Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama


Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
[contextly_main_module]

Support us on Patreon





9 comments on “Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

  1. Fascinating post. The old trees are amazing. Are the poison dart frogs a problem. Will they bite your toes when you are in the shower? I imagine that if they had bitten you, you would not be writing this post.

  2. Hi,

    Awesome images and photos. Quite an experience with the poison dart frogs in your shower. Crazy!

    I thought of a beloved pet parrot I had as a kid, she was a Mealy Amazon that was almost a dead ringer for those 2 above, which are a slightly different Amazon species. She was named Pickles, and whenever we vacuumed she took a bath in her water probably because she believed the loud noise was a thunderstorm.

    Amazing jungle living. I recall avoiding the fer de lance when we visited Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica but a tourist nearly lost his life after being bitten by 1 a few months before in the area.

    They are one of the few snakes that stands their ground when you see them, as most slither to avoid confrontation. Not these guys. They really do mean business in a serious, serious way.

    Thanks so much for sharing. We’re likely doing Central America next year so this read was super helpful for the Panama portion of our trip.

    Tweeting soon.

    Ryan
    Ryan Biddulph recently posted..10 Monetization Tips for Travel BloggersMy Profile

  3. What a great article. i have been to Panama a few times and loved it. I did go to see the Embera on a long boat. We took a mini trek in the jungle. It was incredibly humid. I was told by my scout that the “barrel” trees (Cuipo) have water in them and can be used for survival , if necessary. It was truly amazing to see various fauna and the guide picked up the molt of tarantula, which was a bit scary. I got a picture of a Harpy eagle , which was incredible. I love Panama and last time went to the San Blas Islands , which should be on everyone’s bucket list. Definitely worth the trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge