Darien Gap

Mutiny on the Bounty – Crossing the Darien Gap

By Charles

Panama is separated from Colombia by a frustratingly short piece of the most impassable jungle in the world called the Darien Gap.  For 60ish miles there are no roads, no towns, not even a goat path.  The only living things are a few interspersed native Indians, dead Colombian rebels and enough Dengue Fever, Malaria, and fetid swamp to have killed several ambitious travelers that have tried to cross in on foot and canoe.  Panama has refused to develop this area for fear that the Columbian civil war and drug trade would filter north. 

We chose the sailing option from the ones Ben outlined in a previous post for several reasons including the cost, the chance to stay several nights in the UNESCO recognized San Blas Islands, and the romanticism of sailing through the night to another continent. 

As Ben said previously, a boat had two openings at the very last minute which left us little time to tour Panama, but we’d gladly trade that for more time in Colombia.  On our second day in Panama we made a beeline from Panama City to the tiny town of Puerto Lindo where our boat is docked.  After touring the Panama Canal we ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic in under an hour!  We pull into town and are greeted at the Hostel Wunderbar and told to head to the beach to load our bikes.

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(antes y despues Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, built 1913)

The boat is Capitan Herve Guitar’s Metacomet and costs $725 each for 5 days, $375 for the body and $350 for the bike.  Apparently, the bikes eat almost as much as a person!?!  The Hostel Wunderbar’s website lists many of the regular boats and claims this one is a “sailing motorboat.”  The language promises afternoons of snorkeling and nights of “freshly caught fish” dinners in the beautiful San Blas Islands.  Wow, paying upfront for a chartered sailboat you’ve never seen for a week touring pristine islands!  What could possible go wrong?

The loading procedure of bike to launcha and bike to boat has to be seen to be believed.  After a few tense moments and some blood, sweat, and tears KLR and KTM are safely on board.  Now begins the real adventure…

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Yes, you ride your bike in the launcha, don’t slip!

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(They just use the halyard to yank it aboard, El Burro’s moment of truth between launcha and boat)

Rather than detail the trip and list the innumerable points necessary to paint a complete picture of this fiasco I will jump straight to the punch line.  We been had!  Ben and I were conned so well, so thoroughly, and so blatantly into participating in this boondoggle it is amazing in hindsight we did not heed the numerous warning signs.  Let’s recount the major problems.

The Capitan: Herve Guitar. We first met this Alice Cooper look alike at dinner the night before leaving.  In spite of his ratfink like appearance his demeanor exuded assurance and normalcy.  C’mon he’s a “Capitan” after all, right?  He was short on details initially, but we assumed that all will be answered in the morning and that our fellow passengers who had been in Puerto Lindo for several days had more information than we did.  In reality this waste of a human soul turns out to be incredibly bipolar, however neither personality reveals a single redeeming quality. 

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On the second day, after one of his several daily joints, he confides to one passenger that he just quit doing cocaine after 15 years of addiction.  We also find out that the moniker “Capitan” requires no actual training to attain in this swindlers paradise.  French douchebag becomes a more aptly earned title as the trip continues, but one not nearly descriptive enough alone. 

On the 2nd day we go through the process of securing everything, stowing all the threadbare bedding below, and pull the anchor only to be told within a minute to reverse all the steps as the douchebag had just changed his mind and decided to stay put for another day.  During one drug and alcohol induced stupor on the 4th evening he demanded we be ready to leave at 2am to sail into the night.  He was so high he must have envisioned our boat floating over the giant reefs that surrounded our anchorage on all sides because the boat had no running or spot lights to aid navigation. 

Near the end of the trip I brought a mattress covered in mold spores to him after his insistence all the bedding was clean.  His response was to threaten to put me, my bike, and my passport on the next deserted island.  One of the other riders reminded him that there were 17 of us and only 1 of him.  Shabby and unsafe conditions are the sign of a poorly run business, but threatening your customers directly is crazy.

