Crossing the Darien Gap

Sooner or later the road runs out, and for North and Central America that happens in Panama at the start of the Darien Gap http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dari%C3%A9n_Gap.  This 200km stretch of jungle is all but impenetrable, with jungle, swamp, mountains, with everything from malaria infested mosquitos to paramilitary rebels and drug runners preventing most people from even entering it.  Not a fun place.  Although a few hard adventures have have made it through by floating their Land Rover over swamps on rafts made from dug out canoes or carrying their motorbikes through the jungle and hand winching them up and down mountain sides, for all intents and purposes it’s pretty much impossible.  The first all-land crossing in a vehicle took place over 1985 – 86 and took more than 700 days to cover 125 miles.  The vast majority of overland travellers are a bit more sensible and ship their vehicles either by sea or by air.

After being trapped in Central America by heavy rains, flooding, landslides, 1 robbery, 2 national states of emergency and mechanical problems, we were were ready for a change and were very excited for the next leg of the trip.  The quick and easy approach would be to take a plane and load our bikes as cargo, but sitting around airport hangars and shipping agents did not sound particularly exciting, so we looked around for other options and settled on a German registered, Dutch built sailboat launched in 1903.  The Stahlratte http://www.stahlratte.org/ has been transporting backpackers, and more importantly, motorcycle travellers across the Darien Gap for years.  With a crew of 3, it can hold up to 22 passengers and up to 19 motorcycles if the need arises,  and after a bit of research we booked our passage.

Der Stahlratte

Once we actually made it to the dock (see our previous entry, Escape from Central America Part II) it was quite a team effort to get the bikes on deck, first we covered them with WD40 to protect against the sea salt, then some of us stayed  on the pier and prepared the bikes to be winched aboard, while the others received the bikes and arranged them on deck.  Before too long we were all aboard and Captain Ludwig set out to sea, and after a short while we anchored amid a small group of islands inhabited by the Kuna.

These bikes have to get to that boat

Sandra's bike being loaded onto the Stahlratte

... and Jordan's Dakar

We settled into our comfortable double bed berth and got organized before a lavish lunch (the first of many) and a quick swim in the crystal clear waters of the San Blas Islands.  We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the Kuna Islands and that evening we went ashore again, and had a great diner complete with Kuna entertainment.  Riding back to the Stahlratte in the dark, we were amazed by the trail of blue/purple phosphorescences trailing the small zodiac.  Back on board the festivities continued well into the early hours.

A Kuna home on an inhabited San Blas island

The next morning we were joined by a couple of non-motorcycling travellers and set sail again for some even more remote islands, finally stoping among a small group of small, uninhabited tropical islands with nothing but white sand and palm trees.  We spent the day swimming to and exploring the various islands, snorkelling, jumping off the boat, and enjoying cold beverages in the comfort of a hammock.  It was pretty much perfect.  That evening it actually got even better, as we hoped abroad the zodiac once again and headed to a desert island for a beach party bbq and bonfire.  It really felt like we were part of Team Zisou (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_Aquatic_with_Steve_Zissou).  It was a perfect evening, even though I left my flip-flops on the beach which were later washed away by the incoming tide…

view from the crow's nest of Der Stahlratte

zodiac boat to the island BBQ

Later that night tucked away in my berth I was awoken by a very loud metallic grinding noise, now I’m no expert on nautical matters, but I was pretty sure that was not the kind of sound you want to hear in the middle of the night on a 108 year old ship.  I got up to investigate and went out on deck to find the crew busy battening down the hatches in the pouring rain, apparently we’d been overtaken by a furious storm.  The sound I heard was the 2nd anchor being dropped to better secure the ship during the storm.  With everything under Captain Lugwig’s control I made my way back to bed, and when I awoke the storm was gone.  We spent the next day anchored amidst the islands and repeated the previous day’s heavy schedule of swimming, snorkelling, eating, drinking and relaxing, all of which were very nice.

enjoying the sun!

Jordan taking a jump

The octopus we were hoping to catch for dinner

An after dinner game. We were TRICKED and completely wet.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Stahlratte were incredible, complete with fresh baked German bread, fresh fruit & seafood.  And the only work required by the travellers was to toke turns with kitchen duty.  In all we spent 4 nights and 5 relaxing days on the boat.

