Link - article by Avi & Rachel Abrams

Jungles, swamps, guerillas and corrupt military - all in the most intense 90km on Earth

You might have wondered if it's possible to drive between North and South America - for surely there must be a road between these two continents! Well, as it turns out, there is absolutely NO ROAD connecting them, and all travel advisories clearly say "Don't Go", even if you feel somewhat suicidal. I am talking about the wild and wildly dangerous Darien Gap.

(image credit: Dan Perry)

If you ever wanted to drive from Chile to Alaska, you're clear out of luck. Here and there in the world, small gaps of wilderness hold out against the onslaught of rising populations, exploitation and bulldozers. One such area is found at the southern end of Panama, separating the North and Central Americas from South America.

(images by Glyn Garratt and Diana Bradshaw)

The Pan-American Highway stretches from Cape Horn, Chile to Alaska with one 90 km break: The Darien Gap.

This area is a forbidding mountainous jungle on the Panama side; full of swamps, guerrillas, drug traffikers and kidnappers on the Colombian side, making travel through the area not just a struggle against a hostile environment but also a maze of bribing the right people for passage and ducking bullets.

In case you missed the dangers we just enumerated, here is an easy list to remember:
- tough nasty jungle with plenty of disagreeable wildlife.
- impenetrable swamps
- crazed drug traffikers
- pissed-off guerrillas
- greedy kidnappers (all of the guys mentioned above)
- paranoid government police
- no marked trails

(Darien Gap from the boat; photo by Katharine)

If you ever wondered what's like to be kidnapped in the Darien Gap by Colombian Death Squad, here is an account:

National Geographic Adventure contributing editor Robert Young Pelton and two American backpackers were kidnapped there in 2003 and held for 10 days; here is what he has to say (once they got out of there alive) -

"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."

Better hold on to your Land Rover!

Various expeditions have crossed this area, but most of them have traveled over land and water. One of the earlier expeditions (traveling a big part of the way on a river boat) was in 1960, using Land Rover named "The Affectionate Cockroach":

(images credit: Mr. Amado Arauz)

The first completely overland expedition was successfully completed by Ian Hibell. He rode a bicycle from Cape Horn to Alaska, from 1971 to 1973. There were two more expeditions in the 70's, but both used boats to travel significant amounts of the crossing. Loren Upton made the first all-land auto crossing in 1985. It took him 714 days to travel 201 kilometers in a CJ-5 Jeep. He returned in 1995 and drove a 2 wheel drive Rokon motorcycle across the gap (all on land) in 49 days.

(photos by Russel Braddon, Craig Murray)

If you decide to go, at first you'll be relieved to see some buses (painted to the max) on a local route to Yaviza -

(image credit: Antonio Baeza)

But traveling "in style" does not last that long. The road ends in Yaviza, and the only option to continue would be by river to Pinogana:

(image credit: Student Charity)

Most people get around by waterways anyway, and the few 4x4s (that can still be found) are left to rust in the backyard:

(images credit: Jeff Schnitzer)

Even that last piece of usable road is a pretty miserable stretch, by the looks of it:

(images credit: Jeff Schnitzer)

Some jungle areas are possible to navigate in a very light boat. A common type of stream in the Darien Gap may look like this:

(image credit: Student Charity)

There have also been some incredible foot crossings of the area. In 1975, Sebastian Snow and Wade Davis walked from Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina, to Costa Rica. In 1981 George Meegan walked from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska and chronicled this astounding journey in a book called "The Longest Walk".

Here are some notes from 2007 trip:

"You have to hire a boat man, who will take you while he can. Then somebody else is supposed to guide you across some dry land to the next boat owner, and so on. So you should carry lots of cash to pay to these people... "

At the time of this writing, however, travel in the area has been greatly restricted and guided tours are not being conducted, due to kidnappings and political turmoil in Colombia.

For those who still visit the area, you may meet some friendly (and cute) people -

(images credit: Mauricio Borge)

...check out the interesting clothing on this girl from the Embera tribe (not exactly sfw)

... or some not that friendly characters (this picture is of El Salvador Militia, typical of the region) -

(images credit: Mauricio Borge)

Will the road be constructed? "Will the circle be unbroken?"

