Mind the (Darién) Gap, or, Why You Can’t Travel Overland From Panama to Colombia

Mind the (Darién) Gap, or, Why You Can’t Travel Overland From Panama to Colombia

November 22, 2010

You look at the map, and it seems like it should be straightforward.  Save on airfare, and experience all those places, by traveling to South America overland!  After all, Central America conveniently connects North and South America.  What better trip could there be, than to do it as a grand overland journey?

Not so fast.  Lurking at the south of Panama and the north of Colombia lies a vast, roadless jungle region known as the Darién Gap.  While in theory it is passable by foot, in reality the crossing the Darién gap is not just difficult but nowadays is extremely dangerous.

The Darién Gap actually consists of two parts.   The Panamanian portion is a mountainous rain forest, with peaks reaching up to 6,000 feet.  A large portion of this makes up Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America. The park is noted for it’s incredible genetic diversity.  Home to harpy eagles, parrots, and macaws, it is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

The Colombia portion is a vast wetland created by the delta of the Atrato river.  This 50-mile-wide marsh is the true barrier separating Central and South America.  It is also home to Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for it’s diversity of plant and animal life.  More than 45o species of birds and over 500 species of fish have been identified in the area.

All sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  And it would be, except for a few things……1) There really is such a thing as endless, impenetrable jungle.  This is it.  No trails, no signs, nada.  Just you and the endless jungle.   2)  FARC has become increasingly active in the area.  While based in Colombia, they are not overly concerned with borders, and violent incidents are increasing on both sides.  Kidnappings and murders are both on the rise.   These guys mean business.  Don’t mess with them.   3)  The jungle is chock-full of nasty things that bite, scratch, or infect.  There is no medical care.  Something as simple as a cut can get badly infected, and you have no way to obtain treatment.  4)  The Panamanian police will not allow foreigners to attempt the crossing.  If you try to evade them and are caught, they will arrest you. 5)  Did I mention the thieves yet?  Oh yes, there are also those unpleasant and dangerous people who will take absolutely everything you own.  That is, if they don’t decide to just kill you at the same time.

National Geographic Adventure contributing editor Robert Young Pelton and two American backpackers were kidnapped there in 2003 and held for 10 days; here is what he has to say (once they got out of there alive) –

“The Darien Gap is one of the last—not only unexplored—but one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to… It’s also one of the most rugged places. The basic problem of the Darien Gap is that it’s one of the toughest hikes there is. It’s an absolute pristine jungle but it’s got some nasty sections with thorns, wasps, snakes, thieves, criminals, you name it. Everything that’s bad for you is in there.

Still not convinced?  Consider these words of wisdom from Andrea, at the Purple House Hostel in David:

When those nightmare types of situations occur…(getting killed, captured, or never heard from again), it is no longer about you and your choices and your personal travel experience. Aside from your family, (who will have to make multiple frantic and expensive trips down here for the next 1-2 years to find out exactly what happened to you from the Panamanian and Colombian bureaucracy), your situation will also cost the Panamanian and Colombian governments thousands and thousands of dollars in funds to send out search parties, put up notices, visit hotels about your whereabouts, etc. (Unless, of course you are captured and held for ransom, or if your remains just wash up somewhere.)

If you have your heart set on seeing this area, consider booking a guided expedition.   There are several companies in Panama City who can arrange a guided, guarded expedition to the open areas.  In addition, several US-based companies do excellent Darién Gap trips, particularly Wildland Expeditions and Aventouras.

Now, so what about your grand plan to travel to South America overland?  You basically have two options.

The simplest option is to fly.  There are nonstop flights to both Cartagena and Bogota from Panama City.  If you prefer to puddle-jump, you can fly to Puerto Obaldia, then catch the sporadic boat to Capurgana in Colombia, then catch a flight to Medellin or Cartagena.  Best to check out the legalities before you pursue this one – the area around Puerto Obaldia may be closed to tourists.

If you don’t want to fly, and you can’t walk, drive, or bike, your only other option is by boat.  There is no scheduled ferry service between Panama and Colombia.  There are, however, a number of boats that operate as unofficial ferries. The standard trip is a 5-day journey, via the beautiful San Blas islands.  The boats don’t operate on any regular schedule -  when they have enough people, off they go.  Be aware that the boats are of highly variable standards, and there are many reports of horrible experiences, including poor quality accommodations, insane captains, and even shipwrecks.  Definitely arrange this locally, when you can chat with the captain and examine the boat.  Don’t be in a big hurry -take your time to find a boat that seems seaworthy.  Ask around in Panama City for recommendations.

Then head off to Colombia to continue the adventure!

{ 1 comment }

Clay November 30, 2010 at 10:52 am

So I always thought there was a highway, Trans America hywy or some thing that you could drive all the way to South America, this is not True. I thought I had read a book about it at some point a long time ago.

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