The sparsely populated 17,000 square kilometres that make up Darién are one of the last great, untamed wildernesses in America. The beginning of an immense forest that continues almost unbroken across the border into the Chocó region of Colombia and down the Pacific coast to Ecuador, this was the first region on the American mainland to be settled by the Spanish. Although they extracted great wealth from gold mines deep in the forest at Cana, they were never able to establish effective control over the region, hampered by the almost impassable terrain, the fierce resistance put up by its inhabitants and European pirates and bands of cimarrones.
The Interamericana is the only road that takes the plunge and enters the region, but it goes no further than the small town of Yaviza, 276km east of Panama City. Along the border with Colombia, the Parque Nacional Darién, the largest and most important protected area in Panama, safeguards vast swathes of forest that support one of the most pristine and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, as well as a large indigenous population.
Until quite recently, the combination of drug trafficking and the decades-long Colombian civil war spilling over into Panama has made the border area utterly treacherous. The Marxist guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) have long maintained bases close to the border in Darién, but right-wing paramilitary groups backed by powerful landowners and drug traffickers have taken to pursuing them, terrorizing isolated Panamanian communities they accuse of harbouring the guerrillas. Given the security concerns affecting the border area, including parts of the national park and the Comarca Emberá–Cemaco, a visit to southwestern Darién is the safest way to experience the ecology and culture of the region independently. The two most popular routes into the area are via Yaviza and El Real to the ranger station at Rancho Frío (also called Pirre Station), or to the twin Emberá/Afro-Darienite settlement of Puerto Indio/Sambú up the Río Sambú, usually accessed via La Palma. Once in Darién, you can ask for news of recent incidents or developments.
Top image: Darien © Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock