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.
Plenty to see in the largest national park in Central America
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) and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park whcih is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest national park in Central America.
On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50 mile (80 km) 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 which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two adjoining parks are 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 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.
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
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 crisscross 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, and toucans right from our patio.
The Darién’s complicated capital
The next day, shortly after daybreak, 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.
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.
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.
Meeting the Embera of the Darién
After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trailhead 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.
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 serenaded us on our journey.
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.
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 6 foot (2 meter) boa constrictor in the canopy overhead. 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.
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