Monday, January 3, 2011

The Darien Gap

Occassionally, I will write a blog about something I don't know but a subject that intrigues me.  It is not work I have done myself nor are the pictures my own....but the mystery surrounding the topic fascinates me.  Take for example my postings on the last man(of a tribe) standing in the Amazon or the tree that grows berries on its' bark.  In a world that can be full of the mundane and ordinary, these topics excite, thrill, and perhaps even scare me a bit.  This posting is on such a place.  Why am I writing about it now?  This year we are planning a trip to Panama and between the borders of Colombia and Panama exists a place like no other on this Earth.  Sometimes experience cannot be photographed nor filmed....but explored in theory, writing, and idea.   This place is one of the MOST dangerous places on the planet. Read's a fascinating name and biodiverse part of the world.  This place is a tropical gardener's paradise.

One of the things I find interesting as a Spanish instructor are the many places out there that are not so well known to the general public.  During my travels, I always try to find places that the common tourist can't visit and requires all Spanish. For years, I have been aware of this magical place known as the Darien Gap.  It is one of the last places on this Earth that is wild and largely unexplored.  It's also one of the last places where good and evil still battle.  Remember your grandparent's stories of Cowboys and Indians?  Remember the title, "The Wild West"?  Some of you even have old photos of the early 1900's/late 1800's of your great great grandparents who went to World Faires when tribes of Indians still existed....when the West was truly wild.  Nowadays, Starbucks and McDonalds are on every corner and the Indians run casinos.  Even our little town of Tombstone, south of Tucson, is dying.  The tourism is not what it used to be because "The Wild West" has lost its' meaning amongst the younger generations.  I think about what it would be like to live during those times and wonder what Tucson or Tombstone felt like when cowboys and indians ruled their worlds.....when the Lone Ranger wasn't fiction, but the real deal.....or Zorro lived in Mexico!

Such places, like the Darien Gap, still exist in this world.  The Panamerican highway ends in this dangerous region of swampland, dense rain forest, and high mountain tops. Hikers nor drivers cannot pass here nor should or could they! As we are planning our trip for Panama, we are thinking about travelling to this area of the world.  We would love to see Darien National Park.  Why?  There is incredible biodiversity here along with 3 tribes that still live in this very isolated region....the Embera, Kuna and the Wounan tribes.  I am a very curious man with a hunger for knowledge and experience.  I want to know about the plants that grow in this region which is unlike the Amazon or other rain forests, but I don't want to die......we are doing a lot of research right now into flights or boats that go into this park.  You may ask why it is dangerous to visit.  It is a crossroads for drug smuggling, venemous snakes, crocodiles, human kidnapping, refugees from Colombia, military rebels, from Colombia and other places, and poachers who fight with the local law enforcement and tribes that live on these lands.  It is definitely a serious situation and one to be concerned it worth the risk?  Depends on the manner in how we plan this trip.....there are safe ways into the park.  The beginning of this trip starts in the village of Yaviza.

Brothels are common place in the Darien Gap
Yaviza is an outpost before you enter the "at your own risk" jungle.  It is a place, like in the old west, where cowboys, indians, prostitutes, rebel outlaws, scientists, drug smugglers, and criminals of all kinds mingle.  There is even a famous brothel there that people talk about in blogs and journals.  Is it pretty bad?  Well having done quite a bit of travel, I imagine it's quite run down with very basic human needs. It's not for the faint of heart.   I also imagine it has high outbreaks of malaria and foot and mouth disease.  It's a wild area.  Could it be bad? Yes, but it could also depend on the route you take.  Recently there have been ecolodges going up around the area and I believe that this is the route to take.  A flight in with the proper shots and medications with a safe place to stay could be the answer for a fun experience at the "Gap":)  Perhaps some of you have experience in this region and have advice contrary to what I am writing....I'd love to hear it as I have heard both good and bad stories of this place.......and when people write about the's wonderful.  And when it's bad, it's pretty terrible. Again is it worth the risk? Depends on the far to this date in my life, any risk I have taken has paid off and been worth it's weight in "experience gold".  A lot of planning is going into this trip.  I can only imagine the plant life that grows here!!  I'd love to meet the natives as well. Here are some pics below of some of the tribes found in the investigation.....

The Embera Tribe Above and Below

The Wounaan
The Embera, Female Dress
The Kuna 
Outside Magazine, reported by Alex Webb, writes this.....AN "ABYSS AND HORROR of mountains, rivers, and marshes," in the words of one 16th-century traveler, the Darién Gap is Panama's Bermuda Triangle: a place where things seem to go wrong more often than everywhere else. As an old saying goes, the Spanish conquistadores defeated the Andes, the deserts, and the Amazon, but not the Gap, which foiled their advances.
The Gap is small compared with tropical wildernesses like the Amazon and the Congo. Yet it feels huge, with its slight population—roughly 100,000 people, half afro-Caribbean and half native Panamanian—mainly concentrated in isolated bush villages like Yaviza. In Panama and Colombia, it is known as El Tapón ("The Plug"), because it blocks the flow of human exploration.
Full story here

You can see how this place is fascinating...well at least I think it is.  There are several books out there on the Darien Gap which speak of experiences that people had either lost in the forest or discovering new plants. Well at least, you now know that the reason you can't drive from North America to South America is due to this wild and jungly place!  A National Geographic photographer writes this after being released as a hostage...."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."  Again, when dealing with a place as wild like this park, IT IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO HIRE A LOCAL GUIDE APPROVED BY THE GOVERNMENT.  Never ever do this on your own.  I've seen very sad things happen on my trips to several tourists thinking they could brave it themselves.  Biggest. Misake. Ever. Besides, you want someone who knows the place teaching you about the flora and fauna.  I've learned so much from these very passionate guides.
Well there you have it....definitely a place I want to see but with a guide at a lodge under a controlled environment.  It's this summer and we're getting ready to get our hands dirty in the language and gardens.  A new year. A new promise of exploration. And a new adventure.
Pictures are not obviously taken by me as I am sharing with you my research into the mysterious wonders of this world. These pics were lifted off of ecotour websites like:


Information is from research over the internet and from personal readings.  Spanish teachers eat this stuff up!:)


  1. I've had a friend go to the jungles of Costa Rica but it seems tame compared to the Darien Gap. Be careful, my friend, and..don't go barefooted. I read a horrific article about a camera man on assignment for National Geographic who spent a terrible time while local tribesmen dug burrowing parasites out of his foot. He had no idea of their existence until it was too late. He wiser man for the experience.
    David/ not so Tropical Texana/ Houston

  2. Are you guys suffering from freezes in your neck of the woods? They swear that tonight is the last night of this week long freeze. I don't remember getting hit night after night with this stuff....I know I've lost plants, but I'm going to wait until the weekend to see the full damage...
    Thanks for the concerns on Darien....we won't go unless we have a safe route planned out and we think we've found a Northern section to the park that is much safer than the Central to Southern portions of the park. This place is a bit scary. I laugh about the parasites because it's so true....and gross. In the Amazon,I was wearing hiking boots and a bunch of evil ants attacked me up my pants leg and I have scars to prove it:) Hope you're having a great week. Chris:)

  3. Growing up in Argentina, the Pan American Highway was a road that seemed only a dream. I remember taking stretches of it - miles that went no where but were a masterpiece of vision.
    Some places, highways just SHOULD NOT go - and as for humans, go in on tiptoes! With boots!

    Freezes seem to have ended up here at the citrus groves, tho every morning there is still a hint of frost.


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