The Day I Was Kicked Out of a Panamanian Village…

Rio Turia Darien Gap Panama
Navigating the Darien’s Rio Turia
Boca de Cupe, Panama

After traveling through the Darien Gap by piragua canoe to visit a remote jungle village, I was forced to leave when security forces kicked me out.

The Darien is a swath of roadless wilderness between Panama & Colombia that’s full of mystery & intrigue. For years it’s been known as a haven for criminals, drug smugglers, and anti-government guerrilla groups.

Understandably most travelers decide to avoid the area, sailing around or flying over it instead.

But after speaking with a few individuals who had recently made the journey inside, I determined that it was safe enough to attempt a trip. Panama’s elite border security force Senafront has built up a strong presence in much of the region.

While the Darien Gap is by no means danger-free, it’s safer than it was just a few years ago.

My morning started in the village of El Real. I said goodbye to my Brazilian friend Gabriel as he hitched a ride to Yaviza via canoe to catch a local bus back to Panama City.

Unfortunately he did not have the proper permissions to continue further with me.

From here on it would just be myself and Isaac — a local guide from the Kuna indigenous tribe.

Indigenous Homes Darien Gap Panama
Indigenous Stilt Homes Along the River

Traveling Through the Darien Jungle

We began loading our skinny 25-foot long wooden piragua canoe with gas & supplies for the 5 hour trip up the Turia River to the village of Boca de Cupe. The simple craft used a small outboard motor to power us through the river’s current.

Of course it was raining when we finally pulled out onto the water. October is the heart of the rainy season here.

Rain had been a constant companion while trekking through the wilderness of Darien National Park for the past 3 days. We were well accustomed to it at this point.

Our piragua cut through the wet & humid air making it’s way deeper into the jungle over a highway of silty brown water.

Traditional thatched-roof homes built by the Emberá people were perched on stilts along the riverbank.

Local indigenous families floated past us in their own piraguas loaded full of plantain bananas, the primary cash crop in this remote region of the world.

Wounaan Children Darien Gap Panama
Wounaan Children of Vista Alegre

Police Checkpoints

We were forced to stop at Vista Alegre, a small Wounaan tribal village with a riverside security checkpoint. It was a simple military bunker made from sandbags and camouflage netting.

Hard looking men with automatic weapons took my passport and letter of permission, trying to decide what to do with me.

A posse of local Wounaan children came out to inspect me along with the soldiers — gringos are a rarity in these parts.

It was then that some children noticed my piragua canoe had broken loose from the dock, and was quickly floating down the swollen Turia river without us! 8O

We raced through the mud while one boy actually jumped into the swift moving river and saved the boat (and all my gear) before it was lost.

After pulling it back upstream and securing it to a dock, the soldiers finally told me that we’d been approved and would be allowed to continue on our journey.

Senafront Soldiers Darien Gap Panama
Senafront Soldiers in the Darien Gap

Town of Boca de Cupe

For 5 long hours we slowly pushed our way up the winding Rio Turia in the pouring rain — passing by the villages of Unión de Chocó, Yape, and Capeti. But my discomfort was lessened as I listened to the songs of exotic birds & searched along the river’s muddy banks for Caimans (part of the alligator/crocodile family).

Eventually our destination came into view.

The town of Boca de Cupe is located on the Turia River, about 20 miles from the Colombian border. Some 30% of it’s inhabitants are Colombian refugees.

In the 1900’s Boca de Cupe was an integral part of the British-owned Cana gold mines, where ore was transported through the jungle via single-gage railway before getting shipped downriver to the coast.

But prior to British control, the Cana mines were owned by the Spanish in the 1700’s. British & French pirates frequently ransacked the very lucrative gold producing area.

Boca de Cupe Darien Gap Panama
Streets of Boca de Cupe

A History of Violence

In more recent times, the area around Boca de Cupe has been a hotbed of Colombian guerrilla activity. There are good reasons why travelers have avoided the Darien Gap region over the last 20 years.

