The Panama Jungle: Full Guide to (Unexplored) Darien

Did you know that 43.7% or approximately 3,251,000 hectares of Panama is forested? This makes the country home to over 1569 identified species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. As much as this sounds like a fun adventure to embark on, it does come with some quite literal gaps.

The reason why you can only travel by boat or by plane from Colombia to Panama and vice versa is because of the almost impenetrable jungle Darien Gap. This forest has gained notoriety for all kinds of mystifying myths and rattling truths one could associate to a remote rainforest. After all, it has received so little archaeological attention compared to its neighboring forests.

Take Metropolitan National Park and Soberania National Park as examples. They are popular among tourists and are even categorized as parks with proper trails. It makes you wonder, is Darien really that dangerous? Read on to unravel the secrets setting the Darien Gap apart from the rest of the Panama jungle.

The Accessible Forest Parks of Panama

Before we explore the Darien, you should first know what the Panama jungle scene is like. You wouldn’t understand its least visited if you don’t know a thing about its most-accessed wild wonders. 

Panama is well-known for its wilderness that makes the entire country what you could classify as a real-life Jumanji-worthy location. That’s why most of these green areas of the country are protected by the government with the intent of preserving the wildlife.

Here are some of these national parks that can serve as some sort of warm-up before commencing on a full-on Darien Gap crossing:

La Amistad International Park

La Amistad International Park is a shared natural property of Panama and Costa Rica. The park has made it to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list as well, which is fitting for its coverage of the 20% species diversity of the region. 

La Amistad is also home to the lovely quetzals, a bird species famous for their colorful plumage. The fierce harpy eagles also reside in this 401,000-hectare forest, among other almost peculiar animals, insects, and plants.

Bastimentos Island National Park 

This island national park is situated in the provincial archipelago of Panama called the Bocas del Toro. It is the first national marine park in Panama that was just developed in 1988. 

This park that happens to extend into the Carribean Sea is also a nesting site for 4 species of endangered sea turtles from April through September. Another interesting animal inhabiting this Bastimentos is the Rana Rojo or strawberry poison-dart frog. 

That’s just one among the many other poisonous flora and fauna in Panama that are dominant in the Darien. 

Chagres National Park

This park comprises the Panama Canal’s watershed, which includes the waterway’s 80% water provider, Chagres River, and Alajuela Lake. This body of water is not only responsible for the operations of the famous canal but also for supplying most of the country’s drinking water.

Chagres National Park is popular among hikers since there are trails right in its jungle called Real. A path there called El Camino Real was also used by the Spanish to move gold as it passes right through the park and the track is easily retraced. Hiking the full stretch of the said historic trail can take four days. 

Soberania National Park

Soberania is a remarkable birding site with over 525 bird species settling in this forest. You can spot several birds from the Pipeline Road that spans 17.5 kilometers of the park’s north and south ends. 

The park also has a number of hiking trails including the Sendero Las Cruces, which is the cobblestone trail made by the Spanish to transport Peruvian gold in mules from the isthmus and home to Spain–another significant course worth the spontaneous turn.

Metropolitan National Park

As its name suggests, it’s nature within the Panama City vicinity. Aside from urban-influenced trails in that forest, there is also an environmental education center there to keep a seamless relationship between the jungle and its concrete counterpart. 

Head to the Cerro Mono Titi where you can get a good view of the city, the Panama Canal, the port of Balboa, and the closeby Camino de Cruces National Park.

Baru Volcano National Park

Baru Volcan is an extinct volcano that is 3475 meters above sea level. Overall, this area is also the highest point in Panama whose topmost part is a good viewpoint to see the Carribean Sea and the Pacific from on a clear day. 

This 14,300-hectare national park is already 500 kilometers from Panama City. Despite such remoteness, you can joint thrilling Jeep 4×4 tours of the Baru Volcano so you can see all the views from this elevated area from an exhilarating perspective. 

Coiba Island National Park

Just when you thought Panama has already maxed out on their ecosystem, Coiba Island boasts an excellent spot for whale watching. This coastal ecosystem has a 240-kilometer coastline and is the only home left for the scarlet macaws in Panama. 

You can enjoy deep fishing at the Hannibal bank as well where the hottest catch is marlin tuna. It will take you 10 hours to travel from Panama City to this island whether it’s by boat or by car.

Camino de Cruces National Park

Known for its undulating terrains, Camino de Cruces is a forest shared by the North Soberania National Park and the South Metropolitan National Park. If you want to see stunning waterfalls, this is the place to look, and it’s accessible being only 15 kilometers away from Panama City. 

Another feature of the Camino de Cruces is its rainforest that’s home to an enormous specimen of silk cotton tree called Cuipo. There is also an abundance of different bird species strolling around the forest. That would be quite a sight to see.

Darien National Park

Darien National Park is located in the Darien Gap. It is the most substantial among the rest of the national parks in Panama, making it one of the most indispensable world heritage sites in all of Central America.

