Crossing the Darien Gap With Motorcycles – Our Experience
When you’re looking at crossing the Darien Gap with motorcycles from Panama to Colombia there are two main ways to do this (and a couple of unconventional ways like these guys – www.fourstrokesofluck.com). You can fly the bikes (and I don’t think its much more expensive than sailing, if any) but to be honest we were pretty keen to stick with the overland theme for the whole trip and so didn’t look to much into doing this.
Having said that, from what I hear getting the bikes on a boat is a bit more of a hassle than flying. There are two boats though that I know of that are doing the route regularly (every two weeks or so) and take bikes.
The first is Fritz the Cat (www.fritz-the-cat.com), which we took and the second is the Stahlratt (www.stahlratte.org), which I know can take up to six bikes. Expect to pay around US$1000 for you and the bikes for 5 days passage. That will include you getting through immigration in Colombia but it is around another $40 to get the bikes cleared using an agent (both boats use the same agent – a german born guy called Manfred). Definitely use him – we arrived early in the morning on one day and we had the bikes cleared and legal by the afternoon of the next day (we had to wait in customs for 4 hours but thats pretty standard). Manfred will also tell you where you should go to get your mandatory SOAT insurance. I recommend definitely getting it from this place and keeping it as we have been able to convince the Peruvian cops that it covers Peru as well when they try and extort us for not having insurance (you can’t actually buy Peruvian insurance and the border guys will tell you you don’t need it).
The boat was pretty good, you just cruise around the San Blas Islands, snorkelling and swimming for the first three days then its two days of motoring hard day and night at open sea. Food on the Fritz was pretty good but make sure you bring all your own beer (or whatever) as there is none on board.
Be careful when crossing the Darien Gap with motorcycles
We got ripped off slightly with Fritz (be sure to confirm exact prices at booking and don’t book through a hostel (like Hostel Mamallena) as it will cost you $70 more! Book direct. Check out Hostel Mamallena’s website for a list of the boats that do the route and I would recommend that you work out a way to contact the captains directly to confirm dates and prices. From my experience and what I hear all of the captains of these boats just care about making money and you are completely at their mercy once you have boarded. We only got ripped off slightly (which could have been avoided if I had been more careful when booking) however if you find a boat that is ridiculously cheaper than the rest you may find yourself having a pretty rough trip (for you and your bike) and perhaps dropped off just over the border in Colombia where you will need to pay for another boat to get you the rest of the way. We met some backpackers in Cartagena that this had happened to and their trip turned out longer and more expensive than ours in the end (quite the story though!).
If you aren’t in a hurry I would recommend not booking a boat until you are getting closer to Panama city. Definitely get in touch with the captains early to check their schedules and confirm prices but remember that you are worth twice the amount of money of a regular passenger and so most captains will try to find a way to fit you on if they can. Because of our schedule and not knowing too much about the other boats we regrettably had to rush through Central America.
Preparing the bikes for crossing the Darien Gap by sea
One of the other reasons that air travel is preferred over taking the boat for crossing the Darien Gap with motorcycles is the exposure to the salt water and sea air that the bikes will experience on the voyage. I’ve heard stories of things like brake callipers/disks being seized up with rust when they arrive in Cartagena. To try and avoid some of this we used bike covers on each bike and I actually spayed WD40 over some of the surfaces that I thought would be most vulnerable. One thing that I would definitely do if I had of thought about it before we set off is to plug up the exhaust (mine was a big gaping Staintune pipe) with a rag or whatever to stop sea air getting in there. I’m not an expert on all this kind of stuff but I figured it certainly didn’t hurt.