  • In 1993 three American missionaries were abducted from a nearby village and later murdered.
  • In 1996 twenty armed men & women attacked Boca de Cupe, stole supplies from the health clinic, and kidnapped a local store owner.
  • In 1997 the female commander of a M56 Colombian guerrilla force led an attack on the town. They took supplies, money, and weapons after burning the police station to the ground.
  • In 2000 the British travelers Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder were kidnaped by Colombian FARC guerrillas while searching the Darien jungle for rare orchids. After being held for 9 months deep in the wilderness, they were set free.
  • In 2003 National Geographic writer Robert Young Pelton and two others were taken after 4 local indigenous men were murdered in the nearby village of Paya by the AUC paramilitary group. The Americans were eventually released in Colombia a week later.

All these incidents and more began to humiliate the Panamanian government, who eventually stepped up efforts to control their lawless & wild backyard.

These days Boca de Cupe is full of Senafront border soldiers dressed in military fatigues, patrolling the town’s concrete pathways armed with assault rifles.

Boca de Cupe Darien Gap Panama
Soldiers on Patrol

Meeting with the Comandante

We pulled our piragua up to an embankment and began unloading gear as a soldier quietly looked on. When finished, he escorted us through town past dozens of curious onlookers. Time to check in with the Comandante of the Senafront base.

Inside the fortified building I spied a giant .50 caliber machine gun leaning against a wall..

Technically Senafront isn’t a military organization, as Panama’s standing army was dissolved after the 1989 US invasion. Officially they are tasked with protecting the country’s border, and are actually considered police.

But Senafront’s security forces all wear camouflage uniforms, often live deep inside the jungle, carry large automatic weapons, and conduct military-style offensives against Colombia’s guerrilla groups.

Sure, maybe they don’t have the power to invade another country, but they are definitely unlike any other police force I’ve ever seen…

The commander spoke some English, which up to this point had been very rare here inside the Darien. I explained that my plan was to spend the night in Boca de Cupe, and I had all the proper paperwork.

He would make some radio calls to headquarters back in Panama City to confirm.

Boca de Cupe Darien Gap Panama
Reluctantly Leaving Boca de Cupe

Kicked Out of Town!

Isaac and I checked ourselves into a cheap dormitory where I changed and cleaned up. As soon as we went looking for a place to eat, some local “women of the night” quickly found us and wanted to know if we needed any company.

They were obviously amused to have a white guy in town.

We brushed them off and found a cantina that served food. This place was filled with sketchy looking characters. Younger guys with fancy clothes & jewelry that didn’t quite fit this poor & remote jungle town.

Drug smuggling from Colombia to Panama is still very rampant within the Darien… but I couldn’t be sure, and didn’t feel comfortable asking them what they did for work.

After a few $0.60 beers and a $2 meal, it was time to head back to the base. It was there I learned that I would not be allowed to spend the evening in Boca de Cupe. :(

Reason: They were afraid I’d get robbed in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately this meant we must leave town immediately, before the evening river curfew took effect.

A curfew is in place to make it more difficult for drug smugglers & paramilitary groups to operate on the river at night.

There was no talking my way out of this one. After a long & uncomfortable five-hour river journey through the jungle in the pouring rain just to get here, I’d now have to turn around and do it all over again to go back!

We reluctantly loaded our gear into the piragua, fired up the outboard motor, and left the village. The town of Boca de Cupe would ultimately be the furthest I could get inside the notorious Darien Gap.

But I’m happy I went, as it was quite an experience. :D

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Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
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Comments (48)

  1. I will be backpacking solo in Panama from Dec 24th to the 31st and the Darien is my dream destination. I have all the gear I need but no inside contacts for a guide or letter of permission. I also speak very little Spanish. Do you have any trustworthy contacts and alternatively, is it possible in a week to go east from Yaviza to Capurgana instead of heading south to Boca de Cupe? I could then pick up a speed boat back to Carti via the San Blas and finish my trek back in PC. And one more thing, how much money did you have to pay your guide and could you have passed if you had offered money to the Senafront in Boca de Cupe? I have so many questions and being a single woman, would love a travel companion if anyone on here is going to Panama for Christmas week. Cheers.
    [email protected]

  2. Darien Gap! Holy crap! I’ll pass, just because, Okay?! ;D
    Just direct my feet, to the sunny side of the (tourist-town) street.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Amazing journey and stories. We are trying to do the same but from Colombia to Panama City for a new documentary series. Any chance I could pick your brains?

