headed up by Bealby, himself a former travel writer (his books include Silk Dreams, Troubled Road and For a Pagan Song). I’m headed out on a reconnaissance; my brief is to witness the genesis of a new holiday, as the firm expands its Latin American coverage. It wants to offer its clients trips of the same depth – experiences that combine adventure and culture with the least-trod landscapes – as its holidays in India, central Asia and elsewhere. Wild Frontiers prides itself on “adventure travel at the limits of what’s feasible”, as Bealby defines it, and any proposed itinerary needs to be vetted and verified. “Our travellers hear about these countries through the media, but they know what they’re hearing is not the full story. So they want to see for themselves,” he says.

La Casa del Habano bar in Cartagena, Colombia
La Casa del Habano bar in Cartagena, Colombia

The process this time around was germinated by the firm’s South American specialist, who had sketched out 15 provisional itineraries before having a germination of her own and going on maternity leave, landing the project on the desk of head of group tours Marc Leaderman. “The trip that caught everyone’s attention was at the very top-left-hand corner of the continent, linking Cartagena in Colombia to Panama City,” he says. “Across the Darién Gap.”

A welcome dance in the village of Armila, Panama
A welcome dance in the village of Armila, Panama

“What? The Darién?” I reply. Miles and miles of merciless, impenetrable jungle pops up from the internal database. The Darién, that massive wiggly bit that embeds into South America and is the only break in the entire Pan-American Highway, has defeated hardcore explorers before now. There isn’t even a road across it, is there? “We do find our clients like an element of… journey in their travel,” says Bealby equably.

Indoor market in Lorica, Colombia
Indoor market in Lorica, Colombia

Clearly I’ve a bit to learn about Panama, as well as Colombia. But then, Wild Frontiers has a few gaps of its own. Leaderman runs through the itinerary, which has one or two distinctly hazy sections – the Darién part is to be by boat, I discover – and plenty of minor logistics left to be verified. But that’s what recces are for.

A resident toucan at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia
A resident toucan at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia

Three weeks later, I bounce into Cartagena in a rainstorm. The rain doesn’t clear the air, though: in July the sun on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is searingly hot and relentlessly, meltingly humid. Paper wilts and smudges; pens give up the ghost. My Wild Frontiers man turns out to be Richard Dunwoody, the former jockey, now travel photographer, part-owner of the company and occasional tour leader. Over steaks, we meet the firm’s on-the-ground fixer, Russ Coleman, who’s actually from Southampton – an edge of blokes on tour here. How remote are we willing to go? We swap stories. Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor on horseback – related in a Northern Irish burr – wins, I reckon.

A view of San Felipe de Barajas castle in Cartagena, Colombia
A view of San Felipe de Barajas castle in Cartagena, Colombia

Around three-fifths of Wild Frontiers’ holidays are escorted tours for no more than a dozen people; it is one of these trips we are verifying, though private tailor-made permutations will also be on offer. So while the others set off to recce the trendy district of Gethsemaní, I head for the colonial city and its surroundings, where nunneries and palaces have been converted into boutique hotels. On balance I would give my pick to the new Bastión or to the Tcherassi (the namesake of its owner, fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi). Brightly painted colonial façades with concentric doors (small for visitors, larger for horse-drawn vehicles) stand hard by republican wedding-cake fussiness. “Panza” windows – cages of spindles – permit ventilation and snatched views of life in inner courtyards. It’s impossibly romantic. Around me the streets are littered with bougainvillea petals in five colours.

Loading the launch from Necoclí to Capurganá, Colombia
Loading the launch from Necoclí to Capurganá, Colombia

There’s a tight schedule though, and next morning at five we’re on the road, headed south and then west along the coast. Beyond the encrustation of the extended city, we emerge into tropical beauty incarnate; palms strike exclamatory poses on ridges, silvery mist pools in the hollows. As we drive, the view suddenly truncates, hemmed by plantations either side of unfeasibly straight roads, and then telescopes into pasture, where single saman trees stand in the paddocks, unutterably massive – worthy of the film Avatar. Houses flash by, in breeze block and tin, then wood and thatch, as do stalls selling fruits in the national colours. (Colombia is about to face Brazil in the World Cup quarter final.)