While working as a prosecutor I dealt with criminals almost every day, many of whom were skillful and honed professional liars, but this asshole has raised the art of lying to an entirely new evolutionary plane beyond reach of these mere part time pretenders.  Simply put, when his lips were moving he was lying, no matter the context, the question, or the importance.  After lying to yourself as a addict for so many years it must become second nature.  Ben and I and the other passengers were constantly deceived about the most basic details including when we would arrive, where we were going each day, how long we would be motoring, was there sufficient food or water, how many people would be on board, the prices of every last dollar of cost, and the availability of the launcha in Sapzurro.  EVERYTHING!  Even worse, none of the lies were consistent.  Prices, schedules, and other decisions often changed several times per day.  Apparently utter confusion and misinformation is the best method to prevent a mutiny.

Our naiveté was fueled by the constant assurance we received from the two hostels we contacted and the numerous captains we talked to before departing.  During the trip we also met several of this French expat’s friends, and this profession seems to attract the most dysfunctional, anti-social, criminal elements of society that cannot find refuge in even the most squalidly hole in their own countries.  Almost every person we encountered from Puerto Lindo to Sapzurro attempted to swindle, cheat, or extort money from us.  These decrepit, worthless humans were in sharp contrast to the generous and helpful populations Ben and I had encountered in every country from Mexico to Panama.

The Boat:  For the exorbitant price we shelled out we were delivered far less than promised by the Hostel websites.  Due to lies from that asshole “capitan” We end up spending about $150 more for each rider than he originally quotes us for the all inclusive price. 

Our boat was a converted fishing trawler with masts stuck on for no apparent reason.  We did not spend a single minute actually sailing.  Instead we motored under the power of a 1944 tank engine at a blazing 8mph at full cruise.  Living on this floating wreck for a week cannot be truly understood by merely reading about the numerous disgusting and unsafe elements.  The sum of this experience is far worse than I can relate. 

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(Ben and I felt sorry for other boats when we would anchor nearby.  Here you are in your expensive yacht or schooner enjoying the peacefulness of the islands and this rusting wreck pulls up with 17 loud, cranky people on board. What would you think?)

First, the lack of safety was apparent in every corner.  The only lifeboat on board was 5 years expired, and only had room for 1/4 of the people on board. The pressurized gas line for the propane cooking stove was a water hose attached with a hose clamp. The only working light was zip tied to the non working light it was supposed to replace.  The mainsail was trimmed simply by looping a line over the boom and tying it onto the railing.  Had something happened the boat contained no ELT, no working radio, and only one small working fire extinguisher for the entire boat.  Ben asked about life preservers and was quickly rebuffed.  I’ve raced motorcycles over 170mph inches from other riders and not been as concerned for my safety as on this wreck.

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(the wiring mess that was the helm, and the lifeboat that says it needs service by the expiration of May, 2004!)

Second, the sanitary conditions on board were appalling.  The boat contained no black water tank, so every time someone pump flushed the toilet it exited the side of the boat.  This was especially pleasing when someone was swimming next to the boat or gathering sea water for dishwashing.  There was no shower, no soap for washing hands after going to the bathroom, and no hot water or bleach for dishwashing.  The two bathrooms were separated from the bunks by only a slat screen, and with no actual water to flush the toilets the boat quickly stank heavily of stale urine below deck.  The sleeping conditions were equally disgusting, so dirty that Ben and I did not want to soil our protective travel sheets by exposing them to the filth we were forced to sleep on.  The permanently wet mattresses and blankets were covered in mold and had clearly never been washed.  I have gutted homes in ceiling high mold and mud in post Katrina New Orleans and not been as disgusted as sleeping on this boat.  Night time presented two options, sweat in the unvented urine sauna below decks, or sleep on deck and be forced to make friends with the breeding mold spores.  We always chose the deck.

