As the Crossroads of the World, Panama acts as the gateway to South America. But how easy is it to get from Panama to Colombia? Travelling between the two countries involves crossing the Darien Gap, an infamous patch of jungle known for its cartel activity.
If you’re looking to connect your Central America trip with new adventures in the South, this article will tell you everything you need to know about getting from Panama to Colombia. There are a few ways to cross the border, ranging from safe and expensive options to dangerous and (still) expensive options.
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How to Cross the Darien Gap and Travel From Panama to Colombia
TL;DR: The Darien Gap is pretty much impossible to cross overland and even if it wasn’t, it is far too dangerous to attempt the journey. It is easy to fly from Panama to Colombia and although still expensive, this is the cheapest option. The most novel way of crossing the border between Panama and Colombia is by boat. Speedboat and sailing trips are available.
What is the Darien Gap?
The jungles of Darien province sit on the border between Panama and Colombia. It is a very dangerous area which travellers should only enter with an experienced local guide.
The Gap itself, also known as the Darien Plug, divides the Pan-American Highway, the road which begins in Prudhoe Bay, United States and terminates in Ushuaia, Argentina.
Drug traffickers, criminal gangs and terrorist groups control the area, making it a lawless place. Throw in the risk of flash floods and dangerous animals and it’s clear that there is far more to worry about than just the people operating in the jungle.
These days, the only people who attempt to cross the Darien Gap on foot are migrants, usually seeking refuge in a country safer than their own.
How to Cross the Darien Gap – 4 Ways
Road from Panama to Colombia – Impossible Option
It is pretty much impossible to cross the Darien Gap overland. There is a break in the Pan American Highway starting in Yaviza, Panama, until the road picks up again in Turbo, Colombia. This 106km gap has no roads and is all but impossible to navigate unless you know the area really well.
While rumours have long swirled about setting up a ferry service across the Darien Gap, this has not yet progressed from an idea to a plan. At present, it is all but impossible to cross overland and even if you could find a local to guide you through, I would never recommend it. It is simply too dangerous.
Flying from Panama to Colombia – Easiest Option
As travellers, I believe that we should all be doing our bit to try and limit our carbon footprint. Flying from A to B is one of the most carbon-intensive activities that we can partake in so it is important to try and limit flying unless absolutely necessary.
However, taking a flight from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) is undoubtedly the easiest, safest, quickest and often cheapest way to travel between the two countries.
Panama City is the hub of transport in and out of the country and it’s served by countless international flights from its two airports; Tocumen International Airport and Albrook Gelabert Airport. Flights leave from Panama City to a range of cities in Colombia including Cartagena, Santa Marta, Medellín, Cali and Bogotá.
Copa Airlines and Avianca are the most popular airlines that service these routes and prices are usually not too high – I’ve seen flights costing approx. $70USD at the low end raising to about $350USD on the high end. The average seems to be around $170USD.
It is possible to find a direct flight to most cities in Colombia, however, if you are flying with Avianca, you may need to transfer at Bogotá Airport for destinations further afield.
The average direct flight time from Panama to Colombia is around two hours, although this varies depending on the city that you are travelling to.
Boat from Panama to Colombia – Most Fun Option
You can also make the journey from Panama to Colombia by sea. When attempting to cross between Panama and Colombia on board a boat, it is important to take into account the season.
The dry season takes place from December to April. This also doubles up as windy season which can make boat crossings a little rougher. Departures may be delayed owing to rough seas. You’ll need to be flexible with your plans if you are travelling by sea from Panama to Colombia during these months! This is high season so make sure that you book any boat travel in advance.
The rainy season occurs from May to November. You should take a waterproof jacket with you and waterproof your bags just in case of a downpour. Despite it being the rainy season, downpours rarely last all day and generally, you will have good weather in the afternoon if you have a rainy morning.
Ferry from Panama to Colombia
While there are currently no plans for a ferry service between Panama and Colombia via the Darien Gap, you may have read about a service which leaves from Colon, Panama, and travels to Cartagena, Colombia.
While there used to be a ferry service called Ferryxpress that departed Colon for Cartagena twice weekly, this was discontinued in 2016. The ferry used to take both foot passengers and vehicles and the price for a ticket began at around $130USD. The journey crossing could take up to 18 hours depending on weather conditions. Yikes!
