I first ventured into the Darién on a trip to Panama in 2004, but it would take me another 15 years to finally cross the gap on the Stahlratte, in 2019.
Sailing through the tropical San Blas islands on the steel-hulled Dutch sailboat under Captain Ludwig was a rite of passage for years for world travelers, and every bit part of the Adventure of Riding the Pan-American Highway. Departing from Carti, Panama, and no longer allowed to disembark at the traditional port of Cartagena, we were forced instead to navigate to the oft-maligned Colombian port city of Turbo. Unfortunately our cargo of 20+ motorcycles was not received warmly by the Colombian Coast Guard, and Captain Ludwig was forced to activate “Plan C.”
Denied access within swimming distance of the dock, we collectively hoisted said motorcycles from the deck of the century-old ship onto a cattle barge. From there, another voyage up a tidal river took us to a rural farm just outside of town. Disembarking from the barge, our crew collectively laid tread on South American soil for the first time, in a horse corral. You can’t make this sh*t up…
Three years later, I had all but forgotten about my little adventure onboard the Stahlratte, until the internet became aflutter with talk of a ‘round the world’ rider named Noraly, and her haphazard crossing of the Darién Gap. Better known as Itchy Boots, Noraly’s YouTube channel has over 1 million subscribers, and her videos detailing her preparation and crossing of The Gap close to 2 million views collectively.
Her voyage was both applauded and criticized online, with many asking, if not simply for engaging content, “why?”. While some would argue that Itchy Boots is setting the new trend for crossing “The Gap,” the consensus is the carefree days of simply floating your moto across the Caribbean like bootleg rum, have come to an end. With increasing regulations in a post-COVID world, options for crossing The Gap are dwindling, along with our options for true adventure. So before you roll the dice and strap your moto to the bow of a Panga, read on…
A Bit of History
The Darién Gap is a 66-mile perilous strip of jungle connecting the North and South American continents between Panama, to the North and Colombia, to the South. Widely considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet, this “no-man’s land” has served as a backdrop for triumph and failure, kidnappings and murder, and numerous stories of drug-runners and head-hunters.
The first recorded attempt to cross the “The Gap” on a motorcycle is attributed to Danny Liska in 1960. He was forced to abandon his bike and escape the jungle on foot. The first successful motorcycle crossing is credited to Robert L. Webb in 1975 — an expedition reported to have taken several months after many failed attempts.
This infamous void in the 19,000 mile Pan-American Highway still poses a formidable challenge to overlanders hoping to complete the journey. And while a few hardy souls may still attempt an overland crossing, those of us without sponsorship backing or a longing to play Indiana Jones, are advised to look for other options.
From island hopping to eating fresh lobster, from lazing away the humid days in a hammock to swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, sailing across the gap is an experience in and of itself. And while not the quickest or the cheapest way to travel, it is undeniably the most scenic way to cross one of the most “dangerous places on earth.”
Unfortunately, the Stahlratte’s run came to an end in 2021, another casualty of COVID. The ship’s website has been repurposed, and its social media accounts deleted, however Captain Ludwig began organizing much smaller transports starting March of 2022, that involve transferring vessels in Sapzurro, Colombia, just over the Panamanian border.
However, after their maiden voyage, reviews were mixed (to put it politely) and it’s questionable whether this will remain an option. But, if by some chance you are hankering for an Itchy Boot’s style adventure, courteous of the one-and-only Captain Ludwig, as of March 2022 he was offering his “experimental” (my words, not his…) voyage for approximately $1,000 USD (not including certain port fees and potential bike damage).
Another popular option for sailing your moto across The Gap was ‘The Wild Card.’ In the game as long as anyone,The Wild Card has been sailing the San Blas since 2010. Unfortunately, despite having moto shipping information on their website, I was informed by the staff after a recent inquiry that they “are not permitted to transport motorcycles to or from Colombia due to changes to the regulations.”
Another casualty in our quest to bridge the gap…
That said, Wild Card is still operating their passenger service starting at $575.00 per person, which gives you an opportunity to experience the San Blas while making other arrangements for the bike.
Sea freight is the only real option for overlanders with larger rigs, and many are happy to help offset costs by sharing a container with a motorcycle or two. While container shipping is more common for Transatlantic crossings, some prefer the security of ensuring their rig is secured and the contents don’t mysteriously vanish enroute.
Overlanding forums and Facebook groups are a good place to start if you’re hoping to make arrangements privately, which can be the most economic way to go, but can also be the most time consuming. Shipping costs vary based upon container size, time of year, and (if you’re making arrangements privately) your negotiating tactics. However most report paying anywhere from $500.00 – $800.00 per moto in a shared container.
