Probably one of the most exotic border crossing points in the world — Colombia/Panama at Sapzurro and La Miel is a place of outstanding natural beauty, remote enough to have escaped much development yet still safely accessible for those with time to make the journey.
Situated on the Caribbean seaboard of the biodiverse region of Choco, Capurgana is as staging point for Colombians traveling to Panama in order to work or from Panama to Colombia to renew their work permits. With no recent reports of violence, and picture postcard scenery the simple fishing villages nearby offer an excellent getaway.
Not many vehicles use the unpaved road from Medellin to Turbo – the transit point from where speed boats depart for Capurgana. It pays to be aware that the road passes through key strategic paramilitary and drug trafficking territories. The town of Apartado, Antioquia has suffered heavy violence from FARC and Paramilitary groups due to its strategic access to Choco, Cordoba, Antioquia and to the coast. People in this region still suffer from high levels of threats, violence, and displacement. Displaced indigenous people who have resettled in stilt houses can be seen by the road side en route to Turbo.
Speedboats leave Turbo daily at 8am for Capurgana. From Capurgana, a fisherman will charge COP7,000 to take you to Sapzurro or to other beaches nearby. From Capurgana to Zapsurro you can hike the clearly defined trail up and down the ridge which separates the two villages. This will take you 1.5hours carrying no gear in hot and humid jungle.
Sapzurro is a quaint fishing village in a natural cove surrounded by ridges on all sides. The pace of life is slow and easy to sink into for a couple of days. Locals move with the sea, beginning the day early and slowly. It is a very satisfying environment to be in if your desire is to wind down and make some explorations into nature. A variety of guesthouses are available including romantic waterside rooms.
A fifteen minute climb from Sapzurro will bring you to the ridge at Cabo Tiburon — Shark Cape — the official border between Colombia and Panama, which is manned by Colombian and Panamanian border guards. From the ridge one has an uninterrupted view of pure jungle meeting blue waters along the Panamanian coastline.
A short descent from the ridge will take you to La Miel. Here there are two white sandy beaches. One is for tourists, one is for nature – untouched. See which you can access. Panamanian military have a small border guard here and may grant you access to the second beach if you are lucky. Undocumented people have been known to make a dash for the jungle from here so soldiers are vigilant.
La Miel (the Honey) is a coral shore with a small community of mostly Afro-indigenous people. They live predominantly from the catch of fish and trade with people passing through. Ordering a fish lunch out of season may require a two hour wait, which can easily be filled by plunging into the clear waters beside the brilliant sands.
The Panamanian coastline is dotted with indigenous Kuna settlements that have changed little in their way of life for thousands of years. The first of these villages, Armila can be reached by speedboat from Capurgana. To do this, one must first register their arrival with the authorities at Puerto Obaldia – the nondescript official border entry point for Panama. Along this coastline the boundaries are a little blurred so carrying a passport or Colombian ID at all times is key.
Armila is a large settlement of palm roofed and dirt floored homes. The Kuna women typically wear vibrant hand made clothing, umpteen bracelets and anklets, gold necklaces and ear rings. The first sight of these people is captivating for a foreigner and one can imagine the experience to be not so far removed from when Europeans first laid eyes on these shores. With that in mind, if one wants to carry themselves with any respect in this community it is important to be aware of the exploitative approach foreigners have taken and continue to take towards indigenous people through history. It is evident in the way the people here keep themselves to themselves and offer sales of embroidery at the first point of contact. They have little interest in the presence of tourists, while in contrast a tourist my be fascinated by the appearance of the tribe and their natural riches.
One exception to the rule is a man who has traveled the globe and studied in Russia. He has constructed an eco lodge in the village and promotes conservation of the world’s largest turtles, who spawn on the beach here from January until June each year.
This border region is a haven of natural beauty and it is tempting to explore deeper into the jungles, waterways and coral reefs. It is a rare gem in comparison to other border crossings in the world, and the relative isolation of the area will probably keep it this way unless there is a rush of tourist development.
- Passport or Colombian identity card required at several checkpoints.
- No ATMs so cash required. (Bancolombia have a transfer mechanism for their customers in several shops in Capurgana)
- Tap water is untreated, so bring purification means or buy bottled.
- Electric power supply can be inconsistent. 3G and wifi can be found in Capurgana.
- Flights from Medellin to Capurgana with ADA.
- Road from Medellin or Cartagena to Turbo is rough but serviceable with buses leaving daily for Turbo- 12hrs.
- From Turbo to Capurgana by speedboat each morning 8am – 2.5hrs, COP55.000 plus luggage tax.
- Passage from Capurgana onward is simple as many fishermen run ferry services.
- Guerilla activity took place ten years ago in the border area. Panama military report no presence currently, but drug traffickers use this coast. Be aware.
Author Simon Phillips is the owner of travel blog Elusiveworld