Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia
In this episode, my moto and I cross the Darien Gap, between Panama and Colombia. My chosen mode of transport? The mighty Sailing Vessel Stahlratte. It was an amazing adventure and maybe the very best time I have had on my trip so far.
Of course, here’s the accompanying video of this odyssey.
As I understood it, while planning my trip, there were options to get me and my motorcycle from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.
Why not just ride over, you ask? Well, owing to the marshy and dense jungle terrain, named the Darien Jungle, or Darien Gap, and lack of political support, there have been no roads to date constructed connecting North and South America.
So, the options are you can ship via air or cargo ship, or like Dylan Wykham, convert your motorcycle into a power plant for a self-built raft. And, I’m sure some adventurous souls also have traversed the Darien Gap via motor-vehicle, but not me!
For me, I chose the Stahlratte.
The Stahlratte is a 110-foot, Dutch-constructed schooner built as a fishing vessel. It was first put to sea in 1903. Yes, that means this boat is well over 100 years old. But, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not seaworthy. It’s been very well kept over the last century.
For the last several years, it’s been operating under a German flag as a ferry between Panama, Colombia, Cuba, and Mexico, and because it has a large deck and spacious accommodations, it can carry several passengers and motorcycles (for my trip, we had 24 people and 19 motorcycles onboard!). The vessel is crewed by Captain Ludwig (affectionately known as LuLu and quite the character), and three volunteer deck hands.
Here’s my experience from the days leading up to the sailing from Carti, Panama to finally setting off on my own in Cartagena. In all, it took six days to get me and motorcycle to from Panama to Colombia and cost me 200EUR plus $980USD.
First, I booked my crossing several months in advance, nearly six-months if I remember correctly. I started at their website: http://www.stahlratte.org There, you’ll find an email link to Captain Ludwig.
Captain Ludwig is quite responsive via email, despite being underway most of the time. I booked the latest trip scheduled for the year, which was November 14, 2016. To book my passage, I had to PayPal a 200EUR deposit to the Stahlratte. Simple enough, I thought, and now I had a reservation.
About three weeks out from sailing, Captain Ludwig emailed me asking me for copies of all of my paperwork – passport, registration, title, and driver’s license. He also asked if I would want insurance in Colombia and for how long. One of the perks of taking the Stahlratte, and a service you no doubt are paying for as part of the fare, is that he handles all of the steps of the “border crossing” for you. He arranges stamping you and the bike out of Panama, and handles all the immigration, customs, and insurance on the Colombia side. This was a very welcome relief from doing all of that myself through the seven Central American countries I just traversed.
He also asked that I email a copy of the Panama import document once I crossed into Panama.
About ten days from sailing, I received another email from Captain Ludwig explaining how the embarkation would go. I was surprised at this point because the bike loading actually occurs one day prior to sailing, or November 13. But, that was OK I figured, I did not have a lot of time to burn, but I could make it to Panama City by that weekend (Friday was November 11).
Also in his email, he provided instructions on how to get to Carti, about three hours from Panama City, suggested where to stay in Panama City (the Panama House Hostel), and said he’d have lunch waiting for everyone after we were picked up by small boat and ferried to the Stahlratte after we arrived in Carti. My excitement was growing rapidly at this point (I was still in El Salvador at the time). I’d read so many ride reports about the Stahlratte and I was less than two weeks away from doing it myself!!
Next, I booked a room at the Panama House, which is located in central Panama City. I reserved a private room with shared bathroom for $35/night for the weekend. They also have dorm rooms for $18/night.
I made my way south over the next several days and finally made it into Panama City on Friday, November 11. I had to go through very heavy Panama City traffic to the hostel, and of course, it was raining cats and dogs. I was the third bike there after friends I’d been following all through Central America. Parking is secure.
I think this was the best decision I made during this crossing – getting to the hostel early to hang out with some people who ended up becoming some of my best friends during this shared adventure.
