October 20, 2009
The Darien Gap
Travelers who fancy sweeping the Americas head to foot will find one critical impasse: the Darien Gap.
A steamy jungle swath shared by Colombia and Panama, it is the one and only interruption in 30,000 miles of Pan American pavement gunning from Alaska to Puerto Montt, Chile. The road stops here.
Long the haunt of kidnappers, drug traffickers, rebels and rogues, the Darien's reputation simmers in world-class badness and macho mystique. Personally, I suspected that part of that was because dude journalists have always looked here for street cred.
But what really happens in this 54-mile gap?
People are living their lives. There's a sizeable population of Embera-Wounaan, as well as Kuna and the colonists who arrived with the 'highway' that reaches Yaviza. Along the highway you'll find cantinas, a few concrete hotels and caged toucans for sale. But if you want to really see the Darien, travel its waterways. The rivers will take you into Parque Nacional Darien (a World Heritage Site) and villages like the one I visited, with thatched huts flanking a singular glass phone booth. In these places, a visitor can still be regarded with curiosity.
The reputation? While not undeserved, it's time that it's amended. Rebel troops are probably not waiting with snares in the jungle. These days, it's complex logistics, weary police, constant checkpoints, natural threats (think poisonous pitvipers) and sweaty isolation keeping would-be adventurers at bay.
Before you go looking for shangri-la, keep in mind that there is no easy way into the heart of the Darien. You'll need a. trust, b. expert local help for logistics. c. a lot of money for charter boats and local guide services and/or d. a lot of money for professional guide services and e. inner calm. This isn't a place for everyone. Yet, it can be very gratifying for some.
We affiliate adventure with the extreme and, yes, the Darien has plenty of that. But once you get there (and you'll know what there means), the surprise might be glimpsing a completeness known only to bygone centuries.