Unlike other sections of this travel guide, this one is written with the idea you will travel to the Darién only with experienced, respected nature guides. I strongly urge you to do so.
Those who don’t speak Spanish and know the area will find it hard to get logistics set up for a Darién trek. A naturalist guide can spot and describe animals and plants the uninitiated will miss. Most important, those who venture off by themselves have a great chance of getting lost and dying. Seriously. The Darién is a fantastic place and definitely worth visiting. But it must be treated with respect.
There are human hazards as well. Colombia’s civil war has spilled over the border into the Darién, and there are guerrillas and paramilitaries working in some areas. Gun battles between guerrillas and Panamanian police in 2010 raised tensions in the border areas. Drug traffickers and bandits also hide out in the forest. All these baddies have done unwitting good for conservation: Even hunters with guns are afraid to enter some areas.
Knowing which regions are unsafe is tricky. Again, experienced guides can be helpful, since it’s in their interest to know the dangerous spots. Border police and park rangers are also sources of information. Be sure to check the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings and Consular Information Sheet at www.travel.state.gov.
However, these advisories are not always accurate or up to date.
Areas to Avoid in the Darién
There’s a general rule of thumb here. Look at a map of the Darién and picture an imaginary line drawn from Punta Carreto (west of Puerto Obaldía in the Comarca de Kuna Yala, on the Caribbean coast) through the town of Yaviza in the heart of the Darién, down to Punta Piñas on the Pacific coast. Travel east of this imaginary line is usually considered dangerous.
Travel up the Río Tuira beyond Boca de Cupe is dangerous and off-limits. Boca de Cupe itself has a police post, but that doesn’t necessarily make it safe. In early 2010, Panamanian police on a patrol in the area encountered FARC guerrillas and a firefight that left three guerrillas dead.
As this travel guide went to press, the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory warned visitors to avoid basically any part of the province that’s not on the Interamericana: “While the number of actual incidents remains low, U.S. citizens, other foreign nationals and Panamanian citizens are potentially at risk of violent crime, kidnapping, and murder in this general area.”
Violence between Panamanian police and alleged drug traffickers near the village of Jaquí was a problem in mid-2010. Avoid this area.
Travel to Puerto Obaldía is also considered unsafe. The situation in the Darién is fluid, and a quiet spot today can be an area of concern tomorrow, and vice versa.
Those who know the Darién well feel the risk of coming across warring Colombian factions is exaggerated. They point out that combatants use the forests on the Panamanian side of the border as a place to hide out and rest. The last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves by provoking conflict.
Entering the Darién Gap is Suicidal
Even Darién experts who have made many coast-to-coast treks through the forest say it is crazy to hike through the Darién Gap into Colombia. Despite or perhaps because of all the warnings, some still insist on trying it. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do.
A few years ago an English orchid-hunter, Tom Hart Dyke, and his friend, Paul Winder, were captured by Colombian guerrillas while trying to cross the Gap. Anyone who thinks trying this is an exciting lark should read their account of their horrific ordeal, The Cloud Garden.
They were held for nine months, during which time they had nothing to do but learn enough Spanish to understand their captors’ arguments, which mainly concerned whether to kill them or not.
In January 2003 Robert Young Pelton, an adventure-travel writer, and two 22-year-old American backpackers were kidnapped by a right-wing paramilitary group near the Kuna village of Paya, close to the Colombian border. They were held for nearly a week before being released unharmed.
Less fortunate were four Kuna village leaders in Paya and Púcuru, who were tortured and murdered during this attack. A fifth Kuna was reported missing, and hundreds of refugees from the villages poured into the police-patrolled village of Boca de Cupe. Panama and Colombia pledged to beef up security around the border in the wake of these tragedies.
After his release, Pelton, the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and Come Back Alive, called the Darién Gap “probably the most dangerous place in the western hemisphere.”
Other Darién Survival Tips
Those going on a multi-day trek in the Darién, versus staying in a lodge with screens, should start taking antimalarial medication in advance of the trip.
There are three hospitals in the Darién: in Yaviza, La Palma, and El Real. There are also six centros de salud (health centers), in Boca de Cupe, Metetí, Santa Fé, Garachiné, Jaqué, and Sambú, plus a subcenter on the Río Balsas. All should have antivenin for venomous snakes. The El Real hospital sees 12–15 snakebites a year, mostly fer-de-lance. The hospitals are reasonably well stocked, but serious cases are stabilized and flown to Panama City.
Be careful in the forest during and after a rain. Tropical trees have shallow roots and fall all the time. You can hear them crashing all around you.
Keep your passport with you at all times. There are police checkpoints throughout the Darién and you’ll be asked repeatedly to present your papers. As always in Panama, be respectful toward the police. To keep the passport dry, double-bag it in Ziploc plastic bags.
The Darién is one of the few places in Panama where water can be unsafe. Bring a good water purifier or water purification tablets.
Campers should always sleep in tents. Always. Among the dangers of sleeping in the open are malaria, which is endemic to the Darién, and rabies from vampire bat bites. There is no cure for rabies, and only one person in history has survived it (though taking a series of vaccinations after exposure can usually prevent infection).
On one trek, an experienced Darién guide got so hot he ignored his own advice and unzipped his tent a speck. He woke up the next morning with congealed blood in his hair and little bite marks on his scalp — a vampire bat had feasted on him. Back in Panama City a doctor gave him his shots and told him the only thing else he could do was wait. For what? To see whether he died. He didn’t, but he’ll never leave his tent open again.
Some cell phone networks reach only as far as Chepo. Others carry as far as Punta Patiño. None penetrates deep into the forest. But even some remote villages have a pay phone. Buy a prepaid local phone card in Panama City, as these phones get choked with change.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition