Darien Gap

December 2008/January 2009: Few places in the world are as mysterious and alluring as the dense, foreboding jungles of the Darien Gap. This is a jungle so deep, mountainous and hostile that it is the only gap between the trans-American highway that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Chile. Aside from the difficulty in building a road here, there are other reasons why the road has not been built too. A completed road would increase drug trafficking from South America and Colombia and even the foot and mouth cattle disease. Talks of building a road return to the surface every so often but the probability of it happening anytime soon is slim to none. In the meantime, the jungles of the Darien will continue to remain one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the America’s, home to the indigenous people of the Darien, most who have little contact with the outside world, and a refuge from government forces for drug traffickers, bandits, and communist guerillas.

To experience the wildness of the Darien Gap, my brother Jesse and I visit the Darien region of Panama for a week over New Years. Our plan was very loosely put together since there were many uncertainties. First of all, I had reached out to locals in Panama as well as other travelers to get up to date information and most responses were always, “don’t go unless you want to die.” My brother and I didn’t have weeks, which was needed to cross the Darien Gap, but we did intent to go into the Darien region and visit the indigenous people and experience its rainforests. My goal was to playthings by ear and speak to the locals along the way and if there were any signs of danger ahead, we would change course. But our biggest obstacle was going to be the Panamanian military that maintains security along the border region of the Darien. They have a security checkpoint all across the Darien region and they are very opposed to allowing foreigners to enter into the Darien. They don’t want the liability and bad press of foreigners getting kidnapped by guerilla groups in the jungles of Panama.

 

 

 

About the Darien Gap

Location of Darien Gap

Oue Route

The Darien Gap is located along the Colombia and Panama border and covers a 66 mile stretch of a pristine rainforest environment with mountainous and swampy terrain. It is difficult and treacherous terrain that takes more than a week to cross. Although adventurer’s have successfully crossed in the past, many foreigners have also been held captive by bandit or guerilla groups for ransom, sometimes for months or years. If you are able to escape the Panamanian security forces that will turn you away, you need to also evade the bandit, and various communist guerilla groups as well as the criminal paramilitary groups that are hunting the communist groups. Both groups will not hesitate to kidnap you, hold you ransom or worse.

My brother and I had plans to fly to Panama City and travel overland via public transportation bus also known as the chicken bus to Yaviza, the gateway to the Darien and end of the road. From there we planned on traveling by boat and foot to Pirre Station, a small cabin where we could stay in the protected forests of the Darien national Park, which is known for its wildlife. Unfortunately, a week before our arrival I found out from my local contacts that FARC guerillas had invaded Pirre Station and were fighting with Panamanian forces there, so I needed to resort to my plan Bm which was to travel up the Sambu River, also in the Darien but further south from Yaviza. There were also reports of guerillas up the Sambu River too, so I wasn’t sure how far we could travel.

 

Chicken Bus Travel

After a night in Panama City, my brother and I found the series of buses we would need to travel to Mateti before catching a boat ferry to la Palma, where we would find another boat to travel up the Sambu River. Even though the distances were relatively short, our journey in the chicken bus was long an uncomfortable and took all day. The bus was hot, crowded, and Panamanian music ear piercingly loud. Farmers, Indians and cowboys were all to be found on the bus as well as livestock. On one bus it was so packed that I had to sit on top of a sack that felt very mushy. I noticed blood was draining from the sack and when I took a closer look, I realized my cushion was actually a sack of severed cow heads. This kind of travel is never easy, but I loved every second of it. Traveling with the locals as the locals do and forced to speak Spanish, since no one in the Darien could speak English was exactly what we came here for. This was the kind of adventure we wanted in the Darien.

 

Chicken bus

Passangers packed into the bus

Video of a short clip of what it was like to travel in the bus

My co-traveler, my brother

View of the bus driver in the mirror

Staying in La Palma with a Police Officer

My brother and I befriended one of our co-travelers on the bus, a police officer, who happened to be going the same direction as us to la Palma, which was helpful because the man also assisted us with making our bus connections and the connection to the ferry to La Palma. Once in La Palma, the police officer offered to let us sleep in his house and he showed us around town, took us out for food and beers at a local rowdy hole in the wall bar. I was excited to see the movie I was an extra in, “The Thin Red Line,’ in his DVD collection and when I pointed this out to him, he became very excited and asked me to autograph his DVD. After spending the night, the police officer asked around for help on securing a boat up the Rio Sambu to the village of Sambu and he was able to find someone willing to take us in a small boat for an affordable price.

