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Bus2Antarctica: Crossing the Darién Gap

Andrew Evans is traveling by bus from Washington D.C. to Antarctica. In today’s dispatch he explains how he conquered the Darién Gap.

I am always open to travel advice but I try very hard not to let other people’s opinions prejudice my own view of a place. Let any city speak for itself and embrace each city for what it is, that’s what I say.

Except for Colón. I had read enough and heard enough about Panama’s Caribbean port city to have developed just a tiny bit of prejudice against the place. I couldn’t help it. Here’s an example of what other travelers have to say about Colón:

•    “In all the world there is not, perhaps, now concentrated in any single spot so much swindling and villainy, so much foul disease, such a hideous dung-heap of moral and physical abomination.” James Anthony Froude, 1887
•    “It is all unspeakably loathsome” Reporter for the New York Tribune, 1904
•    “A veritable sink of iniquity” Joseph Bishop, 1913
•    “Unspeakably dirty” Marie Gorgas, 1924
•    “A sprawling slum of decaying colonial grandeur and desperate human existence…” Lonely Planet, 2007
•    “A forgettable town” Archie Goodwin, Trip Advisor, 2008
•    “Rife with poverty and crime…provokes shock, sadness or just a very uncomfortable feeling…” Frommer’s Panama 2009
•    “I feel sorry for you…yikes what a city. Don’t go out at night! Or during the day!” Facebook friend, 2010

Even my Lindblad expedition leader chimed in, saying that if I walked outside the guarded gate of the port, I would be robbed in about five minutes. He insisted on calling a cab to pick me up from the super secure dock where the National Geographic Sea Lion was tied up.

I always prefer walking in a new city, but in this case, a cab ride offered me plenty of insight into the way things are. Let’s just say that Sunglass Hut won’t be opening on a Colón street corner anytime soon. For starters, the city is extremely dark–in a very literal sense. At night, in the grid of numbered streets and crossing avenues there are virtually no streetlights, offering only the black shadows of dilapidated buildings. By day in the oppressive sunshine, people still moved about in a guarded manner, huddling and hiding out in the doorways and windows of this crumbling concrete city.

Certainly, old Colón was once beautiful–that I could tell. Some of the architecture was splendid–ornate, fanciful, and still clinging to the bright colors of decades-old paint jobs. Also, the vibe was quite unique for “Latin” Panama. Colón was mainly settled by Jamaican laborers of African descent and the Afro-Caribbean culture seemed to dominate. Throw in the regular broad mix of Panamanians, highlighted by the bright beads and embroidered clothing of the local Kuna Indians and Colón was quite dazzling.

Colón is also a very segregated city. I stayed at the Radisson hotel in the “nice” part of town–where mansion roofs are barely visible over the high coils of barbed wire, metal spikes, and shards of broken glass that protect from break-ins. Armed guards stand next to every entryway and ID checks are the norm. Meanwhile, the other half of the city is open and free and not always pleasant. Many alleys and streets are filled with rotting trash and most buildings look empty and soulless. I can understand how one might find it all a bit depressing and dangerous. At the same time, I got to spend more time in Colón than most travelers, and I would go so far as to say there’s plenty of potential: nothing that a streetlamp, some new paint and about 10,000 minimum-wage jobs with health care wouldn’t fix.

Anyway, I came to Colón on a mission: to find a boat to take me to Colombia. I have been quite insistent that as long as it is possible on this journey, I will travel on buses only. For the times when a bus proves impossible, I would take a boat. As my journey is unscheduled, I have relied on whatever bus or boat I could find whenever I could find it.

As many of my Twitter followers have correctly pointed out, my proposed path to Antarctica runs right through the geographical difficulty known as the Darién Gap.

This little tribulation is the 100-mile gap in the Pan-American Highway consisting of dense, nearly-impassable jungle and swamp filled with bad guys like narco-terrorists, robbers and your run-of-the-mill bandana-wearing bandits. Some travelers have dared to cross the Darién Gap on foot and made it. Others get kidnapped. As up for adventure as I might be, my goal here is to actually make it to Antarctica. I may be crazy, but I am not suicidal.

Thus the problem remained–how to get to Colombia from Panama? I spent three days trying to solve the conundrum–my quest took me to some very shady and smelly parts of Colón. I would knock on a locked metal door and a pair of white eyeballs would pop up in a small crack and talk back at me, “Go try this port. Ask this person, he knows.”  Then I would find the next address among the piles of sad garbage and be told a similar story. Everyone said to try the famous Panama Canal Yacht Club, however, as I discovered, the Panama Canal Yacht Club is now a pile of rubble. Apparently it was bulldozed by the mayor’s office sometime last year. Still, I kept searching and for a whole Saturday, I walked and taxied from one dirty doorway to the next. I finally did find a small cargo ship on its way to Cartagena, but they refused to take me as a passenger. ¡No Pasajeros!

Now the knowledgeable backpacker jet set has a solution for all of this. Charter sailboats make the trip between Panama and Colombia regularly and to that end, I traveled up the Caribbean coast to Portobelo trying to align myself with such a ship. I finally found one, a sailboat sailing the very next morning “to Colombia.” I continued for the extra hour up the road to the proposed port only to discover that the boat was only going to the last port in Panama (a five-day sail) after which I would have to hitch a ride on a speedboat or walk across the border to Colombia in an area that is known for being very violent and very dangerous. Other sailboats had all stopped sailing to Cartagena due to the strong dry season winds–I heard reports of broken masts, long delays and boats that had to turn around mid-way. I’m sure if I had hung out there long enough, something would have turned up, but I don’t have long enough: I have a month to bus the length of South America.

In all of my inquiry, I discovered that my trip south was maybe not so original. Since I left Washington, D.C. more than two weeks ago, about ten million people have pulled me aside and mentioned Paul Theroux’s bestselling book The Old Patagonian Express and asked if I was trying to replicate it. First of all, I admit (cringe) that I have never read the book, nor heard of it prior to this (O.K., you can be shocked). So far I have tried to refute them all (“No, THAT is not what I’m doing…) but now I’m over that, happy with my journey as it stands and happy to be vaguely wandering in the footsteps (train-steps?) of such an iconic travel writer.

While I don’t have time to read the book now, in the case of the Darién Gap and my quickly dwindling travel options, I asked myself WWPTD? (What would Paul Theroux do?) Surely he faced the same difficulty in his travels.

Well, as it turns out, Paul Theroux flew.

Now there’s a Dr. Seuss-worthy tongue twister for you: Who knew that Paul Theroux flew through? Paul Theroux knew that Paul Theroux the travel guru flew.

And if Paul Theroux flew across the Darién Gap, I guess I could too.

And so I flew.

Andrew is currently back on the bus, and is traveling through Colombia. Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans.

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