The Darién Gap: It’s all on foot from here
Ever since the “Age of Discovery” began in the 15th century, humans have made a point of exploring uncharted regions of the globe. After over 500 years of tropical disease filled travel and the advent of “Google Earth”, it would seem as though the Earth has been spoken for. Each corner has been checked, each cave has been mapped, and each mountain has been summited.
But what if I told you that there are still a few hidden gems stashed around our planet; that there exist locations only spoken of in legend and rumour. Would you believe me? Would you dare travel to them? Brave the travellers’ diarrhea and typhoid in the name of
The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers.
The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers. This pristine swath of dense jungle requires an equally dense mind to believe that traversing it without extensive research and planning is feasible. The Darién Gap separates the North American and South American legs of the Pan-American highway, a nearly contiguous route that will take you from Prudhoe, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. The route is unbroken for ~30,000km, except at the border between Panama and Colombia for a 160km stretch: the Darién Gap.
The extreme remoteness, isolation, and harsh conditions are the perfect cocktail for any borderline insane explorer. Although crossing on foot would seem like the easiest method of transportation, there have been numerous (attempted) vehicle crossings taking upwards of 740 days to make the journey through the jungle.
Since this region is the only overland obstacle separating the two continents, there is constant discussion regarding cutting down a small section of the Darién jungle and creating a highway — completing the Pan-American and finally linking North and South America. Many believe that “The highway … will facilitate trade of petroleum, cotton, clothes, iron, steel and other goods between Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela”, as stated by Juan Castañega, director of the Latin American desk of Colombia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry(1).
However, little pavement has been laid as of yet. Environmentalists and indigenous populations are opposed to the destruction of the jungle for various reasons, not least of which are the loss of ethnic traditions and lowering biodiversity. Oddly enough, the Darién Gap even has the medicinal benefit of preventing numerous diseases from border hopping and making residence in North America inside a body near you(2)(3).
I’m with the environmentalists on this issue, I believe this region should remain entirely pristine. Many years prior, a road extending to Yaviza (the southern end of the Pan-American highway in North America) was created. Environmentalists were worried that extensive deforestation would follow as a result of this new road into the jungle. Their apprehension was warranted. Within decades, logging and agriculture extended from the highway like the roots of a tree and pierced over 10km deep into the Darién.
This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”
However, keeping the Darién Gap untouched has significance beyond deforestation. This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”. It represents unknown and danger; a place removed from commercialization and corruption. That being said, this place is far from paradise. Darién is home to dangerous animals and is a common drug smuggling route by narcotraffickers looking to avoid detection by taking advantage of the lush jungle. Oh, and did I mention rebels? Ya, there are rebels in the Darién as well. They are known as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo) and are a guerrilla group in Colombia that fund their operations through kidnappings, drug production and distribution, and illegal mining.
In a sense, the Darién Gap brings about the idea of El Dorado — this mythical region of Earth, forgotten by civilization, skipped over by industrialization, spoken of in legend and hearsay, and full of riches. As if this region wasn’t surreal enough, there is a literal gold mine deep within the jungle — a true El Dorado. Mined by the Spanish, Anglos, and French hundreds of years ago, each settlement left when they realized that accessing and transporting the gold was not feasible. The gold mine has since been overgrown with vegetation after disuse and remains in the heart of the Darién Gap in the Cana region — a legend in its own right.
Whether this region evokes fear, awe, wonder, or mystery is purely subjective (it conjures up all four for me). Maybe this article gave your more than enough reason to never scribble it’s name on your bucket list (or maybe you’re like me and it was every reason to include it). But it goes without saying that the Darién Gap is a place that humanity seems to have forgotten, a place that through its lack of civilization and structure, and its abundance of biodiversity and lore, simultaneously represents nothing and yet everything. It is a place I hope to experience, and I wish to write another article about this location after having been swallowed by its depths.
- MM November 1995. at http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/issues/1995/11/mm1195_07.html
- Eschwefe, H. (n.d.). Transportation: Construction Progress and Problems of the Darién Gap Highway. United States General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/PSAD-77-154
- Embassy, U. S. 2013, March 21. Press Releases 2011. http://panama.usembassy.gov/pr031511.html.
- Sutherland, B. 2009. Rainforest canopy in Manuas, Brazil.
- Abandoned Gold Mine Locomotive, Darien Gap, Panama. http://imgur.com/r/AbandonedPorn/QihZz