 

La Palma

My Brother and Our New Police Officer Friend We Stayed With in La Palma

Up the Rio Sambu River

Rio Sambu River

We traveled up the Rio Sambu River through jungle passing a few indigenous villages but mostly thick rainforest. The journey took us 5-6 hours before we reached the village of Sambu. In Sambu we would have to hire a local guide to go further up rive, where there were rapids, and we would have to resort to hiking. My goal was to go as far upriver as possible to visit more indigenous villages and to see wildlife. Our current boat captain was not familiar with conditions further upriver and dropped us off and headed back to la Palma. In la Palma, we were immediately intercepted by the Panamanian border military and brought to an office to register. They were puzzled by our presence and informed us that we would not be allowed to travel further up the river because there was a FARC group that was nearby and was fighting with military in the area. We were also told that we would not be able to leave Sambu without their approval and that we would be sent back to La Palma on one of their boats.

This was exactly the kind of reception by the military I had been warned about and it was a reality for us now. All we could do now that our Plan B was defeated was try and make the best pf the current situation. We decided to find a local guide in Sambu village and hike into the nearby jungle. Sambu village was so small that the nearby jungle was still in good condition. We hired an indigenous guide who took us into a swamp forest, where we saw small crocodiles, and then we hiked in the rain and mud into a forest where while we were waiting out the rain a sloth started climbing down the tree next to us to take his once-a-week defecation, which sloths only do on the ground. The poor sloth which took about 20 minutes to climb down from the tree right before reaching the ground spotted us and immediately freaked out and aborted his defecation and headed back up the tree.

Sambu Village

Trekking through the swamp forest looking for animals

baby crocodile

Sloth

Indigenious people in Sambu Village

A common parrot in Sambu

Absconding from Sambu Village

My brother and I were just sitting around Sambu Village trying to figure out a plan when we met an indigenous man, who claimed to be a chief of a village further down river. We asked him if we could visit his village and his response was why not, sure I am traveling there tonight by boat. We agreed to pay for the fuel and he in turn agreed to take us and let us stay the night with him in his house. Of course, we knew that the military would not let us go. They had advised us that we would not be able to leave until escorted back to la Palma by them. I asked the chief if the village was safe and if there were any guerillas and his response was yes there are guerillas, but they leave us alone. To escape the village un-noticed by the military, we waited for the sun to set and then we boarded the chiefs small wooden canoe power by an outboard motor, and we traveled down the Rio Sambu by moonlight. There was a full moon, and the river was well lit, and it was a magical and surreal experience traveling down river in the Darien through the jungle to an Indian village with the chief we just met. For all we knew he was a guerilla and was kidnapping us.

Escaping Sambu Village At Night 

New Years at a Yunai Indian Village 

The chief took us down a few dark river inlets, and we pulled up to a riverbank and hiked 20 minutes through the jungle using our flashlights to light the way. We arrived in the village of Chongue-spelling unknown and before us was a cluster of small, thatched houses that resembled tree houses raised off of the ground likely because of the flooding from the torrential rains. The chief led us to his house, and we climbed up a ladder to the residential part of his house that was open to the sides. When we entered his teenage daughters were sitting topless and as soon as they saw us, they covered their bare breast. In my experience indigenous people often cover their breasts only when in the presence of white people because most of the missionaries they have encountered are white. The village was pitch dark with the exception of a few candle that were lit and flashlights. In the distance we could hear singing and drums, and my brother and I dropped off our bags and set off to explore the village. We brought a few glass bottles of beer with us to reign in the New Year and we were trying to conceal them to avoid offending the Indians in case beer was not allowed as it is in some indigenous villages.

