80° BY THE SEA
Looking for a beach vacation? Let us help you find the right spot.More
The impenetrable jungle that covers the eastern and southern Darién occupies the only interruption in the Pan-American Highway, which would otherwise run continuously from Alaska to southern Chile. The United States began promoting and underwriting that regional road system in the 1940s, but they asked Panama to leave a so-called "Darién Gap" intact to help prevent foot-and-mouth disease from spreading north from South America. An outbreak of the disease did occur in Colombia in 2009, but there's a more compelling reason to maintain the gap today. Panama is likely in no hurry to complete a road into a neighboring country with numerous armed groups and drug traffickers. This is good news for conservationists, who lament that the highway is flanked by deforested landscapes in the rest of the country. The highway, which is called the Carretera Interamericana (Inter-American Highway) in Panama, becomes a muddy track in the Darién, dead-ending about 50 km (31 miles) short of the Colombian border, at the town of Yaviza. To the east and south of that frontier town are dozens of indigenous villages and the biggest remaining expanse of tropical wilderness in Central America, which will hopefully remain intact for generations to come.