Currently, there is no ferry between the two countries.
Speedboat from Panama to Colombia
The backpacker favourite method of travelling between Panama and Colombia is via speedboat. These trips usually last four or five days and make stops at the magnificent San Blas Islands (Guna Yala) along the way.
San Blas Adventures are the most popular option, leaving from Carti in Panama and finishing in Capurganá in Colombia. The trip costs from $495USD per person and is a great way to meet your fellow travellers.
When I was backpacking Panama and Colombia, this was the option that I chose. San Blas Adventures took care of everything and the border crossing itself was simple and easy. We even got to play a round of FIFA 23 with the immigration officer!
The advantages of travelling from Panama to Colombia via speedboat are numerous, especially for those who don’t particularly like being on the water! For example:
- Less time spent on a boat, more time on San Blas
- Gentler crossings than sailing (less seasickness!)
- Sleep on different islands every night
- Experience under-visited areas of Colombia
Despite the pros listed above, there are also disadvantages to travelling this way:
- You can still get seasick
- It is not as cheap as flying
- Large group sizes
- Can be logistically difficult to leave Capurganá
- Rustic accommodation
Sailing from Panama to Colombia
There is also an option to take a sailboat tour. The route taken is different from the speedboats, with sailboats departing from Puerto Lindo on the Panamanian coast or El Porvenir in San Blas. The Caribbean city of Cartagena in Colombia is the final destination.
The crossing takes longer, usually around five days, however, it can be longer still if the weather is bad. In times when there is not enough wind to sail, boat captains will use the motor instead. Sailboats also visit San Blas and tend to spend around three days exploring the archipelago.
While seasicknesses is more of a risk when travelling by sailboat, there are advantages to travelling this way too. For example:
- Generally an older crowd, less boozy backpackers
- Slow travel
- Comfortable accommodation on board the boat
- Drop off at a popular Colombian travel destination
- Smaller groups sizes than speedboat trips
While sailing from Panama to Colombia is a great experience, it is worth noting that it is also more expensive. Blue Sailing is one of the most popular companies that offer these trips and prices tend to range between $660 and $780USD per person. To avoid disappointment, travellers are advised to book at least one month in advance. The disadvantages of sailing from Panama to Colombia include:
- Not great for seasickness
- More weather-dependent
- Less time on San Blas
Also read: How to get to San Blas, Panama
Flight/Boat Combo from Panama to Colombia – Off The Beaten Track Option
Another option to get from Panama to Colombia is to combine flying and boat travel. You will first need to fly from Panama City to the border town of Puerto Obaldia, located in Darien Province. Flights depart from Albrook Airport in Panama City.
While I’ve found information online to say that the route is served by Air Panama, I couldn’t find any flights on their website. I would advise asking at your accommodation in Panama City for clarification.
Once you have taken the hour-long flight to Puerto Obaldia, you will need to go through immigration. This can take a fair bit of time so make sure you have what is required ahead of time (e.g. copies of your passport), to get through quicker.
Once you have transited into Colombia, hop back on the boat to the small coastal gem, Carpurganá. This is a wonderful, often overlooked destination that is well worth a few days out of your itinerary. There are no roads in or out of Capurganá – the only way to leave the jungle town is on board a flight or boat.
Boats leave daily for the towns of Necocolí and Turbo. From these places, you can catch onward transport to other areas in Colombia, either by bus or plane.
Panama to Colombia FAQs
Why can’t you drive from Panama to Colombia?
Travellers are unable to overland from Panama to Colombia because of the Darien Gap. This is a break in the Pan American Highway where there are no roads. The area is ruled by dangerous cartels and terrorists.
Why can’t you cross the Darien Gap?
The Darien Gap is arguably one of the most dangerous areas on the planet. In a lawless region ruled by criminals and rebels, travellers are at risk of physical and sexual assault, injury or even death.
How do I ship my car from Panama to Colombia?
If you are on an epic road trip through North and Latin America, the Darien Gap could scupper your plans. If you are driving from north to south or vice versa, the only thing to do is to get your car shipped from one country to the other via a container ship. This is an expensive process that encompasses a lot of bureaucracy.
Are you planning on travelling from Panama to Colombia? How are you making the journey?