The Darien Gap

It’s often a bucket list dream to drive from Alaska to Chile. The first step is simple: go to google maps and enter “Alaska” as point A and “Chile” as point B. You’ll get directions, right?

Wrong. Absolutely wrong.

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This is the result of a geographic area known as the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is a 60 mile gap in the Pan-American Highway, between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia.

Crossing the Gap

The Darien Gap has been traversed, but at the risk of rugged nature, guerrilla warfare, and corrupt police. One must navigate both the mountainous rainforests of Panama and the Atrato Swamp of Colombia. As stated by the Overland Traveller, “The Darién Gap is a notorious and vast tract of virtually impenetrable mountainous jungle populated largely by guerrillas and drug traffickers with a healthy sideline in kidnapping”. Says Robert Young Pelton, “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.”

The first exploration was done by the Smithsonian in 1924, and many followed with the use of boats. The first man to cross completely on land was Ian Hibell, on his 1971-1973 bike ride from the bottom to the top of the hemisphere.

Many, though, aren’t as lucky. In 2002, Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder were captured by FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They were held hostage for nine months. “My first impression was of an unassuming guerrilla interested only in capturing game for food, but now he’d turned into an irascible martinet”.

Another obstacle is the drug trafficking, which is highly prevalent in the area. Panama’s border service, Senafront, recently engaged in a conflict with traffickers that left one dead and one injured. According to Senafront, who recently received a $250,000 donation from the United States government, a trafficker is paid about $500 to smuggle 20 kg of cocaine. The destination of the drugs is often the United States.

Senafront Darien Panama

Along with the movement of drugs, the movement of people is also prevalent throughout the gap. Migrants from as far as South Asia and Africa often make the trek, with America in their sights.

Matthew Carsten describes how abundant natural dangers are in the gap. He writes that dangers include “scorpions in rotten trees, a coral snake laying in wait along the trail, and repeatedly walking face-first into Orb-Weaver spider webs”.

Darien Poison Dart Frog PanamaBridging the Gap

The gap is yet to be bridged, by road or train, for a variety of reasons. Despite Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s $609 million dollar offer for a highway, Panama has denied it. Included reasons are, “facilitated access for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants; impact on local communities; and environmental degradation”.

The threats of deforestation are strong: The price of trees found in the gap, specifically rosewood and cocobolo, are valued at $2,000 per cubic meter. On the contrary, Michael Ryan, who has studied the role of frogs in the gap, states, “the worst thing that could happen to the Darien would be the completion of the highway across the Darien Gap”. The Panamanian government has chosen Ryan’s side, and has put tremendous emphasis on protecting it’s environment.  Preserving one of the last true wildernesses left, at a time when scientists are calling for half of the planet to be restored to nature, seems like the most logical decision.

As well, the Darien Gap is key to stopping the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from Colombia to North America. Reads a United Nations report, “completion of the Darien Gap Highway…is currently dependent upon establishing successful control of foot-and-mouth disease in Colombia.”

The indigenous tribes, Guna, Embera, and Wounaan, would be threatened by a road/rail system as well.

Wounaan Girl Darien PanamaCurrently, the only ways to safely cross the gap are by plane and by ferry, both costing a few hundred dollars. The ferry, from between Colon, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia, takes almost a full day.

Multiple plans for an 85 to 95 mile highway and/or a railroad have been put in place. The most convenient route would be directly through the center of the national park. This western lowlands route would need to be an elevated track, as it would pass through a thick, high-precipitation rainforest. The eastern highlands route, a slightly more eco-friendly route, would be longer, but likely cheaper to build. Both plans would sufficiently tear up the ecosystem.

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Your opinion on the bridging-the-gap debate depends largely on your values – the preservation of natural environment and indigenous tribes, or the economic possibilities of a road and rail way to connect the Americas.

Enticing, isn’t it?


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