The Panama House Hostel is a cool little dive with great food and vibes, and a very affable staff, but very poorly managed regrettably. I had booked a private room, but was informed one day prior that they had overbooked. They asked if the dorm was OK with me or if I would like a private room in a nearby hotel, which they would book for me at the same price. I said nothing and after arriving did not want to leave after meeting up with my fellow riders, so I settled on the dorm (for the first night, the next day, I moved to a private room). If you only knew how loud Scott Pfeiffer, one of my new friends, snores, you would understand.
We all had an absolute blast for two days and nights, drinking into the wee hours getting to know each other, and exploring Panama City during the day as a group. We really, really bonded. I loved every minute of it. Again, I think it is totally worth getting to Panama City a couple of days early to hang out and relax.
So, the day came to head to the Stahlratte, Sunday, November 13, and we decided we would all travel as a group. Even that was great fun, even though it started out a bit frustrating. A local, who had been following one of the group on Facebook, offered to guide us on his motorcycle to the highway leading to Carti. We agreed, and he proceeded instead to take us on a 20mph tour of Panama City. My GPS kept saying to turn in the opposite direction he was going. After he made a U-turn at one point, we all stopped, said forget that, and all drove in the direction our GPSs said to go. Adios and thanks, amigo!
Panama is situated east-west, but the highways are still labelled north-south. Once we were finally on the Pan-American Highway heading “south,” we settled into a group formation, with every conceivable type of bike – BMWs, KTMs, a VStrom, and even a Honda 250 – and that was a blast, too!!
A couple of hours later, we reached the turnoff toward Carti. This road, only about 25 miles long, twists through the Panamanian jungle to the sea and takes over an hour to cover. The road is not great, but it is all asphalt. It has some serious curves and steep inclines, and with the corrugations can really give your ABS a workout, especially in the corners. I nearly overshot a curve because the bike refused to slow down over the undulations.
Along the way, you enter lands governed by the indigenous Kuna people. There, you are stopped and have to pay $20 per motorcycle and $3 per person to pass. They were very nice and curious.
Finally, you’re up on top of the mountains and you can see the ocean off in the distance. Not long afterward, after still countless more curves and up and downs through the jungle, you reach Carti where the asphalt runs out for the last half-mile or so. And there, waiting as promised at anchor right in front of you, is the mighty Stahlratte, it’s diesel engine exhaust filling the air with thunder. I was fist-pumping with my riding mates as we’d all dreamed of this day for so long.
After several other riders showed up, a member of the crew approached us and directed us onto the pier, all in single line. There, we waited thinking the Stahlratte would come alongside and take our bikes. Instead, we unloaded our bikes, all panniers and bags, into a smaller boat that ferried our stuff to the boat. Then, with our bikes still on the pier, we were all shuttled to the Stahlratte for lunch. Before leaving the pier, I switched on my GoPro attached to the bike to capture the loading. This, I learned after, was pointless as the tide was low and the Stahlratte would not load the bikes until the following day. So, why were we here today?
Once onboard, we were greeted by LuLu, and fed, we were assigned bunks. There is more than enough room for everyone, including for couples who share double-sized bunks.
We were then taken off the Stahlratte via small boat to one of the nearby islands, maybe 30 minutes away, where we’d stay for the night in Hotel Porvenir.
There was nothing on this island but an airstrip and an open-air hotel, but they did have cold beer! We relaxed for the evening in hammocks while chatting, wondering about our bikes and what the Stahlratte was up to.
The next morning, maybe an hour after we’d been told we’d be picked up, a small boat arrives to take us back to the Stahlratte, which had been out of sight this whole time. There, we discovered our bikes onboard, lashed and covered in tarps topside. We ate another meal and got underway to yet another island further out amongst the San Blas Islands.
We anchored amongst some other yachts on a very tiny island. We spent the day swimming, snorkeling, and exploring the tiny island. The San Blas Islands are truly magnificent and beautiful and I felt like I was on a vacation.
