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Inside The Notorious Darien Gap (Photos From The Jungle)

Darien Jungle Panama
Pirre Mountain in the Darien Gap
Darien Province, Panama

The Darien Gap is a remote, road-less swath of jungle on the border of Panama & Colombia. Known as a drug & people smuggling corridor between the two countries, it’s rarely seen by outsiders.

When asked what my favorite experiences are after 10 years of world travel, I usually describe camping on an erupting volcano in Guatemala, trekking through Afghanistan, or my journey into the remote Darien Gap.

The Darien has an almost mythical quality to it — a mysterious land full of exotic plants, rare wildlife, indigenous people, and dangerous paramilitary groups. It sits on the border between Panama and Colombia.

Largely untouched by the modern world, the Darien is one of the least visited places on the planet.

In the Fall of 2011 I spent 5 days exploring the Darien Gap with a friend. Cutting my way through this formidable wilderness with a machete to discover if these myths were true.

I hope my photos give you a fascinating glimpse into this unique part of Latin America.

End Of The Road

Bridge Darien Panama

This simple footbridge in the town of Yaviza marks the only break in a 29,000 mile (48,000 km) stretch of road known as the Pan-American Highway, reaching down from Alaska to Argentina. This 100 mile section of impassible jungle between Central & South America is called the Darien Gap.

There are no roads that span the jungle here, only footpaths. While a handful of expeditions have crossed by land vehicles, it’s not something most people can accomplish.

For those interested in driving through to South America, you’d have to ship your vehicle from Panama City to the town of Turbo, Colombia via cargo ship.

River Transportation In The Darien

Canoe Darien Panama

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 propel themselves along with hand-made wooden paddles — which can be difficult due to strong river currents.

Traditional Emberá Home

Embera House Darien Gap Panama

The Emberá People build their homes up on stilts to protect against animals and flooding. We passed many such homes on our way through the region.

The log ladder up to the main level 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”. I thought that was pretty cool!

Panama Senafront Base

Senafront Darien Panama

These guys may look like military soldiers, but technically they are Panama’s elite border police called Senafront. Drug smugglers use the Darien to transport their goods over the border from Colombia. Human trafficking is a popular activity too.

Because of all the criminal activity, access to most of the Darien without Senafront’s explicit permission is impossible. Before I could explore the Darien, I needed to request permission from Senafront in Panama City, and they informed me on how far I could travel into the jungle.

The situation is always changing, depending on what’s going on at the time. Sometimes the Darien is completely closed off to visitors, or certain locations are off-limits.

Poisonous Jungle Frogs

Atelopus Varius Darien Panama
Exotic Frogs in the Darien

The Darien is home to many different species of poison frogs. While I’m not sure, this is possibly a Harlequin Toad — also known as a clown frog. The scientific name is Atelopus Varius. If that’s what it is, these frogs were thought to be extinct in Panama! Any frog experts out there?

The jungle gets crazy loud at night, when most of these creatures come out. If you think you’re going to have a peaceful night sleeping in the jungle, you’re dead wrong! It’s like a symphony of wildlife.

Darien National Park

Darien National Park

The Darien rain-forest 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.

Jungle Scorpion

Scorpion Darien Panama

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

Chunga Palm Tree

Black Palm Spikes Darien Panama

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. Contracting a horrible infection in the middle of the jungle is not recommended.

Plantain Banana Farm

Village Darien Gap Panama

Many indigenous people who live in the Darien earn money 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 Of The Region

Wounaan Girl Darien Panama

This girl came out in the rain to say hello with some other kids as we 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 down the river with all my gear inside…

Dangerous FARC Guerrillas

Farc Rebels Darien Panama

Meet Gilberto Torres Muñetón aka “The Calf” a commander of the notorious Colombian FARC anti-government guerrillas. Wanted for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, kidnappings, and a bombing that killed 80 people along the border of Panama & Colombia. We saw quite a few of these wanted posters.

Security Checkpoints

Senafront Soldier Darien Panama

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

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 something was attached to it.

