Inside The Darien Gap [PHOTO ESSAY]

Pirre Mountain Darien Panama

Pirre Mountain in the Darien Gap

Darien Province, Panama

The Darien Gap is a remote, roadless swath of jungle on the border of Panama & Colombia. Enjoy these photos from my adventure into a world rarely seen by outsiders.

When asked what my favorite experience is after 2 years of travel, I usually describe camping on an erupting volcano in Guatemala, or my journey into the Darien Gap. The Darien has an almost mythical quality to it — a dangerous land full of exotic plants, wildlife, and indigenous people. Largely untouched by the modern world.

I spent 5 days inside the Darien exploring its formidable wilderness to discover if these myths were true. The photo essay below should give you a small glimpse into this fascinating & mysterious area of Latin America.

End Of The Road

Bridge Darien Panama

Entrance into the Darien Jungle

This simple footbridge in the town of Yaviza marks the only break in a 29,000 mile road network known as the Pan-American Highway, stretching from Alaska to Argentina. The 100 mile section of impassible jungle between Central and South America is called the Darien Gap.

River Transportation

Piragua Canoe Darien Panama

Local Piragua Canoe

Most of the Darien rainforest is roadless, so long Piragua canoes like this are the primary mode of transportation. Locals with some money are able to afford an outboard motor for it. But most people propel themselves with hand-made wooden paddles — which is difficult due to strong river currents.

Traditional Emberá Home

Embera House Darien Gap Panama

Indigenous Stilt House

The Emberá Indians build their homes up on stilts to protect against animals and flooding. The log ladder serves two purposes, along with providing access to the home, if the notches are facing out visitors are welcome — if they are rolled under it means “do not disturb”.

Senafront Base

Senafront Darien Panama

Panama’s Security Forces

These guys may look like military soldiers, but technically they are Panama’s elite border police. Drug smugglers use the Darien to transport their goods over the border from Colombia. Access to most areas in the Darien without Senafront’s explicit permission is impossible.

Poison Dart Frog

Poison Dart Frog Darien Panama

Please Don’t Lick

The Darien is home to many different species of frog. This is a type of poison dart frog, but I’m not yet sure what kind. If you happen to know the name of this frog, let me know in the comments!

Darien National Park

Darien National Park Panama

Hiking through Darien National Park

The Darien rainforest is a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. With proper permissions you can go hiking and camping inside, as we did. It doesn’t get many visitors these days though, so a machete is useful for clearing overgrown trails.

Big Jungle Scorpion

Scorpion Darien Panama

Watch Out for Dangerous Critters!

There are all kinds of creatures in the jungle that can be dangerous. Like this black scorpion we found while hiking. The Darien is also home to painful fire ants, deadly fer-de-lance snakes, jaguars, bot flies that lay eggs under your skin, wild pigs, and other animals you probably don’t want to meet up close.

Chunga Palm Tree

Black Palm Spikes Darien Panama

Dangerous Vegetation

This tree does not like to be hugged. You’ve been warned hippies! The Chunga Palm (also called Black Palm) is found throughout the rainforests of the Darien. Their long, very sharp, bacteria-covered spines can be pretty nasty if you’re not careful.

Plantain Banana Farm

Village Darien Gap Panama

Riverside Village

A majority of the indigenous people who live in the Darien earn money by growing plantain bananas which are then shipped upriver to Yaviza and eventually sold in Panama City. This is a relatively new development though, as money was not a priority before hunting was banned in the National Park.

Indigenous Tribes

Wounaan Girl Darien Panama

Wounaan Indigenous Girl

This girl along with some other kids came out in the rain to say hello as I stopped at a riverside security checkpoint in the Wounaan village of Vista Alegre. A few minutes after this photo was taken the kids helped me save our canoe from floating away down the river with all my gear inside…

FARC Anti-Government Guerrillas

Farc Rebels Darien Panama

FARC Wanted Poster

Meet Gilberto Torres Muñetón aka “The Calf” a commander of the notorious Colombian FARC guerrillas. Wanted for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, kidnappings, and a bombing that killed 80 people along the border of Panama & Colombia. Wanted posters like this are found all around the Darien.