Sailing off Puerto Escocés, Panama
Sailing off Puerto Escocés, Panama

Football aside, this is probably the most misrepresented country I have visited. It seems the least likely pariah, and it’s unexpectedly unlike the rest of South America – Colombians appear less passionately expressive to me and unsuited to traditional strongman politics. The Farc can cause transport stoppages in remote areas, but largely slipped into gangsterdom through public perception, and the cocaine gangs are quieter now. The country is poised to come into its own. In fact, tourism has been bubbling under for a couple of years. “I know this’ll be the kiss of death,” says Coleman, “but the roads up here are pretty good so far.” And so, rather surprisingly, they continued.

The beach at Armila, Panama
The beach at Armila, Panama

Wild Frontiers doesn’t mind a bit of driving and, as we’re on a recce and our brief is to seek out places to visit, nor do I (though the consumer traveller will, we predict, likely rejig this itinerary with an internal flight or two). So, for the next two days we shuttle steadily southwest, via remote riverside towns Lorica and Montería, to the coast at Necoclí. We light on a reptile research station; caimans, alligators and crocodiles, each with a diabolic, toothy smile, lie immobile in their pens, heaped on one another like some macabre-looking game of Jenga. In another compound, the alpha croc relaxes among three attendant females. “Definitely a Costeño,” jokes one of the guides; coastal Colombian men are famed for macho prowess.

A Kuna grandmother and child in Walsaladup, San Blas, Panama
A Kuna grandmother and child in Walsaladup, San Blas, Panama

Back out on the roads, there is suddenly no one; offices are closed, utter desertion. The quarter final. We find a large TV screen erected in a supermarket car park in Montería. A thousand fans scream and shout at any chance and then hold their heads in desperation at the disallowed goal that would have taken Colombia to extra time. Oddly, at the end they applaud both teams, despite Colombia’s loss.

A view of the beach at Tiadup in San Blas, Panama
A view of the beach at Tiadup in San Blas, Panama

We take a ferry across the bay, right at the top-left-hand corner of Colombia, and a range of hills eventually sketches itself into view, a grey ridgeline that fills in green – mountains as steep as a theatrical backdrop, with a shoreside fringe of palms. This is the Darién. We arrive at a small resort town, Capurganá, set on granular blond sand. It’s a beach hiatus in a hectic trip, so we kick back for a day and ruminate on the itinerary so far, ticking off things that have worked – the evening riverside drink on arrival in Lorica and, next morning, a tour of the town centre with its republican buildings, particularly the market and its food stalls – and ones that need to be tweaked – what about a river transfer from there along the Sinú to Montería? And would getting clients into that mud volcano be fun or madness? We’ve checked that the hotels are the best available, but perhaps there’s a private estancia out there for the more bespoke client.

A container ship passes through the Panama Canal
A container ship passes through the Panama Canal

Then we’re moving on to Panama. After five days of Latin flounce and extravagance, we’re faced by four short, impassive men with Indian features. They’re members of the Kuna tribe, which has indigenous rights over the Darién coast, and they have come to transport us. We bounce off to cross the border in a wooden launch. Customs and immigration is in Puerto Olbadía, a ropey border town, but again everything stops for the 7-1 semi-final drubbing of Brazil. The thatched bar is in uproar as Latin pride is affronted by the pesky Germans. Suddenly, unsolicited beers appear on our table. Curious… The man who admits responsibility turns out to be the head of customs and immigration. Mental database churns: one of the prime drug-smuggling routes in the western world. But I conclude he’s just happy for some new company.

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We have left Coleman behind in Colombia, and now we are joined by Ricki-Lee Joyce, who hails from New Zealand. Another transfer by boat brings us to Armila, a Kuna town of 300. It is incredibly undeveloped and, I am told, has only just got electricity, through solar panels donated during a recent election campaign. But the impassive faces have given way to charm.

The beach at Armila is one of the world’s most important for nesting leatherback turtles. These huge beasts, sometimes 9ft by 4ft, heave themselves ashore at night, dig holes up to 3ft deep and lay 100 eggs before covering them, digging decoy pits and lumbering back into the ocean. It is a spectacular sight; sometimes there are 25 visits in a night. It should have been a massive highlight – but sadly, our 5km search, towards the tail end of this reproductive cycle, reveals nothing. Lesson learnt: the nesting season will dictate the timing of the tour.

