I'm planning a backpacking trip from Central America down to South America. Does anyone have a recommended way of getting around the Darién Gap? I read that you can fly, or you can take a boat but the information seems extremely limited. How much does it cost? Can I book alternative routes ahead of time?
I was in South America (Argentina to Colombia) and in Ecuador & Colombia met a lot of people coming down from (and afterwards friends I'd met travelled up into) Central America.
With just one exception (who flew), the others had all gone via the San Blas Islands.
Which to me look simply stunning! I'd seen several of their pictures, and if I wasn't hopping across to Florida for the shuttle launch (which didn't happen, sigh) I'd have done this too - it sounds like the perfect stress-free break and fun way to get around 'the Gap'.
Several people already mentioned the sail boat option, but as none of them has done it themselves, I will add my experience from May 2009:
As said elsewhere the hostels in Panama city act as intermediaries between travelers and the boats. They have a list of boats leaving on certain dates with prices which ranging from 250 to 350 US dollars.
While some of the boats seem to do the trip from San Blas to Cartagena (usually five days) in Colombia all the time and you can find out about them online, others (like mine) didn’t bring up any results on Google. So you never know what you get. There are bigger boats for up to 30 passengers, they have a proper crew and you are just a passenger.
In my case we had a single Australian boat owner and a beautiful mid 1960s yacht. We were six passenger turned crew members as we had to do all kinds of work on the boat. From cooking and cleaning to setting sails and navigating, this added to the experience though and we all loved it. If you don’t want to do any work, make sure you take a bigger boat and check in advance. The hostels can answer your questions by talking to the boat owners.
The hostel in Panama city usually organises transport to the East coast in 4 wheel drives and also take a good cut of your full price. We left at 5 in the morning in Panama city and the last part of the drive was on muddy roads through the jungle. We then transferred to a river boat for an hour and then onto another boat bringing us to one of the San Blas islands where you get on your sail boat.
As with any tour, whether you really enjoy it depends a lot of your fellow travelers, so until you have a group already, you never know what you get.
You usually spend the first three days cruising around the small islands. Some have little villages on them which you can visit for shopping and you also get your Panama exit stamp at some immigration hut. However we spent more time snorkeling and swimming to some uninhabited islands including some tiny ones with a single palm tree.
Photo credit: Peter Hahndorf
Local people come alongside the boat to offer freshly caught fish and other food. You can then have a barbecue on an island. This is all pretty close to paradise.
During the last two days you are actually getting out to the open sea to cross over to Colombia. Cartagena is a big city but the old town is very beautiful.
Even if it may actually be more expensive than a flight, I strongly recommend the sailing trip if you have enough time. It was such a nice break from using buses all the time.
I would say both San Blas and Cartagena are worth visiting on their own anyways, so why not connect the two with a nice cruise?
The boats also sail back from Cartagena to San Blas, so this works in both directions.
When I was in Panama City about 4 or 5 years ago all the hostels had ads posted by private people, sometimes families, that sailed back and forth in their yachts and wanted travellers to come along to help with costs. There was a waiting list for each yacht.
At the time the price to sail was pretty much the same as a flight which was in the region of $300 USD.
Some people insist that you can cross easily on foot if you stick to the Caribbean coast, but all of the printed travel guides warn at length against even this option, and some of them go into some detail about why it's a bad idea.
I've heard several reports that the Darien Gap is quite dangerous due to drug trafficking. Personally, I would fly although I understand it's possible to cross by hopping on small boats on the Caribbean side. One of the Lonely Planet books (sorry I forgot which one) has more details, but they also don't recommend it.