Kuna Indian Woman

Kuna Woman Darien Panama

This is Mariana, she stopped by to say hello along with her husband. They showed off some of their handicrafts, like this colorful Mola bag. The Kuna are just one of 3 major indigenous groups that call the Darien jungle home. The others are called the Embera and the Wounan.

Darien Gap Flooding

Flooding Darien Panama

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 Banana Farmers

Local Man Darien Panama

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

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

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

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. ★


I hope you enjoyed my story from inside the notorious Darien Gap! Here are some more interesting stories I recommend you read next:

Have you ever heard of the Darien Gap? Do you have questions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Tony Wheelwright

Saturday 11th of September 2021

I grew up on a farm in Rhodesia, Africa living with people from 3 different tribes and so had a great love of travel and the diverse cultures of humanity to be discovered everywhere. Having traveled Europe on a dollar a day, I had emigrated to Canada to work & with funds enough for a trip to Machu Picchu in 1968 made my way to Caracas but after a month of hitching in Venezuela and Columbia knew that I wouldn't have time to get there in time to return for college in Montreal. So I headed north to Cartagena knowing I'd need to find a way to get to Panama. There I met a pair of crazy & broke Brits, a Yank an Aussie and a South African all with the same problem. We found a Cuban trading boat that used to supply all the coastal villages and pick up their trade goods that would take us aboard - no charge but expected to help with loading and unloading. It took a week or so before we arrived at Puerto Obaida just across the Panama border, cute little town with no customs office, no hotels, hostels or anything much but a dirt runway for small planes. The local police told us to take the once a week plane to Panama city so we camped out on the beach living off coconuts some rice and fish speared by the Aussie's speargun. The broke Brits had no passports and somehow negotiated with some local monks to get a donkey and a hand drawn map to the city. . . who knows what became of them. The rest of us caught the next 6 seat Cessna to arrive, flown by a Spaniard with just one other passenger - a 300 pound Russian ?? We were super concerned about his weight due to the short bumpy runway but made it to our first stop on a San Blas island where they were just as interested in us as we were of them and their gold nose rings. From there it was an uneventful trek to Los Angeles and back to Montreal. Aside from being shot at once while in a truck in Columbia, the only other place that felt unsafe was in "tolerant" California where some passing cars chose to throw bottles at me. The following year I did drive to Fairbanks and so have managed half of the Pan American highway - got rides on a Rolls Royce, a donkey cart and everything in between. Living in Africa prepared me for the patience needed to travel in so many slow paced societies not to mention dangerous snakes, insects and weird food choices. Most beautiful spot of that trip imo was around Huehuetenango Guatemals and also the road from Haines Junction Yukon to the Alaskan border in late fall to enjoy spectacular 5 hour sunsets and the northern lights. Enjoyed the article, pics and comments - many thanks

Lynda Harwood

Sunday 28th of March 2021

wow its been a long time since I lived there. My parents were missionaries and we lived a mile up the river from Yaviza. They even built a house there but with the Columbian Gorillas it became to dangerous. They were killing the Indians because they wouldn't grow drugs. Glad you enjoyed it.

Matthew Karsten

Friday 9th of April 2021

Wow! I bet that was an interesting childhood, living in the Gap. Thanks for sharing Lynda!

Paul Bussell

Saturday 27th of February 2021

Good story. I was there 10 times when I was in the army based in Panama. We would always take fire there. It’s good they are trying to make it a good place. I loved the jungle and the Indians in Panama. Great people.

Roy Harrell

Friday 22nd of January 2021

This is my first visit to Expert Vagabond, and this the first post I've read of yours, Matthew. Your pictures and description of the Darien Gap and her people are beautiful. Thank you, and keep traveling for those of us who remain in Concord.

Laville T Martinez

Monday 11th of January 2021

I just finished I just finished watching a movie about this jungle and that's what inspired me to read about y'all or read about The jungle which I don't plan on coming but it was very informative I don't like going in the strange places and so I'd rather just watch it from afar and trust the pros and enjoy my life but it's very informative thank you for all that you shared and what you did but for me the simple life is enough thank you

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