Another lesson: interestingly, in the larger swell of winter, Armila is apparently impossible to access by boat. Our summer arrival was novel enough; the helmsman switched from his 40hp engine to 75hp and cruised neatly, if thrillingly, in between the breakers. Leaving, on the other hand, even in low swell – bow smacking skyward, almost pirouetting at one point, everyone on board panicking about cameras – was more fairground ride than transfer. Even the most adventurous travellers might not appreciate being actually dumped overboard. Shelved for further consideration, is the consensus.

Then we go from no harbour to one of the finest I have seen, curiously called Caledonia, or Puerto Escocés. The names give no hint of the suffering that occurred here in 1698, when it was the site of the Darién Scheme, Scotland’s ill-fated trading venture. Of the 2,500 or so colonists, almost 2,000 died of disease and wounds. It’s scorchingly hot. We rootle around in the undergrowth for sites of interest and traces of ruins – the bristly foliage caustic on our sunburnt skin – but few are visible now, just some foundations and channels hewn in the coral rock. It’s a sad legacy for a venture that bankrupted a country (Darién was the reason the Scots agreed to join the UK in the first place).

It’s true – the Darién is the only stretch of the Americas between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego that isn’t traversed by road. Thus begins an 18-hour sail north and west to the San Blas islands, taking the swell side on. Evidently, Dunwoody is as unused to sailboats as I am; we lie prostrate on deck, not daring to move. “Just a light swell, really,” Joyce assures us. In a moment of extreme concentration, Dunwoody mumbles, “Certainly won’t be recommending covering this section by boat.”

We roll on into night, and through it, and wake to a cartoon tropical-island idyll: atolls in flat, calm water, sprouting 20 to a thousand palms apiece, bristles on a turquoise sea. The muted roar of breakers bombarding the reef makes a mesmerising backdrop, but close at hand it is tranquil, soporific and crushingly hot – ideal for a beach-bound, barefoot life. We slither overboard and swim to a little beach bar, then roll into a hammock. We snorkel a drop-off in the Hollandese Cays. The reef is one of the best I have seen lately – corals like a thousand green molar teeth, elkhorns with a 12ft span, a huge, rubbery-lipped grouper gurning at me. As an old Caribbean hand, it is extremely odd to see islands as pretty as these without any development. It’s a fact due to the Kuna, who won’t allow outside control or investment; a sailboat is really the only way to visit.

On the mainland, Dunwoody and I part company, he heading off for more jungle recce, while I join Will Herschel, Wild Frontiers’ on-the-ground fixer in Panama, for a visit to the colonial town of Panama City. The Casco Viejo is undergoing major restoration and will be another Spanish colonial gem in years to come. It’s hard to imagine a place as industrial as the Panama Canal being a tourist attraction, but actually it’s fun to watch. Ships as tall as tower blocks rise and fall, attended by train engines like dinky toys. Where I take a grandstand view, Dunwoody later does the transit in a boat, to head down to the islands on Panama’s Pacific side for a final onshore break, which could be added to a tailor-made itinerary (there are several quite smart hotels).

A few weeks later, back at Wild Frontiers’ offices in southwest London, as eyes have turned from the World Cup to the Commonwealth Games, the team is putting the final touches to the itinerary. “There’s a good balance,” says Marc Leaderman. “It links colonial cities with some beach, the turtles at the Indian village and the yacht at San Blas in between. We know how all the ferries work now and there’s an air transfer from Puerto Olbadía to the San Blas. It won’t reduce the sense of journey and it’ll be a spectacular flight.” Seems they took Dunwoody’s advice, then. I meet James Garratt, the Latin America consultant. He’ll adapt the route, adding a day or two here, pruning a stretch there, recommending some slightly more grand accommodations. And a more luxurious yacht, perhaps.

“It’s all go. We’ll send the first tour in March next year,” says Leaderman. What will they call it? “Colombia to Panama: Skirting the Darién Gap.”

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