The Darien Gap

The Darien Gap is a geographical region in Central America located between the North and South American continents that includes a huge watershed, forest, and mountains in Panama’s Darién Province and the northern portion of Colombia’s Chocó Department.

The “gap” in question is the Pan-American Highway, which is missing 106 kilometres (66 miles) between Yaviza, Panama, and Turbo, Colombia. Road construction in this area is both costly and environmentally damaging. After an initial attempt failed in the early 1970s, political consensus in support of road construction crumbled, and construction resumed in 1992 only to be delayed by major environmental concerns. There was no active plan to build the missing road as of 2022.

The Embera-Wounaan and Guna peoples live in the Darién Gap (as well as the Cueva before the 16th century). Travel is frequently accomplished in customized canoes (piraguas). On the Panamanian side, La Palma, the area’s cultural hub, serves as the province’s capital. Yaviza and El Real are two more major population concentrations. The Darién Gap had a reported population of 8,000 people in 1995, divided among five tribes. On local farms, staple crops include maize, cassava, plantains, and bananas.

On the Colombian side of the Darién Gap, the river delta of the Atrato River provides a flat marshland at least 80 km (50 mi) wide. The Serrana del Baudó mountain range stretches from Colombia’s Pacific coast all the way to Panama. On sharp contrast, the Panamanian side is a mountainous rainforest, with terrain ranging from 60 m (197 ft) in valley floors to 1,845 m (6,053 ft) at the tallest peak (Cerro Tacarcuna in the Serrana del Darién).

The Darien has a magical air to it, a mysterious region filled of unusual vegetation, uncommon fauna, indigenous people, and violent paramilitary groups. It is located on the border between Panama and Colombia.

Over 88,000 people have already crossed in 2021. According to Panama, one-quarter of the population is made up of children.

Panamanian sovereignty

The majority of Panama remained a part of Colombia until it declared independence in 1903, with US encouragement and support. Darién’s topography, which prevented troops from marching through it, made its Department of Panamá more difficult to protect and manage.

The existing border is governed by the Victoria-Velez Treaty, which was signed in Bogotá on 20 August 1924 by Panamanian Foreign Minister Nicolás Victoria and Colombian Foreign Minister Jorge Vélez. On 17 August 1925, this pact was officially registered in the Treaty League of Nations Register No. 814; stated border was based on the same Colombian statute of 9 June 1855.

Travelers seeking adventure

Traveling between continents via the Darién Gap has long been a difficulty for adventurers. Off-road vehicles attempting intercontinental voyages can pass through the Gap.

The Marsh Darien Expedition, financed by the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the government of Panama, was the first post-colonial expedition to the Darién in 1924-25.

Darein Gap

Image via JOHN OTIS

Three Brazilians in two Ford Model T vehicles made the first vehicular crossing of the Gap. They departed Rio de Janeiro in 1928 and landed in America in 1938. Following an International Conference in Chile in 1923, the expedition’s goal was to raise awareness of the Panamerican Highway. Leonidas Borges de Oliveira, a lieutenant in the Brazilian army, Francisco Lopez da Cruz, a member of the Brazilian air force, and Mário Fava, a teenage technician, were among those who took part.

They captured what looks to be the last photograph of Augusto Sandino, who met them in Nicaragua, and were received in the United States by Henry Ford and Franklin Roosevelt.

In March 1975, Robert L. Webb made the first motorbike crossing. Mark A. Smith and his colleagues made another four-wheel drive crossing in 1978-1979. They drove the 400 km (250 mi) gap in 30 days using five stock Jeep      CJ-7s on barges up the Atrato River.

The majority of Darién Gap crossings have been from Panama to Colombia. Carl Adler, James Wirth, and Joseph Bellina, three college students, crossed from the Bay of San Miguel to Puerto Obaldia on the Gulf of Parita (near Colombia) and eventually reached Mulatupu in what was then known as San Blas and is now known as Kuna Yala. The Darién was crossed by banana boat, piragua, and foot via the Tuira river.

In 2017, a party of four former US Army service members, Wayne Mitchell, Simon Edwards, Rich Doering, and Mike Eastham, led by Kuna guide Isaac Pizarro and helped by locals from the Kuna town of Paya, rode four Kawasaki KLR bikes through the Darien in eight days. The gang was joined by filmmaker Jake Hamby and photographer Alex Manne, who filmed the full motorbike ride from Alaska to Argentina in the 2022 documentary film “Where the Road Ends,” which is available on YouTube.

Jan Philip Braunisch, a Swedish traveller, went missing in the area in May 2013, after leaving the Colombian town of Riosucio with the goal of crossing to Panama on foot via the Cuenca Cacarica. He was killed by the FARC after they mistook him for a foreign spy.

The Gap also sees a steady flow of migrants from Cuba, Africa, and Asia, whose desperation propels them on risky travels to reach, where they risk theft, kidnapping, and even death to document one of the world’s most traumatic journeys.

There’s a reason the 150km stretch of land between Colombia and Panama is renowned as the “world’s most perilous voyage”:
  • The weather is hot, and the air is thick and heavy, making breathing difficult.
  • Satellite phones and GPS trackers are inoperable. It’s one of the world’s remaining great black holes.
  • If you do not fall victim to the rebels, drug runners, or common criminals, any of a number of lethal snake or spider species could take your life before aid arrives.
  • “The threats are numerous… there is no one you can turn to for assistance,” journalist Jason Motlagh explained.
  • The American has firsthand knowledge of how perilous the Darien Gap can be. He travelled the length of the forest with 20 migrants in May in hopes of a better life in the United States.
  • It is estimated that 25,000 migrants came into Panama illegally last year, but many had no idea what they were throwing themselves into.
  • The 20 refugees that accompanied Motlagh were fleeing harsh conditions in South East Asia and Africa. But they were unprepared for what was to come.
  • Many of those making the journey were “ragged,” having not eaten or slept in days. Others drank contaminated river water, which made them sick. They endured bodily anguish just to be routed in the opposite direction when they arrived at the border in Panama.
  • The 26-year-old vanished soon after entering the jungle. His body was recovered in a forest tomb in June of last year, after a two-year search.