 

With the chief in hius house

Chiefs house

The beautiful music was coming from a small wood structure and when we entered it was obvious there was a church service of some sort. Jesse and I left our beer on the outside of the church and sat down in one of the pews in the back and tried to be as quiet and un-disruptive as possible. Within seconds all the children discovered us, and everyone turned around and kids started to run towards us. We had been discovered by our new fan club and a gathering of children followed us everywhere we went just staring and giggling at us. My brother and I feeling bad for disrupting the church service left and went outside to gather our beer only to discover a group of young 12-year-old boys had discovered it and were drinking some. We salvaged what we had left and retreated to the chief’s treehouse where we stayed there night and finished drinking our beers with the chief. Our young fanfare followed us at sat with us wherever we went in total adoration. 

 

Church service in the indian village

One of our new fans

Jesse with his fan club

My fan club

Village house during the day time

Off to Yaviza

Even the Indians claimed the guerillas were in the forest adjacent to them so I wasn’t really sure where we could hike to and I was worried the military might find us in this village since we abscondence and defied them, so I decided to continue into the other side of the Darien to Yaviza and see if Pirre Station was safe now or elsewhere, so in the morning, the chief canoed my brother and i out into the open river where he said we could hitchhike on to a cargo boat traveling to la Palma. After 30 minutes of waiting, one appeared and he was right, we waved them down and they signaled we could jump aboard, and we did and traveled to la Palma. From la Palma, we took a ferry and a series of busses to Yaviza arriving in the afternoon.

 

Chief canoing us into the river to catch a passing cargo boat to la Palma

Cargo boat we hitchikied on to la Palma

Oue Route

Me on the Cargo boat we hitchikied on to la Palma

Yaviza and Onwards

My brother and I arrived in Yaviza and immediately were sent by the police to register with the military. I inquired about Pirre Station and was informed that it is closed for security due to fighting. We informed the military we would only stay in Yaviza to avoid being denied permission to go further. While wandering around the dirty and wild west looking town of Yaviza, which has a reputation for crime, prostitution and street shoot outs, my brother and I came across the first and last foreigners we would see during a week in the Darien. Two Germans were also trying to go deeper into the Darien, and we teamed up with them share the cost of a boat to El Real and further upriver. We ended up getting as far as El Real by nightfall and we stayed in a small guesthouse there for the night.

The river from yaviza

Teenage girls in El Real  I gave a ring to that I found in my travels

End of the Road

 

Teenage girls in El Real  I gave a ring to that I found in my travels

From El real, we traveled by our hired boat to La Boca de Cana, the edge of the defense line of the Panamanian border forces. From this is where we hoped to trek the Cana trail into the rainforest. We were brought to the Panamanian forces and forced to register and even given permission to trek on the Cana Trail. We were warned not to because of the dangers ahead. One soldier claimed he often hears gun shots and that we would hike at our own risk and that no one would come to rescue us. We were told that we could set off the next morning, so we spent a night in the small indigenous village. Then the next morning when we returned to the checkpoint, we were told our permission to trek the Cana Trail was denied by the high authorities. No matter how badly we pleaded the soldiers didn’t budge, so we retreated down the river in our boat determined to find another trail into the rainforest.

Indian Villages

We stopped at some very interesting villages of Ameri-Indian villages, with women with face tattoos, men wearing loin clothes and we witnessed some ceremonies involving drums, chanting and topless ladies in traditional dresses that were occurring when we arrived in the village.

Ameri-Indian Village

Ceremony we observed

Ameri-Indian lady with tatoos

Ameri-Indian kids

Man in traditional loin clothe

Trekking Into the Rainforest

We noticed on the map that one of the villages we visited was adjacent to the rainforest that went directly across the Darien into Colombia, so we asked the Amer0Indians in the village if there were trails and one man agreed to take us trekking on one of the trails. So, we crossed the river and hiked into the rainforest. it was clear that this trail was going to take us all the way across the Gap and there were no checkpoints of soldiers to stop us. We hiked for half a day because we were out of time and had to head back to Panama City and return home. But we ended up trekking into some deep pristine rainforest with large trees. One area was infested with tarantulas and ever square foot had a tarantula for about 20 feet in every direction both on ground and tree. Although we didn’t cross the Gap, we did find a path to do so, and we had a pretty good adventure exploring the Darien region.

Tarantula infested forest

My brother in front of a huge tree

Tarantula infested forest

Jesse and I traveled halfway back to Panama City on the same day, staying one night along the way in a hotel traveling slowly but surely via chicken bus. 

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