Security Checkpoints

Senafront Soldier Darien Panama

Senafront Soldier

Private Wilson here guards a Senafront checkpoint on the road into the Darien. The Panamanian Government is trying to re-claim the jungle from smugglers, bandits, and paramilitary groups. So there are plenty of camouflage uniforms & machine guns around.

Fishing The Turia River

Fishing Darien Panama

Fishing with the Kuna

One day our Kuna guide Isaac took us hand-line fishing on the Turia River outside the village of El Real. This was our catch that afternoon, some of which we proceeded to cook up and eat for dinner. The rivers are absolutely full of fish! Throw your line in and 1 or 2 minutes later there was something attached to it.

Kuna Indian Woman

Kuna Woman Darien Panama

Mariana with her Mola Handicrafts

This is Mariana, our guide Isaac’s mom. She stopped in to say hello with her husband and show off their handicrafts, like this Mola bag. The Kuna are just one of 3 major indigenous groups that call the Darien jungle home.

Darien Gap Flooding

Flooding Darien Panama

Rainy Season Flooding

Flooding is a big problem during the rainy season in Darien Province. I experienced this first-hand when trying to leave the area. A river broke its bank and submerged the road, forcing everyone to pay for boat rides over to the next dry section of land about 300 yards away.

Plantain Farmer

Local Man Darien Panama

A Mixed Population

The Darien isn’t only populated with indigenous people. Panamanians and Colombians have moved into the area to start plantain banana farms, cattle ranches, and logging operations. This local farmer ended up hitchhiking with us in the back of a truck, his horse trotting along behind.

Jungle Consumption

Village Darien Gap Panama

House in the Jungle

The heat, humidity, and plant life of a rainforest will destroy anything in its path. Like this old house. Sunlight is prime real estate, and everyone (and everything) wants in on the action. If left alone this building would quickly get eaten-up by the jungle.

Swollen Turia River

Turia River Darien Panama

Turia River Highway

This is the mighty Turia River, a main artery of transportation in the Darien Gap. The river is dark & swollen from heavy October rains. We slowly motored up the river for 5 hours heading to the village of Boca de Cupe, where I was soon expelled by Senafront soldiers who feared for my safety.

Canoe Ride in the Rain

Village Darien Gap Panama

Local Kuna Boy

Heading back to the village in a Piragua canoe after a rainy afternoon of fishing. This is my guide’s son in the front of the boat. The relaxed pace of life, interesting things to see, and complete lack of tourism are why Panama’s Darien Gap has been one of my most memorable experiences to date.

***

Further Reading:

Untamed Wilderness: Hiking In The Darien Gap” – Expert Vagabond
Piragua Fishing With Kuna Indians In The Darien” – Expert Vagabond

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Hi! My name is Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for 3 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with entertaining stories, beautiful images, and money saving tips. Please join thousands of others who receive exclusive monthly updates!


Comments & Questions

51 Comments

  1. Vikki Kauffman
    October 19, 2014

    Absolutely stunning photos. Thank you for sharing a peek into this mysterious area.

    Reply
  2. Juergen | dare2go
    October 19, 2014

    Thanks for sharing these truly amazing photos and insights with the world! I was always wondering about this region, not much news is really getting out. We had to ship our vehicle around the Darian Gap, as do thousands of other travelers every year (thankfully it looks like the will be a ferry from the end of the month onwards).

    Reply
  3. Miriam of Adventurous Miriam
    October 19, 2014

    Matthew, these are such amazing photos!

    Reply
  4. Raven
    September 26, 2014

    Fantastic essay! I’m just wondering what you photography setup is? I’m a photographer as well I’ve yet to decide on good setup for traveling. I’d love to bring my whole DSLR kit but it’s way to heavy and would be quite the financial risk.

    Reply
  5. Brian
    September 16, 2014

    I am traveling to Panama Oct 3 – 10th. Where is the headquarters located to check in and ask for permission for hiking through the Darien?

