Update January 2016: This article is used by thousands of travellers every month. We want to keep it as relevant and current as possible, so please do let us know in the comments about your experiences on any of these routes, so we can update the information where necessary.
We were both really concerned about how we were going to cross the Panama-Colombia border. This had nothing to do with safety - thankfully the situation has improved markedly despite the overland crossing through the Darien Gap still being a no-no. Rather, our fear was being left with no alternative but to spend 73% of our combined monthly budget just to make it across to South America.
You see, the most common option for backpackers is a four - five day boat crossing via the San Blas (Guna Yala) islands. We met lots of travellers who said this was the highlight of their trip, but also read so many awful experiences about the boat journey (captains on acid, over-crowding, not enough food or water, sinking boats and lost passports etc) that we weren't 100% sold on whether we even wanted to make the trip - let alone pay more than $550 for it. Of course, the sales pitch is that this fee includes all your food and non-alcoholic drink for the journey, plus accommodation, a visit to paradise and, of course, transport into Caratagena, Colombia. Further justification for the ridiculously high cost for a budget backpacker is given by the Lonely Planet and a number of other websites which state it costs more of less the same to fly to Colombia, so you might as well have more fun and adventure with the boat tour.
However, we were both certain that spending $1,100 plus $60 transport for an experience where the majority of our time would be spent praying for a rocky two-day boat ride to end was not worth it. And our policy is to avoid all tours unless it's your only way to do a trip.
So, we spent a day researching how we could get to Colombia from Panama on our own, for less money and without a visit to San Blas. Disappointingly however, most Google searches on the border crossing were dominated by the San Blas tour companies, thereby making it seem as though it was the only option out there.
It isn't. Here are four ways you can easily reach Colombia from Panama City for less than $150 - with some being more adventurous than others:
#1 fly to from panama city to medellin
Thankfully someone at Air Panama realised in 2014 that there was a strong enough market to start a regular flight route between these two cities - and it's a godsend to those backpacking on a budget. Flights (including a fantastic baggage allowance of 30kg per passenger!) cost between $120-150, depending on how last minute your booking is and take only an hour.
With the first flight on this route only taking off only in July, the popularity of the service has seen it expand from just three flights a week to seven in 2015. This is definitely the most convenient way to bring you to the heart of Colombia.
Update 2019: Wingo now also flies from Cartagena to Panama City (and vice versa) but does NOT show up on Skyscanner.
Cost: $120 - 150 / Time: 1 hour / Adventure rating: 1/5
#2 fly to puerto obaldia, boat to capurganá
This is the option we ended up taking - and it was quite an experience! You start with a one-hour flight in a tiny 12-seater plane from Panama City to Puerto Obaldia (remember it goes from the small Albrook Airport, not Tocumen International).
The flight itself is reasonably priced (around $100 per person) but unfortunately, due to the light-weight plane, you are restricted to 14kg of checked-in luggage and 4kg of carry-on. That was bad news for us given our gargantuan backpacks and inability to pack light - thankfully though, the excess charge is very reasonable at 2% of your flight ticket per extra kilo.
From Obaldia's airport (it's literally a hut and some runway), make your way to immigration where they require 2 photocopies of your passport - if you don't have these there is a copy shop next door. As most people on the plane are only travelling here in order to make the border crossing, there will usually be a boat ready to leave within an hour or so of your arrival. Make sure you specify that the boat is straight to Capurganá, not La Miel.
Purchase your tickets from the little restaurant near the immigration office - it's $15 per person and there may be a small charge for excess baggage if you're obviously carrying way too much stuff like us.
The speed boat is a rough and ready 30-minute ride into Capurganá; Colombian immigration is a couple minutes walk from the pier.
This route is actually quite straightforward, but there's an added sense of adventure being in such a tiny plane and crossing countries by sea. If you speak no Spanish, you may some issues. If you do choose this route, then we advise you to read our guide on the few options you have to travel from Capurganá to other destinations in Colombia.
*Make sure that you take enough money with you to Capurgana. Unless you hold a Bancolombia card, there is NO way to withdraw money once there. Dollars can be exchanged, but it's not a terribly good rate, so we'd recommend you try to get enough pesos in Panama City.
Visit Air Panama to book your flight : www.airpanama.com
Cost: $115 / Time to Colombia: 3 hours / Adventure rating: 4/5
#3 ferry from colon to cartagena
**January 2016 update: It appears that the ferry has failed again and will no longer operate in 2016**
Newly relaunched in 2014 after previous failures, this twice-weekly ferry service provides a direct service to Cartagena, Colombia. Their website is infuriating (it doesn't actually list prices or allow you to reserve) and you either have to call them or visit a ticket agent to actually book your passage. However, the budget option starts at $99 for a seat or $115 for a bed in a 4-person cabin if you book early enough.
Departures are from Colon (90 minutes from Panama City by bus) on Monday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Bear in mind that the boat ride takes a minimum of 18 hours and all food and drink has to be purchased on board, meaning that the overall cost could easily rise by $20-40.
Website and contact information: http://www.ferryxpress.com/
Cost: $100 - 155 / Time to Colombia: 18 hours / Adventure rating: 3/5
And if you really want to visit San Blas on your own before heading to Colombia...
After all our research and discussions with other travellers, this is definitely the cheapest way to visit the San Blas islands without a tour. We didn't do it ourselves, but we wanted the information to be easily accessible for anyone hoping to avoid a tour.
Book your 4x4 jeep ride with your hostel in Panama City (5 a.m. pick up, costs $30, journey time of 2-3 hours) to Carti. From here, negotiate a water-taxi to your preferred island but be prepared to wait a while and negotiate your passage (typical cost is $20 return trip) - and then all there is to do is sit back and enjoy what we heard was paradise. If you're travelling in a group, try and arrange accommodation in advance for the islands via a hostel in Panama City.
After you're finished up in San Blas, make your way back to Carti where there is a boat departing for Puerto Obaldia (early morning is your best bet, try to get a rough idea of times before you leave for San Blas). Unfortunately, this will be a rough, long and expensive ride of 6-8 hours for at least $100 (as outlined in #3, the flight to Puerto Obaldia from Panama City actually works out cheaper).
When you reach Obaldia, follow the final steps listed in #2 above.
Cost: $180 + accommodation and food costs ($25 per night on San Blas) / Adventure rating: 5/5
So that's how we made it across the border for $300, instead of $1,100. Yes, it's still the most expensive border crossing on our trip and we didn't manage to see San Blas, but that saving means we can actually eat and enjoy the next few weeks, rather than cut short our trip.
Have you taken any of these routes? Which would you recommend? Do you know a cheaper way to travel from Panama to Colombia?