Construction of a road through the Darien is a touchy subject -- the area is among the world's highest for genetic diversity, the indigenous peoples in the area oppose the construction, local farmers oppose it, and though trade between the Americas will be facilitated, there is the probability that the drug trade will flourish as well. Two thirds of the bird species here are threatened along with many other plants and animals (more info)

Building the road itself will not destroy too much of the forest but the subsequent development of the area would irreparably destroy delicate ecosystems. An alternate plan has been proposed which would bring the road to the eastern coast of Panama and connect to Colombia via a ferry, thus leaving the national preserve completely untouched.

Historically, there was an abandoned railway built by the British for the gold miners of the early 1900s across part of the Darien Gap. Rusty locomotive shells and old mining equipment can be still found lying around in the jungle:

(image credit: Diana Bradshaw)

Teeming Bio-Diversity

The bridge from North America to South America is a young geologic formation. Back when the Island of Socotra was splitting off from the horn of Africa to become the biological wonderland that it is, Central America was just barely rising up above the ocean surface. Darien has become a biological laboratory in its isolation and is a critical bridge between the species of North & South America.

Unique giant iguana species:

(image credit: David Olson)

Great plants like this Hot Lips, Psychotria and another white "not-sure-what-it-is":

(image credit: Diana Bradshaw)

Insects are weird there too: see these tree-hoppers and harversters:

(images by Artour)

Seeing all this natural beauty you might be all primed to go and check out this region for yourself. So we feel compelled to finish with a word of advice from Robert Young Pelton (whom we quoted earlier):

"The Darien Gap is an extremely dangerous place—it's probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It's used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there's no military, the trails aren't marked. Unless you have a lot of experience in Colombia, I wouldn't suggest it.

[For the most part] the jungle there is not viewed as a place that is pristine and beautiful—it's looked at as a place where you get killed... I mean, I know how you can hike the Darien now. But you have to have a group of armed men with you."

The end of the road:

(image credit: heritagefutures)

Article copyright: 2008, Avi & Rachel Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.
Read the rest of our "Most Dangerous Roads of the World" Series!



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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a sad note - Ian Hibell was killed last month in Greece.


Blogger Alejandro said...

Hello, just to clarify... North and South America are ONE continent, not two.

Take care!!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

er, well actually, not.

Blogger Alejandro said...

Thanks!! I missed that information!!

7 continents


Nice work!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the continents. There are several different views. In the US the 7 continent view is taught. In Latin America the 6 continent view (one American continent) is taught. In Russia and Japan, they teach a 6 continent view, where Europe and Asia are joined.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised this article doesn't cover illegal immigrants at all- how do they deal with this patch of jungle? Many illegals immigrants to the US come from South America, so how does this factor into their journies?

Blogger redstone said...

Are there any roads at all which links Panama to Colombia?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Are there any roads at all which links Panama to Colombia?"

Who knows? Perhaps someone should write an article called "Darien Gap: The Most Dangerous (Absence of a) Road", the entire point of which would be to point out that there is no road (at all) between Panama and Columbia.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Anon:

Most fly to Mexico

Blogger Josh Woodward said...

Cool pics! I have a song about this:


Blogger Fulbert said...

About continents. In Russia, there are two words for continents. There are 6 "materik"'s including Eurasia and 7 "kontinent"'s where Europe and Asia are separate.

Blogger Kyle said...

Traveled to the Darien in 96. Very cool place. Tons of bugs and travel was slow. There isn't to much to see there except the cool bugs, people groups, and the beautiful jungle.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helga Pendersohn a Norwegian has done the Darien Gap on a motorcycle his account can be found in his website he also has some great photos from there.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this mean that when at the end of Prison Break Season 3, when that guy DRIVES from Panama to a Colombian city somewhere they were making it up?!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you know that Scotland tried to colonise Darien in the 1690s?

The scheme failed, bankrupted Scotland and indirectly led to the act of union forming the United Kingdom.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi: I´m Colombian and I just wanted to clarify something, in the Darien Jungle, lo cated between Colombia and Panamá there are no activities of El Salvador troops, only Colombian army and guerrillas and I guess that the people from Panamá have to have some people there, but from El Salvador?...If they are there they are illegaly i guess.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A major contributing factor for why there is no road through this area is that the nations of North America want to prevent the spread of hoof and mouth disease, which is endemic in South America. So Darien is, in effect, a quarantine tool. Let's face it, if the US wanted there to be a road through Darien, there would be a road. But since it doesn't, there isn't.

Blogger Carol said...

Been there.

I was born and raised in Panama. In 1976, I went via private plane into the Darien. We landed on a very scary grass strip. Our objective was to bring medical supplies to a small mission serving the indigenous Choco indians.