But beware, that undisclosed fees could significantly drive the cost of retrieving your motorcycle once in port. So if you don’t want to be caught with your riding pants down, keep reading…
If you’re not into spending countless hours looking for a potential container buddy on the internet, you can contact a broker / agent directly. Many shipping companies provide the option to share a container, but this may require a bit of flexibility with your dates, and of course, the broker’s fees…
At time of print, containers were quoted at 20’ – $1,640.00 USD and 40’ – $1,950.00 USD, each including 1 vehicle + $150.00 each additional vehicle. The quotes include local agents at each port to assist with custom clearance (ergo the additional cost per vehicle), however DID NOT include certain “landing fees” that are not incidental…
It will take reading the fine print, and in my experience, more than a few emails to get to the bottom of these mystery fees. As it turns out “customs clearance and port fees” typically increase the quoted container cost by upwards of 60%, so buyer beware!
Additional options for insurance also exist, and those costs vary based upon coverage.
If you’re riding in a large group, splitting a private container with a few riding buddies can be the most economical way to go, however the devil is in the details, so be sure to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.
RORO (roll-on roll-off) shipping is another sea freight option. Picture a ferry ride, where your moto is strapped down to the driving deck of the vessel – except this time, you don’t get to come along for the ride!
While sharing a container is often the most economical option, RORO generally entails a lot less hassle than dealing with the logistics of a container. Be that as it may, the inspection, shipping and retrieval process will still take upwards of a week to complete, so patience is definitely a virtue.
RORO is not a popular option for many overlanders due to security concerns, motorcyclists however are generally able to pack the entirety of their belongings in a backpack, which makes petty theft much less of a threat.
At time of print, RORO between Manzanillo, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia was quoted at $1,068.00 USD The quotes include local agents at each port to assist with custom clearance, however DID NOT include the aforementioned “customs clearance and port fees,” of an additional $708.00 per bike, which makes shipping RORO likely the most expensive option to get your wheels from point-A to point-B…
Additional options for insurance exist, and those costs vary based upon coverage.
In our ever-changing environment, air freight has increasingly become the most popular option for transporting motos across The Gap. It’s the quickest and, as of print, the most economical way to go!
And, once you factor incidentals such as food and accommodations, it can be significantly less expensive and time-consuming than waiting a week to clear customs at port!
Air freight is also purported by many to be the least hassle, since getting both your moto and your body across the gap will take place within vicinity of the airport and doesn’t require wandering confusing and often seedy seaside ports.
Unless of course, you’re into that sort of thing…
Like most freight forwarders, your agent will handle the required paperwork upon departure and arrival at the airport. And while you may get lucky and be able to ride into the sunset the day you land, count on spending at least half of your day dealing with customs.
Most air freight forwarders will tackle the duty of crating and securing your moto and luggage, however it will typically be on you to disconnect the battery, drain the gas (or run it close to dry) and potentially remove the mirrors or windscreen prior to doing so. So keep your tools handy and be sure you know where your battery is hiding!
While Air Cargo Pack has long been touted as the “go to” freight forwarder, requests for quotes sent to the email addresses for their various Colombian and Panamanian offices, were either bounced-back as undeliverable, or not responded to at time of print…
That said, there is no shortage of air freight forwarders at your disposal, and you might already know one! Many major airlines have a freight division, and if you’re already a member of an airline’s “elite club,” discounts and concierge service may be one of the benefits.
LATAM, my airline of choice when traveling throughout Latin America, has a freight division operating between Panama City and Bogota, and while prices fluctuate just like passenger fares, current air freight rates seem to be hovering around the $1,000 – $1,200.00 USD neighborhood, including crating, agent and customs fees!
An Ever-Changing Situation
The old rules of travel are becoming increasingly obsolete. What worked last year, will likely not work today, and what works today may not next week. This can make planning ahead more important and more difficult than ever…
Our recommendation, regardless of what you decide, is to get current references from those who have crossed the Darién Gap as close to your intended crossing as possible. In researching this article, many of the companies and contacts that were “tried and true” just a year or two ago are no longer in the game.
Unless you strap your bike down to the bow of a Panga and skirt the coast, an agent or broker will be necessary to ensure compliance and assist with customs, inspections, bills of lading and other necessary paperwork. Prior to booking, ensure exactly what services your agent or broker will provide and what costs may be excluded. Read the fine print and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Many motorcyclists have been stuck with unexpected “port fees” or have found themselves unable to access their motorcycle for days and even weeks after landing. For my money, flying the bike over The Gap while sailing through the San Blas Islands yourself is the way to go! By the time you factor in the cost of your airfare, a night or two (or more if you plan on shipping your bike) worth of accommodations, food, etc… the cost of an all-inclusive trip with a company like Wild Card, exploring deserted islands and swimming in the warm water of the Caribbean, is an amazing way to cross this remote, and seldom visited part of the planet.