    Reply
  6. Jack Wise
    September 12, 2014

    Sorry to bother you again, Matthew, but I forgot to ask a question. I have looked for, but have not found it anywhere. What was the Darièn Gap called in the 1940’s? I was under the impression its current name was named after some recent (1950’s?) explorer or trekker to the area. Today, the Spanish name for the area is “Tapòn de Darièn” or simply “Tapòn”. Have you found anything different? Thank you for taking time to reply to my comments.

    Reply
  7. Jack Wise
    September 10, 2014

    Hello, Matthew,
    Your photo essay is extraordinary! It helped me tremendously as I am writing a novel in which the last 30% or so deals with the Darien Gap area in 1943. I would love to be able to go down there and look over the area on which I am writing, but at 69 years old and partially handicapped that would be nothing short of foolhardy on my part. I have been to Colombia many times as my Colombian wife’s family is in Cali. The setting for my story takes place along the Panamanian-Colombian border north of Capurgana along the coast as well as inland. I just wanted to let you know that in addition to your photos being beautiful, they have given me a basic feeling for the area and I am thankful!
    Jack Wise
    Montrose, Colorado

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 12, 2014

      Glad to hear Jack, happy that they are helping you with your novel. Good luck!

      Reply
  8. MICHEAL
    June 29, 2014

    THANKS FOR THE EXCELLENT PHOTOS ABOUT THIS INTERESTING AREA—-THANKFULLY THERE ARE SUCH AREAS LEFT IN A WORLD THAT IS BEING EVER MORE INFESTED AND DESTROYED BY HUMANS—WHATEVER KEEPS IT WILD SEEMS OK TO ME THANKFULLY WE HAVE HAVE PEOPLE LIKE YOURSELF WHO CAN APPRECIATE AND SHARE IT WITH OTHERS

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      July 4, 2014

      My favorite places are often these types, those that haven’t been overrun with tourists or aren’t written about much. I agree, there are less and less of them every year.

      But it can be a dilemma, because when I write about them, it entices more people to visit, thereby creating those situations.

      Reply
  9. David
    May 31, 2014

    Do you know of any plans of extending the Pan-American Highway through the Darien gap?

    Reply
  10. Emily
    April 6, 2014

    What an adventure of a lifetime!

    Reply
  11. Ryan Huffman
    April 1, 2014

    Hi, I am a student in college and I have to do a report on Panama and I chose to do the Darien Gap…could I use your photos for my presentation slideshow as long as I properly credit them? Sweet photos btw, glad to see that someone is still getting away from modern society to learn about the less well-traveled parts of the world.

    Reply
  12. Anthony Edwards-Stork
    February 13, 2014

    AWESOME!

    Reply
  13. An
    January 21, 2014

    I have to do a project on the Darien Gap and I wanted to ask you what would be the best time to visit? I could not find any up-to-date climate graphs anywhere so I really need help with this. I loved your website so far! Keep up the adventure!

    Reply
  14. Omar
    January 4, 2014

    Did you make it to Colombia Matt ?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      January 5, 2014

      No, I wasn’t trying to cross Omar. Crossing overland is almost impossible these days. You’ll quickly get arrested, unless you completely avoid all villages, which I wouldn’t do unless I had military training in jungle survival. It is possible along the coast though.

      Reply
  15. Hawkins Dale
    January 4, 2014

    Love the photos. Particularly the children.

    Reply
  16. Meredith Swartwout
    October 27, 2013

    Wow, that frog was a really cool find! It is not actually a poison dart frog, but most likely an Atelopus varius, one of two species of “golden frogs” in Panama (Atelopus varius & Atelopus zeteki “La Rana Dorada”). Frogs from the genus Atelopus are all disappearing in the wild, so it is awesome that you were able to see one.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 29, 2013

      Interesting! Thanks for letting me know Meredith. That info makes it even more special. :D

      Reply
  17. Anders
    September 30, 2013

    Great photos Matthew!

    Visited Panama couple of years with the family and I wanted to go back and visit the Darien Gap. Your photos and story inspired me to look into it again, it looks a “little safer”, but as you say, everything changes all the time.

    Reply
  18. The Guy
    March 21, 2013

    What an amazing tale and great pictures. It seems to be such an incredibly dangerous place yet going through the jungle sounds like quite an adventure.

