The difference between a vacation and backpacking – The road to Capurgana

The end of my time in South America was nigh. A flight from Bogota to Europe loomed, on the third most dangerous airline in the world (I will forever be grateful my father withheld that delightful little fact until AFTER I had successfully completed all my Avianca flights). The only thing to do was go out with a bang and finish our Colombian adventures in the Darien Gap.


The Darien Gap is the link between South America and Central America, and this thin little swath of land has two small Caribbean towns on the Colombian side. After the overwhelming tourist attraction that is Cartagena, we were keen to get off the Gringo Trail and go somewhere a little quieter. There’s a reason why Capurgana and Sapzurro are so off the trail – they’re kind of a nightmare to reach. First came the seven hour journey between Cartagena and Monteria, which was long and bumpy but uneventful. Once we got to Monteria, a large town in the middle of the journey, we were told to go stretch our legs and our driver disappeared – ostensibly to round up more passengers for the next leg (we’d already spent an hour idling in Cartagena waiting to fill up the van)

We’d started playing a game in these last few days, called ‘You know you’re in South American when…’ and from Monteria onwards there were plenty of moments that qualified. I knew things were going to be interesting when we were told to get out of the van and the driver refused to tell me how long the break would be or when we should be back, just repeating ‘Go relax!’ – never a good sign. We were all suspicious about leaving our bags unattended so after a quick bathroom break, we went back to the van to watch over our worldly possessions. Our driver had apparently vanished into thin air and after awhile, a random man came over and started walking off with our bags ignoring me and my ‘Que paso?! Donde vas? Hey! Hey! Hombre!’ Competition is fierce at Colombian bus stations and it’s not unusual for aggressive methods to be used in order to coerce passengers into going with a different company. We had paid for the journey right through to Turbo and having nary a receipt or anything at all to prove this without our driver being there, it took awhile to sort out that for some inexplicable reason we were transferring from the relatively modern, comfortable van to a much older and dingier one.

While the new driver couldn’t seem to comprehend why the three of us might be just a teensy bit concerned about a stranger taking our bags or wanting to ensure we wouldn’t be double charged, we eventually got on the road…only to pull over ten minutes later on a country road. As Helen so succinctly put it when this happened, ‘You know you’re in South America when you have no f***ing idea what’s going on.’ My entire three months in South America could quite aptly be described as one constant battle against this state of mind. We faffed around, added some extra passengers to the already full vehicle and loaded so much furniture to the roof that I wondered if we would be strewing furniture behind us for the rest of the journey, and after an inappropriately long time had passed, restarted the voyage. Part of what had attracted us to Capurgana and Sapzurro were the horror stories we’d heard about the road to Turbo and Turbo itself. I can confirm the road is just what it as described as – a terrible, terrible “road” made up mostly of potholes and dirt. Our driver’s approach to the rudimentary road appeared to be somewhere along the lines of ‘Why not just drive as fast as possible with no apparent concern for minor issues such as metre deep potholes and the van falling apart around us?’


In the beginning stages of the trip, when we were still on paved sections and experiencing only mildly jostling, I remarked it didn’t seem that bad. Many hours of bouncing up and down later on, Bea asked if I still held that opinion. Adding to the charms of a six hour drive made up solely of bumps so hard we repeatedly nearly hit the ceiling and a vehicle so tired and rundown that the entire back section of it squeaked so loud we could barely hear ourselves, we ALSO had the delight of loud, headache inducing salsa music playing the entire journey. Our driver favored the volume level of ‘so loud you can’t think’ and at various stages of the trip, all three of us attempted to listen to our iPods for a short period of time before sighing, putting them away and admitting defeat to our cruel, probably deaf driver and his maximum volume salsa.

We had bought a bun each from a bakery in Monteria and had eaten breakfast in Cartagena many hours before but it was a long, nutritionless day. We all concluded it was just as well, because there were no bathroom stops. At several points during the journey, the sentiment of ‘these beaches better be worth it’ was expressed. Having heard so much about what a hellhole Turbo was, I never thought I’d want to get there so badly. Stupefied from screamingly loud salsa, lack of sustenance and so used to falling into Bea and Helen from the bumps I gave up apologizing, I couldn’t quite believe it when it was announced we were finally in Turbo. It took a good ten minutes to find my errant left flip flop, which had been jerked around so much by the ride it had slid to the front of the van. While I was hunting around the floor of the van, Helen and Bea were at the back discovering a fellow passenger had left his fresh fish on top of our backpacks in a shoddy container which leaked fish oil all over our bags. With anecdotes like this, the entire content of this blog could be used as a case study of the differences between a vacation and backpacking.


