Our exit from Colombia was to be the San Blas islands tour, which is a safer and more Caribbean journey than passing through the Darien Gap. The meeting place was in Capurgana, on the other side of the country, so we began backtracking by buses and collectivos along the Caribbean coast.
We began by getting a bus from Cartagena to San Antero, a small local town on the coast. It was a fine bus, similar to what we have ridden in the past. But because the pueblo is small and has no bus terminal, they dropped us off on the side of the road at 10 pm–a little later than we were expecting. From there, we had to walk into town. And we kept getting conflicting answers about how far the hostel/restaurant we were staying at was.
Colombia won the soccer/football game that night, just as we passed by neighborhoods with our rolling suitcases and my pillow, so there was a spontaneous parade of motorcycles (usually three or four people to a moto) waving flags and honking at everything. We got some odd looks. We made it to city center and a horde of mototaxi drivers descended upon us. To make it more confusing, we still didn’t know where Mangle Colora’o was. Some blessed soul found the son of the owner of the hostel/restaurant, who directed us the right way. For a moment I thought we would end up on mototaxis, rolling our suitcases behind us, rather like this photo I thought was so ridiculous:
Because of course a pinterest pin that I laughed at three years ago would come back around as part of my immediate future. We were saved last minute by the only taxi driver in town, who got us where we needed to go. Far, far off the beaten path on a long dirt road, the restaurant had private rooms for 35,000 pesos apiece with air conditioning.
The next day we spent wandering through the town. There really is no reason for tourists to visit, and we stuck out like sore thumbs. But it was all good because the food was cheap, the hats were cheap, and we got a slice of normal Colombian life.
And the beach wasn’t too bad, either!
Unfortunately our luck didn’t continue, because we got up at 6 am the next morning to catch a direct bus to Turbo, where we needed to be. Apparently that direct bus didn’t exist, and after waiting for an hour and a half on the side of the road (Again, obviously gringos that don’t belong), we hopped in a collectivo. It wasn’t bad. We were all about to ask to ride in the back of a pickup truck to get to Monteria, a town with a bus terminal, but the collectivo came along and charged 16,000 pesos (a little overpriced) apiece.
So we ended up with another collectivo-ish thing to Turbo. In the Monteria bus terminal the yellers and hawkers swarmed around us, trying to take our bags and drag us to their office or their bus, but we just had to stand firm and leave the area to find breakfast. I really hate how they swarm. We prayed for a big bus, but got a very stuffy, very hot collectivo thing for the five-hour trip to Turbo. It was utterly miserable. easily 95 degrees and the collectivo was so crowded that they turned a 5 gallon bucket upside down to make a seat for yet another passenger. We were relieved when we arrived at the Turbo docks at 3 pm.
Now in our conversations with people and reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, we had been told the 2 hour boat ride from Turbo to Capurgana was rough, but we weren’t told that they stop sending boats in the afternoon. We had been warned away from Turbo–in the evening it isn’t safe, it’s ugly, and there’s no appeal whatsoever. But even though the sign on the ticket booth said that boats left for Capurgana from 6 am to 6 pm every day, the ticket lady said “no boats until 8 am tomorrow.”
You can imagine how upset and hot and tired we were. In case anyone else finds themselves in our same predicament, there are hotels in the city center area, for varying prices. The nicest, which is a huge orange brick building, is about 50,000 pesos per person. We found a cheap place, Good Nigth Hotel, for 20,000 a person in a private room with fans and air conditioning. That is a really good deal. There are also banks with ATMS in the area.
The next morning was total chaos. Although everyone told us the tickets would be about 50,000 a person to get on the boat, they were 60,000. Then there was no order to how the boats were packed, loaded, and sent off. Our boat was an hour late, because it’s Colombia, and the guys who packed the boat saw us as easy targets. They told us our bags were 55 kilos total, and we were only allowed 30. They said no such thing to other Colombians. They said we had to pay 20,000 pesos for the overweight baggage. Well, I don’t even weight 55 kilos, so there’s no possible way our bags actually weigh that much. We argued and argued, and they dropped their price down to 15, then to 10. We insisted we shouldn’t have to pay, that the bags weren’t overweight. Then they threatened to toss our bags overboard. So Sarah Ann just gave them 10,000 pesos to make them go away, and we finally got on the way.
So all the warning I got about this boat ride is that it was a little rough and we should just buckle down and wait out the two hours. All three of us ended up in the very front of the boat, which is the roughest part, we learned. And the waves were extremely choppy. It. Was. Awful. We all got bruises. None of us were particularly seasick, because we didn’t even feel the waves, just how our captain was racing the waves (and losing). I had bruises on my legs, back, and even on on my arm.
“Now I know how everyone on the Mayflower felt,” Jordan gasped in between jolts.
“I think I’m going to start crying,” Sarah Ann confided.
I was so fed up. I’m pretty sure, even though I’ve never driven a boat, I could’ve done a better job. “If there is an earthly entrance to Hell, it’s in this bay,” I said between gritted teeth.
About two-thirds of the way there, we saw the boat that left 30 minutes before us, just listing in the water. Everyone on board was soaked and getting sunburned. No one really knew what the matter was at the time, but it seems that they overpacked luggage and people on board, and due to the high waves, they were taking on a lot of water. So they settled down and waited for us. As soon as our boat pulled up along side, about seven people stood up and startled hurling bags onto our boat. And then five or six started jumping ship into our laps. I hadn’t been scared of the water before, because I knew it was normally choppy, but when everyone dove for our ship, I got a little frightened, I’ll admit. And as soon as our motor stopped and we felt the waves, half of our boat got sick and vomited over the sides. It was miserable. We eventually ended up in Capurgana three hours later, bruised and exhausted.
So, in total, tips for the journey:
- If you have to stay in Turbo for a night, it is possible and reasonably priced
- I’m 95% sure there are ATMS
- The boats to Capurgana don’t leave after noon
- The boat ride is awful. If at all possible, sit in the back of the boat
- Expect chaos and scams at the docks. Watch carefully when they weigh your bags
- You will survive and Capurgana is a welcome relief once you make it