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
Artesanía and seafood: riches of Darién
Darién’s Golfo de San Miguel, where the flow of jungle rivers meets the abundant Pacific Ocean, is a nutrient-rich, predator-safe environment in which seafood flourishes. Calamari, giant shrimp, sea bass, snapper, black conch, oysters and lobsters are only a few of the marine treats you’ll find in many a fisherman’s catch – though sadly they don’t often make it into the region’s restaurants.
The other speciality of the region is the artesanía made by the Wounaan and Emberá communities: weavings of delicately intricate baskets, plates and masks are made with dyed and natural grasses to create stunning works of art; incredibly intricate carvings are also fashioned out of tagua (vegetable ivory) or cocobolo wood. You can visit indigenous communities, meet the artists and directly support the communities by buying local pieces. Many of the finer items, often sold to exclusive shops in Panama City, where the prices are hiked, take several months to create.
Into Colombia: The Darién Gap
The Darién Gap is a band of dense and entirely untamed rainforest, 100km or so in length, that keeps the northern strand of the Interamericana (Panamerican Highway) from joining up with the southern strand. Crossing the Gap was, for many years, one of the most celebrated adventures in Latin America. However, for some years its undertaking has been banned by the Panamanian authorities while travellers who have ignored this ruling have disappeared or been killed attempting the trip. It’s also worth remembering that there is a war raging across the border in Colombia.
Currently the Panamanian authorities do not allow civilians to travel east of Boca de Cupé. The two ways to travel to Colombia are via Guna Yala and along the Caribbean coast, or along the Pacific coast, by catching a ride in one of the commercial boats that leaves Panama City or La Palma for Jaqué, and then from there to Colombia. This latter route is not recommended as boats are very infrequent, and will be extremely basic, may lack sufficient life-jackets, or may not be robust enough for the sea when rough.
LA PALMA’s spectacular setting, overlooking the broad mouth of the Río Tuira, surrounded by densely forested mountains and with ruined colonial forts for neighbours, makes it a worthy capital of Darién Province, however small. Brightly painted houses are cake-layered down a steep slope to the waterfront and the town’s only street, a narrow strip of concrete. The rubbish that clings to the pilings by the water’s edge makes the place less scenic than it might be, and there’s not a whole lot to do other than soak in the views before moving on.
Although you can easily work out how much transport to La Palma will cost, it’s far less easy to estimate what any onward travel is likely to set you back – it will be by boat, and the price of fuel is steadily rising and even scheduled departures are erratic. The opportunities to come into contact with indigenous communities are greater in the Sambú area, but getting there from here can be expensive if there’s no scheduled transport or you can’t find enough travel companions to keep the cost down. While you’re here, check in with the police who can update you on any developments or incidents in the region.
Parque Nacional Darién
Covering almost 5800 square kilometres of pristine rainforest along the border with Colombia, PARQUE NACIONAL DARIÉN is possibly the most biologically diverse region on earth – more than five hundred bird species have been reported here. Inhabited by scattered indigenous communities, the park contains the largest expanse of forest in Central America that has not been affected by logging and provides a home for countless rare and endangered species, including jaguars, harpy eagles and several types of macaw. Parts of the park are safe to visit, but the security situation can change rapidly so phone ahead to the park office in Yaviza to confirm safe entry points into the park.
Kitting yourself out in Darién
Whether you visit Darién with a tour operator or on your own, you should pack wisely.
You will need trousers and long-sleeved shirts, partly to keep the huge variety of insect life at bay, but also because it can get quite cool during the night. Do not take or wear anything that resembles army fatigues or has a camouflage pattern.
You’ll be able to pick up basic provisions (including bottled water), but it is advisable to pack a small supply of food even so, plus a ration of bottled water, and water-purifying tablets. If you’re sleeping on a floor in a village you will need something to sleep on, in or under, and a mosquito net. Bring a cover for your pack for boat travel and damp conditions. Binoculars will greatly enhance your chance of appreciating the area’s abundant birdlife.
You should start taking anti-malaria medication well before you arrive. Note that chloroquine is not sufficient in Darién – check the exact requirements with your doctor before your trip. Also ensure you have insect repellent and anti-histamine cream, to sooth your bites.
There are only two banks in the region, both with ATMs: at Metetí and La Palma. It’s a good idea to bring a large stash of US$1 bills.