The beach that was totally worth it

Having been told by every source of information just how dangerous Turbo was and the absolute need to get there in daylight hours – definitely at the very latest by 5pm – we were delighted to discover our time of arrival was 10pm. A sample of Lonely Planet’s write up of Turbo to prove we weren’t just being overly cautious;

“Previously off limits to foreigners due to muchos paramilitaries and guerillas in the neighbourhood…ridding yourself of revolutionaries does not a destination make. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. Turbo is best seen through a rearview mirror.”

Luckily the hotel Lonely Planet had recommended (funnily enough, there isn’t a thriving hostel scene in Turbo) was nearby and we staggered to it, paying for a triple room so small the only way all three of us could fit in at one time was to lie on our beds. My favourite feature of the room was the en suite bathroom, separated from our beds by a plastic curtain and with the toilet right next to the head of Helen’s bed. The owner was lovely and very helpful, booking us priority seats on the next morning’s boat. If anyone reading this is planning a stay in Turbo (and why wouldn’t they, after I’ve talked it up nicely), Residencias Florida is the way to go.


The other guy checking in with us turned out to be a Kiwi, earning his living sailing between Panama and Colombia. Having been away from New Zealand for many years, he was very excited to find out we were fellow countrywomen and invited us to eat with him. All experiences leading up to this point had led us to conclude that all gringos who settle down in South America tend to be a little odd and he was no exception, but he was nice and promised to help us navigate the port the next day. We retired to our luxurious room for the night, excited but slightly concerned about the next morning’s boat ride. Yes, our journey wasn’t over yet. Inaccessible by road, the two towns we were going to can only be reached via expensive flight or boat. The boat is the stuff of legend amongst backpackers in Colombia. Known for being uncomfortable, rather hellish and a real experience, it leaves once a day from Turbo Port. The early morning departure was the reason behind our night in Turbo (which all of us, hyped up for the scariest place ever, actually thought wasn’t that bad)


Forewarned about the necessity of getting a seat at the back to avoid being slammed up and down by the hull at the front, we utilized our new Kiwi friend’s perfect Spanish and snagged back seats. I craftily chose a middle seat after the agonies of aisle seat boating in Playa Blanca. Helen foolishly got an aisle seat and lived to regret it. After handing over our passports which took an anxiously long time to be returned we set off…only to rock up to a soldier’s marine post where once again we had to hand over our passports. Once half the population of Turbo had examined our passports, we finally hit open waters. At which point we saw a storm in the distance. I cheerfully thought to myself it couldn’t be that bad if we were still racing towards it. At this point, I should have reminded myself that we had been told to expect the worst journey of our lives that was guaranteed to be bone shatteringly uncomfortable.


Rocking the latest in towelling fashion

Closer and closer we got to the storm, the skies becoming greyer and the waves becoming choppier. With the wind picking up, I started glancing over at the suddenly far away looking shore and mentally calculating my ability to swim the distance. As we sped towards the stormy bit of the ocean, appearing to pick up pace, the roof that was covering the boat started blowing off. One second it was nosily flapping in the wind, the next it was being lifted by the sheer strength of the gusts with the iron bits flying up and threatening to land very nastily on one of the passengers. While the boat driver showed no apparent concern, several of the passengers screeched and yanked it down. The strength of the wind meant as we hit the strongest bit of the storm it continued to blow up and away and all the passengers in the aisle sections were forced to death grip the poles down in an attempt to avoid decapitation by boat roof. Helen, as an unlucky aisler, gripped for the remainder of the two hour trip (seriously kids, listen to Auntie Rachel. NEVER pick the aisle seat in a South American boat.)


Helen, in the one position she held for 2 hours (taken during a stop at a port. There is no way in hell I would have attempted a photo when the boat was moving)

In addition to the roof trying its best to blow off into the distance, the height of the waves and breakneck speed meant everyone was sopping with waves crashing all over us. We all adorned ourselves with our towels and for an indeterminate amount of time, I remember leaning forward with my towel over my head, getting wetter and wetter. Occasional peaks out of my towel showed we were surrounded by grey fog and giant waves. When I turned around to look at Bea and Helen, the disbelieving looks on their faces matched mine, which was based on the slow horror of what we’d gotten ourselves into. One tiny little boat juddering up and down on big waves in the middle of a rather fierce seeming storm. Oh Colombia. It was at this point I realized we were going to get to Capurgana, whether it killed us or not…literally. Clinging to the seat in front of me, sopping wet from the constant waves dashing over me, I wondered at what point it became too dangerous to carry on and what would make the boat turn back. A couple days later, chatting to some fellow travellers in the communal kitchen of our accommodation, we were told tales of people getting black eyes/damaging their spleens/knocking teeth out/jolting spines on especially violent rides, all of which were not deemed serious enough to turn back. Apparently in situations like ours when the boat enters storms, the accepted method of coping is to just keep hurtling along, even when the boat drivers had no idea where they are or how they are going to get back to land.

Conclusion: there is apparently no point at which the Turbo-Capurgana route is too dangerous.