Backpacker Transport, November 2013

Remember learning in your school geography lessons about the Pan-American Highway? It runs from Point Barrow, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, connecting the Americas, right?

Well, not quite. It's true that there's such a highway, and that it starts in Point Barrow and ends in Tierra del Fuego. But it doesn't run all the way. There's a stretch of about 30 miles in Panama, called the Darien Gap, where there is no highway. In fact, there's no road at all.

The Darien Gap is an almost complete wilderness spanning eastern Panama and western Colombia. It's inhabited by two tribes of indigenous people, the Kuna and Tiawana Indians, and too often by members of drug cartels who hide out there. The Darien Gap is not impassible; in fact, there's a list on the internet of non-indigenous people who have successfully done it. But the people on that list hacked their way through jungle, waded through neck-deep swamps, drove jeeps with winches on the front to haul their way up the steep ridges and mountains, and/or took boats along the coast for at least part of the trip. Not to mention, fought off the fierce mosquitoes. The number of people who have climbed Mount Everest dwarfs the number who have crossed the Darien.

So, what’s our point? Simply: there's no practical way to travel by land between North and South America. Consider a 20-something traveler, exploring Central and South America. She works her way through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, riding buses, staying in hostels and carrying all her gear in an enormous backpack. She wants to continue into Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, but there's this pesky Darien Gap, so no buses. She could, of course, fly from Panama City to somewhere in South America, such as Bogota or Quito. But that's expensive, and besides, it's not her style.

So she goes by boat. There's no formal ferry service (just yet) between Panama and Colombia, but there are lots of small craft that will take passengers. Virtually all are sailboats, because they use less fuel and are consequently far less expensive to operate. We lived for almost five years amongst the owners/captains of these small craft, which are generally referred to as “backpacker boats”.

The business of transporting backpackers is totally informal and unregulated. To get into it, all you need is a boat that can make it from, say, Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia -- about 300 nautical miles of open ocean, some of it 100 miles or more offshore. While some backpacker boats are well equipped, a distressingly large number lack even the barest of equipment we would regard as essential, such as single-sideband radio or satellite phone to call for help. In theory, the boat should have lifejackets for everybody on board, but we've never heard of either the Panamanian or Colombian Coast Guard enforcing that. The boat does not even have to have a dinghy that floats, much less a liferaft. The captain is not required to have a license, nor even to know how to sail. Almost none of the people who go into this business are willing to spend the money necessary to maintain their boats, with the result that many of the backpacker boats are in terrible shape. Some are only marginally seaworthy.

If you're a Colombian with access to a sailboat more than about 25 feet long, running backpackers is an attractive economic proposition. The going fare for a trip between Colombia and Panama with a day or two in the San Blas islands is about $600 a person, and there's no legal limit to how many people you can carry. We've seen boats under 30 feet long with at least 8 passengers on board. Such boats have room to sleep at most 4 or 5 people, so some passengers must sleep on deck, and of course all their gear has to be stowed somewhere.

We can't imagine what it must be like to be a passenger on one of those boats for the long passages. Going from Panama to Colombia, the first leg (40-50 miles from Portobelo to the San Blas) is generally done as an overnight, and skippers urge their passengers to take lots of Dramamine, so they sleep through any rough weather. The two days and a night anchored in the paradise of the San Blas islands are the highlight of the trip, even better in the unlikely case that the boat owner has snorkeling gear on board. The two-day, two-night passage from the San Blas Islands in Panama to Cartagena, Colombia could feature winds in the 30+ knot range and 10-foot waves almost on the nose. The backpackers get soaked – we've seen lots of wet, bedraggled backpackers arriving in Cartagena! They'd be scared (if they have any sense), seasick and exhausted, for sure. Plus, of course, $600 poorer than when they left Panama.

Stories about the skippers of these boats are legend. One, near the end of his trip from Cartagena to the San Blas, found himself exhausted from lack of sleep. Turning to one of his passengers, he said, “See those lights up ahead? Those are anchor lights. That's where we're headed. Just steer for them while I catch some sleep.” So that's what the passenger did. Unfortunately, there was a reef in the way. The boat ran hard onto the reef and began to take on water. According to the story, the skipper jumped in the dinghy and made for the nearest island, leaving his hapless passengers to fend for themselves. The passengers survived because the boat had run so hard onto the reef that it was supported by the coral. Some Kuna Indians happened by in their dugout canoe and carried word of the backpackers' plight to the nearby authorities, who rescued all the passengers without incident. The skipper had not told a soul about the accident when he came ashore, and was never heard from again. The boat broke up and sank in about 2 days.

We knew a Scandinavian cruiser who lived aboard his 33-foot boat in Cartagena. He had married (or at least, intimately befriended) a fiery Colombian girl – we once were subjected to a 2-hour screaming match between them that began at 3 o'clock in the morning. He ran out of money and decided to make a quick killing in the backpacker business. The two lovers were separated at the time, and he was afraid that if he left for Panama without his one-year-old son, neither his son nor his lover would be in Cartagena when he got back. So he took the baby with him. And the dachshund. And seven backpackers. We were in Porvenir, in the San Blas, when they arrived. The passengers were not happy. All of them disembarked on the spot (a full day's passage short of their destination in Portobelo) and booked themselves on the flight by small plane to Panama City. The skipper didn't care – he’d never see any of the disgruntled backpackers again.