We hit the open sea between Panama and Colombia a couple of days later and were thankfully met with calm seas and gorgeous weather, at this time of year it is not uncommon to have rough weather making the passage somewhat unpleasant,  but not for us.  We stopped early in the afternoon and we went swimming perfectly clear water that was 1100 meters deep, the water was warm and a really intense shade of azure, simply amazing.  Later that afternoon we were buzzed several times by some drug enforcement agency’s recognizance plane with a huge disc-shaped radar array on the rear fuselage.  Later we passed a fully loaded container ship in the middle of the night, it took ages for us to over take it, but it was very cool, lit up it looked like a spaceship or something hanging in the darkness.  Sandra and I slept on deck that night in a hammock, we had clear skies and saw shooting stars, it really could not get any better.

clear blue water 1100m deep

proof Jordan climbed to the crow's nest

We reached Colombia at around 5am on the 5th day, everyone was up on deck to catch the first glimpses of South America and Cartagena.  We had a few hours to kill while we waited for the customs paperwork to be completed, so we had one final huge breakfast before packing up and preparing the bikes for unloading.  I went ashore with a couple of my fellow passengers to get some money and pick up a few items at the store, it was not until we were walking around Cartagena that I realized that we had not gone through customs and were in the country illegally…  Luckily nothing bad happened and we were back onboard the Stahlratte before anyone noticed.

Our first glimpse of South America

Once we got the call from the mainland that the paperwork was in progress, we started unloading the bikes.  We used the winch from the boat to lower the bikes one at a time into the small zodiac, then the rider would straddle the bike, resting their feet on the gunwales as he or she was motored to shore, where a few helpers would lift the bikes on to a small dock.  It took quite a while to unload all 14 bikes in this manner, but it was really fun and we got more than a few strange looks as we “rode our motos” across the harbour.

Jordan 'ridiing' his bike across the harbour

At this stage, since neither the rider, nor the bike had passed though customs, both were in the country illegally, and we were advised to not stop for anything and proceed directly to the port authority to begin the import and immigration processes.  This pretty straight forward for most of the riders, with the exception of Sandra, since her bike was not running.  After dropping my bike off aft the customs lookup, I ran back to the dock and caught a ride back to the Stahlratte, where I helped Sandra and the crew unload her bike.  We then pushed her bike though the streets of Cartagena to the Customs building, trying to avoid making eye contact with at least a dozen police officers as we passed a police station along the way…

Then the waiting began, and we kept waiting until late in the evening, when finally all the paperwork for the people and the bikes was completed at around 9pm.  We hopped on our bikes and headed into town to find a our hotel.  Well everyone except Sandra, her bike was still broken and we left it in the Customs lockup for safe keeping.  Since it was too late to buy the legally required insurance, we were extra careful not to draw attention to ourselves, however that is easier said than done when you’re riding in a group of foreign registered travel bikes.  We really stuck out as the the average motorbike in Latin America is about 125cc and really really small.

The next morning, Sandra and I took apart my bike apart and removed the Dakar’s fully functional intake manifold.  We then caught a cab to the Customs office at the Cartagena Port Authority, where we disassembled her bike in the parking lot under the watchful eye of the machine gun toting security guards, and got it running again with the my part.  It was good to have it running on it’s own power again, as we were sick and tired of pushing it around and lifting it in to the back of various pick up trucks in the tropical heat.

The final step to importing our bikes was to have it ensured for travel in Colombia.  Like most of our traveling friends, we only needed one month and the insurance companies prefer to sell policies in 3-month packages.  However, in an effort to save all possible funds for more travel (instead of more, un-needed insurance), one of us was able to negotiate a 30-day policy.  Once we were aware, we all followed suit.  After a great debate with that same insurance company as to whether they had 30-day policies (which included showing our friend’s receipt as proof that they did it already) we were able to buy the last 30-day policies ever sold in Colombia – or so we were led to believe.

That same day, the package from Ekke arrived at the hostel.  Sandra’s replacement throttle body was in Cartagena only 5 days after being sent from Canada.  We did yet another disassembly job in the courtyard of our hostel and crossed our fingers, hoping that it would be the last.  The bike started up and ran perfectly, thanks Ekke, you’re a life saver!

Crossing the Darien Gap was really one of the highlights of the trip thus far.   The Stahlratte and her crew were simply awesome and we’d highly recommend it.  We met a lot of really great travellers from all over the world, both with and without motorbikes (although there were a lot of really cool bikes on board…) and we will remember that part of the trip for the rest of our lives.

Hoisted sails for the open sea

Etched in our memories

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12 thoughts on “Crossing the Darien Gap

  1. Such a wonderful post, what an adventure. I was stationed in Panama about 20 years ago but did not have the opportunity to ride my motorcycle down in those parts. I wish I had, specially after looking at your photos. Be safe and let the ride continue. Thanks for sharing such a great journey.

  2. Great writing about amazing adventures. The video of the bikes being loaded and unloaded is incredible. I was holding my breath for you, Sandra, as you were riding your boat across the harbour. So happy you had great weather to enjoy the islands and ocean. But be careful…motorcycle adventure travelling is addictive.Looking forward to hearing about the next round of adventures in Columbia.

    • Thanks, Audrey…I assume you’re speaking from experience! We got Ekje’s update about your trip and I’m so excited for you both!

  3. After reading some horror stories about trying to get across Darien Gap, you make it sound like it’s actually good that they did not build a road through it! Thanks for sharing!

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