This park is already 325 kilometers far from Panama City, an extremely isolated park that is not ideal for basic tourism. However, you can still access some parts of the forest through Santa Cruz de Cana (nicknamed as Cana). 

Cana is deemed one of the most marvelous outdoor areas in Panama. It has even been dubbed as one of the world’s greatest bird-watching spots. Since this area has a huge wildlife scene going on, you can find ranger stations there manning the trails. 

The Darien Gap in Panama

If you didn’t know yet, Darien Gap is that break in the Pan-American Highway that cuts the continuous connection between South America and North America. This breach between Colombia and Panama has an enormous watershed, a sweeping forest, and captivating mountains.

The Darien Gap has always been intriguing not only for being a virgin jungle but also for the legends attached to the purely imagined state of this land. The few documented expeditions in this forest have all cited the region’s almost impassable natural conditions and unusual settlements. It paints a picture that makes one question how the land has stayed almost completely desolate over the years.

The seclusion of the Darien Gap is caused by a combination of its history and geography. Here, we dig up the reasons why the Pan American Highway wasn’t extended in this part so your curiosity won’t kill you any longer.

The History of the Darien Gap

Darien Gap has an interesting history that should explain why there’s barely any archaeological research related to it. These past events also played important roles in the decision to not continue the Pan-American Highway in this area. 

The locals in the Darien Gap hardly recognize any historical worth in their ancestral monuments and architecture. With the immense influence of Western ethnocentric perspectives, these structures are even more devalued. That’s unfortunate given that there are plazas, paved roads, stone sculptures, and artifacts made from gold, jade, and ceramic materials in the area.

The original settlers of Darien Gap were the Embera-Wounaan and Kuna. The Cunas used to live in the now called Northern Colombia and Panama’s Darien Province during the Spanish occupation. They only later migrated to the west side of the area when a dispute between the colonizers and other indigenous tribes arose. 

The First People in the Darien Gap

An interesting background story about the Cunas is that centuries before the Spanish came, the group was part of a Chibchan migration when they got to South America. The relocation was headed towards east from Central America.

When the Spanish had finally set foot in the region, the indigenous group lived in Uraba near the Antioquia and Caldas borders. These indigenous people ascribe their movements to some strife with other chiefdoms and the mosquito populations on the mainland.

In 1980, there were 1,700 locals recorded in the Darien Gap, all mostly descendants of the indigenous people who first lived in this region.

The Spanish Invasion

The first European settlers in the Darien Gap were the Spanish conquistadors, Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Alonso de Ojeda. They were navigating the Colombian coast between 1500 and 1501, spending most of their time in the Gulf of Uraba where they encountered the Cunas.

In 1508, the Spanish colonizers created a regional border following a royal decree to divide two colonial governments at that time, Nueva Andalucia and Castilla de Oro. The River Atrato served as the boundary for the two governorships.

One day, Balboa learned about the South Sea from the locals when he was sailing along the Carribean coast. It was in 1513 that he finally witnessed the Pacific. 6 years later, a small indigenous community was established on the Pacific coast in the town of Panama. It became a key trade port after Peru’s discovery and turned into an administrative center later on.

The British Invasion

Even the famous Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan crossed the Isthmus of Panama from the Carribean side in 1671. He demolished the existing city and a new town was built a few kilometers westward at a tiny peninsula. The old town’s ruins called Panama Viejo are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. 

Scotland had one major attempt to found their own independent colony. It was in 1698 when they made that step, sailing with 1200 people on board five ships from Leith to Darien.

The command to the expedition was “to proceed to the Bay of Darien, and make the Isle called the Golden Island….some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darien…and there make a settlement on the mainland.” They made landfall off the Darien coasts 4 months after the start of their journey and immediately named their new home “New Caledonia”.

This colony’s original purpose was to provide an overland route that linked the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which only later worked with the construction of the Panama Canal. The failure of Scotland to push through with their project was caused by the following:

  • Awful planning
  • Insufficient allocation 
  • Calamitous epidemics of disease 
  • Split leadership
  • Poor trade goods selection 
  • Not being able to anticipate the Spanish Empire’s military response

The whole mission was cast aside in March 1700 after the Spanish forces blockaded the territory.  That event was a major drag-down since the Company of Scotland was backed by 20% of all the money Scotland had at the time. 

The Lowlands were in a grave financial crisis that English financial incentives played a factor in convincing the authorities to support the 1707 Acts of Union. The act implied that the best chance of aristocrats and mercantile elites of obtaining major power would be by taking part in the benefits of England’s international trade of overseas possessions. 

Even with that secure arrangement, being united with England’s overall growth, the nobles of Scotland still got bankrupted by the whole failed Darien venture.

Why Is There No Road Through the Darien Gap?

Yes, there were several attempts to fix the missing bridge in the Pan-American Highway. As a matter of fact, they have been trying and trying to remedy this gap for many decades now. So what could have possibly stopped them?

Well, the plans for the construction started in 1971 with some funding from the United States, but environmentalists were quick to express concerns that ceased further operations in 1974. It wasn’t until 1992 that another effort was made to finally build the road. 

