End of the Road: Mission to Yaviza

Darien Gap Checkpoint Panama

Darien Gap Police Checkpoint

“Vamos!” snaps the heavily armed man dressed in military fatigues. We reluctantly follow him and his AK-47 off our tacky disco school bus and stumble into the early morning light.

The Pan-American Highway is a 29,800 mile network of roads that runs all the way from the state of Alaska down to the southern tip of Argentina in South America.

This almost continuous stretch of interconnected pavement has but one break – a short 60 mile section of remote rainforest between Panama & Colombia with a dangerous reputation.

Traveling into the Darién Gap

The journey started around 3am back in Panama City when I boarded a colorful Diablo Rojo public bus along with 2 other gringos: 25 year old Gabriel from Brazil and 49 year old Susan from the United States. We met each other for the first time at a yachtie bar the night before, with the common goal of exploring one of the least-visited spots in the Americas.

Thick tropical jungle eventually swallows up the highway’s northern section at a little Panamanian town called Yaviza, 30 miles from the Colombian border.

Our first obstacle to entering the Darién Gap was simply making our way towards this isolated backwater village known as a haven for smugglers, prostitutes, and fugitives.

Just because there’s a road that leads to Yaviza doesn’t mean you can simply hop on a bus and go.

Yaviza Military Checkpoints Panama

More Roadblocks on Our Way to Yaviza

A Notorious Reputation

Due to the Darien’s history of drug running, kidnapping, weapons smuggling, and anti-government guerrilla activity, access into the area is highly restricted. Special permissions are needed for non-locals to enter; and even though we had obtained formal approval, our trip down was anything but smooth.

The three of us attempted to rest during the first pre-dawn leg of the journey, but sleep was almost impossible while bumping along in an old American school bus with busted shocks, squealing brakes, blaring Colombian music and a powerful multi-colored disco light that bedazzled the interior every time the driver opened the door for additional passengers.

So 4 hours later when we finally arrived at our first police checkpoint in the village of Agua Fría, we were all a bit slow to move.

Once off the bus, a young officer takes our passports and starts peppering us with questions in Spanish.

Where are we headed? What is our mission? Who are we meeting with?

The short road-side interrogation abruptly ends when he tells us we must turn around and go back…

You’re Joking, Right?

It seems no one from the Senafront base (Panama’s border police) has informed him about 3 gringos traveling into the Darién. He explains to us that this province is a dangerous place. We are restricted from going any further.

I was afraid of this. We plead with him to contact the base via radio and talk to the commander. We’ve all definitely received permission to travel past these roadblocks, they’ve simply forgotten to notify him about it!

The three of us are not about to give up that easily though, and we persist with our objections. He eventually gives in and makes the call. Thirty minutes later we’ve got the green light to continue on our quest. :D

Meanwhile about 20 locals traveling on the bus with us have also been forced to wait. Understandably they aren’t too happy.

But before we can head out, there’s a new problem. Our fabulous pink & white disco bus won’t start. The driver and his assistant pop open the hood to inspect the engine, giving us a great close-up view of the professionally airbrushed naked lady on the front.

Yaviza Bus Panama

Trying to Fix our Disco Bus

Saved by a Female Mechanic!

Susan, our slightly spaced-out but rugged travel companion and jungle survivalist from the US, offers to help fix the bus with her years of experience working on yacht engines. But in Latin America, a woman giving advice to a man about fixing an engine is outright offensive! They absolutely refuse to listen to her.

Of course her diagnosis is correct though, and once the men reluctantly act on her advice, we’re able to drive onward again towards our goal. Yaviza.

The landscape outside our windows is a mixture of clear-cut cattle farms & dubious looking logging operations. Some of these old-growth jungle trees are so monstrous in size that only a single one will fit on the logging trucks flying past us along the rutted highway.

Giant swaths of rainforest were soon destroyed on both sides of this road once it was completed. Further deforestation is one of the many arguments against finally completing a route over to South America in the future.

Nothing is Easy in the Darién…

It’s now 9:30am and we’re forced to stop at another police checkpoint outside the town of Metetí. Even though the bus is full, we are the only ones who are asked for our IDs. Three foreigners who don’t belong here.

By this time we’re confident the whole process will go smoothly though, because everything was squared away at the last roadblock. Right?

Nope.

Once more we’re forced to file off the bus to explain ourselves, and yet again these soldiers-masquerading-as-police must radio headquarters in Panama City. But now it takes even longer, over an hour.

None of these outposts seem to talk to each other at all!

In the meantime, our bus has (understandably) become tired of waiting for us to argue with these guys at each stop, and it finally decides to just leave us and take off. With all our gear still inside!

There’s nothing we can do. Our backpacks are gone, and if we try to run after the bus we’re likely to get shot by the angry-looking $%#&er in the lookout tower over the road.

We beg the police to stop the bus, or to let us go after it. They completely ignore us.

Darien Gap Yaviza Panama

End of the Road: Yaviza

Mission Status?

But once our permissions to travel to Yaviza have finally been confirmed, a sympathetic commander relents and radios ahead for a taxi to take our bags off the bus and bring them back.

Reunited with our gear again, we jump into a local collectivo (public taxi-van) and continue on over the deteriorating highway towards Yaviza.

Around noon we pull into a shabby looking town with homes perched on stilts along the side of a winding brown jungle river. People move about in the street, loading up giant dump-trucks full of plantain bananas brought down via dugout-canoe from indigenous plantations upriver. The great Pan-American highway narrows into a simple path that ends with a suspension footbridge hanging over the water.