That night, we had a bonfire where Ludwig cooked lobsters bought from the local Kuna folks, smothered in butter and garlic. It was delicious. That night we celebrated a couple of passenger birthdays.
We awoke still at anchor with plans to set off late that evening. So, we had another day of swimming, snorkeling, and swinging off a rope affixed to the boat into the water. We relaxed all day chatting, some of us starting to get a little bored.
But, that night, around 10pm, we finally got underway toward Cartagena. As a Navy guy, I really liked the feeling of being underway on the open ocean, so I stayed up well after everyone went to bed to watch the stars and feel the ocean air washing across my face.
The entire day was spent steaming/sailing toward Cartagena. We were told we’d be arriving near midnight, but the expected time of arrival constantly changed with the changing winds (we had the sails up). So, we did what we’d done the last two days and just relaxed. Eventually, we arrived in Cartagena harbor around 11pm and dropped anchor. We then all headed off to bed.
Sitting at anchor, we were all very happy to finally be in Cartagena. It’s a beautiful city, especially with our vantage point at anchor. We had another excellent meal and then were briefed by Captain Ludwig on what to expect next. He said that immigration was not completed yet and he highly doubted that immigration and customs would be completed this day. He told us all to go into town to find a place to stay for the night as the Stahlratte tour had “ended.” He then told us to come back at 2PM to collect our passports and bags/panniers.
We all trudged off to find a hotel without our passports, or having been officially allowed to enter Colombia. The hotel I’d booked refused to accommodate me without my passport, so I waited in the lobby and across the street at a Burger King for hours until I returned to the boat.
Well, when we returned, the passports had still not been stamped. Boo. We were told to return the following day at 1000 and everything should be in order. So, back to the hotel, where a new staff member was working and took a copy of my passport that I happened to have and let me to my room. Thank goodness.
We all returned at the appointed time, but then waited for the small boat to ferry us out. When the crew showed up, they brought bad news – our passports still had not been stamped. That meant that customs processes could not start and so we were all waiting again. Half of us went to the Stahlratte to hang out. Eventually, by mid-morning we all had our passports and by 2PM, customs and the insurance folks showed up on the boat. By 3PM, we were good to go save getting the bikes off the Stahlratte.
Shortly thereafter, we were underway again to a small shipyard about 10 miles away. We eventually tied up and the unloading of the bikes began, taking no more than about 30 minutes.
Even though the shipyard is only 10 miles away, it would later take us over two hours to return to Cartagena by road in heavy, rush hour traffic. On my return, I even got pulled over by the police for riding a motorcycle in Old Town (which is prohibited, but where my GPS took me). They were understanding and escorted me to the hotel.
My overall impression of this adventure is very positive; despite the negative tone I may have used in the closing days. You do a lot of waiting around for things to happen and I think near the end we were all just ready to get on the road again.
For the positives: First, the logistics of getting a motorcycle across a “water” border I’m glad I had someone handle for me. Even with the delays at the end, I am so thankful Ludwig took care of all the details. Second, the camaraderie that I shared with my travelling companions I will never forget – these are the greatest people I’ve ever come to know and look forward to lifelong relationships with all of them. Third, everything about the Stahlratte is adventure – getting to it, exploring the San Blas Islands, sailing the ocean with your motorbike, entering a new country, and building great relationships. For these reasons alone, it was definitely money well spent. And the food – you will eat and drink to your heart’s content on this boat!
So, just to close on the costs. As I mentioned, I paid a 200 Euro deposit for my slot. Once onboard, you are asked to pay the remainder. For me, I asked for two months of insurance in Columbia, so my balance was $980USD ($930 fare + $50 for insurance). Total cost roughly $1180.
And the Stahlratte keeps the frig stocked, if you know what I mean. Beer and sodas are $1/each and they never ran out, even for me.