However, the United Nations agency claimed in 1994 that there’s great environmental damage at risk in the development. They presented their case strongly, citing proof that the Darien Gap has kept the spread of diseased cattle into Central and North America, which have never encountered foot-and-mouth disease ever since 1954.

The indigenous groups in the region, Embera-Wounaan and Guna have also felt that the road would only weaken their cultures. With that much opposition from many groups and institutions, no other organization has ever tried to connect Panama and Colombia through the Darien again.

The protection of the natural resources, keeping people away from tropical diseases and maintaining the indigenous people’s livelihood and cultures, and efforts to end drug trafficking are enough points to stop anyone from forming yet another road proposal. The Yaviza highway extension alone paved the way for deforestation and other damages to the environment in just a decade.

The Current Border

The current border which the Darien Gap stands in is lawfully overseen by a treaty called the Victoria-Velez Treaty? It was signed in Bogota on August 20, 1924, by the Foreign Ministers of Panama, Nicolas Victoria and of Colombia, Jorge Velez. 

Geography

The Darien Gap’s primary composition on its Colombian side is the river delta of the Atrato River. It makes a flat marshland that is 80 kilometers wide. The Serrania del Baudo coastal mountain range where the Atrato River flows expands along Colombia’s Pacific coast and into Panama. 

On the Panama side, the Darien is mostly mountainous. This is where the proper rainforest is, the area most people are frightened of. The tallest peak in this part of the Gap is 1845 meters (6053 feet), and that is the Cerro Tacarcuna in the small mountain range Serrania del Darien. 

How Do You Cross the Darien Gap?

Just because there isn’t a road on this break between Panama and Colombia doesn’t mean you can’t cross it. You can go on a nice Panama-Colombia crossing trip by land, air, or sea. 

That makes it seem like the Gap isn’t that much of a hassle, or maybe it is. Here are the ways to cross the Darien Gap so you can assess it yourself, whether the Gap should have been made in those years before or not.

By Foot

You read that right, you can cross the Darien Gap on foot. As a matter of fact, the most memorable crossings in this rainforest was made on foot. 

It started in 1976 with Sebastian Snow and Wade Davis who had an unbroken walk undertaking from the southernmost tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego to Costa Rica. In 1976, Snow published a book called The Rucksack Man about the trip. 

Davis later published his in 1985, and it was entitled The Serpent and the Rainbow. With those titles, they seem like they had the fantasy experience of the Darien. Those are probably good materials to check out should you find yourself in an unbroken walk in this almost no-man’s-land jungle

In between the release of those books, George Meegan crossed the gap in 1981 by foot as well. His first point was also the Tierra del Fuego, but his destination was in Alaska. Meegan wrote a biography published in 1988 called The Longest Walk. It is a 25-chapter tell-all about that entire trek.

Just a year after the new millennium came, Karl Bushby went on yet another full-on trudge. It was part of his Goliath Expedition, which brought him at the tip of South America, all the way to the Bering Strait until he made it back home in England. He never used any kind of transport when he went through the Gap to reach Panama from Colombia.

The first Mexican by-foot crossers of the Gap made their debut in 1996 when they were on a hitchhiking trip to Ushuaia through 17 Latin American countries. They crossed the Darien by foot from Panama to Colombia, a record still kept on the visitors’ log that has been around in Pucuro since 1946.

The group even survived the Hurricane Cesar-Douglas in a forest somewhere between Paya and Palo de las Letras. That was on the evening of July 28th when they were with 11 and 13-year old kids who luckily survived the falling of big trees and drastic rising river levels with them at that time. 

Last among these notable by-foot crossings is the Guinness World Records-confirmed “the longest round the world pilgrimage” for Christ. It was done by evangelist Arthur Blessitt in 1979 while bearing a 12-foot wooden cross. 

Blessitt was all alone with just a machete and a backpack with water bottles, Bible, notepad, lemon drops, a hammock, and his signature Jesus stickers that say “Smile! God loves you”. His book The Cross was even turned into a movie, a dramatic yet inspirational chronicle of what is true quite a courageous trek. 

By Boat

In July 1961, college students Carl Adler, Joseph Bellina, and James Wirth took the route starting from the Bay of San Miguel to Puerto Obaldia on the Gulf of Parita close to Colombia, leading to San Blas or now referred to as Kuna Yala. They used a banana boat or piragua for that part and went on foot via the rivers that eventually led to the Serrania del Darien.

These days, you can cross the Darien by boat without having to travel on foot on the last part. There are a few enterprising sailboats that transfer travelers from Panama to Colombia and vice versa by sailing around the Darien Gulf or sailing along the magnificent San Blas. 

If you don’t mind taking the time to get to Colombia from Panama, then the 5-day sailing journey, then this one is one amazing option. This is great for backpackers who wish to see the paradise side of things and absorb every detail of their escapade. 

The only downside to this option is that it’s even more expensive than crossing by plane.

By Plane

If you want to steer clear from any jungle involvement, then skip the Darien Gap as fast and as comfortable as possible by flying from Panama to Colombia or vice versa. There are always flights from Panama City (PTY) to Cartagena (CTG) and vice versa.

