Inside The Notorious Darien Gap

Darien Jungle 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. Known as a drug smuggling corridor between the two countries, it’s rarely seen by outsiders.

When asked what my favorite experiences are after 7 years of world 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 mysterious land full of exotic plants, rare wildlife, indigenous people, and dangerous paramilitary groups.

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.

Bridge Darien Panama
Entrance Into the Darien Jungle

End Of The Road

This simple footbridge in the town of Yaviza marks the only break in a 29,000 mile 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.

Canoe Darien Panama
Traditional Piragua Canoe

River Transportation

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.

Embera House Darien Gap Panama
Indigenous Stilt House

Traditional Emberá Home

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 Darien Panama
Panama’s Security Forces

Senafront Base

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. Access to most of the Darien without Senafront’s explicit permission is impossible.

Atelopus Varius Darien Panama
Please Don’t Lick Me

Poisonous Frogs

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?

Darien National Park
Hiking Darien National Park

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.

Scorpion Darien Panama
Watch Out for Dangerous Critters!

Jungle Scorpion

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.

Black Palm Spikes Darien Panama
Dangerous Vegetation

Chunga Palm Tree

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.

Village Darien Gap Panama
Riverside Village

Plantain Banana Farm

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.

Wounaan Girl Darien Panama
Wounaan Indigenous Girl

Indigenous Tribes

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…

Farc Rebels Darien Panama
FARC Wanted Poster

FARC Guerrillas

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.

Senafront Soldier Darien Panama
Senafront Soldier

Security Checkpoints

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 Darien Panama
Fishing with the Kuna

Fishing The Turia River

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 Woman Darien Panama
Mariana with her Mola Handicrafts

Kuna Indian Woman

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.

Flooding Darien Panama
Rainy Season Flooding

Darien Gap 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.

Local Man Darien Panama
A Mixed Population

Plantain Banana Farmers

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.

Village Darien Gap Panama
House in the Jungle

Jungle Consumption

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.

Turia River Darien Panama
Turia River Highway

Swollen Turia River

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.

Village Darien Gap Panama
Local Kuna Boy

Canoe Ride In The Rain

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. ★

Travel Planning Resources for The Darien Gap

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Book cheap flights on Skyscanner, my favorite airline search engine to find deals. Also read my tips for how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Car Hire is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent local apartments on Airbnb ($35 discount!). Read my post for tips on booking cheap hotels.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

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

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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