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The Darién Gap: Blow-darts, Guerrillas, and a Mother's Worst Nightmare

It seems so simple. You have North America, and you have South America. And in between, connecting the two, there's Central America, right? So why on earth are we still in Panama City?

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The city of Yaviza (in the Darién Gap)
The Pan-American Highway runs 30,600 km from Alaska to Chile, completely unbroken, except for...THE DARIÉN GAP (insert ominous music here). This 150-kilometer gap is the American "heart of darkness," an adventurers dream, an adventurer's mother's biggest fear.

Don't worry, Mom, I'm not going.

Of course, I could get on the ten-hour bus ride from Panama City to Yaviza, in the middle of the Darién Province. This first section of the Darién isn't wild - it's devastated. Twenty years ago, that part of the road was forged by loggers who entered the virgin Darién rainforest and clear-cut the ancient hardwood stands as far as the eye could see. Settlers and ranchers followed the loggers. With the trees cleared, a match was all that they needed to turn the land into fertile field. However, the first rains washed the topsoil away, revealing nutrient deficient soil that could not support crops, only hardy grasses. So now, within twenty years of the road being built, the complex rainforest ecosystem that had evolved there for millions of years is gone, replaced by cow pasture.

At Yaviza the road ends. From there, the loggers cannot pass, and the main form of travel through the dense jungle is up rivers on dug out canoes called piraguas, made by the Embera and Wounaan indians who populate the Darién National Park. These two tribes, known also as the Chocóes (because they emigrated here from the Chocó region of Columbia), are known not only for their woodcarving, basket-weaving, and boats, but also for the "boroquera." A "boroquera" is a blowgun used to shoot darts poisoned with toxins from frogs and bullet ants that live in the rainforest (are you picturing "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark"?). These weapons enabled the indians to conquer at least one Spanish settlement in the 1500's.

You won't find a McDonalds here.

But we could go on. Boats will take travelers up rivers, and guides will take you from little village to little village. Travelers are basically at the mercy of the Chocóes, and the travel doesn't come cheap. Forty dollars gets you up the river to the next town, guides must be hired from there, and more boats hired as well. After a few days and a few hundred dollars, we would have reached Cana, the most isolated place in Panama, and the heart of the lush Darièn National Park. Picture us among small traditional indigenous villages, hacking with our machetes through dense jungle, seeing gorgeous tropical birds and animals. We would be carefully avoiding the fierce fer-de-lance, a very deadly snake, and praying that rain would not bring high rivers and mudslides. Sound like fun?

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Abeja imagines trekking through the Darién
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For us, Cana would be the end of the line. Any closer to the boarder, or away from Cana to the east or west, brings you into wild lands controlled by paramilitaries and rebel groups, drug traffickers, and guerrillas, mostly from Columbia, such as the famous FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). This is a war zone where the Panamanian border-police patrol only from the air, armed with AK-47s. Travel through there has been getting worse year after year. Guides will no longer take anyone through, and gringo adventurers often disappear when they try to cross. U.S. citizens are a particularly nice prize.

It's not that the Darién has never been crossed. It has been hiked, biked, motorcycled and even, once, driven across (a team of six men and two women took almost five months to build wooden bridges, hack, push, and pull a jeep and a land-rover through in 1960). In recent years, the war on drugs and guerrilla activity has made it much more dangerous. I haven't met anyone here who has tried it, or anyone willing to guide a trip through.

Despite all that, tourism is actually quite big in certain areas of the Darién, especially for fishing and bird-watching. Everyone pretty much flies in, stays in the tourist area, and then flies out.

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Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru
I know you're thinking, "Why don't they just build a road?" You're not the first person to ask that question. Many times, the Columbian and Panamanian governments have announced plans to "close the Darién Gap" with a road estimated to cost US $300 million. It would run through the Darién National Park on the Panamanian side and Los Katos National Park on the Columbian side. For many years, the Panamanian government dragged its feet, fearing that the "hoof-and-mouth" disease that afflicted South American cattle would spread into Panama. Now, the disease has officially been eradicated in Columbia, and plans are back on the table. An environmental impact statement is being prepared. Nevertheless, is not expected to stop the road from being built, despite the horrible precedent set in the Northern Darién.

The road, which it now expected to begin being built in 2001, will certainly lead to logging and farming, and threatens the traditional cultures of the Emberá and Wounaan tribes. Even though I can't go to the Darién now - since I need to get to Peru and write for you - I vow to return (sorry mom) with time and money, to know this wild place before the road comes, and the mystery is lost.

Abeja
 

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