At last! 145 miles and 9 hours later we’ve arrived at the end of the road.

Welcome to Yaviza. Unofficial entrance to the Darién Gap.

Who knows what adventures await us inside…

Specific Details

Location/Map: Yaviza, Panama
Useful Notes: I’ve collected a ton of detailed information on the logistics of my trip into the Darien Gap, and will be putting together a guide for anyone else who is interested in visiting. To learn when the guide is complete, make sure to sign up for my email list below.

READ NEXT: Darien Gap

Any Questions Or Comments?

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22 Comments

  1. Hi Mathew
    My real name is Holly Harrison but I go by my nickname Cargo. I am writing because I need help getting through the Darien by foot from the Columbia side up to the Panama side.
    For the last 5 months I have been walking up through South America. I travel only by foot, no other mode of transportation. Presently, I am about to enter Ecuador. I estimate that I am about a month and a half from the Darien. My goal is to be the first person to thru-hike the entire American continent (or continents) from the southern tip of South America at Ushuaia, Argentina to the norther tip of North America at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in one continuous nonstop hike. In less than 20 months.
    Where I am running into a problem, though, is the Darien Gap. Up to now I haven’t been able to find any useful information on a route from Columbia to Panama and how and where to get permissions to get thru. From both sides. There’s just not much information out there. I was hoping you could help me out. Please keep in mind that I have to go up thru the Darien , I’m not taking ferry’ s around.
    I have a page dedicated to my walk on Facebook at “Cargo hiking from Ushuaia to Prudhoe Bay ”
    I look forward to hearing back from you.
    Cargo

  2. I went there in ’06 with some Embera indians. We drove a rental car from PC. One of the guys knew a bar owner who let us put the car, a small 4×4 SUV, behind a locked gate. We then went by dugout ( had an outboard) up one of the rivers to a native village. We ran for 4 or 5 hours in the dugout. I was there to give them advice about how to manage their timber and how to selectively log without making a mess. If you go, take some simple toys and a couple of soccer balls. I have been to several native villages in Panama and, universally, the children have no toys. Yavisa looks like a dangerous place for gringos, especially if you are solo. But, it’s worth the trip.

  3. I think you got a nice travel blog setup, but I want more detailed information, tips and maps.

    I can’t believe they say Pan American Highway stretches from Alaska to Argentina when it clearly doesn’t, how cool it owuld be to be able to do that! From what I learned, there is no “road”, and no point trying to drive it yourself, personally, I would just drive to Panama Canal, fly to Columbia, rent a car and finish the road, so I can say I drove the longest road ever!

    Darien is one of countless forests that you can see, but has one of the worst hassles/troubles/danger than any other. I would like opinion on whether Darien is worth the hassle and danger. I am talking for none-hardcore explorers and none-Nat Geo shows.

    1. If you are just driving down, turning around and going back, you may not need permission. But to stay in that area for a few days you’ll need to go to the Senafront base in Panama City and give them a letter detailing your plans.

  4. I have read comments by people familiar with the area that building the road through the Darien would enable large scale deforestation in an area of untold biological diversity and density. Also, cattle ranchers in North and Central America fear the spread of diseases from South America.

    Enough of the natural world has been subdued already.

  5. Great Trip! I HAVE DRIVEN TO YAVIZA OVER 40 TIMES! STAYED IN THE ACERDERO “HOTEL”, that the rooming house above the restaurant of the same name. It is on the south side of town (the one concrete circle street). At night after closing the restaurant, they move the tables aside, and we pulled our expedition vehicles inside the restaurant! Hard to sleep with the Raguay band playing below, and the 5 man patrols with M-60 patrolling the one street.

    If the road is muddy , we stay at the nude indian village..

    We are leaving on our south america expedition in july 2012 from texas…. http://www.trekamericas.net

    happy travels

  6. Been wondering if we were going to be able to drive our truck down there. Of course we want to hit the end of the road just because it’s there before we ship it down to S America. Hell, we’ve been all the way on the other end up in Deadhorse, Alaska with what I figure should be nearly 135,000 miles in between, we have to do it.

    1. From what I’ve heard, it’s hit or miss with your own car. Sometimes the police will let you through if you plan on coming back the same day. Other times they won’t let you pass. The best thing to do is just get the permission before hand, because it would suck to drive for 5 hours then have to turn around. Email me if you want details.

  7. A town with smugglers, prostitutes and fugitives. That could be any American border town. I do like that bus. No bland two-toned set of wheels. And the air brush work would be just the thing I need for my boat. I’d do it but I can only do stick figures. I don’t have a model either. I’m sure you must know some. They must have references, I have my standards. So, what was wrong with the bus?

  8. Matt,
    Take a look at my article on the Scottish Parliament Building and you will see how the Darien cost Scotland its independence and forced it into union with England.

    When I was in that part of the world, I skirted around the Darien by taking a light plane out to the San Blas Islands and from there by dugout to the mainland.

    I think I mentioned before, but – assuming you are travelling to Colombia, make sure that you arrive at an ‘official’ port of entry or you will get fined when you eventually get somewhere to get an entry stamp.

  9. Oh shit… that is crazy! I still can’t believe you did it. I keep thinking if I could have done that and I think the answer is still no. I would have been crazy pissed about my backpack… damn this is a crazy story. I wanna read more already… what happened next?