The Choco were thought to be headhunters. I saw shrunken heads hanging from their huts, but that doesn't mean they ate anyone. I don't really know.

Back then, the Darien dangers were the wildlife and the "headhunters." The road supposedly couldn't be cut back then because of limited technology - the jungle grew over the slow attempts to cut through before any headway could be made. I do suspect the U.S. could cut the road if they really wanted it done, like one of your Anon comments pointed out. We don't have the same presence there anymore, so it's moot now.

Great post! Thanks for the update.

Blogger aletheiak said...

if america is one continent
then afroeurasia is another
plus oz & antarctica make 4

Blogger James Cates said...

It is Helge Pedersen. Helga is a female name. If you search for Helge Pedersen, you will find the information about the Norwegian motorcyclist and his journey.

Blogger Hodad said...

been to the end of the road, in 1984, no waves there, as someone said, if USA wanted a road, it would be done
hoof and mouth i agree is probably the main reason
I live in El Salvador, since 1994, dom not know whay those guys were in there?
and for me, Colombians are the finest folks in the world som quite dissing them and you can catch a ferry from Colon tro Barranquilla, or a small steamer from Balboa to Buenaventura, been there 3 times
just have a smile, be nice and try to speak some spanish the indigenous folks is another story
otherwise, a very cool post
see you at Bubba's next year on El Boqueron

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love the trek the Darian. Should anyone ever want to do this with another experience harsh jungle and desert environment photographer, please let me know.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaan, I'd say you'll need a full Catachan regiment as an escort to mke it safely. ;)

Blogger Half-Hearted Fanatic said...

My Peace Corps motorcycle instructor, the late great Ed Culberson rode, dragged, and carried his motorcycle through the Darien Gap and became the first person to complete the Pan American Highway on a motorcycle. He wrote a book about his adventure. Obsessions Die Hard

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Thank you Ted, - great tip about the book!

Blogger Unknown said...

That unidentified "plant" is a sort of mealy bug.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got back from the Darien a week ago. I had no problems and even made some friends.


Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Seems like you had a great trip - great video!

Blogger Nancy O said...

What a fabulous website. Well done
Check out mine of Colombia. I went to Santa Barbara north of Medelline and loved it.
Read my story about my bus ride, you'll get a kick out of it. I hope!

Blogger Ashley Pomeroy said...

The final shot, of the jeeps stuck in the jungle, was actually taken in Pohnpei, Micronesia.

Anonymous John Halkyard said...

Here's one post that seems to contradict all this.


Is this just made up?

Anonymous http://www.tourandtravelagentindia.com/ said...

hahaha I know quite a few Dutch people....I just forwarded this link to them....let's see what they're gonna respond:)

Blogger aletheia kallos said...

dutch i dont get
but the link given previously by john halkyard is indeed believed to be bogus info

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Arthur Blessett may have tramped through there, carrying a wooden cross, a number of years ago. Not sure whether it was Darien though.

Anonymous Juan said...

I think that the Darien gap should remain untouched. I know that it would be nice to be able to cross from one nice to the other, but the biodiversity of the area is more valuable to this planet than the economical benefits that this road will bring. Unfortunately;, last year the exiting president Alvaro Uribe, signed in his last day at the office an approval to build the road (talk about corruption and accountability). This is not something that you can just approve without extensive discussion and his legislative powers as president should not allow him to approve this kind of things. I hope that Colombians manage to fix this major mistake made by Uribe and his people.

Blogger Roland said...

Actually there is no standard definition for Continent. Europeans are taught that North America and South America are one continent. While Americans and Canadians are taught of 2 north and south. Scientists divide the planet by region and the UN yet a different way.
I personally sign up to the concept of one American continent. Which was the name it was originally given.

Anonymous Celine said...

WOW!!! I've been researching Panama before going there for an extended stay, stumbled on this, and am quite intrigued! Great post and photos! Thanks!

Blogger mbs said...

Here's how the world is really divided: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Plates_tect2_en.svg

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for this piece as well as the photography, and would like very much to speak with the author. Maybe it's my eyes, but I can't find the author's name. Could you please message me at theovanderkunz@yahoo.com? I am writing from the US.
All the best

Blogger Babylon Slim said...