Of course, if you’re a Darien Gap enthusiast, this isn’t the best way for you to investigate the mysteries of the forest. 

By Car

Partial Land Transit

The first post-colonial expedition to the Darien Gap was the Marsh Darien Expedition, which was sponsored by different organizations including the Smithsonian Institution. They used off-road vehicles to transit through the rainforest.

However, the first officially recorded vehicular crossing of this break was by three Brazilian adventurers who drove two Ford Model Ts. In 1928, they left Rio de Janeiro and arrived 10 years later in the United States. 

The intent in that mission was to get some attention for the Pan-American Highway after an International Conference in Chile 5 years before their crossing.  The group was able to capture that is apparently the last photo of the infamous Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino, who received the copies in Nicaragua and was also acquired by Henry Ford and Franklin Roosevelt in the United States.

Another off-road vehicular pass took place in 1959-1960 using a Land Rover named La Cucaracha Cariñosa (The Affectionate Cockroach) and a Jeep. The Trans-Darien Expedition started in Chepo, Panama on February 2, 1960, and ended in Quibdo, Colombia on June 17, 1960.

The passage took 201 meters per hour over 136 days in total. It was up the broad Atrato River that the crew traveled a whopping amount of distance. 

A couple of Range Rovers were used on the British Trans-Americas Expedition in 1972, which was headed by John Blashford-Snell. Records report that this land transit was the first vehicle-based tour that covered both North and South American continents via the Darien Gap.

The vehicles crossed the Atrato Swamp in Colombia, all packed with special inflatable rafts in the back of the cars. 

Full Land Transit

With the almost boundless number of bodies of water that flows through the Gap, it was almost impossible to go on a full-auto crossing. In 1985-1987, Loren Upton and Patty Mercier went on the first all-land vehicular crossing of the forest in a CJ-5 Jeep.

It took them 741 days or 2 years and a couple of weeks to traverse 201 kilometers. This made it to the 1992 Guinness Book of Records. 

By Motorcycle

The first motorcycle crossing in the Darien Gap was made by Robert L. Webb in 1975. It was a full-land transit that was such a good addition to the wildest passings in the forest. 

Nowadays, there are several easier ways to cross the Gap through a motorcycle. Here are as follows:

  • Overland: A man named Helge Pedersen rode his BMW R80GS around the world in the early 1980s for a decade. When he was in his South America tour, he rode his motorcycle through the Darien Gap, an intrepid ride nobody dared to follow.
  • On the Stahlratte: You can bring your bikes on board the Stahlratte, a 112-year, German-registered sailing ship that transfers people from Panama to Colombia and vice versa. 
  • Flying the Bikes: Before the Stahlratte started carrying bikes, most bikers just flew their motorcycles. If you want a quick crossing and don’t really care for the scenic views you’ll see when on a ship, then go for this one.
  • Container Shipping: There are shared containers that are willing to ship your motorcycles around the Darien Gap from Panama to Cartagena. Many riders recommend this option as it is secure and a bit cheaper than the cargo fees for the options above.

By Ferry

There used to be ferries operating transfers from Panama to Colombia and vice versa. They have been suspended a few years ago, and there’s no word about any comeback so far.

By Speed Boat

If you have motion sickness or simply get queasy pretty quickly, you do not want to try this option. If you’ve got a tough system, then fly to the border town of Puerto Obaldia, then take a 3-hour boat ride bound for Turbo, Colombia. 

From there, you can hop on a bus going to Medellin and Cartagena. The bus ride usually takes 8-10 hours. 

How Is It Like to Walk through the Darien Gap?

“The Darién Gap is a thick, unruly wilderness running along the border between Colombia and Panama,” says American journalist Jason Motlagh. I’m sure that description paints a great picture of how it’s like to walk through the Darien Gap.

When walking through the Darien Gap, what one must keep in mind is that you’ll be battling flies, cold waters, the risk of getting tropical diseases, general fear of the civil conflict that has been going on for decades in that region. 

We already call the cities a jungle when we cross the streets with so many people while constantly on guard for potential theft or other urban crimes. So you do realize how even more terrifying it is to walk in the wild, among creatures you’re not familiar with. Then again it makes you ask, is the Darien Gap really dangerous? 

Flies 

These little buzzing things are all over the forest. You might even mistake them for birds from a distance but once they get close, prepare to get on your swat war mode. 

Since crossing the Darien Gap by foot will take longer, you would need interminable patience to deal with these flies that shall go with you until you’re off the jungle. The flies are not known to spread any diseases, but the annoyance they cause can frustrate any weary by-foot traveler.  

Cold Waters

The Darien Gap is also known for being one of the wettest regions here on Earth, so you’ll definitely be walking through some streams and rivers upon passing. That’s why you should be informed as early as now that the cold waters could be very unpleasant. 

An exploration of the Gap filmed by CBS showed how the travelers would stop to drain their boots from the waters getting in their boots. Unfortunately, that’s something you’d have to deal with for at least 6 days (the average addition of days walking through the waters of Darien).

