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Untamed Wilderness: Hiking In The Darien Gap

Darien National Park Panama
Darien Gap, Panama

Pain suddenly shot through my arm, awakening me in the middle of the night. That was soon followed by no feeling at all. Poison had rendered it completely useless.

Hanging between two trees deep inside the Darien jungle, I was now unable to move my arm.

Surprise. Disorientation. Shock.

Struggling in the dark (with only one arm) to break free of my camping-hammock cocoon, I was finally able to step down into an ankle-deep mud and search for help in the pouring rain.

What the hell just bit me?!

Gabriel, my travel companion from Brazil, along with Isaac, our Kuna Indian guide, had both chosen to sleep inside a wooden shelter here at the Rancho Frio ranger station in Darien National Park. I was the only stubborn one who insisted on sleeping outside.

My reason? Listening to the rainforest animals at night. Now I was paying the price for that decision… the animals were attacking me.

Damn you animals! I thought you were my friends?

Darien Poison Dart Frog Panama

Another Round of Chicha Please!

We’d spent the night hiking into Darien National Park after drinking a type of local indigenous moonshine called “Chicha Fuerte”. It’s a sweet, home-fermented corn liquor with a big kick.

Imagine warm kool-aid and 190 proof grain alcohol with bits of corn floating around.

Mmmmm. Feel the burn!

Actually, the stuff is illegal. But everyone makes it down here anyway, including the Emberá family we stopped to chat with on our way into the rainforest.

There are three different indigenous groups that live in this region. The Kuna, Emberá, and Wounaan tribes. Sometimes the Emberá & Wounaan are collectively known as the Chocó, but they aren’t big fans of that term.

At first, our Emberá hosts told us that they didn’t have any Chicha Fuerte with them. But after chatting for a bit and having a few laughs, out came the hidden plastic jug and a single cup with which to share the forbidden liquid.

Darien Spiny Palm Tree Panama
Fishing Darien Gap

Hunting For Dinner

As sunlight quickly disappeared in the Darien Gap, we thanked our hosts, strapped on headlamps, sharpened our machetes, and began marching into the jungle. For provisions, we’d packed a couple gallons of fresh water, a sack of rice, oatmeal, and a few cans of fish.

To supplement this diet we gathered fresh tasty bananas & green oranges from the trees.

There were plenty of river crossings to maneuver through as well, and we occasionally stopped in them to go fishing…

With our machetes. In complete darkness.

How to Fish with a Machete:

Step 1: Stand in cold river water.
Step 2: Shine headlamp down at your feet.
Step 3: Wait for something to swim past.
Step 4: Hack it to death with rusty machete.
Step 5: Make sure you have all your toes.

Using this method, we caught 2 fish, 3 river-shrimp, and 1 freshwater crab. Arriving at camp after the 3-hour hike through the darkness, our captured critters were boiled in a pot and mixed with rice and plantains for a hearty jungle meal! It was all washed down with steaming cups of freshly-cut lemongrass tea.

These organically harvested calories would be used to fuel our hike up Pirre Mountain the next day.

Dark & Wet Journey

The day after my arm was attacked in the middle of the night (rumor has it I screamed when stung, but because I don’t recall that specific detail, I’ll just pretend it didn’t happen), we readied ourselves for the climb up Cerro Pirre, the first real mountain before you hit the Colombian border range.

It was October, and the Darien’s wet season was in full swing.

The rain came pouring down for most of the day and brought 100% humidity with it. The trail was steep, muddy, and overgrown with jungle. Singing birds and monkey sightings helped us forget about the wet hiking conditions though.

Overcast skies combined with thick jungle foliage conspired to block out most of the sun’s rays. A constant twilight surrounded us.

Darien Gap Jungle Panama

Everything Is Hazardous

Darien National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also one of the world’s top birding destinations.

But with the area’s notorious reputation as a hideout for paramilitary groups, drug smugglers, and other criminals, the park doesn’t get too many visitors.

Luckily the only dangers we faced were scorpions in rotten trees, a coral snake lying in wait along the trail, and repeatedly walking face-first into Orb-Weaver spider webs on the night hike back down the mountain.

Always wash your hands after handling a poison dart frog too.

Fresh Jaguar tracks were discovered in the mud — but these big cats are actually pretty shy and would much rather keep their distance from stinky hikers like us…

Darien Cerro Pirre Panama
Darien Cerro Pirre Panama

Experience Of A Lifetime

On the third day of our Darien National Park expedition, we trekked out to a beautiful waterfall that worked perfectly as a 30-foot long natural water slide. Playing in the cold river was a welcome relief from the constant rainforest heat.

After collecting & treating more drinking water for the 5-hour hike out, we eventually made our way back to the village of El Real, saving some time by hitchhiking part of the way in the back of a (very rare) pickup truck.

Finally, we checked in with the military again — reassuring them that we hadn’t been kidnapped by rebel forces.

What About My Arm?

As for what attacked me in the middle of the night, it is still a mystery. The creature didn’t leave much of a mark, and my arm felt fine after about 30 minutes.

Our Kuna guide Isaac suggested it was some type of insect, maybe a small scorpion, but there is no way to know what without seeing the culprit first-hand.

I just hope there isn’t some alien creature growing inside my arm, preparing to pop out and say hello at some future date. ★

Travel Planning Resources For Darien National Park, Panama
Packing Guide
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Book Your Flight
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Rent A Car
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Cheap Accommodation
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Protect Your Trip
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I hope you enjoyed my guide to hiking the Darien Gap! Here are some more interesting stories I recommend you read next:

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