Solemnly heed the warnings of all horror stories regarding the journey from Cartagena to the isolated jungle town of Capurgana. The hellish voyage involves manifold buses and a torturous 2.5 hour boat ride in which your spinal vertebras will misalign and your ribs will crush into each other. If your experience superior to what I claim, it’s only because you rightly expected the worst.
Step 1 Cartagena to Monteria: Start early. You will need to get from Cartagena’s Centro to the main bus station, which is about 45 minutes away on the white bus called Metrocar (1800 pesos). Inside the station, there are a couple of bus companies that will take you to Monteria. The nicest is Brasilia, the worst (in my opinion) is Gomez Hernandez. I unfortunately took the latter for 40,000 pesos. It was a nicely air conditioned micro bus for the first half of the trip, but for reasons unexplained we were forced to vacate it and instead get on a very hot city bus that stopped every twenty feet, adding an extra 1.5 hours of bus time.
Step 2 Monteria to Turbo: Again, plenty of bus companies will approach you, but the normal price to pay is about 30,000 pesos. We opted out of another Gomez Hernandez bus and chose an air-conditioned van that claimed to go directly to Turbo, without stopping. I made him promise that the AC worked. It didn’t. The vent only blew hot air. A very sticky bus ride ensued. My nervous sweating only contributed to the discomfort as the bus driver made ambitious passes around other vehicles.
Step 3 Layover in Turbo: The hostels and hotels near the docks are the nastiest, so walk towards the Exito and you can find good deals on cleaner rooms. You might want to make a last ATM stop since there are none in Capurgana. Boats only leave in the morning between 8 and 9 a.m., but you must buy the ticket at 6:30 a.m. to make sure you actually get a spot on the boat (60,000 pesos). While waiting, be sure to buy a trash bag sold on the dock, because your gear WILL get wet (as will you). Put all electronic devices in plastic bags. Boarding the boat is a nuisance in itself. The lack of organization means that you will be pushed and shoved by all the sweaty people arguing their way to the back of the boat as putrid odors waft up from the bubbling black waters. Also, be prepared to pay an extra 500 pesos per kilogram over 10 Kg of luggage.
WARNING: If you are foreign, they will more than likely put you in the very front. Bribe the dock hands handsomely to ensure that you ARE NOT in the front. If you end up in the front, FIGHT like your life depends on it (because it kind of does) to sit even one row further back. The bow is not where you want to be, ever. If you are claustrophobic, agoraphobic, have any medical conditions, or are old, you probably shouldn’t be on the boat at all.
Step 4 Boat Survival: The heartless skippers laughed in spite of my yelps of agony. You will be left to your own devices. If you are not at the bow of the boat, the ride will be mildly uncomfortable. If you get stuck at the bow, try to sit in the middle so you can stand up and use your knees to absorb more of the shocks. As the boat flies relentlessly over the massive swells, it crashes down hard, over and over again, for two to three hours. This can take quite a toll on your spine. DO NOT turn sideways if you want to avoid permanent damage. Sit as straight as possible and try not to tense up. But no matter your position, your bones and joints will have had enough by the last hour of the trip, and each crash will send excruciating jolts of pain through your whole body. Try appreciating the spectacularly beautiful, unspoiled coastline of the Darien Gap as a distraction from the pain.
Step 5 Recovery: You will need 24 hours at the very least to recuperate from the physical and mental traumas of the past day and a half (if you aren’t totally handicapped). Capurgana is a good place to do so, with all its ocean views and flowers and comfortable hostels and car-free silence. There is a hospital about a two minute walk from the boat landing. Stretch, count your bruises, and get a massage from the ladies on the beach. Then start looking at tickets for planes, yachts, or any gentler form of travel.