This is exactly why this unfinished part of the Pan-American Highway is both such an inconvenience and fragile environmental matter at the same time. The institutions can’t simply allow a road construction that might affect the purity of the Darien waters. 

Tropical Diseases

As previously mentioned, Darien Gap has a foot-and-mouth disease problem. What is a foot-and-mouth disease anyway, you might ask. 

Also known as aphthous fever, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is highly infectious and affects cattle, sheep, swine, and other cloven-hoofed animals. It is a serious condition that can even impact the economy catastrophically during an outbreak that’s typically free of FMD.

Since the Darien Gap prevents the spread of FMD from South America to the Central and North Americas, you do understand how walking through its rainforest puts you in a not-so-safe spot. The Los Katíos National Park in the Gap is the part of the Darien that serves as its main barrier for FMD. 

Civil Conflict

Not so long ago, the Colombian government ruled by President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These forces had almost sole control over the territory.

Other rebellious groups like the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (also known as Los Urabeños) have attempted to abuse the vacuum left behind by the FARC after the ceasefire. The native communities in the area’s daily lives then involve active protection of themselves and their families from any violence that might still occur anytime. 

They carry heavy batons around, which were made by the locals themselves do they can defend themselves from any sort of danger that’s out there in the jungle. Still, these residents live in fear that one day, these armed insurgents kept at bay might start a war they would likely lose as they don’t have the same weapons.

There is also no state of control in the vicinity, so travelers should be extra careful in walking through all this. There is even worse fear growing in the Cacaricas River in the district of Bijao where an Afro-Colombian community has already witnessed and experienced extreme violence from all the tension around. 

One horrific story was of a resident’s brother who was decapitated by the paramilitary block. He even recalled having to pick up his brother’s body parts floating in the river a week after he had come back from another area. The local population dreams of peace even when they live every day in terror that something so brutal can always happen again.

How Long Is the Darien Gap?

At this point, you’re probably so curious about the length of Darien Gap. With those months and years of land expeditions, it truly makes you wonder just how far this Gap goes that a full transit could take that long.

The Darien Gap is a 97-kilometer rainforest, so that’s 60 miles of a missing road that could have stretched out the current 30,000-kilometer Pan-American Highway all these years. There is a 25,900-square kilometer untamed wilderness in this region, an infinite jungle if you will.

That’s why navigating the forest alone is challenging. Crossing the Darien Gap in other ways other than by plane definitely takes a while and puts you in a lot of possible dangers. 

Do Tourists Really Go Missing in the Darien Gap?

Over the years, this has been what’s most feared about the Darien Gap. A forest so huge that one could easily get lost out of natural causes or taken by the rebels inhabiting the remote region.

The latter was the case for Swedish maths student Jan Philip Braunisch who was described as well-traveled by many who knew him personally. His mother didn’t even worry about his crossing the Darien Gap as in her words, he was “fearless and determined”. Little did neither of them foresee that he would be eaten up by this long-feared jungle, an event that would traumatize people forever. 

Was it the Darien Gap or the poor timing of the young Swede’s solo expedition?

The Disappearance of Jan Philip Braunisch

Braunisch went on his journey in 2013, confident about surpassing the physical obstacles along the way for him. He overlooked the bigger threat that was the neo-paramilitary army who scare even the locals of the rainforest. 

Aside from that, Braunisch skipped the tourist trails that were more secure as he even traveled too fast for someone who’s just by himself. The other backpackers he met had even expressed their reality check concerns to the young traveler. His route was already risky enough, but it was the timing that was off on this whole trip that led to the unfortunate occasion.

In early 2013, the lower Atrato River was in chaos with the FARC’s 57 Front under attack from the air and state forces. There was a broken down tenuous truce between the guerillas and drug gang Los Urabeños at that time as well, further causing turmoil in that area.

Human rights organizations monitoring the villages near the combat zone reported that there were armed checkpoints and harassment and killings of locals along the walking paths along the Cacarica River. Coincidentally, that was the route Braunisch had already intricately arranged for his crossing.

When he got in a motorboat in the Atrato River that May of 2013, he probably didn’t know of the tumult’s scale at that time. The driver was definitely alert of any presence of armed groups possibly hiding around the riverbanks. It was then important to wave a red cloth should any of those forces stop them, a signal that would save them from the instant blowout of gunfires.

Combatants stopped their boat and took the tall Swede with them, bringing him to the jungle. That’s the last of what’s known about the story of another traveler who ended up disappearing in the Darien Gap.

Two years after such a tragic loss, the young man’s family received closure when the International Committee of the Red Cross turned in a small casket carrying skeletal remains that were later proven by a DNA test to be Jan Philip’s.

There’s still no definite answer for why Jan Philip was abducted and murdered just like that. Some police investigation reports state that the armed forces thought the tall Swedish man was a US spy, but it was never verified.

Are there People Living in the Darien Gap?