    I love the wildlife shots especially of that frog. I can’t remember the name of though although I have seen them in zoos before. I remember they are incredibly dangerous, I think they are one of the, if not the most poisonous thing to man.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 25, 2013

      Yup, some of these guys can be dangerous. I guess in captivity they loose most of their toxicity. It comes from their diet in the jungle.

      Reply
  19. Janeth
    March 14, 2013

    I just keep reading these over and over. I love the photos and information.

    Reply
  20. Jessica
    March 13, 2013

    WOW what incredible photos Matthew!!!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 13, 2013

      Thank you Jessica. It’s difficult to take a boring photo in a place as enchanting as the Darien.

      Reply
  21. Grace
    March 10, 2013

    Awesome! I finally see the story in photos. I remember you telling us about this in Colorado.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 11, 2013

      Are you going to be at TBEX in Toronto this year Grace? I have a few more crazy stories for you… ;)

      Reply
  22. flipnomad
    March 6, 2013

    hoy sh*t… ‘thought it was so dangerous to be in this place? kudos man for this great adventure and nice to see that you got out of this place safely…

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 7, 2013

      It used to be more dangerous than it is now, yet it’s still important to be careful. Even with permission I was restricted to certain areas. The soldiers won’t let you go anywhere too sketchy — they kicked me out of a village called Boca de Cupe. But the situation there is always changing.

      Reply
  23. Claudia
    March 6, 2013

    Beautiful pictures and inside information, I love your travel reports, thanks Matthew

    Reply
  24. TammyOnTheMove
    March 5, 2013

    Looks amazing. I love jungle trekking and because the Darien gap is not your typical tourist destination makes it even more appealing. Do you need a guide to trek in the NP or can you go by yourself?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 5, 2013

      They won’t let you into the park without a guide, and before you can even get close you’ll need permission from Senafront to get past the roadblocks. It’s doable, but takes time & patience.

      Reply
  25. Stephen
    March 4, 2013

    Cool! Thanks for bringing this to us. Definitely a place few of us will ever get.

    Reply
  26. Stephen S.
    March 3, 2013

    Had to be such a crazy adventure mate. I would love to spend some time in this wilderness.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 5, 2013

      It was. Every day was full of new things to see and learn about. I could have spent weeks out there without getting bored.

      Reply
  27. Andrea
    March 2, 2013

    Beautiful photos! I especially enjoyed seeing the colours of the scorpion and frog

    Reply
  28. Samuel Jeffery
    February 28, 2013

    F*&^ing Phenomenal!

    Reply
  29. Maria
    February 27, 2013

    Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my! Forget those guys you got chunga trees, poison frogs and who knows what in the water!!! Seriously, amazing photos – took me back to when I was kid and basically glued to all things National Geographic. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      February 27, 2013

      Ah yes, you just reminded me Maria. The rivers are home to Crocs & Bull Sharks. :D

      Reply
      • Maria
        February 27, 2013

        Crocs & Bull Sharks too? Wow! Creepy, crawly and cool! You give it all, don’t you? *laugh*
        Always look forward to reading your posts.

        Reply
  30. Dave @ Travel Transmissions
    February 26, 2013

    Good to see a traveler willing to get into some real adventures. Sounds like a great trip and I’m glad you brought back some really great photos. I especially liked the girl in the rain…sweet!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      February 27, 2013

      I think I’ll definitely have a hard time trying to top this experience.

      Reply
  31. Mike (Nomadic Texan)
    February 26, 2013

    Photos are way too cool. Heading to Ecuador in 9 days. Would love to visit their Amazon areas, but not this trip!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      February 27, 2013

      That sounds great Mike! I’d love to make it down to the Amazon eventually.

      Reply
  32. Ali
    February 26, 2013

    Fantastic photo essay! Really enjoyable read with great photos!

    Reply
  33. Clint
    February 26, 2013

    Awesome photos! The Darien Gap has been on my radar for years. I have explored a lot of Panama but have yet to venture there.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      February 27, 2013

      Not the easiest place to travel to, but well worth the effort. :)

      Reply

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