Environment

At the Darién Gap, the Pan-American Highway's 30,000 mile journey is interrupted by 100 miles of barely tamable jungle

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A motor panga (fishing boat) en route to Punta Patiño, a wildlife reserve in the Darién Gap.
A motor panga (fishing boat) en route to Punta Patiño, a wildlife reserve in the Darién Gap.
Credit:

Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

The idea of "uncharted territory" might seem like something out of a history textbook to most people, but a remote region of Central America could easily be called just that.

“The Darién Gap is one of the places in the Americas that has the most intrigue," says travel writer Carolyn McCarthy. "It’s known as a 'no man’s land' because there are no roads in the interior. It’s just this vast expanse of virgin tropical jungle that has mind boggling biodiversity."

When Lonely Planet asked McCarthy to travel to the Darién Gap, she didn't hesitate for a moment.

Geographically speaking, the Darién Gap straddles the border of Panama and Colombia. The area is a break of approximately 100 miles in the Pan-American Highway, which traverses a total of 30,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina — the southernmost city in the world.

“You’re looking at this road that covers all of the Americas, but this is the one spot that the road could not penetrate because of swamps and crazy conditions,” she says.

It's a unique environment, she says, to see up close. "If you ever want to glimpse a jaguar, or a Harpy eagle or a tapir — but hopefully not too close to your camp" this is the place.

Over the years, McCarthy says local engineers and Panamanian politicians have considered building a road system across the gap. But it would be a massive undertaking that would potentially require draining a series of vast swamp areas. In addition to the environmental impact of building such an infrastructure, McCarthy says there are other downsides to consider.

“Would a road be more detrimental than beneficial?" she asks. "You’re looking at its effect on indigenous communities, on drug trafficking. So there’s definitely an issue there in terms of what the trade-offs are for a road versus no road.” 

For now, most travellers are forced to go around the gap by boarding cargo boats and car ferries.

McCarthy says the highlights of her trip to the Darién Gap include a visit to the rainforest jungles of the Parque Nacional Darién, Panama's largest national park. 

“It’s unbelievable in this day and age to go to a place where you feel so small and so vulnerable," she says.

Also noteworthy was an river excursion to a remote interior village. “It was really interesting to see how people lived. The local Eberá-Wounaan tribes and Kuna people are there. I stayed with a family in a thatched hut. People paint themselves with Tagua juice with decorative designs that also works as a mosquito repellent. It’s such an interesting life. They’re incredible weavers, very hospitable. They’re living in a way that we can only imagine, in ages past, the world was like.”

The area is so remote that its villages are only accessible by boat, then through a series of canoes across smaller and smaller rivers.

McCarthy says the feeling of being in such an isolated, untouched part of the world is remarkable.

“I mean this is the heart of darkness kind of experience," she says. "I think that’s what makes it so special, that there are some places that the modern world hasn’t penetrated — yet."

  • Huts in a small village located in Panama's Darien Gap.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • Bananas will be sent downstream to a market, where they will fetch a low price.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • Embera children living on the Sambu River play a game of soccer.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • Embera children of the Darien Gap pound rice.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • Carolyn McCarthy gets painted with tagua juice, which is used decoratively and as an insect repellent.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • A boat on the Sambu River dugout.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

  • The roseate spoonbill at Darién National Park in Panama.
    Credit:

    Courtesy of Carolyn McCarthy

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