In our globalized and infinitely connected world, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine any corner of the globe that has not been thoroughly explored, documented, and homogenized by mankind. Sitting in a busy café on a city street, or driving through never-ending suburbs, I have sometimes found myself lamenting the lost sense of adventure that the world used to hold. In the golden age of exploration, how must khaki safari jacket-clad explorers have felt, cutting their way through dense jungle with machetes, to come upon an ancient lost city? I sometimes imagine the otherworldly thrill that must have scuttled down Howard Carter’s spine when he cracked open Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be met by the smell of ancient Egyptian incense, still as pungent as the day it was sealed in. Sometimes the world of adventure, exploration and travel can seem a little contrived these days – Have we really come this far, only for the value of travel to be reduced down to a slew of Instagram photos accompanied by a cheesy quote?
For me, it is refreshing when I stumble upon a write up or essay detailed a previously undocumented corner of this rock we call home. From a comfortable seat in a warm house, it somehow comforts me to know that, yes, there are still great wildernesses out there, still to explore. The Darien gap is one of those places.
The Darien Gap is a remote, 10,000 square mile swath of jungle on the border between Panama & Colombia. The Gap is characterized by its extreme inaccessibility and the hostility of the natural environment. The Darien comprises sprawling swamps, mountains, and rainforest that span both sides of the border between Colombia and Panama. The Darien gap is an almost mythical caricature of unexplored jungle terrain. A mysterious land of exotic plants, rare animals, indigenous tribes, and incredibly dangerous criminals and rebel groups.
The reason for the Gap’s name, is that it is the only break in the Pan-American Highway – the otherwise unbroken 29,000 mile stretch of road that travels from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra Del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina. There have been attempts and discussions about building a road through (or over) the Darien Gap, but all attempts and proposals have failed, variously because of political deadlock, the extremely treacherous jungle conditions, virtually impassable mountains and swamps, and the danger of guerilla and paramilitary groups. Because of this, the Darien gap is one of the least visited places on the planet.
Only a handful of intrepid explorers have managed to make it across the Gap. This unique and intimidating part of Latin America has long been a pull for explorers with a sense of danger and adventure. Not all of them make it back. The Darien gap is one of those places where if something bad happens, there is no help on the way. If you get lost or injured, you’re on your own, and there are a myriad ways to die in the formidable jungle of the Darien gap. Wildlife, such as snakes as wide as tree, big cats which see you as their next meal, crocodiles and caimans in the waterways, biting and acid spewing ants and venomous spiders and poisonous frogs are a constant threat. The humidity and unrelenting heat, coupled with mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever are terrible foes – contract even a mild fever here, and it can be a death sentence. The most likely way to die in the Darien is probably by way of a bullet, from the gun of a jittery guerilla fighter or drug-trafficker.
The geography of the Darién Gap on Panamanian side is a mountainous rainforest, with terrain reaching from 60m in the valley floors to 1,845m at the tallest peak. The Colombian side is dominated by delta of the Atrato River, which creates a flat swamp of meandering gullies and marshland 50 miles wide. The Serranía del Baudó mountain range extends along Colombia’s Pacific coast and continues up into Panama.
For a thoroughfare of such magnitude as the Pan-American Highway, it evaporates into nothing very quickly in Panama. The Great road morphs into a humble footbridge in the town of Yaviza. This is the only break in a 29,000 road. After this waymarker, the only real option of transport is river transportation. The Darien gap is almost roadless. Most locals most propel themselves around the waterway in traditional Piraga canoes with hand-made wooden paddles.
The Darien Gap’s legendary status is steeped in bloodshed. The first western records of the gap were put down in 1501, when Spanish conquistadors discovered the hostile terrain. The conquistadors consolidated their first mainland colony in the Americas by slaughtering tens of thousands of indigenous people. Whilst the Conquistadors’ brutality conquered the Amazon and the Andes, it could not surmount the Darien gap. Much like Roman Emperor Hadrian in Scotland, they decided this tract of land was impossible to tame. At this point, the Darien began to cement its reputation as an outlaw’s land. The law of the land did not apply here – and does not to this day. The Darien quickly became a haven for pirates and runaway slaves, and proved an insurmountable thorn in the side of Spanish.
The Darien has a long history of swallowing humans that stray into its jungles. In 1699 2,000 Scottish colonists died from malaria and starvation, and in 1854 an entire U.S. Navy survey expedition perished from disease and exposure. In more recent times, the Colombian FARC guerilla rebels have called the Darien Gap home. Drug trafficking and kidnappings have long sustained the paramilitary group, and the inevitable murders associated with these acts have long marked the FARC. The Darien Gap is a vital transit area for shipments of arms and cocaine travelling north across the porous border.
In the early years of Colombia’s civil unrest, adventurers could still move through the Gap. The first and one of the only vehicular crossings was achieved in 1960 in an expedition using a Land Rover. The expedition found the terrain so formidable that they moved at an average speed of 220 yards per hour, over 136 days. By the 1980’s, the prevalence of paramilitary groups and drug traffickers led to a spate of brutal kidnappings, disappearances, and murders, which made these sorts of expeditions almost impossible. These days, it is accepted that no one enters the Darien with the knowledge and permission of the Grizzled Panamanian Senafront border military force and the FARC rebels. Brushes with the latter rarely end well. In the year 2000, two Brits were taken hostage by FARC guerrillas while documenting rare orchids. They were held for nine months and threatened with execution, but eventually released. In 2013, Jan Philip Braunisch, a Swedish backpacker attempting to cross the Gap alone disappeared. His skeletal remains were discovered in the Darien jungle in 2015 – he had been killed with a shot to the head by the FARC. To this day, it is thought that the Darien Gap is the home of Gilberto Torres Muñetón aka “The Calf”, the much-feared commander of the FARC. The Calf is wanted on both sides of the border and beyond for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, kidnappings, and a bombing that killed 80 people on the border of Panama & Colombia.
Everything taken into account, the Darien gap is evidently not a holiday destination. Yet that is what makes this place so special. The idea that a place of this magnitude still exists, a jungle wilderness domain of extremes – rainforest, flash floods, jaguars, ruins, colossal snakes, fever, poisonous frogs and scorpions, and almost cartoon-like bad guys, fills me with a (perhaps misguided) sense of adventure. The whole thing evokes an almost childlike wonder at this place’s history of brutal violence, dogged expedition, and stories of terror, and courage, and insurmountable odds. The relics, ruins and graves, left abandoned from previous colonial and expedition attempts, now buried under the seething mass of vines and moss and jungle growth. As a travel writer, I am bound to recommend that you, the reader, do not attempt to cross the Darien Gap for your own safety. However, if you do choose to ignore this advice, we would love to hear about your expedition beforehand!