The Swede had a single gunshot wound to the head, according to local news sources.

According to reports, guerillas caught the tourist on his route to Panama by boat.

They suspected him of being a spy after discovering a comprehensive map of the region and a GPS device on him. His ashes were returned to his family.

Bombs from the Cold War era:

During the height of the Cold War, American troops shot bombs into the deep forest in order to train and prepare for the “real” war that was apparently ahead. Although the majority of the bombs were destroyed and the forest regrew, some of the live bombs remain dormant on the forest floor, covered in moss and poison ivy, waiting for someone to trip over them and create a tremendous explosion. 

The most dangerous creatures in the Darién Gap are:

The Anaconda, Bushmaster, Fer-de-lance, Green Iguana, Harpy Eagle, Jaguar, Ocelot, Puma, Rattlesnake, Teju, Timber Rattlesnake, and Yaguarondi are among the most dangerous species in the Darién Gap.

Jungle Frogs that are Poisonous:

Image via Lindsay

Many different poison frog species live in the Darien. While I am not certain, I believe this is a Harlequin Toad, also known as a clown frog. Atelopus varius is the scientific name for this species. These frogs were considered to be extinct in Panama if that’s what it is! Are there any frog experts among us?

The jungle becomes unbearably loud at night, when the majority of these creatures emerge. If you think you’ll be able to sleep peacefully in the bush, you’re mistaken! It’s almost like a wildlife symphony.

The Jungle Scorpion:

There are numerous hazardous species in the Darien jungle, such as this black scorpion.

Image via Kane Dane

In addition to painful fire ants, lethal fer-de-lance snakes, jaguars, bot flies that lay eggs under your skin, wild hogs, and other animals you probably don’t want to meet, the area is home to other animals you probably don’t want to meet.

Palm Chunga Tree:

This tree dislikes being hugged. Hippies, you’ve been warned! The Darien rainforests are home to the Chunga Palm (also known as the Black Palm). If you’re not careful, their lengthy, razor-sharp, bacteria-covered spines can be rather painful. It is not advisable to acquire a terrible infection in the middle of the forest.

Image via Brian Gratwicke

Transportation in The Darien

This basic footbridge in the village of Yaviza is the only break on the Pan-American Highway, a 29,000 mile (48,000 km) stretch of road that runs from Alaska to Argentina. The Darien Gap is a 100-mile stretch of impassable jungle that separates Central and South America.

Those who want to drive from Panama to South America must send their automobile over the ocean via cargo ship from Panama City to the town of Turbo, Colombia.

There are no highways in the jungle, only footpaths. While a few expeditions have crossed by land vehicles, it is not something most people can do unless they have a well-funded crew.

Because the majority of the Darien jungle is devoid of roads, long Piragua canoes such as this one are the primary form of transportation. Locals with money can buy an outboard motor for it. However, most paddle with hand-crafted wooden paddles, which can be challenging owing to strong river currents.

Farming Plantains with Bananas

Many indigenous people in the Darien make a living by farming plantain bananas, which are subsequently hauled upriver to Yaviza and eventually sold in Panama City.

This is a relatively new occurrence, as money was not a priority until hunting was prohibited in the National Park. They must now pay for their food because they can no longer hunt for it. 

Resources from nature

Darién Gap is home to two significant national parks: Darién National Park in Panama and Los Katos National Park in Colombia. The Darién Gap woodlands were densely forested with cedrela and mahogany until many of these trees were cut down by loggers.

Darién National Park in Panama is the largest national park in Central America, covering over 5,790 km2 (2,240 square mi) of area and was established in 1980. The property encompasses a stretch of the Pacific Coast as well as nearly the entire border with neighboring Colombia.

The Darien jungle is a deep, triple-canopy rain forest that runs along four mountain ranges before descending into palm forest swamps, mangroves, marshes, rocky shores, and beaches. It is

The harpy eagle, howler monkeys, jaguars, caimans, gigantic anteaters, tapirs and peccaries, coatimundis, and the deadly fer-de-lance, as well as over 60 bird species found solely in that area, call it home.

The Darien jungle may also be the sole thing keeping a paved route from causing fragmentation, degradation, and development.

Since 1981, the Darien National Park and Biosphere Reserve has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can go trekking and camping within with the right licences.

It doesn’t receive many visitors these days, so a machete comes in handy for cutting the numerous overgrown trails.

Emberá Traditional Residence:

The Emberá people build their homes on stilts to defend themselves from animals and flooding. On our walk through the area, we saw numerous of these houses.

Image via

The log ladder leading to the main floor serves two functions. Along with enabling entrance to the residence, if the notches are facing out visitors are welcome — if they are rolled under it implies “do not bother”. That was so cool!

Checkpoints for Security

Private Wilson is stationed here, guarding a Senafront roadblock on the way into Darien. Panamanian authorities are attempting to reclaim the forest from traffickers, criminals, and paramilitary groups. As a result, there are a lot of camouflage suits and machine guns about.

Image via