By now, you’re probably wondering how the locals of the Darien Gap manage to coexist with the fearsome rebels and drug traffickers settling in the same region. It has a lot to do with deep cultural issues that have kept these little communities firm in this perplexing Panama-Colombia boundary.

There are two prominent indigenous groups living in the Darien Gap, the Wounaan population and the Marraganti. These communities that do not have any official government supervision manage to make a decent livelihood for its people, thriving despite the disturbing settlement of paramilitary groups and narco-traffickers in the area. 

The local communities then deal with a lot of difficulties in life from war-related harm to providing for their families and raising their children in such a hostile environment.

Livelihood for the Indigenous Groups

These groups living in the Darien are a semi-autonomous collective who believe that staying in small-sized groups and living far from the main border is not a good way to live. You can only imagine how much issues they’ve got with the government that doesn’t care much for their long-kept cultural values.

Edilberto Dogirama, president of the Embera-Wounaan General Congress, embodying 41 regional communities that the National Border Service Senafront of Panama has created more problems in their businesses. Suddenly, there are now tensions over the transport of their goods under new restrictive policies, the erosion of the group’s autonomy that’s most-feared by these Darien locals.

One lucky business feat made by Marraganti was to secure an export deal with a Chinese company for sustainable timber, all with the help of NGOs. The first year of the operations generated $80,000 in income, which the Embera-Wounaan General Congress used to enhance the houses in their villages.

What Exotic Animals Live in the Darien Gap?

Now let’s talk about the 1569 identified species of animals in the Darien Gap. The rainforest has never been touched to fully bridge Panama to Colombia partly because of these creatures who naturally depend on the land, so it’s worth getting to know them. 

The Darien Gap is home to multiple exotic species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Some of them are note-worthy endemic and endangered ones that truly deserve some attention. The birds, especially, are the most astounding animals to sight when in the area. 

Not many people know exactly about the rich, wondrous wildlife in the Darien Gap. Allow us to share with you, some knowledge about the riveting examples of unique creatures inhabiting this jungle. 

Birds

There are about 530 species of birds in the Darien National Park. That is a 575,000-hectare site of tantalizing birds for you. Here are a few of its most special species:

Macaw

Macaw is known as the giants of the parrot family. They also have vibrant colors on top of their massive size, making them impossible to miss. These birds are known to be social, too. That means they even make clownish acts to charm you. 

They may seem intimidating given their long physique, but rest assured that they are actually endearing birds. If you come across them in the Gap, just enjoy their presence and take the time to admire their vividly colored feathers. 

There are 5 species of Macaw living in the Darien Gap, so that would be exciting to try and spot all of them.

Choco Tinamou

Unlike the Macaw, the Choco Tinamou is slightly difficult to spot. They are considered an isolated bird species, globally threatened by a large potential of decline in their population. 

Choco Tinamous are stubby terrestrial birds that have a short tail and round wings. Their bellies are brown while the rest of their body is blackish or greyish, except for their reddish toes. What’s particularly unique about these birds is their vocal behavior. 

The Choco Tinamous sings in low, single-noted whistles that repeat between 2-3 seconds. That single note changes throughout the repetitions of the song. One highlighted song goes like “whoh” or “whoh-ah”, which are delivered in an empty, sorrowful tone.

Harpy Eagle

This eagle is the biggest and mightiest raptor found in the Americas. It is even larger than the Golden Eagle, which is already 66 to 102 centimeters (26 to 40 inches) long. No wonder it is the national bird of Panama. 

The Harpy Eagle’s length can span from 86.5 to 107 cm (2’10” to 3’6”). That is why its name was coined based on the harpies of Greek Mythology, bird monsters that have a human face. This species even inspired the look of the character in the Harry Potter series, Fawkes the Phoenix. 

Contrary to most assumptions, Harpy Eagles are actually friendly to humans. They sit on perches to allow humans to approach them. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of that and kill these eagles for money, a peril to the population of these beautiful monsters.  

Endemic and Endangered Species

Darien Gap is home to many species of animals that are exclusively found only in that area. Despite the lack of inspection of the rainforest’s wildlife, zoologists have still discovered and named several of them that are enough to blow you away. Here are some of them:

Spotted Paca

Also known as the lowland paca, this large rodent is classified as an agricultural pest as it eats common crops like cassava, sugar cane, yams, and corn. There are still a number of pacas in the Darien, although that has decreased due to hunting. 

The spotted paca’s meat is actually highly prized. Yes, some people eat this dark brown to the black-furred  rodent with white spots along its sides. Their strong legs and the total weight that ranges from 6-12 kilograms are apparently appetizing traits to some. 

These rodents live up to 13 years, which probably explains their healthy amount of population. They are also easily bred in farms. The ones in the Darien definitely have a more secure habitat due to the lack of active hunting and habitat destruction there. 

Night Monkey

Night monkeys are the only nocturnal monkeys that are a Panama native. Also known as the owl monkeys or douroucoulis, these poor creatures were one of the few monkey species that are frequently affected by the fatal human disease malaria, hence their being experimental subjects for the research of the infectious disease. 