I went through the Darien in 1976. There were three of us. We met trecking in Panama City and just decided to do it. We spent the night in La Playa hitched a ride in a piragua up to a small tinned roof, generator powered village Named? spent the night there then hitched another ride in another smaller piragua which let us out in in the village of Paya (pop. about 200) where we spent the night with the Panamanian guard who had a force of 10 men (who just happened to be being visited by 2 Colombian Guard from across the border). The next morning we hiked with the Colombian guys across the border up a hill (mountain?) but couldn’t keep up with them, So we spent the night on the Colombian side in the jungle near a waterfall and “just followed the trail” until we ended up at the Colombian’s headquarters in some nameless backwater village. Then we hopped a ride in a boat to Turbo, spent the night in a public building where there was a dead infant in a tiny casket and its family holding vigil. Then it was on to Medellin. I went to the American Consulate there to call home to let ‘em know their 19 year old son was O.K. I recall the American consulate insisting that I leave there immediately if not sooner. He filled my head with stories of how cheap life was there, he didn’t want me to get killed on his watch. He was a kook.
A week later I was staying in Huaorani village for a month. I was the first gringo they had seen. They were a trip. They blew Yopo up my nose with a blow gun, I drank a bitter psychedelic brew with them that was WAY stronger than the Orange Sunshine we got back in Georgia. The the next morning went hunting with them. That is to say I watched. I swam with fresh water dolphins that I never knew existed. They were the best people I have ever known. Ever.
I am 58 now and have wondered about the people I met along that trip, if they are still there and O.K. and if they would still be so welcoming. I had an 8mm Bolex, shot 30 or so rolls of film but it was confiscated and thrown in the water by The Colombian guard on my way back to Bogota from Cuzco. No biggy.
Too bad your generation can't just do it. A real shame that. Thank Nixon, Reagan and Bush I. Then again, maybe not.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Absolutely awesome comment and experience, thank you Philip!

Blogger Unknown said...

Here's how to get you AND your vehicle AROUND the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia. We just did it on our Trans-Americas Journey. Up to date facts, tips and process here on our travel blog http://trans-americas.com/blog/2013/07/vehicle-shipping-around-darien-gap-panama-to-colombia/

Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we checked into the hotel near the Darien Gap it was if someone was filming a porn movie next door, and it seemed to be gay porn at that. We spent the whole night listening to dudes randomly groaning, hearing comments through the walls about some dude's "wad", shouts about "ropes of spunk" and various pleas to "tongue my bag" and "I'll do your knobbie." It got so bad at one point I could hear some kind of liquid splatting on the other side of the wall of where our headboard was located. This will be the last time I book on one of those opaque hotel sites that don't list the name of the hotel until you give them your credit card number.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philip, aka babylon slim, why did you have to ruin a good story by making it political? As if any of those presidents (never mind the Dem's during the same period) had anything to do with the people of the region becoming more hostile, as was proven in your tale, it was hostile then too, you just were lucky enough to avoid it.

Blogger Angus said...

Much more interesting are the guys who ride through on horses. I spent 6 years wandering the wilds of Darien in the 80's though I never got up to Paya and the border. I was in Yaviza the evening the bulldozers arrived.

Funny that it didn't seem so crazy at the time. It seems to be a much more dangerous place now. We saw a few folks coming through on motorcycles and one car expedition attempting the crossing.

Nobody else mentioned the gold miners in the area or the orchid hunters or the fishermen at Bahia do Pinas. My understanding was that the highway was paid for by the Americans several times but corruption and lack of political sucked up the money before the highway went too far.

Anonymous irenee said...

I went in the Darien last year and did some survival there, meeting wild animals and indians. It was an amazing trip! I give a lot of info on the gap on my webpage
I invite you to take a look :)

Blogger Travels with Mitzi said...

Colombia side of the Darien Gap is still as dangerous as ever, unfortunately, though coast hopping is OK.
I have some updated info on routes and sad news of Swedish traveler who was killed by drug gangs on the Colombia side.
take care if you head this way

Blogger SittingMooseShaman said...

- as no other...because there is no other.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would Love to Go..Who with me?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding abandoning the KLR with the slipping clutch:

Two "MacGyver" approaches, NEXT TIME:

1) Shim clutch spring bolts with washers, increasing spring pressure, consequently increasing friction force of clutch disks.

2) Since you had three other KLR650s in the pack, exchange a fiber disk from each of the functioning clutches with a worn disk from the disabled bike. While the three donor bikes would experience compromised clutch friction somewhat, they'd probably still lock up; the three "good" disks implanted in the disable bike would likely restore its rideability.

Regardless, congratulations on a profound adventure!


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