We are amazed that many -- if not most -- prospective passengers never check out the boat they're going to spend five days in. Once, we were anchored in the San Blas when a backpacker boat anchored nearby. This was one of the few backpacker boats with all the standard safety equipment, including life raft with a current inspection sticker, radio and all navigation gear. The captain, a good friend who actually holds a Captain's license, invited us to join his crew and passengers for a campfire on the beach that night. Never ones to turn down a party, we joined them by a blazing bonfire of coconut palm fronds. Having essentially nothing in common with these kids, we just sat back against our log backrests, sipped our beers and listened to their conversation. One of the girls told the others that the captain had approached her at the hostel where she was staying before the trip and offered to show her the boat she was about to set to sea on.

“Like, why would I do that?” she asked rhetorically. “I don't know anything about boats.” She had no idea how lucky she was in her random choice of vessels.

The backpacker transport business is not without its vicissitudes. For one thing, you need to fill your boat, or at least get enough passengers to make money. This is harder to do than one might think. The usual way to market your business is to put up signs in hostels in Cartagena and Panama City, but that, by itself, is not likely to pay off very well. For one thing, there's lots of competition (remember, anybody with a boat and a shortage of cash might enter the business); for another, you're at sea most of the time when you'd like to be gathering customers. At a minimum, you'll have to pay the hostel owner a 10% “finders fee”, possibly more if you want a competitive advantage on the other transporters. A group of Colombian backpacker skippers have joined together in a cooperative, and they've papered the hostels of both cities pretty thoroughly. Some, such as Captain Jack in Portobelo, own both a hostel and a backpacker transport service. But unaffiliated newcomers to the business can find the pickings pretty slim.

One marketing concept that only a few of the more successful backpacker boats have grasped is scheduled trips. For example, Fritz the Cat, a 50-foot catamaran, used to leave Cartagena every Saturday morning and return from Panama every Tuesday night. The owner (Fritz) carried at least 10 backpackers on each trip, for a gross of about $12,000 a round trip. Leaving a month or so per year for boat repairs, and allowing for some trips with fewer passengers, we guess Fritz was grossing about $100,000 a year running backpackers. Of course, he had to pay the hosteliers their 10% kickback, and food for his hungry fares probably cost another $60 or so per person, but that still netted out at more than $80,000 a year.

Most of the backpacker boat captains are not so well organized. Basically, they hang around the hostels talking to anybody they see, trying to fill their boats. They frequently tell backpackers they're leaving the next day, then after signing up a few passengers they delay the departure until they can fill their boats. For the most part the backpackers don't care; they're not on a tight schedule and a few extra days in Cartagena (or Portobelo) is not a hardship. Of course, there's a limit to how long the boat captains can string along their passengers, and they often end up departing on trips with fewer passengers than they planned for.

The intense competition amongst backpacker transporters can dissolve into open antagonism. There have been fistfights and worse between backpacker skippers, and at one point the Colombian cooperative persuaded the Cartagena officials to fine the non-Colombian backpacker boats if they spent too much time (more than 72 hours) in harbor. As Colombians, they, of course, were not subject to this rule.

The accused murderer Javier Martin allegedly killed two boat owners in order to replace the backpacker boat he lost on a reef (see our story on this, Mystery in Paradise).

Inevitably, people dream bigger dreams. Instead of carrying 5 or 10 backpackers in an uncomfortable and unreliable little sailboat, how about starting a real ferry? The first person we knew to try this was Robert, an ex Los Angeles cop who had settled with his Colombian wife near Cartagena. He found an old, worn-out shrimp boat in Belize, drove it down to Cartagena and refitted it for backpackers. The big steel vessel needed a lot of work, but over six months or so and with a lot of help from a fellow cruiser who liked to putter around in boats, Robert was finally ready for his maiden voyage. All he needed was 20 or so passengers. So he went up to “Backpacker Alley”, the street where many hostels are found, seated himself at a sidewalk café with a big poster, and hoped for the best. But Robert was not a salesman, and hustling was not his style. In less than 2 weeks, with no success, he abandoned the project, anchored the boat in a nice bay and turned it into a bar. Bar-tending, he could do.

Remember Fritz the Cat, the big catamaran that kept a schedule? Well, it sank, fortunately within easy rescue distance of Cartagena. So Fritz purchased a large Ro-Ro (Roll on-roll off) ferry in Nova Scota and brought it to Cartagena. It's capable of taking vehicles as well as passengers, and Fritz set up a regular schedule. Then he ran into red tape. First, it was where to dock in Panama, then where to dock in Cartagena (or anywhere in Colombia). Last we heard, his ferry service was still not in operation, but hope springs eternal in the minds of entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, the scruffier part of the backpacker transport business continues to flourish. It's only a matter of time until there's a real disaster, so if you're ever tempted to take a boat instead of flying from Panama to Colombia, do a rudimentary check. Liferaft? Life jackets? Captain's license? Experience? Charts? Berths for all passengers? Long-distance radio or satphone? And don't pay your money until you get a good look at the boat.