Owl monkeys are known for their huge brown eyes whose size and nocturnal vision are even more enhanced at night. These monkeys can weigh from 455 to 1,254 grams and measure in length from 341 to 346 millimeters (13.4 to 13.6 inches). Male night monkeys are slightly taller than the female ones.

During the daytime, which is the time these monkeys sleep, they hide in shaded tree spots so they can rest peacefully. They create holes in the trunks of trees for shelter to protect them from extreme heat and storms. However, in the Darien Gap, their nests are mostly recorded to be situated at low-mid vegetation levels.

Tapirs

Tapirs are like a pig-elephant hybrid, which happens to be more closely associated with horses and rhinos. The word “tapir” translates to “thick”, which refers to the animal’s hide. The word originates from an indigenous Brazilian dialect and is pronounced rhyming with either “paper” or “appear”.

Tapirs are about the size of a donkey, only that they have such round bodies matched with dwarf legs and tiny, fat tails like that of a hippo’s. Despite the noticeable little eyes of the Tapirs, it is still their snout or miniature elephant trunk that is their most striking feature. They use their small trunks to pick leaves and fruit from trees and as some sort of snorkel when they’re in the river. 

These animals that look like a weird combination of different mammals can grow from 74 to 107 centimeters (29 to 42 inches) long and weigh from 227 to 363 kilograms (500 to 800 pounds).  Tapirs don’t have any complicated relationships with other animals or people. They are social creatures that travel in groups called a candle. 

Mantled Howler

Also known as the golden-mantled howling monkey, is a howler monkey that is mostly spotted in the Central and South America. The term mantled was coined from the monkey’s long guard hairs on the sides of its body. 

The mantled howler is one of the most enormous Central American monkeys and can weight up to 9.8 kilograms (22 pounds). The hollow bone close to the vocal cords of the mantled howlers intensifies the calls they make so they can locate each other without using much energy on movements. 

These howlers simply rest and sleep most of the time, so you realize how moving around to find their buddies is a lot of work for them. However, the howling is not just out of lethargy but also as a defense from any physical dangers. 

Ocelot

Ocelots are wild cats that are twice the size of a domestic cat. These cute bobcat-sized creatures naturally live in leafy areas of Amerian rainforests but are also able to adapt to human habitats like jungle villages. 

This wild cat’s fur is intricately marked with solid black spots on their a mix of yellow, cream, brownish-orange, and reddish grey background. They have some dark black stripes that go from the back of their neck to the end of their tail. What’s most remarkable about their physical characteristics is their brown eyes that have a golden reflection when illuminated. 

Ocelots are 55 to 100 centimeters (22 to 39 inches) in average length. Their weight ranges from 6.6 to 15.5 kilograms (15 to 34 pounds). It’s unfortunate that these friendly wild cats are nearly endangered due to hunters’ interest in their rare fur. 

Capybara

The Capybara, also known as water hog is the largest living rodent in the world and is native to South America. It looks like a guinea pig, although it is far bigger, of course. 

These mammals find home in dense forests that are close to bodies of water, hence its habitat in the Darien Gap. They are social animals that can be spotted roaming around the forests in groups that are as big as 100 individuals. However, they live only in groups of 10-20. 

Unfortunately, there is a risk of endangerment for these species due to how hunters prey on their meat, hide, and grease from their sweat glands (for pharmaceutical trade purposes). These 106 to 134-centimeter long rodents are one of the unbelievable creatures hopefully protected by the absence of roads in the Darien Gap.

Central American Agouti

The Central American Agoutis population is threatened by the hunting activities taking place in different forests of Central America. That’s why these rodents find security in the Darien. 

These creatures weight 3 to 4.2 kilograms (6.6 to 9.3 pounds) and have reddish, yellowish, and orange fur with black grizzle. Just like any other agoutis, these Central American ones are daytime mammals that live in monogamous partnerships. 

Since the Central American Agouti eat fruits and seeds, they play a significant role in scattering seeds as well. 

What Are the Things to See in the Darien Gap?

FARC guerillas, indigenous tribes, drug smugglers, exotic animals, what else is there to see in the Darien Gap? Let’s head onto the bright side of the rainforest and talk about what’s beyond the End of the Road footbridge.

The Darien Gap’s culture and traditions are not as loud as let’s say, the Middle East with their Arabian nights and variegated textiles. The humbling and earthly quaintness of the village life in the rainforest proposes a different appeal that will still wow anyone who observes it. 

Let’s get back to the basics and examine the following things that shall impose you a great reflection about the Gap life. 

Plantain Banana Farm

In a place that is this remote, growing plantain bananas serve as the primary source of income of most families in the Darien Gap. They ship these bananas up the river to Yaviza so they’ll eventually sell in Panama City. 

Despite what already seems like a basic livelihood, this banana farming is still somewhat new. Money was not a big deal when the indigenous people could still hunt for their food. The ban on hunting in the National Park caused them to resort to farming and exporting business. 

An interesting thing about the locals’ process is that they don’t weigh things as they only count them. They only carry 50 sacks of bananas in the canoes for the transport. They just know that after 50 sacks, the boat starts to sink. 

