Untamed Wilderness: Hiking The Darien Gap

Darien National Park Panama

Hiking in the Darien Gap

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

Poison Dart Frog

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

Tree-Hugging Hippy Defense System

Fishing Darien Gap

Fishing with a Machete

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.

Darien Gap Jungle Panama

Inside The Darien Gap

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

Black Scorpion on my Machete

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

Climbing Pirre Mountain

Darien Cerro Pirre Panama

Hitchhiking Out

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. ★

More Information

Location: Darien National Park, Panama
Useful Notes: I plan to write a guide on the logistics of my trip into the Darien Gap for those interested in visiting. Sign up for my email list below to learn when it’s complete. Read all my Darien Gap stories here.

READ NEXT: Kicked Out Of A Panamanian Village…

Have you ever been bitten by something in the wild?

Any Questions Or Comments?

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77 Comments

  1. Wow!!!! I just loved the penguins there. Looking cool. Wish I would go there right now! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. The Darien Gap is one of those places I have always heard about (usually followed by a scary line about how un-travelable it is and some fleeting reference to guerillas) but never actually saw a blog about. Can’t say that anymore after reading, thanks, man and umm, after catching up with you in IG, glad to know the arm ended up okay.

  3. We’re planning to travel through Darien to jaque. Any info logistical would be more than welcome!!

    Anyone has any recent info on the need of the permit for Senafront to get into Darien?
    Where Senafront is located?
    And an example letter?

    Hope hearing from you!

  4. Wow how exhilarating! I stumbbled across this after attempting to do some research on the Darien gap. And I’m at loss for words, I can’t stop reading! I’d love to receive the guide you were/are working on if possible.

  5. I went to Panama a few years ago, but never got close to the Darien. I stayed mostly in the highlands in the center of the country. Not quite as dense of a jungle but still really cool.

  6. Great story, I have been traveling to Panama for 6 years. I have always wondered about the Darien Gap, lots of Panamanians will not talk about it, they say the place is very dangerous. Who knows what bites you without seeing the creature, maybe it was a parasite that has not been discovered. You never know when you are in the amazon jungle anything is possible.

  7. Good to hear that Joe got through safely walking the inland route route Yaviza to Puente America. But be aware that a Swedish hiker was killed by a drug gang while trying the same path in 2013 (his body was only retrieved in 2015). Article here.

    This area is highly dangerous, as Joe points out, a major smuggling route, and tightly controlled by armed gangs. I worked in this area and many people just disappear. The coastal route (via Capurgana) to Panama is much safer, taking boats.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I get many email requests about hiking across the gap, and am currently putting together a similar article. Visiting some parts of the Darien is ok, crossing the border overland is not.

  8. This looks like a pretty old post, but I was wondering what camera gear you took with you at the time? Any other significant gear, other than your hammock?

  9. I hiked all the way through the Darien gap from Yaviza, Panama to Puente America, Colombia in winter 2014. We had to get military clearance on the Panamanian side to pass through the checkpoints designed to keep out the cartel. The trip took us about 10 days to cross the border through the mountains. We passed some refugee groups along the trail who tried to tell us we were going the wrong way. We also had a close call with what I assume was cartel (2 men with AK47s walking with 4 men carrying backpacks full of cocaine.) On the Panamanian side we were able to make it to a new Kuna village every night. The last kuna village in Panama is about 27 miles away from the first Wounaan village in Colombia. While this was by far the most dangerous trip I have ever been on, it was well worth it. I am planning a return trip as a guide for people who would like the experience. Feel free to get in touch for more information.

    1. Hey Joe,
      Your post is a boost to read. I’m planning a trip through the Darien gap in the coming months and have some questions for you. What’s the best way to get in touch?
      Thanks, J

  10. Thanks so much for all the great stories, this one in particular. I’m an experienced (jungle) traveler and looking for a guide in the Darien for several days in May 2015. Any suggestions for one or how to find one? Thanks again.

  11. Kuna tribespeople adopted me after I was abandoned as a small boy in the Darien Gap. The survival skills they taught me helped me become an Eagle Scout when they returned me to “civilization” and later served me well as a foreign correspondent covering wars in Central and South America and other assignments around the world.

  12. hey! great post and great adventure. thanks a lot.
    i am going to panama next month and i would like to do the same hike. could you please suggest where we can look for a local guide? how many days do you think we would need?
    thanks a lot for the information
    keep the good work and travel

  13. It was only yesterday I came across this WONDERFUL website/blog. Now, I can’t stop reading it. Yesterday I read your review in the Sony a7 camera. I absolutely loved it. I have never read so many wonderful described and well-written stories like ones found here.

    Have a lovely day

    Imagebloke

  14. Luckily I’ve never been bitten by anything poisonous, knock on wood because we are heading to the Darien next week!

    Do you have any recommendations aside from what you’ve written?

    Thanks!

    Amanda

  15. Matt,

    Looks like you had a great time. Nice amphibian photo, though not a Poison Frog. More like bad tasting toad… Harlequin toad of some sort. Something from the genus Atelopus for sure…maybe, Atelopus limosus… and Yes Be sure to wash hands after handing any amphibian. And remember Yellow Frogs in that region can KILL YOU. Do not touch!

  16. Damn Matt, you are so badass! I remember you telling me this story in person but loved rereading it now that I’ve been to Panama and heard/read all about the terrifying Darien Gap. You continue to impress me, kudos!

