If you're following our route to cross the border between Panama and Colombia, which involves doing it cheap and skipping the San Blas Islands, then your likely next big destination after Capurganá will be Cartagena.
On the map, it may appear too big a distance to cover in one day, particularly as it requires a two-hour speed-boat and a number of hot, sweaty bus rides. We had in fact assumed that we would need to spend one night in Monteria before getting the first bus out to Cartagena.
However, when we pulled into the bus station, it quickly became clear that Monteria was a vastly larger city than we had expected, which of course meant the Lonely Planet had no information on it! After a long sweaty day of travel, we had no desire to traipse around looking for a hotel just to rest our heads, so we decided to push on to Cartagena that same day.
Here's our route and some tips on how to handle yourself along the way.
#1 boat from capurganá to turbo
Although there is a tiny airstrip with a few flights, the standard way to leave Capurganá is by boat. You will find ticket kiosks along the front of the pier and you need to buy and pay for your ticket at least 24 hours in advance. When we visited in high season (December-January), we had to stay an extra day in Capurganá because we left it too late and all the boats for the following morning were full.
The first boat is at 7 a.m. and this is the one you need to make it to Cartagena in one day. We arrived in pitch black at the pier at 6 a.m. and it was already full of Colombians. There was no real queue and the guys who run the boats really need to come up with a better organised system for getting people on the boats.
Your ticket allows you to have a miserly 10kgs of luggage on the boat - we ended up having to pay $27,000 COP for excess luggage (you pay per extra kg but alas, we cannot remember how much!). This was expected but still quite annoying as there were a number of people with a lot of stuff who weren't even asked to weigh their bags.
The boat ride has some very bumpy and wet bits; the closer to the front you sit, the drier you'll stay but the bumpier the ride will be. Therefore, try hard to sit near the back and make sure your hand luggage is secure and covered by a bin bag. You can buy big heavy duty black bags from guys at the pier to cover your bag for about $2,500; we'd recommend it.
| cost: $55,000 COP per person (USD also accepted but at a very poor exchange rate)
| time: 2-3 hours
#2 bus from turbo to monteria
If everything goes to plan with the boat, you'll arrive in Turbo at around 9 a.m. As the boat pulls in to the ramshackle pier, there will be no shortage of men trying to 'help' you with your bags and get you on their mini-van elsewhere. If on your own, this may be a little hectic and intimidating.
We escaped into the restaurant opposite and whilst having some breakfast asked around for the bus station. Ignoring a few persistent touts and with our vague instructions we headed into the street but it wasn't long before we both noticed two guys from before trailing us, popping up here and there to direct us to their bus depot (so far, so Latin America). On this occassion however, this went on for about 10-15 minutes; they wouldn't leave us alone and were clearly following us.
Although it wasn't pleasant, we decided they were more of a nuisance than a threat and concluded that they only way to get them to bugger off was to go to their station. We arrived and enquired as to the price but, wanting to make sure we weren't being ripped off, Andrew head out on his own to price up the other companies. This is where it bacame a little more unpleasant; both of the young men followed him, hassling him whilst trying to stop him going into the other nearby bus station. We had never had this type of experience before. Although it didn't feel dangerous, it certainly wasn't nice.
As it turned out, their bus depot did actually offer the cheapest onward transit to Turbo so, reluctantly, we bought the ticket there. The bus that turned up was extremely cramped, old and hot (not a problem for us per se after all the types of buses we travelled on in Central America, but Colombia actually has a very high standard of comfortable transport; this transpired to be the worst bus we were on in our 3 months there!)
So, our advice to you? In Turbo, try to get out of the pier area as quick as possible. If you walk toward the right for a few blocks, then you're in the area of several bus depots. Pop in to some shops to ask for some more specific directions and, if some guys keep on hassling or following you, duck into a cafe until they're gone.
Our experience and knowledge of Turbo is not definitive; if you have better instructions for finding the buses, do let us know in the comment section below.
| cost: $35,000 COP per person | time: 3-4 hours
#3 bus from monteria to cartagena
After some empanadas and 45 minutes of umm-ing and aah-ing about whether we should stick to our inital plan of spending the night here, we decided to push on and try to make it to Cartagena.
In Monteria's large and modern bus terminal, you'll find no shortage of companies inside selling tickets to Cartagena. We walked around trying to gauge the best deal and, as time was of the essence, opted to go with one of the smaller mini-vans. These are almost always quicker than normal buses as they go direct between cities without stopping to pick up / drop off, but do cost about 10-20% more.
We hadn't really realised at this point that, even with official bus companies, you might be able to get a cheaper price than the one listed. We paid $50,000 COP each, bargained down from $55,000. There are cheaper options around and you may be able to push the price down a little further than we did, especially if it is low season.
| cost : $50,000 COP per person | time: 5 -6 hours
#4 - taxi from cartagena bus station to getsemani
We arrived to the bus station at around 10.30 p.m. Usually, we would never arrive anywhere this late at night for reasons of safety and convenience. The only reason we made the exception is because we knew in advance that there was a secure taxi service at the bus station for a fixed price to the main backpacker district. We paid $15,000 COP for the ride which took about 25 minutes (during the day the price is $12,500 and travel time is about 10-15 minutes longer depending on traffic.)
So, we arrived at 11 p.m on a Saturday night during Colombian holiday season in one of its most popular and lively towns. In hindsight, this was a little silly of us. We kept to the main streets going hostel to hostel and, for the first time ever, every single one was fully booked. If we arrived at any other time of year, this is unlikely to have occurred. Again, if we knew we'd be arriving this late to a city, we would have booked ahead but we had no plans or opportunity to do this.
Thankfully, we did manage to find a house which rented out rooms very cheaply. After dumping our stuff, we made our way out to the Plaza Trinidad for a well-earned beer.
| cost: $15,000 COP | time: 30 minutes
So, travelling from Capurganá to Cartagena in one day can indeed be done. It's not without its challenges and potential mishaps, but we were both happy to have made the journey in a little over 18 hours. In Turbo, keep your wits about you and be aware of where you want to travel to with the taxi in Cartagena. Taking this option is perhaps more for the adventurous traveller who can speak basic Spanish.