“Vamos!” snaps the heavily armed man dressed in military fatigues. We reluctantly follow him and his AK-47 off our disco school bus and stumble into the 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 3 am 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.
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.
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 how to fix 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 9:30 am and we are 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?
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.
Will We Make It To The Darien?
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…