Panama Travel Guide

Why Adventure Travelers Are Obsessed With This Tiny Patch of Jungle

PHOTO: UrbanUnique / Shutterstock

There is a dangerous obsession with one Panamanian jungle.

Clearcutting had scraped the flanks of the Pan-American Highway, which Karen Catchpole and Eric Mohl were following towards Panamá’s southeastern edge. It would have been a four-hour trip from Panama City to their destination, but endless police checkpoints meant slow going for the American journalists, who’d driven a truck to Panamá from beyond the Arctic Circle. Now, they stopped to show their papers, again and again, surprised at how closely the authorities studied each document. They saw few birds and even less wildlife. Footpaths disappeared into the trees. In the dusty frontier town of Yaviza, Panama, the road stopped altogether.

They’d reached the only break in the 30,000-mile Pan-American Highway, which passes through 14 countries as it winds from Alaska to Argentina. After severing in Yaviza, the route starts back up in Colombia, the two dangling ends a tantalizing 60 miles apart. The space in between, called the Darién Gap, is a wild and beautiful place that’s become a dangerous obsession for generations of travelers.

For Mohl and Catchpole, a pair of journalists documenting their travels on the website Trans-America Journey, getting their truck around the Darién Gap required spending thousands of dollars to send it to Colombia by ship. First, though, they wanted to see the infamous Gap for themselves. “It’s the furthest point you can go,” says Mohl. “We had to at least go to the end of the road.”

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“It’s got a romanticism,” says Rick Moráles, a Panamanian guide who has been exploring the Darién since 1998. “It’s like this green barrier that stands between mankind and their dreams.” Past the deforestation and police checkpoints that Mohl and Catchpole saw, a wilder landscape takes over; Darién National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose upland forest and mangrove swamps provide habitat for dozens of species found nowhere else on earth. Pumas pad through the shaded understory here, while endangered great green macaws call out from the treetops. Giant anteaters shuffle between termite mounds, and volcanic mountain ranges erupt from the forest floor.

Like many dreamed-of wild places, the Darién is far from uninhabited. Travelers who reach the interior forest describe encounters with Cuna and Embera-Wounaan people who live in remote communities accessible only by boat. Before heading to the coast to pack their truck onto a cargo ship, Mohl and Catchpole traveled by canoe to the village of Boca de Lara, a Wounaan settlement. They met families living in open-sided thatch homes, who dyed intricate baskets using foraged plants. Women traditionally went topless here and a few still do, their backs proudly adorned with an elegant tapestry of patterned tattoos.

Giant anteaters shuffle between termite mounds, and volcanic mountain ranges erupt from the forest floor.

The Wounaan people have carved a home in a difficult landscape, drawing on deep knowledge of the region’s plants, animals, and a splintered maze of waterways. For unprepared travelers, though, the Darién is unhospitable, and the forest canopy hides countless dangers. Poisonous fer-de-lance pit vipers twine through the foliage, a hissing counterpoint to silent, heavy-bodied boa constrictors. Leave your boots untended as you sleep, and black scorpions may creep inside before morning.

Human threats are grave as well. The overland link between Colombia and Panamá has offered a safe haven to gun-toting narcotraffickers and guerilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who built remote jungle camps and helped give the Darién a reputation for wild lawlessness.

It’s a shifting map of risk that varies from month to month. “There are areas that are quiet, and there are areas that are hot,” says Rick Moráles. To manage for hazards on the hiking tours he leads into the Darién, Moráles places ads on local radio stations asking villagers to call him whenever they’re in town. “Several weeks later, they call and we ask them for intelligence information,” he says. What he learns from the villagers determines his route—and whether he’s willing to go at all. “If we know there’s drug trafficking activity in a certain area we avoid it,” Moráles explains. “Some areas have been quiet for the last five or six years, and others have been really active with drug trafficking and human trafficking.”

Those without the resources or foresight to check conditions on the ground have sometimes faced dire consequences. Swedish traveler Jan Philip Braunisch was shot in the head while attempting to cross FARC-controlled territory in the Darién in 2013; his body was lost in the jungle until 2015. Guerillas held two orchid-hunting Britons captive for nine months in 2000, then a trio of travelers were kidnapped by another militia in 2003 and trapped for a terrifying week in the forest.

With those stories making the rounds of Panama City’s backpacker bars, it’s no wonder that nearly every traveler opts for avoiding the Darién Gap altogether. Like many overlanders, Catchpole and Mohl packed their truck into a shipping container and sent it by cargo ship from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia. The couple then continued by sailboat, traveling through the white sand islands of the San Blas Archipelago as they headed towards the Colombian coast to meet their truck.

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It’s a popular option, and sailboats shuttle back and forth between the two countries complete with rum drinks, swim stops, and dancing on deck. The travelers who are left crossing the Darién Gap on foot—and not just hiking the interior, like Moráles’ wealthy clients—are those who have few other options. In recent years, the Darién Gap has become an excruciating ordeal for thousands of migrants traveling north from South America, without the visas or resources to choose a safer way.

“There’s people from Somalia, from Ghana, from Bangladesh,” says Moráles. “Even from Nepal.” Since it’s easier to book a flight to South America than to the United States or Central America, some migrants head there despite the peril. “They fly to Brazil or Ecuador,” Moráles explains. “Or maybe they stow away on a ship, land on some coast in Uruguay, then start working their way up.”

They tackle the same natural hazards that Moráles takes on, but instead of top-end equipment, satellite navigation, and packed-in food, many migrants travel with only the clothes on their backs. In the spring of this year, Senafront, Panamá’s National Border Service, announced that 7,316 migrants had passed the Darién Gap by mid-April, a staggering number given the difficulty of the crossing. Some die along the way, while those who make it to Yaviza are often starving and exhausted.

“They want to push their boundaries a little bit, but not too much—they don’t want to feel at any moment like they’re unsafe.”

And while the Darién Gap remains a holy grail for privileged risk-takers, Moráles understands that their thrill chasing has limits, so he keeps visitors clear of the pathways migrants and traffickers follow. “They want to feel like they’re doing something really intrepid,” he says. “They want to push their boundaries a little bit, but not too much—they don’t want to feel at any moment like they’re unsafe.” Moráles guides danger-seeking tourists looking for a fun adventure, but in the end, the Darién’s most daring travelers are those rolling the dice in hopes of a safer future.