    PS: I hate Disqus with the power of a thousand suns, so basically it’s a huge deal that I’m writing this comment :-)

  17. This sounds so exciting! I’m going to the Darien jungle for 3 weeks this summer on a mission trip. Hopefully I don’t get bit by the thing you did..

  18. Hey mate, just found your site while I was researching Dairen and love it! My only question however is how you got a guide and a little crew together as Im a solo traveller also and I really want to do this!!

  19. Nice post Matthew! Most people are happy to stay the hell away from the Darien Gap, even some really adventurous travel bloggers, so it was great to see an insight into the place. Assuming some alien creature doesn’t erupt from your arm (or thoracic area, if Alien taught us anything), I can’t wait to read your guide for touring Darien National Park. Though if the alien does take over you, it might write a guide just to lure us in…oh dear.

  20. Amazing post thanks! Curious how you found your guide. Im going as a last minute adventure this weekend and could use leads. Thanks!

  21. Hiking in Philmnt New Mexico, I realized that I should be some sort of scorpion tamer I was the only guy in the crew to find more than one (Three of them!) and all were non venomous for the most part. Awesome trip. Glad I found your site.

  22. I’m thinking about hiking across the gap all the way to Columbia. Any help would be appreciated.

    Johnny

  23. By any chance, do you remember the title of theat movie about the Darien Gap? Trying to cross it on a jeep?
    By the way, the movie wasn’t anything special, and your photos and story are much better!!
    ciao

  24. Now That’s what I call a jungle hike. The rainforest is an amazing place to run around in, but you also need to be aware at all times that it is one of the most dangerous environments on earth, where the smallest mistake could get you in serious troubles. Way to go Matt. Love the way you tell the story. Makes me want to get out there :)

  25. HA! I can identify with this story. In the middle of the night at Sirena Station, Corcovado, I woke up to a sharp pain followed by a burning in my toe. After FREAKING OUT and waking up everyone in my dorm room we figured out that it was… a nail.

    The only burning sensation that followed was my face. :/

    B

  26. “I just hope there isn’t some alien creature growing inside my arm now, getting ready to pop out and say hello at some future date. ” – ha ha, I know! Even I’m pretty scared about the same thing. Got bitten by some insect in the jungle two years ago. The bite mark is still there! :-|

  27. Matt, so do u finally hope to arrive to Colombia or it’s return to Panama-city trip? I wanna do the same with crossing Central-South America border, more details into the studio please!
    Ur blog is awesome, I tried to find the drug plane @ Utila, but now it is impossible due to jungle arise. Keep rocking!

    1. Hi Roman, we returned to Panama City after this trip. It’s technically possible to cross the land border on the Caribbean coast, but it’s only a 2 hour hike from one port to another.

      Crossing through the middle of the Gap overland is practically imposible these days. Some have done it, but it can cost a few thousand dollars to hire local guides and bribe officials. Not cheap. The police don’t mess around either, they know where you are at all times, and they have river & village checkpoints everywhere. You’d have to be a member of the Special Forces to sneak through.

  28. Moonshine?? That’s my boy! Corn or no corn, there were plenty of times I felt as though I drank moonshine with you. The rest of it you can have. (jungles, bugs, snakes, painful bug bites etc.) Glad you made it out of there.

  29. Wow..this is making every trip i’ve taken look like a preschool class being led along by a rope…

    Also, I am impressed you were able to catch fish using the ‘machette method!’ Even more impressed that nobody lost a toe!

  30. First, let’s review. I think you have some things mixed up. You had lots of homemade hooch, then struggled into your hammock – maybe, then you thought you had been stung, screamed and lost all feeling in your arm. I think it was the hooch or the ghost of one deceased chipmunk getting back at you. All animals communicate to each other. They said, this is no friend, he’ll eat you in a heartbeat. Bite him first. Some advice. I’ve seen corn floating in various mediums, and I certainly would not do a taste test. The frog is colorful, I’ll give you that. The tree actually looks like your leg after your third cup of corn liquor with floating things in it. Since your so much an animal friend, how about hugging a lion in S. Africa?

  31. That sounds like such an incredible adventure! I was stung by a scorpion and my leg went numb for a little while. I was immediately surrounded by locals with garlic, lime juice, and tequila bottles full of water. I just did what they said and I still have my leg. I can’t believe you machete-hunted your own dinner. Nice.

    1. I had to chew up and swallow the garlic cloves, drink the lime juice right after, and then just drink lots and lots of water. I’m not sure the effects this has on the poison, if any. Crazy remedy? Maybe, but I was open to solutions ;)

  32. Great story! I’ve had more than my share of icky animal encounters (getting bitten by centipedes – twice – in my sleep in Hawaii, 38 spider bites in Oz, and mozzie bites in the Caribbean that gave me everything from horrific blisters to full-on dengue fever!).
    So it’s possible that despite my love of nature and hiking, my adventures in the Darien Gap will be limited to reading this post! :-)
    Ah yes, and walking face-first into spider webs? Yup. If there’s a web, I’m sure to eat it.

  33. Great story. Sounds like an awesome place for a jungle adventure. I wonder if a spider bit you, we had a similar incident on safari in South Africa where Maria was bit by a spider and her entire left arm was experiencing pretty severe pain for a while.