    Cheers and keep travelling!

    • Respectfully sir, I wish you the worst. So sick of media types producing, “documentaries” only to ruin places all over the world. Keep up the good work Matt and please don’t help this usurper.

  4. Love reading about your adventure….40 yrs ago we left SF for Brasil and bypassed the impassable Darian gap on two separate travels via VW camper/bus when i was a lot younger….one trip we shipped the car on a banana boat to buenaventura and the other we flew over the darian jungle aboard a dc-3 and lost an engine during our flight with our camper and after seeing those river pictures i’m stoked to return to see what I missed….

  5. I was heading there to make a solo go at it by backpack in 2001. Chickened out and went back to Pan. City and got on a sailboat. Months of slow cruising along the Jungle in the Darien all the way to Cartegena with the occasional jumping ashore the whole way down. There was some rough people I ran into and some very nice ones as well. We were the only sailboat skirting the shore I saw on that trip after passing El Porvenir where they all cut straight across to Cartagena. Trying to do a solo Darien Gap crossing by land as a tourist is a gamble. If I was still young I would roll the dice again.
    Your story done nicely and provokes old memories. Appreciated it.

  6. Matthew I am planning a 13,074 mile trek from Houston to Antarctica (hiking) some 654 days, is it possible to hike through to Columbia, or safer to canoe around along the coast? Is your guide written yet?

  7. Good times.

    Bicycled through in 1992 with a buddy. Went overland from Yaviza to near El Real, took piraguas to pucuro, then went overland to paya (or the reverse – names are fuzzy after so many years). From paya it was 2.5 days of pushing, crawling, bushwhacking, and wading to get to Cristales. Took a piragua to Traviza and caught a motor boat to Turbo.

    • Hi Matt! Hi guys!
      I admire you all who did go in or through! Im about to cross as well alone in a week or more and would be happy about any help and information you can give me. Its not a matter about “if”, its a matter about how?
      @matt: you are not by any chance about to finish your guide?

      Thank you very much!

  8. I know how it feels – i made it 4 walking days into the gap (initially intending to hike all the way to Colombia, it was legal provided one had a valid Colombian visa, and i did) only to be escorted (politely, with lots of intriguing stories told by the campfire and offers of weird herbal concoctions, but unequivocally) all the way back and kicked out to Yaviza… Will try it again one day.

  9. Great chronicle !
    In time, soon, I would like to pass thru the Gap.
    May be it’d be cleaner, safer then.If they ever decide to make this Pass a controlled area of transit to the Americas.
    Well done.

  10. Wonderful articles. Was communication difficult? I’m assuming they have their own tribal language and don’t speak Spanish. Do the kids ask many questions about life outside their culture?

  11. I went through the Darien in 1976. There were three of us. We met in Panama City and just decided to do it. We spent the night in La Playa hitched a ride in a piragua up to a small tinned roof, generator powered village Named? spent the night there then hitched another ride in another smaller piragua which let us out in in the village of Paya (pop. about 200) where we spent the night with the Panamanian guard who had a force of 10 men (who just happened to be being visited by 2 Colombian Guard from across the border. The next morning we hiked with the Colombian guys across the border up a hill but couldn’t keep up with them, So we spent the night on the Colombian side in the jungle near a waterfall and “just followed the trail” until we ended up at the Colombian’s headquarters in some nameless backwater village. Then we hopped a ride in a boat to Turbo, spent the night in a public building where there was a dead infant in a tiny casket and its family holding vigil. Then it was on to Medellin. I went to the American Consulate there to call home to let ’em know their 19 year old son was O.K. I recall the American consulate insisting that I leave there immediately if not sooner. He filled my head with stories of how cheap life was there, he didn’t want me to get killed on his watch. He was a kook.
    A week later I was staying in Huaorani village for a month. I was the first gringo they had seen. They were a trip. They blew Yopo up my nose with a blow gun, I drank a bitter psychedelic brew with them that was WAY stronger than the Orange Sunshine we got back in Georgia. The the next morning went hunting with them. I swam with fresh water dolphins that I never knew existed. They were the best people I have ever known.
    I am 58 now and have wondered about the people I met along that trip, if they are still there and if they would still be so welcoming. I had an 8mm Bolex, shot 30 or so rolls of film but it was confiscated and thrown in the water by The Colombian guard on my way back to Bogota from Cuzco. A real shame that.

