Saturday, August 03, 2013

Mind The Gap

There are a number of famous roads whose names alone evokes exotic, dreamy images amongst all travellers: the Karakorum Highway, Route 66, the Transfăgărășan, the Pamir Highway and the Panamaerican Highway are all the stuff of legend. The latter extends all the way from Prudhoe Bay, in northern Alaska, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego ... well, almost. The Panamerican is rightly famous for crossing the length of the Americas and traversing a multitude of landscapes and climates. But what is less well-known is that it's incomplete. It has a chink. The road doesn't link North and South America, instead there is a gap of about 160km across the Panama-Colombia border where there is nothing but impenetrable rainforest. This is the Darien Gap and is one of the world's great travelling challenges. But before I figured out how to get past it without flying, I had one last stop in Colombia.

Located about 100km from the Caribbean coast near the confluence of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers lies the town of Mompox. The town used to have huge national importance as a secure port, far enough inland to be safe from English privateers and yet accessible by ship. It was here that the first proclamations of Colombian independence from Spanish rule were declared in 1810, and the town was a major Bolivarian stronghold during the wars of independence. However the only certitude of time is its impermanence, and Mompox's halcyon days didn't last much longer and it quickly faded into obscurity, protected from the ravages of encroaching modernism by its relative inaccessibility amongst a patchwork of rivers to become little more than a sleepy backwater. If it wasn't for the motorbikes that ply the streets you could easily be in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo. The oppressive heat and humidity of the tropics sends everybody indoors from late morning until late afternoon to seek solace in the shade and the cool breeze of a fan, temporarily giving over the town to the donkeys and flies.

Mompox is a great place to laze and become a lotus eater. Far more pleasant, in my opinion, than on a tropical beach (I'm not a big fan of beaches per se as I find that sand has an annoying habit of getting into places you really don't want it to be). But I could not stay there forever (or it might turn into 100 Years of Solitude) and needed to find a way of getting to the other side of the Darien Gap. Crossing it directly is the stuff of travelling legend and requires a lot of time, patience, preparation and grit, which I, quite frankly, could not be bothered with. That leaves either going round the Pacific side or the Caribbean side. However the Pacific coast of Colombia is incredibly underdeveloped and the nearest road access to the coast is about 1000km south of the border almost due west of Medellin. So by the simple process of elimination that leaves the Caribbean as the only viable alternative. There are tourist sailing boats that ply the route from Cartagena to Colon, but at $500 per person they are excessively expensive. Locals must get across somehow and I was determined to do the same. This led me to the disreputable port town of Turbo. For many years the town was off limits to foreigners due to its use as a narcotrafficking hub. The FCO still has a travel advisory warning against "all but essential travel" there, but as far as I was concerned, this was essential travel.

In the end I didn't stay long. I wasn't able to get there in a single day from Mompox and ended up spending the night in the bus station of the nearby town of Monteria waiting for the first morning departure (at 4am). I got dropped off at Turbo's optimistically named International Sea Port, which was little more than a chaotic wharf among the mangroves. Plenty of people were shouting, gesticulating and strutting around as if they might have something important to do, but few people seemed to actually know what was really going on. Finally I was told there would be a boat departing ahorita (a word I've come to dread in Latin America as it literally means "about now" when instead it actually means "at some unspecified point in the future, now will you stop asking me annoying questions"), so I bought my ticket, bought a bin-liner for my rucksack and sat down with my book to wait. Eventually about 30 of us were herded onto a largeish speedboat bound for the border town of Capurgana. Most of the passengers were Colombians on vacation, as Capurgana is the nearest Caribbean beach resort for many living in the south. I was lucky in that, although I was one of the last to board, I managed to find a seat at the back of the boat. From my travelling experience I have learnt that in speedboats it is always best to sit as close to the rear as possible, as that is where the motors are and so remains in contact with the water. The further forward you are the more you get bounced up and down upon the waves. (For buses however the back is the worst place to be and you should aim to be near the front.) After two and a half hours of jolting along in our lancha (basically little more than an over-sized margarine tub with giant motors strapped to the back) we arrived in Capurgana, where I was pleased to hear there was another lancha headed for Puerto Obaldia on the Panamanian side of the border. This being an obscure border post at the edge of civilisation in a developing country of course meant that things were not allowed to go that smoothly. The power kept cutting out in town making passing immigration procedures difficult as their computers were continually turning off (obviously they've never heard of UPS's).

