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