Prior to planning a journey from Panama to Colombia, I had no clue that the Darien Gap even existed.
It was not until I spotted a borderline on the map that has Central America and South America forever divided. From the map, one may deem the line between Panama and Colombia a breeze. There should be plenty of roads, cars and tour buses crossing the border area. However, this belief is not even a little bit wrong.
In reality, the 90 kilometers of absent road on the Pan-American Highway that makes up the Darien Gap is hell! It is lawless and rife with dangerous jungles, rugged mountains, swamps, gangsters, guerrillas captors, kidnappers, drug traffickers and corrupt cops. Guerrilla attacks, kidnapping and drug trafficking are daily occurrences in that region.
Robert Pelton, a contributing editor of National Geographic Adventure who was kidnapped in Darien Gap for ten days in 2003 stated:
“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.“
The Darien Gap has a History of Violence
Over the past 20 years, Darien Gap has been a hotbed for guerrilla activities. A series of violent events are but not limited to:
- In 1993, three Americans missionaries were kidnapped in the Darien Gap and were later killed.
- In 1996, the town of Boca de Cupe, 20 miles from the Colombian border, was attacked by twenty armed men and women. During the attack, an owner of a local store was kidnapped. The following year Colombia guerrilla force raided that town again. They took money, weapons, supplies and burned the police station to the ground.
- As of the year 2000, two British adventure seekers, Paul Winders and Tom Hart Dyke, as well as their local guide were kidnapped in the Darien Gap while searching for the wild orchids. Paul and Tom were held hostage for 9 months. After the outrageous ransom request of $3 million was met, Paul and Tom were released into the Darien jungle. Suffering from their long-term ordeal in the Darien jungle, the British duo was physically and emotionally exhausted, and they still have no idea to date what happened to their guide.
- In 2003, National Geographic contributor Robert Pelton and two other travelers were abducted in the Darien Gap. Ten days later they were set free in Colombia.
- In 2009, the governor of Caquetá was kidnapped in the Darien Gap and was murdered later on.
According to National Geographic writer Jaime Morgan, in 2013 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia finally announced they will no longer hold civilians hostage for ransom, but they have not agreed to stop kidnapping people for political purposes.
Options for Crossing the Darien Gap
Now that you are informed on how lethal the Darien Gap can be, below will provide fellow travelers with information and tactics on how to cross the Darien Gap.
Crossing By Land
As aforementioned, crossing the Darien Gap overland could be less risky nowadays than two years ago as the Colombia side no longer holds travelers hostage for money. However, the risk still exists for two reasons. First of all, the hostage events could still be ongoing due to political purposes. Secondly, even if you are a professional jungle survivor, you will not be able to cross the “security line” designed by the Panamanian police.
If you attempt to trek through the region from the Panama side, the Panamanian police will not allow you to travel beyond Yaviza or El Real. Even if you successfully venture out to the Darien Gap, once you arrive at Boca de Cupe, you will be kicked out of town by the Panamanian police for sure. So I highly advise against land crossings due to the unsettled nature of the region.
Crossing By Air
Although the airfare may not be cheap, this is obviously the safest option. Avianca and Copa Airlines take voyagers traveling from Panama to Colombia. This alternative may sounds boring for most adventurers, but there is no excuse for passing up a flight on an overland trip when safety is a top concern. Be sure to purchase your carry-on space online in advance to avoid paying double at the airport.
Crossing By Boat
If one lacks of interest in air crossing, then sailing is the only option to skip the peril of the Darien Gap. Sailing from Panama to Cartagena is never easy. The entire journey takes four to five days, is difficult to organize and information is short. Additionally, it is open-sea sailing, and passengers may face unbelievable sea sickness. However, for those determined to not fly, hopping on a yacht boat is their best choice.
Recommended Yacht Crossing Options
There are several yacht boats that traverse the infamous Darien Gap. Among them: Yacht Independence and Sailing Koala.
Tips for Sailing Across the Darien Gap
- Choose your yacht carefully; getting extorted from the captain is the last thing passengers expect to happen on the sea.
- Most routes are designed for an open sea crossing. According to Global Boat Community, the open sea sail through Cartagena is ranked as one of the toughest sailing routes on the planet. Please educate yourself of what you’ll be getting into, and then relax and enjoy the journey.
- Examine the boat carefully before setting out on the journey. Make sure you are comfortable with the condition, rules, environment and most importantly, the people, on the yacht.
- Bring enough cash as this may be the only acceptable method of payment.
- Do not expect the boat to leave or arrive on schedule. As the sailing conditions are harsh, do tolerate delays, cancellations and changes.