The small riverine town of SAMBÚ, the most developed settlement for many kilometres around in this part of the jungle, is the best place to base yourself for affordable exploration in Darién. Although there’s little to do in the town itself, a day spent among the locals lends valuable insight into the simple and tough livelihoods of those inhabiting this culturally diverse and isolated community. Moreover, the boat trip up the sinuous Río Sambú is a thrill in itself.
Exploring the area around Sambú is most rewarding if you are flexible about where you want to go. Activities range from day-trips hiking in the surrounding rainforest, or fishing and birdwatching on the river, to overnight stays in Emberá communities such as Villa Queresia – or, when water levels are high enough, remote Pavarandó, a village marking the last navigable point of the Río Sambú. Your accommodation may be able to fix you up with a guide, and you can organize a guide via the tourism committee in Puerto Indio if you want to explore the comarca itself.
The settling of New Edinburgh
In the late 1600s, the Scots gambled half the country’s wealth on a colony in Darién in the hopes of transforming Scotland into a trading power to rival England. A fleet of five ships and 1200 men set sail in July 1698 and, arriving in the Caribbean, attempted to trade goods and restock the ships, though their wigs, shoes, stockings, thick cloth and Bibles found few takers in the tropics. The fleet finally anchored in Caledonia Bay, and for five months the Scots worked hard to build New Edinburgh, hindered by low rations and disease. The only help they received came from the local Guna. When, after ten months, the promised supply ships failed to materialize, the Scots set sail for home. Only one ship, the Caledonia, made it back to Scotland. Refusing to believe the rumours that the colony had been abandoned, the company directors had already sent a second fleet of four ships, as poorly equipped as the first, but shortly after their arrival in Panama in 1700, they drew the attention of the Spanish based in Portobelo. Small battles soon broke out – with the Guna lending their military muscle to the Scots – but within six months the Scots finally surrendered to the Spanish. They were allowed to evacuate with full military honours, but none of the ships made it back home. The venture crippled Scotland financially, leaving the kingdom at the mercy of rival England. Several years later, in 1707, England agreed to compensate all those who had subscribed to the venture in return for the creation of a joint kingdom of England and Scotland.
The Darién Highway
East of Panama City the DARIÉN HIGHWAY (the Interamericana) is now paved all the way to Yaviza, though lack of maintenance and heavy rainfall at certain times of year mean that you’re bound to experience some bumpy patches along the way. Just before the large reservoir that is Laguna Bayano, the highway passes through the quiet village of El Llano, where a side road leads up towards Guna Yala. From the lake the highway rolls on for 196km through a desolate, deforested landscape, passing Emberá-Wounaan hamlets, with their characteristic open-walled houses raised on stilts, and half-hearted roadside settlements. The highway ends on the banks of the Río Chucunaque at Yaviza, the start of the Darién Gap, though most buses only go as far as Metetí.
The people of Darién
Darién’s population is made up of three main groups: black, indigenous and colonist.
Other than a few Guna communities, the indigenous population of Darién is composed of two closely related but distinct peoples, the Wounaan and the more numerous Emberá, both semi-nomadic South American rainforest societies. Recognizable by the black geometric designs with which they traditionally decorate their bodies, the Emberá-Wounaan, as they are collectively known, have been migrating across the border from Colombia for the past two centuries. Only since the 1960s have they begun to settle in permanent villages and establish official recognition of their territorial rights in the form of a comarca, divided into two districts: the Comarca Emberá Cemaco, in the north, and the Comarca Emberá Sambú, in the southwest.
The black people of Darién, descended from cimarrones and released slaves, are known as Darienitas or libres (the free) and are culturally distinct from the Afro-Antillano populations of Colón and Panama City.
The colonists (colonos), meanwhile, are the most recent arrivals, poor mestizo peasants forced to look for new land to cultivate after having degraded their own lands in the central Panamanian provinces of the Azuero Peninsula through overgrazing cattle. Many colonists still wear their distinctive straw sombreros as a badge of identity and maintain the folk traditions of the regions they abandoned. The construction and subsequent improvement of the Darién Highway has facilitated the colonists’ access to new land, which has inevitably brought them into conflict with the indigenous populations, as some make illegal encroachments into indigenous territory.