Capurgana and Zapzurro: Carribean villages and the Darien Pass

Capurgana

A skiff going from Turbo to Capurgana
The dock at Capurgana

Capurgana is a small village on the Caribbean on the Colombian – Panamanian border.  There are no roads to get here; either one flies in – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from Turbo. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia.

I took the boat from the port town of Turbo which  is a hot, rough frontier town and there’s no reason to visit here except to catch the boat to Capurgana.  Most of the hotels are shit holes.  The only descent hotel in town is Castilla de Oro or Hotel 2000 next to the bus terminal. A good place for fish is Restaurant Marinero.

The a.m. dock action is interesting with the fishermen coming in and selling fish right off the boat at the docks. It’s best to go to Turbo and spend the night. You have to get up at dawn to buy a ticket at 6 a.m. down at the docks to ensure your seat.  The boats leave around 8 a.m. They sell you plastic bags for $.50 to put your packs and bags in to keep them dry. Do buy one as they store all the cargo in the open bow of the boat and if the seas are rough everything gets soaked.

Early in the morning they pack a couple dozen people into 24’ skiffs. Though there are a few larger boats that make the trip. On the way out they stop at a police dock to give them the  passenger list. Everyone has to show their passports or i.d. cards so make sure you have your passport at hand. Then the boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed  through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone.  Stopping at a few little seaside towns and along the way they let you get off in the small fishing village of Acandi to stretch your legs take a bathroom break  – get a coffee and snack.

Beach at Capurgana
Beach cart hauling rocks
busy dock at Capurgana
town of Capurgana
A luxury hotel in Capurgana
The bay of Sapazuro
Main street of Capurgana

After the open sea journey the boat slides up to the dock at Capurgana which is always bustling with activity. People from different hotels and hostels are there ready to take your bags and rent you a room.  I went with a guy to a hotel call Villa Victoria – a nice private room with a bath, fan and Wi-Fi (when the electricity was on) for $10 a night.

Until recently this sleepy fishing village was an important point for smuggling drugs into Panama with guerrilla activity. But now a heavy military presence in town has put an end to that. In just the last 15 years the town has a warmed up to tourism and a dozens of hotels and hostels in and around town at all different price points and a dozen restaurants serving fish, meat and chicken lunches and dinners for $5.

The beach to the north of town called La Caleta  is a very developed sandy beach catering to upscale weekend Colombian tourism with all inclusive hotels with artisan stalls, discos and kayak rental. The beaches to the south of town is quieter and rocky.

a church in Sapazurro

beach at Sapazurro

beach and bay at Sapazurro – North side
beach at Sapazurro – an abandoned sailboat
Sailboats moored at Sapruzzo
beach at Playa Soledad
La Miel
Playa Blanca Panama
The Panamanian dock at La Miel

Sapzurro and La MielThere are a few good day trips to neighboring beaches from here. One – is to take a boat north to the little town of Sapzurro. It’s a hard one hour walk from Capurgana over a mountain in tropical heat. Or one can go to the dock and wait for a boat passage for a few dollars. There are also economical day trips that leave in the a.m. taking groups of tourists to Sapzurro and La Miel in Panama with lunch – choice of shark, tuna or snapper at a restaurant in Sapzurro.

Sapzurro is a clean little town with a few hundred residents.  It is much smaller than Capurgana but with a descent selection of  restaurants, hotels and hostels. Sapzurro would be one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it.  On my next trip that is where I will be staying. Bring your passport as they check it at the dock as you get off the boat as this is the last town in Colombia before crossing over to Panama.

There are two sandy beaches. On the North beach is Hostel Playa di Oro right on the sandy beach with calm water in a bay which are great for swimming. Off the south beach there are a dozen  40’-60‘ transient sailboats moor. Some of them are for rent and offer cruises to the San Blas islands in Panama – 4 days, sleep on the boat with food included for just $300 per person.

border crossing at Sapazuro into Panama
beach at La Miel  on the Panamanian side

There’s a path over the mountain and down to a little beach called La Miel in Panama. It’s a steep climb up the hill and at the top there’s a a very laid back Panamanian border crossing. It’s a 30 minute walk down to the sandy beach which has a little bay and a dock. There are huts along the beach selling cold beverages and meals. At the end of the dock there’s a tiny duty free.
Another day trip is to take a boat south to the beaches of Aguacate which has a small beach great for snorkeling and Playa Soledad – a white sand beach fringed with palm trees.

El Cielo waterfall
swimming hole in the Darian pass

Another half day trip from Capurgana is to follow the footpath in back of town along the airstrip and up into the jungle for an hour leading to a nice little waterfall called El Cielo. It can be a muddy trek with streams to cross. At El Cielo there are nice jungle water holes with cool water for bathing and cooling off. Perfect after the tropical trek. There’s also a small restaurant serving patacones  (a type of flatbread pizza spread with tomato and beans) and drinks. Above the restaurant the path continues getting smaller turning into a muddy clay trek – follow it as far as possible then sit quiet to hear the howler monkeys roar. An unnerving sound at first – sounds like a lion coming at you. Welcome to the Darien pass.

The Darien Pass

The Darien Pass is 50 kilometers wide and 160 kilometer long – 16,671 square kilometers  with only 40,000 inhabitants living for the most part along the coast and rivers. It is one of the densest tropical jungles in the world – mountainous, steep, thick, hot and humid – one of the planets most untouched tropical jungles. Trekking in the Darien is only advised with an experienced guide. They say those who venture off by themselves often get lost and die.  The hot, thick, wet jungle is unforgiving-  rife with malaria, venomous snakes, blood sucking vampire bats carrying rabies and tropical trees with shallow roots that come suddenly crashing down after a hard rain.   The indigenous communities living there don’t like trekkers passing through Neither do the drug traffickers, kidnappers, bandits who hide in the forests making this a hostile environment where even armed hunters are afraid to go.

seaside lunch of fish, rice and arepa

(For more on beaches in Colombia see the following articles:)

Bahia Solano – Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Santa Marta and the beaches north

The beaches of Tolu

La Guajira, Northern Colombia



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Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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