Preparations: Paddling to Colombia

This post details the preparation and build-up of my and Cary Gray’s self-supported trip in a wooden canoe from Panama to Colombia through the San Blas / Kuna Yala along the North Colombian coast in May 2014. I have recorded the actual trip by video which will feature in the following post.

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Isla Gorgidup (night 5 campspot) the final night before the police ‘got us’ in Nargana (details in future post). This island is a few kilometres from the mainland.

The border of Panama to Colombia is famous for a stretch of land known as the Darien Gap.  The official road ends in Panama a considerable distance before the Colombian border making bicycle travel between the two countries a logistical nightmare and highly inadvisable for numerous reasons.  Wiki refers to it as a “large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest”. Ian Hibell managed to hack his way through carrying his bicycle and kit in the 1970s (video here).  So it is possible. But, aside from the immense hardship one would have to endure due to the geographical conditions, it’s an area that is also reputed to host various unsavoury characters such as guerrillas and drug traffickers.  It would be fascinating to see what it is like but it seems to be a journey best done by foot with military protection and/or serious preparation.

The most common alternatives to reaching Colombia from Panama are flying, sailing boat, cargo boat or lancha.  Unfortunately none of those would have maintained the spirit of my trip from Alaska on bicycle. I wanted to get to Colombia by human power; so I searched for further options. Carti is the closest point on the North Panamanian coast to the Colombian border that is accessible by road (to my knowledge). This leaves a 220km stretch, only passable by sea, along the North Panamanian coast to the Colombian border town of Capurgana. This stretch is known for its 378 islands and waters protected by numerous reefs as well as stretches of hazardous open coastline.  I took interest in an option to travel this coast bravely pioneered by a group of four Alaskan cyclists a few years ago who called themselves “Riding the Spine”.  It’s always hardest to be the first.  They completed the journey by kayak along the northern coast of Panama to Colombia.  Their journey fascinated me.  Further research on the internet uncovered a courageous man called Matt Burney (www.spokecount.com) who later paddled and sailed this same coast in a wooden canoe, on his own.  These trips sounded like true adventure.  This was how I’d arrive in Colombia, it was decided.  (Thank you Goat and Matt for your advice before the trip).

Endless hours were spent trawling through ENORMOUS shopping malls in Panama City, buying bits and pieces that I’d need for the journey and searching for a suitable inexpensive kayak.  Days turned into weeks and my frustration to leave started to increase as the cost for the trip spiralled out of control. I also spent a lot of time researching once I arrived in Panama city.  There were a lot of unknowns and potential hazards that had to be addressed.  The size of the waves on the open remote stretches are probably the most dangerous aspect of the trip and I decided they were the primary consideration.  The Carribean coast is sometimes mistakenly thought to be quite calm compared to the Pacific, but in the wrong months (namely December to April) the waves can be huge and the sea state very confused and dangerous.  Combined with large numbers of reefs randomly spread along the coast that result in unexpected breaking waves, navigating safely can be difficult.  We ended up going in May when the waves are supposed to be at their smallest but there is no guarantee. The raining season and the torrential storms that pass were the unfortunate downside of going in this month although perhaps offered some relief from the highly intense sun.

I initially planned to do this trip solo and decided a kayak would be faster and safer than a wooden canoe.  Matt Burney told me, “if something goes wrong out there on the remote stretches it’s possible no one will come to save you”.  Unfortunately the cheapest second hand kayak I could find was $600 second hand; way over budget.  I headed up to the North coast from Panama city to Portobelo and searched everywhere, radio broadcasting to all the captains of the boats daily in case someone wanted to sell a kayak. Posting notes on notice boards in places frequented by boat users.  Nothing.  Also, most people were hugely negative about the trip, claiming it would be incredibly dangerous.  After explaining my trip plan to one captain and asking if he knew anyone selling a kayak, he remarked “I would never help someone who was trying to do something so stupid!”.

Negative comments can be challenging to deal with but as Steve Jobs said, never be trapped by dogma (living the results of other people’s thinking).  I was confident in my abilities.  My experience long distance kayaking was virtually non-existent but I was confident in my overall fitness (after cycling 17000km), my ocean experience (knowledge of reefs and tides from surfing, windsurfing, sailing, surf lifesaving in Australia), handling situations from my experience adventuring in general, and long distance swimming.  This is where I drew my strength and resolve to continue through the doubts and unknowns.

The nature of the trip was about to change significantly.  Whilst staying in Captain Jack’s in Portobelo the long distance world record holder for unicycling appeared by total coincidence (on his massive 36″ wheel) looking for a boat to take him to Colombia.  It took a couple of minutes to convince Cary Gray to join me. With two people, I felt more confident to take the cayuco option. It seemed less risky and added a new aspect to the trip; we would be travelling like the local Kuna.

After realising it was going to be difficult to get a cayuco in Portobelo (none of the locals wanted to sell) we headed back to Panama to get supplies.  Preparing for this trip felt somewhat like heading into space since there would be limited opportunities to get what we needed once we left Panama.  In reality, I had very little idea of what would be there.  Could we even get drinking water, or would we have to treat everything?  What food was available?  Were going to starve?

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Kit and food / supplies (right) bought in Panama – enough for the first week.

We headed off to Carti to buy the cayuco and start the trip where the video begins (next post)…

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Heading to populated little island known as Carti Sugdup. What would happen in the next three weeks felt virtually unknown as we stepped right out of our comfort zone

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A cayuco with a functioning sail, something which we never managed to get hold of. I watched longingly, hoping we’d be able to get something similar

Check out action hero and unicycle record holder Cary Gray’s blog: http://CaryOutThere.com.

Again, special thank you to Matt Burney (www.spokecount.com) and Goat from (www.ridingthespine.com).  And also the guys at Paddle Panama (www.paddlepanama.com) with their excellent local knowledge.


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