Native Emberá Home

The Embera Indians settling in the Darien Gap build homes on stilts that have logs for ladders. These ladders do not just provide entry to the homes but also an indicator that visitors are welcome to come in once the cuts for steps are facing out. When rolled under, it’s a “do not disturb” signal. 

Despite the frail-looking assembly of these houses, they are effective in protecting families from animals and floods. These people enjoy staying in their homes given its open space that doesn’t seclude them from the tranquil nature views. 

Still, you can only imagine how much they might fear the intrusion of the armed forces lurking in the forest. Their shelters can’t shield them from gunfire or guard their children enough so they at least won’t see the violence taking place outside.

Turia River

The Turia River is where the village people fish for food. Located outside the El Real village, you can expect an abundance of fish in this river that you can get a catch in just 1 to 2 minutes after throwing your line.

This river is also where most by-foot explorers of the forest have a hard time crossing. The cold waters and the river’s overall condition even give 4×4 vehicles a hard time moving through it, and it’s the only way to cross the Gap or travel around it. 

During the summer from December to April, this river dries up. That makes the usual 6-hour trip to Yaviza a 2-day trip in the summer. It could even rain hard but the river always remains dry once it’s already in that state. 

Piragua Canoes

The Piragua canoes are the primary mode of transport here in the Darien Gap. Since there’s the long river to cross, they serve as taxis for the locals who want to get around the jungle or head to Yaviza for trade reasons. 

Of course, this is also what the villagers use to fish in the Turia river. These boats ensure that they have food to eat and more goods to sell for income. The Piragua canoes are safe to use along the Turia river where there are many man-eating crocodiles. Just keep paddling calmly. 

Loud splashing in the brown river can wake up the crocodiles. If they do, they’ll start investigating around the Piragua, which the humans in it won’t be able to see due to the zero visibility in the waters.

Poisonous Frogs

Of course, the Darien Gap wouldn’t be that dangerous without any poisonous creature around. The Harlequin Toad or clown frog is the most popularly sighted poison frog in the jungle. 

These frogs are suffering from the destruction of their habitats, and the Darien is one of the only untouched moist forests where they can survive. That explains their rampance in the area. 

The Harlequin Toad species is now critically endangered. That’s just two levels away from full extinction. 

Chunga Palm Trees

Do you know how trees are huggable and warm-looking? The Chunga Palm or Black Palm is an exemption to that. These trees are all over the Darien rainforests, and you don’t ever want to be near them.

They have sharp spikes that are bacteria-covered. These spines are long, so you have to be very careful when traversing the Gap as they could just sting you, and an infection in the middle of a remote jungle is not the best circumstance to deal with.

Leave the trees to the agoutis and other rodents who love the fruits of these trees. Since the agoutis are big seed dispersers, they are probably the ones to blame for the continuous growth of these pointy trees.

What Are the Best Darien Jungle Tours?

There are tour groups conducting safe expeditions in the Darien Jungle. That goes to show that exploring the Gap can be done in a fun and secure way with the help of experts. 

There are two best tours of the Darien Jungle that lets you appreciate how great the region is. First is the trekking tour where you get to do it all the way most notable expeditions did. Second is the bird watching tour that gives you the full experience of watching the unique bird species in this rainforest. 

Here are a few details about the tour, which you might find useful once you’ve decided to see this controversial, mystical forest yourself.

Trekking Tour

A professional trek group hosts 14-day trekking tours of the Darien Gap. The expedition includes the following exciting and enriching activities:

  • Seeing the wonders of the jungle as described in this guide
  • An education about jungle survival skills from experts
  • Crossing steep terrains and rivers
  • Meeting local village people
  • Sighting of ancient petroglyphs and cultural ruins
  • Getting in a Piragua canoe to cross the rivers

Secret Compass offers this tour for $3879. They also accept applications from other jungle experts who would like to be part of their passionate team.

Bird Watching Tour

If you really want to see the different species of birds flying around the rainforests of Darien Gap, you need a guide that can navigate the accurate bird sighting spots for you. The Panama Bird Guide offers tours that last 7 days and 6 nights for $1977. 

Here are the inclusions of the tour package:

  • English/Spanish guide with field scope and the latest Panama field guide 
  • Pick up and drop off to Tocumen Airport  or your Panama City hotel
  • Road transportation and accommodations
  • National park fees and meals

Our Verdict 

The Darien Gap, like any other jungle in the world, has its dangers and unexpected exotic treats. Would we say it’s dangerous? Yes, it could be. However, we wouldn’t generalize such an idea given the fact that many explorers made it out of there alive for even years of traversing it. 

What we would say, is that one should take precautionary measures at all times when crossing through this forest. The state of the land both physically and socio-politically is not exactly the most welcoming climate for an adventurer who simply wants to see nature’s wonders. 

Take into consideration, researching further or going over this guide before going on an expedition here. Better yet, just avail those tours mentioned above so you can assure the safety and enjoyment of this amazing jungle. 

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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