    • Hi Mathew – wonderful blog…your journey so well described, and great photos. Babylon Slim, your recount was a great read also. I went through in 1987, and both reads brought back wonderful days. Stayed with the Kuna Indians in Paya. Just wonderful times.

    • I was in Quito in 1977 and met the “crazy American” Loren Upton who had just jeeped across the Gap, then unfortunately rolled the vehicle on the PanAm hiway south of Quito. It was his third attempt as I recall, part of a N-S circumnavigation of the globe. He eventually tried again a decade later and was successful, continuing on for a complete circum, minus a closed border somewhere in the mid-East.. You can link to some stories here, and maybe find others on the web:

  12. The trip there was adventurous, but then a whole new dimension opened up. WOW! what an experience! do you think the drug runners will ever stop? I guess not – too much money to be made.

  13. Love this blog! One of the best travel blogs Ive come across. Thank you for sharing the stories of your adventures. Keep them coming. :)

  14. “Younger guys with fancy clothes & jewelry that didn’t quite fit this poor & remote jungle town…
    didn’t feel comfortable asking them what they did for work.”

    Well, just working in the Import & Export business, I guess. ;)

  15. Yours is my favorite travel blog by far. And this is just the sort of story I love reading about so that I don’t need to experience it first hand. What an adventure!! Kudos to you.

    • Hey Tom, I had an amazing time trying to get out there. It may sound a bit crazy, but I think everyone can enjoy this type of experience. Sure bad stuff has happened out there, but bad stuff happens everywhere. :D

  16. Great story – and the top photo of the Wounaan Children of Vista Alegre posing for the camera is terrific with the one younger kid off to one side looking on.

    • In truth it never felt that scary at the time, which is why I was so disappointed to get kicked out. Maybe the soldiers had good reasons — but I felt like they were overreacting a bit..

  17. good travel blog. I am planning on being in the area this coming january/february or so. Last year, i was in Yaviza where i got to spend the day with an ‘escort’ and a ‘free’ meal of rice with my ‘escort’, at the military compound in Yaviza until i passed muster…. then let go fter about 5 or 6 hours. They didnt speak any english, but i could hear english spoken well from down a hallway later, and then saw an anglo in sharp military fatigues later walking thru compound. I suspect a U.S., military special advisor.

    I’d be interested in how you found guide, and where , and how much and all. I’d like to try what you have done, and more …..

    Thanks for the ariticle and any info.

    • Hi Stephen, I’ll let you know when the guide is complete (hopefully later this summer). There is a lot of information!

      I wouldn’t be surprised about the guy from the US military, they have a special working relationship. The US supplies Senafront with training and equipment to help stop the smugglers.

  18. Dude, I’d be just a littttle annoyed after making that trek. I suppose they were only fearing for your safety, though!

  19. What an amazing little adventure you had, and a story that you’ll be able to tell for the rest of your life.

  20. What an adventure! I’d love to do a trip like that. How did you get your permission? Was it part of an organized tour?

    • Hi Tammy! To get permission I had to write a letter to Senafront explaining exactly what I was doing, where I was going, when I’d be leaving, etc. and deliver it to their base in Panama City for approval. It was not an organized tour, we just went down there and found a local guy to show us around. It’s a bit more complicated than that though, which is why I’m putting together a guide for others.

  21. Hey man that’s a great article. I hope to return to central America next year and have wild adventures of my own!

    • Hi Kahn! Thanks. As I’m sure you remember, you’ll find yourself in all sorts of crazy situations traveling through Central America. :D