When one thinks of the Darien Gap their minds often drift to the idea of FARC Guerrillas, drug traffickers, and danger and strife in general. However, when arriving at the Caribbean coast of the Darien Gap, at either Capurgana or Sapzurro, one can not help but be blown away by this heavenly piece of lost paradise. These two towns, situated just on the Colombian side of the remote border between Colombia and Panama are treasures lost to the days of Colombian civil war and drug trafficking. Today the area is safe for the most part. Tourism has started to slowly trickle in, and those who have come are amazed that it has fallen off the tourism map of Colombia. It may be a bit of a journey getting here, but those who make the trip to the region are greatly rewarded by the treasures that they find once here.
Time Needed: 3-4 days
Budget: 25-40US$ a day
Things to do in Capurgana and Sapzurro
There are enough activities to keep one busy in this area for quite a few days. Most travellers will find that three days is enough to see everything in the area. However, if you plan on spending a lot of time on the beach then perhaps plan a couple more days.
- Hike to El Cielo Waterfall: This is much less of hike than it is a walk. From Capurgana you’ll need to follow the airstrip inland where you’ll meet the path to the falls. The hike takes about an hour each way, more if you stop along the way. Wear sandals (but not flip flops) as you’ll have to cross the ankle deep river about a dozen times. If you don’t mind getting your shoes wet, wearing shoes or hiking boots is fine too. If you go to the falls early in the morning or late in the afternoon you’re also likely to spot some animals.
- Hike between Sapzurro and Capurgana: The hike between the two towns offers some beautiful views. Basically, the hike takes a little over an hour and climbs over the hill that separates the two Colombian villages. Wear hiking boots as the path is steep and often quite muddy. It is quite a difficult hike if you’re not in shape, but well worth the views of both villages from the top. I hiked between the two with all my gear and backpack on and still managed, so it is a viable way to get from one village to the other if you’re planning on staying over night at both places.
- La Miel, Panama: From Sapzurro it’s a quick hike over the hill to the Panamanian village of La Miel. There is a joint border control at the top of the hill and officials will check your passport and write your name down on a piece of paper. You can also get between La Miel and either Sapzurro or Capurgana via motorized canoes, although you might have to wait a while for a ride. The boat trip costs about 4US$. La Miel is by far the nicest beach and if you plan on spending any time in the water or on the beach this is the place that you want to be doing it.
- Snorkeling: Outside of the islands of Providencia and San Andres this is supposed to be the best place in Colombia to snorkel. The waters are perfectly clean and there is significant reef life. Be sure to go on a calm day or the water can be a little bit choppy. You can arrange this in either Capurgana or Sapzurro and the price of a half day trip is about 30$ a person.
- San Blas Islands, Panama: Recently a few companies in Capurgana have started to offer day and overnight trips to the beautiful San Blas Islands in Panama. You have to go through passport formalities, but if you’re hoping to get a look at the live of these incredible islands a day trip from Capurgana is a great idea. The San Blas Islands should not be missed regardless of whether you see them from Panama or Colombia. A day trip at the time of writing this was about 75US$.
Where to Eat
Eating in Capurgana is a bit of challenge as most places don’t open mid-day and only open for a couple hours at dinner time. However, the food is good and you can eat either on the cheap or elaborate meals. There are a couple “grocery stores” but most of them just sell the basics like rice and oils. Some of the hotels actually offer board options as well.
- Pizzolaya: If you’ve got a craving for pizza this place just down the main strip from the pier does great pizzas as well as sandwiches and burgers. A pizza costs between 15,000 and 30,000 pesos (8-16US$) depending on the size and toppings. You can get burgers and sandwiches for about 7,000 pesos (4US$).
- Muelle: The restaurant/bar on the pier has by far the best atmosphere but be sure to put on some bug spray as there can be a few mosquitos buzzing around your feet. You can get traditional or international cuisine here with most meals costing about 15,000-25,000 pesos (8-13US$).
Where to Stay
There is certainly no shortage of accommodation in either Capurgana or Sapzurro. It seems as if there are actually more hotels then people. As such, you can get very good value on your accommodation in town. As I mentioned, some of the places also offer meals.
- Hostal Capurgana: This is where I stayed during my time in Capurgana. The rooms are big, clean and have private bathrooms (no hot water). The hotel’s location is great, and the price is right. I paid 15,000 pesos (8US$) for a private room with a bathroom. The price for two people is about 22,000 pesos (12US$). They also have a laptop that has internet you can use (for a fee).
- Hotel Delphines: This is a favourite among backpackers since the Lonely Planet recommends it, and because it has meals. I checked it out and thought it was very nice as well, although I preferred the rooms at Hostal Capurgana. Single rooms at Delphines are also 15,000 pesos a night and you can get meals included in the price of your stay for about 25,000 pesos a day extra.
- Casa de Ivan: If you’re looking to save every nickle you have this is the place for you. Ivan met me at the pier and took me to his place. It is a little ways away from the action and the rooms are very basic. I chose not to stay there because the wall in the room didn’t go to the top and I was worries about my camera gear and computer. Ivan did offer to allow me to put my valuables in a safe spot, but I didn’t want to leave my tools of trade in an unsecure spot when I had the chance of staying somewhere more secure. The price is certainly right, however, as the hostel has dorm beds for 7,000 pesos (4US$) or private rooms for 12,000 pesos (7US$). It also has a kitchen if you feel the need to cook.
- El Chileno: This is definitely the place to stay in Sapzurro. It sits right along the beach and is well kept. When I stopped in to check it out the friendly Chilean owner greeted me and was very friendly. The price of a room is about 15,000 pesos (8US$)
As you might imagine, communicating with the outside world is a bit of a struggle from here. In Capurgana there are two internet cafes that have just 2 computers and the slowest internet I can remember ever using. Both of the internet cafes in Capurgana are near the main square (the soccer field). In Sapzurro there is one near the bay but I didn’t test it for speed. There are a couple places to make calls, and cell phones do work if you have a Colombian chip.
Getting to Capurgana and Sapzurro
Unless you’re a little bit mad (like myself) you’re not likely to be hiking with your gear between villages (although as I proved it’s possible). The most likely, and most regular travel down here is via boat. There are no cars in the area and aside from people that have motorcycles in the villages, and tractor in the fields, there are no vehicles. There are certainly no roads between villages. Below are the boat destinations.
- Puerto Obaldia: If you’re coming from, or going to, Panama City this is where your point of arrival will be to the Caribbean Darien. The cost of a boat trip to Capurgana or Sapzurro is 15US$. Don’t forget to go through customs before leaving Puerto Obaldia. You’ll go through Colombian customs in Capurgana.
- Turbo: The long bumpy trip between Capuragana and Turbo takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours and costs 55,000 pesos (about 27US$). Book your seat on the boat the day before in case it gets filled. The locals know best and sit at the back of the boat. If you sit at the front, be prepared for back pains from the jumping boat. The boat is covered and they place a tarp over luggage, but it is still wise to put your bag in a garbage bag for the trip in the case of heavy rains.
- Between Capurgana and Sapzurro: Boats between Capurgana and Sapzurro are irregular but quite often. If you head to the pier of either village there will likely be someone willing to take you within a half hour or so. The cost to get between the two is 7,000 pesos (4US$) and takes about 10-15 minutes
- Other villages: There are a number of other villages south of Capurgana that those really trying to get off the beaten path might want to visit. If you do so you’ll have to catch the Turbo boat and jump on and off at the villages each day. Most of the villages welcome visitors with open arms, but don’t expect to see any other foreigners.
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