Puerto Obaldia is a city in Kuna Yala province of Eastern Panama. A ramshackle collection of decrepit houses, mostly with damaged or missing roofs though painted in some nice color, a beach littered with rubbish. An internet cafe, a supermarket, a bread store with some ordinary and sweet breads, two hostels, two restaurants. The place is kind of nice for hanging around a little bit and reading a book.
Puerto Obaldia is the little known and dirt-cheap alternative to travel from Colombia to Panama and vice versa.
It's a very tranquil place where the locals have no jobs but are given government grants.
There's a military migration building that occupies the port and part of the town.
This town is less civilized than it sounds like from some Internet sources: As of August 2012 there is no cell phone coverage and no ATM, despite what anyone else says.
By boat from Colombia
Get the fast boat from Turbo to Capurganá (leaves at 7am or later daily, COP$ 55000). At 7am and 1pm daily, there is a direct boat from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldia (25,000 COP)or Sapzurro (30,000 Cop). It is quite possible and safe to walk from Capurgana to Sapzurro (1.5h) with plenty of views. You can also walk across the boarder from Sapzurro to La Miel, Panama (1hr) a small coastal town with white beaches. Walking from La Miel to Pueto Obaldia is not advisable. Get your out-stamp in Capurganá and your in-stamp in Puerto Obaldia. Upon arrival, the police will log your passport and search your bag, but they do not stamp your passport. You must find the office in town.
By plane from Panama City
Air Panama is the only airline serving Puerto Obaldia They operate one flight on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from Panama City Albrook airport to Puerto Obaldia. It departs @ 8:30am and arrives 9:30am. The cost is $57.50 plus tax. With tax it is $88.03. The plane then departs Puerto Obaldia at 9:40am and arrives back in Panama City at 10:40am. If you take this route, however, expect to wait up to three hours at Albrook undergoing multiple interviews, bag searches and an official count of your US dollars. Travelers are supposed to show $500 or more, though Americans and Europeans can generally get away with showing credit cards. http://www.flyairpanama.com/
It's worth noticing that going to Panama city by air and requires a long wait as the flights are fully booked for up to 2 weeks in advance (September 2012). The town is filled with Cubans trying to immigrate to the USA and as they are not allowed on the boats they book all the seats in the small planes. The other option is to take a speeadboat 6-7hrs to carti for $100 (the boat will ony travel when full) and then by jeep to Panama City $25, 2,5hrs. The speedboat must leave before 11am otherwise you have to stop on one of the islands overnight. The journey is very uncomfortable and you will get wet.
Theoretically: By boat from Cartí
Theoretically I suppose if you'd happen to be at the docks in Cartí exactly when the boat from Puerto Obaldia comes there to drop passengers, you could take it back, I suppose that would be their ordinary price of 100$. Knowing when this would be ought to be impossible though as there's no cell phone connectivity in Puerto Obaldia and the boat ride is organized by a villager probably without an email address. There should be some way to join one of the jeeps from Panama City (on the plaza cinqo de mayo (fifth of may)) to Cartí, there should be one every 1-2 hours of those, see below. If you get to know how to do this please write it up here.
The roads are big enough for motorbikes but there is so far only one in town. Walking is the best option.
Currency exchange USD - COP may be available on the internet café.
Once you have seen all the rubbish along the beach and the sewers leading right onto the beach, you won't ever bathe here!
The best thing to do in Puerto Obaldia is sort out how to get out of town. It isn't a dangerous town, but there is nothing to do here, and it is an unattractive place.
There is tasty food at the 'Las tres L' restaurant in town, although pricey (Almuerzo corriente USD 4). There is another restaurant near the runway.
At the main street there's a place (name?), 1 person $8 I think, room with 4 beds $28 so $7/person.
If you have a tent, coming from the direction of the dock you can walk past the old airstrip near the central plaza to the other side where there are houses and set up your tent along the shore on bed-like grass. Ask the people who live nearby to get permission, but there is very little chance you will get denied or charged.
By boat to Colombia
If there are sufficient passengers, there is a direct boat to Capurganá in Colombia (about USD 15). In Capurganá, you can get a ferry to Turbo (COP$ 49000). Theoretically it is possible to walk from Puerto Obaldia to Sapzurro (2.5h) and from Sapzurro to Capurganá (2.5h), but it is not advisable to do this, as this is a dicey area with smugglers, bandits and guerillas combing it, and the Panamanian army will require you to get a permit to leave the town. Get your out-stamp in Puerto Obaldia and your in-stamp in Capurgana. There is a Colombian Consulate in Puerto Obaldia.
By boat to the San Blas islands, takes 3-4 days trip ending in Cartí or Mira..sth..