But eventually the passport got stamped and I could get on the boat that would take round the headland that separates Colombia from Panama, South America from North America. Now I would find out what sort of a limb I had got myself out on. According to my guidebook said that the only way out of Puerto Obaldia is by plane, whereas some online travel accounts state that it is possible to get a boat to take you the 200 or so kilometres to the first settlement connected to the country's road network, but that it can take up to a week or more before one departs. My first impressions on my chances on getting out were not good. All the foreigners I saw (and there were more than I was expecting) seemed to have arrived by plane, or were expecting to fly out. Not a good sign, especially when I learnt that the only planes that serve Puerto Obaldia have a capacity of 10 passengers and the last one's engine failed just after landing. I learnt this from a group of Cubans who took me under their wing and found me a cheap place to stay with them. Due to their particular migration status within the Americas they are not allowed by Panamanian officialdom to continue into the country overland and must fly. Some of them had been waiting for over a week to snag a seat on a flight out of there.

Sitting on the dock of the bay (and doing a spot of fishing) is about all there is to do in Puerto Obaldia if you're waiting for a plane to get you out of there. My friendly Cuban hosts whilst there.

I had far more luck in my attempt to leave Puerto Obaldia when I was approached that same evening by a young man who happened to be the owner of a lancha that plies the route from Puerto Obaldia to the rest of the country. He was looking to leave the next morning and was trying to rustle up some passengers. And although at $100 the passage was more expensive than a flight ticket, it was far less than the tourist boats that sail from Cartagena I eagerly put my name down and was assured that we would leave the next morning. And true enough we left the next morning, albeit a couple of hours later than promised. The ride was as bumpy as those of the previous day, but at least it afforded lovely views of the jungle-clad Darien interior, and every so often a small fishing community would break the natural monotony. The people that live here are Kuna, one of Panama's indigenous peoples, who have managed to maintain a great degree of autonomy and preserve much of their traditional way of life. To help maintain their cultural integrity visitors to the community have to pay a fee for every island/community they visit and are charged for taking photos. Luckily I got a small peek of Kuna life when we stopped for fuel at one of the larger settlements. Admittedly at first glance there's not much to distinguish them, except for their generally shorter stature and some women who wear traditional clothing that is particularly distinguishable by its colourful leggings. And then, finally, after six hours we finally reached Carti, the start of the only road in Kuna territory, where my journey returned to terra firma and I caught a ride onwards to Panama City.

Small, Kuna fishing boat with a village backdrop.

I had wanted to come to the Darien, if only obliquely as I did, for quite some time. As a Scot it is a location of one of the pivotal events in our history, and yet one that is hardly known, even within Scotland. Back in the 17th century Scotland was an independent kingdom and was looking at the colonial adventures of other European countries and decided they needed to get in on the act too. If insignificant Courland (I bet most of you can't even find it on the map) can have a colony in the Caribbean (the island of Tobago) then how hard can it be? So in the 1690's the Scots launched a scheme whereby they would build a colony on the isthmus of Panama, with a view to getting a slice of the Atlantic-Pacific trade. Money, which, by some accounts, was equivalent to a fifth of the entire nation's wealth, was raised from all people in society, who bought into the colonial dream. Some 2500 colonists set off in two waves in 1698 and 1699 to set up a settlement in the Darien. In true, uncreative, colonial style they called it New Edinburgh. But there were problems from the get go. The same reasons that make the region largely uninhabited today, made it a catastrophically bad choice for a colony then: tropical diseases, stifling heat and humidity and land totally unsuitable to agriculture. Even the local indigenous tribes weren't particularly interested in the baubles and goods the Scots had to offer (woollen underwear?). In less than two years disease, starvation and the Spanish managed to drive out the Scots, with only some 15% of the original settlers making it back home alive. Scotland's one disastrous flirtation with colonialism bankrupted the country and managed to achieve (for the English) what hundreds of years of warfare had not: bring Scotland under England's control with the 1707 Acts of Union*. And although there is next to nothing to see today of New Edinburgh (and much less so from a motorboat whizzing past) just passing by was my little act of pilgrimage.

*And although many nationalist Scots may not like to admit it, the creation of Great Britain ended up being a great boon for the impoverished Scots who ended up becoming major colonists by proxy, as Scottish officers and settlers were disproportionately overrepresented in Britain's colonial endeavours.

1 comment:

ASV said...

Very useful read. Amazing how there are so many different ways to cross the Darian Gap. 3rd CSer we know to have done it, and each did it very differently.