Third, the crew, or lack of one:  The facade of a professional journey was kept intact just long enough to sucker all of us out of reach of the port and under the “Captain’s” control.  We departed with a cook and a first mate, and despite the cook making sandwiches for lunch in the crotch of his dirty shorts using his oil and dirt stained hands the first day went fairly well.  However, on the second day reality set in as both the cook and first mate left the boat, choosing to be literally marooned on an island rather than suffer another four days under the “Capitan’s” drug induced dictatorial control.  After a few more days I would have gladly shared their fate.

Fourth, food and water:  The captain, in his infinite wisdom, assumed we could all get by on his cigarette, joint, wine, and 4hrs sleep regimen.  He provided only 20 gallons of water for 17 people for 5 days, and the boat had no clean water tank or desalination equipment.  The fruit ran out after 2 days, the meat spoiled after 3 without sufficient ice, half the vegetables went bad after the douchebag allowed them to swill in salt water on deck for days, but at the end of the trip we did have several pounds of butter left.  Clearly he felt doing the shopping in the same drug induced hazed he sailed in was the best method.

The Cost: Had this trip been priced around $400 for a person and a bike I might not have written such a description of our asshole captain. With all the backpackers, riders, and bikes on board the douchebag raked in $8,475 for 5 days work.  For only 170 miles of motoring he could not have spent in excess of $300 on gas in Panama.  We were told by the crew, before they jumped ship, that he only spent $800 on food and water and only after the crew balked at his proposed budget of $500.  The bikes required $45 to load in Puerto Lindo, but the riders were stuck paying the unloading fees in Sapzurro (despite the Capitan’s initial promise this would be included).  The douchebag was clearly not reinvesting any of his profit into his floating trash heap, so he was simply swindling thousands in profit by deceiving his customers.  With no expectation of return customers or two way travel what does he have to lose?  Also, all the riders and backpackers had to arrange to get another boat from Sapzurro to Turbo, Columbia since there are no roads or airports out of the former.  Despite the captain promising at one time to pay half of the fast launcha required to get to Turbo it ends up costing $85 more from each rider, or an exorbitant $8 per kilometer!  Further, rather than being a fast launcha it ends up being a slow 14hr cargo boat ride.

The People: The sheer number of bodies on board exacerbated every other inadequacy.  When we first looked at the boat I surveyed the available beds and concluded that it would be comfortable for 8-10 people.  When we showed up to board 18 other bodies lined up with Ben and I.  The douchebag captain claimed there were 17 beds, but this only added up correctly if every inch of space on deck was filled with hammocks and mattresses, and every twin bunk below was shared by two guys.  When it rained those on deck were given no place to go.

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(Overcrowding!  Imagine 5 days of this intimacy with no where to find relief)

However, the passengers on board were the only shining light at the end of the tunnel.  They were interesting, kind, humorous, and we all found common bonds in complaining about the trip.

There were the three Australians who dressed up as pirates in floaties and tried to board other ships in the harbor, there was Tyler who, in his desperation for money, ate a giant fish’s raw eyeball on a $9 bet, and there were the 4 retired guys also riding their way through South America who provided sarcastic commiserating humor and support the entire way.  These riders thankfully brought $100 worth of bottled water on board that was the only liquid we had to drink after quickly exhausting the douchebag’s meager 20 gal supply.  They also selflessly took over the cooking duties once the crew left and did a great deal with very little to work with.  Without all the amazingly agreeable passengers on board I would have organized a mutiny and keelhauled that douchebag long before we reached port, and many others contemplated the same idea.  I will post links to the entries on other passenger/riders blogs as they come.

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(Patience wearing thin on hour 10 of the 7th day of our 5 day boat trip)

This is intended to be a cautionary tale to any future travelers who google this post.  We have heard many stories of boats like the Stahlrat that actually provide an enjoyable experience for their passengers and are captained by experienced and honest people, but we did not encounter any semblance of this on our “sailboat vacation.”  Check every detail of the boat before you depart, run a criminal background and maritime license check on the captain, and make sure you see the boat before you pay anything

Thankfully we finally made it to Sapzerro and Turbo.  Onward to Colombia!

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Categories: Colombia, Darien Gap, Panama | 21 Comments

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