At the time of writing, a guy called Dagoberto was arranging trips to Mulatupo o Sasardi or El Porvenir or Miramar (where there are airports) for negotiable prices. Typically he asks for $50 to Miramar. He is a thirtysomething black guy who rides his mountain bike around town, and will seek you out shortly after you arrive in Puerto Obaldia. He was not around in April 2010.
You usually need to put your name on the Zarpe, or port clearance, before any boats will take you on as a passenger. They will demand payment before doing this. The Panamanian military checks this paper at posts throughout Kuna Yala, like Playon Chico and El Porvenir. Miramar is the first town on the mainland with a road, about 2 hours from Colon. The trip from Puerto Obaldia to Miramar takes 10 hours or longer, and can be extremely rough, particularly after El Porvenir. Passengers and cargo get soaked.
If there are no tourist boats arranged, you may have to wait a day or more to find a boat heading towards Panama.
There are no ATMs between here and the mainland past Carti (well, as of August 2012 there's no ATM here also, though you should be able to get cash out of your card in the city of Capurganá right on the Colombian side, check elsewhere for this) so plan your financial situation in advance.
By speedboat to the port of Cartí (in the San Blas islands region), 3-4hrs
There are road connections with Panama city in the coast to the Carti.
There is one guy who drives a boat from Puerto Obaldia to Cartí. The boat fits 12 people or so. The ride is 3:15-4hrs. In August 2012 perhaps a third of the trip the boat was smashing to the sea all the time, around Dec-Feb perhaps a bigger proportion of the time. During rest of trip, boat calm and nice. In Aug there was no water splashing into the boat.
This one guy who drives the boat has no customer orientation at all (unlike his colleague who has some). The ticket is very overpriced, $100, and he has no urge whatsoever to get going so the price is not negociable whatsoever.
In August 2012 (low seazon), after some Ecuadorian and Colombian guys waiting for up to 3 nights and there was ~6 people ready to go, it became known there were another two coming in so the owner waited for them. They were from Colombia and their migrations procedures took them two nights, didn't have the required $500 with them or something. My point here is just, the boat is not on a schedule and there's no competition on this market at the very least in the low seazon (Aug). There was some rumor that at some point they had dropped the passengers halfway to Cartí, so can be a nice idea to postpone paying for the trip until actually in Cartí, for 3 of us passengers this is what we did.
Taking this boat ride from Puerto Obaldia to Cartí is a really majestic experience with the enormously long piece of coast passed with its lush forests and with all of the lots of the San Blas islands that are passed, maybe 30 or 50 or so. The boat stops to fill up gas in some pitoresque San Blas island.
There are jeeps(4x4) from Carti (San Blas islands) to Panama city will cost $25 dollares per person. Basically Cartí is a 200m long beach with a little restaurant, a hut where they charge a $1 local tax, and a parking lot with 30 cars or so on it. The jeep transport to Panama City seems to be the main business here, you buy the ticket in the hut and as soon as there's 5 people or so, off you go. In low seazon I got the impression there's one every max 3 hours.
There is no cell phone coverage in Cartí, but 25min or so by car into the country, there is. The jeep takes slightly more than 2 hours.
If you learn to know a phone number of this jeep driving business and where their standard place in Panama City is to drop off and pick up people is and if they have any ticket office or anything in Panama City, please write it up here!
Air Panama is the only airline serving Puerto Obaldia They operate one flight on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from Puerto Obaldia to the Panama City Albrooke Airport. It departs @ 9:40 amand arrives 10:40am. The cost is $57.50 plus tax making it $88.5. http://www.flyairpanama.com/ It's highly advisable to phone and book beforehand, as the flights can get booked up and Puerto Obaldia is not a place you will want to spend more time then you need to, it's ok just no really nice beach and Capurgana-Sapzurro are more giving in all respects. Plus $1 departure tax payable in Puerto Obaldia, and you pay upon arrival in Panama City. Credit cards are accepted.
As of all 2012 the Air Panama ticket office in Puerto Obaldia seems to be closed, the woman who works there is on motherly leave, something like this. From this experience I'd advise you that if want a ticket ensure you settled all about it in advance on their main phone line or something, also considering there's no cell phone coverage in P.O., though an Internet café you maybe could call on the Internet from. Note there's no direct sale of these tickets on the Internet, only a contact me back for reservation button, they did not contact back.
There are ultra-tough customs checks upon arrival, as this is one of the main drug trafficing zone in Panama. Expect to wait up to three hours and undergo multiple interviews and bag checks. Pray that you don't have any dirty underwear on display, as your bag will be unpacked in front of everybody and every item it will be removed and thoroughly prodded and squeezed.