For all but the craziest among us (more on them later), driving through the Darién Jungle overland is not within the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to the end of the road in the Darién and visit a town called Yaviza where the pavement of the Pan-American Highway stops and ass-whupping jungle begins.
The only break in the Pan-American Highway
The Darién Jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, covers 10,000 square miles (26,000 square km) just on the Panamanian side. The region’s dense vegetation and marshy expanses create the only break in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs around 16,000 miles (25,750 km) from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina along the length of the Americas.
The 60 mile (96 km) break in the action caused by the Darién Jungle is called the Darién Gap and it’s a pain in the ass for overland travelers like us who aren’t certifiably insane and, therefore, are forced to ship our vehicles around the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia rather than driving through the jungle.
Oh, sure. Some crazies have attempted to drive through the Darién Jungle. A handful have even made it starting with the Trans-Darién Expedition in 1960 during which a husband and wife team spent five months hacking a “road” through the Darién Jungle and averaging about 600 feet (200 meters) per hour. Good times.
It was 12 more years before another team made it through the Darién Jungle, but just barely. Back axles on Range Rovers driven by members of the British Trans-Americas Expedition broke and new parts had to be air dropped in. Clothing rotted on their bodies from the humidity. About half the team suffered serious injury and illness.
In 1975 some dudes on Rokon motorcycles tried four times before getting through the Darién Jungle overland. In 2015 a fresh crew of crazies plans to attempt to drive through the Darién Jungle and for US$4,400 you can join them. Send a postcard.
Mother Nature’s border
“Why don’t they just close the Darién Gap by connecting the highway through the Darién Jungle?” you may wonder. First of all, building a road through a jungle is never easy. Think about it. Then consider the fact that the remote Darién Jungle has proven to be a good hideout for all kinds of bad guys who have moved in over the years and they don’t take too kindly to bulldozers and work crews getting in the way of their lucrative, totally illegal business. So, if the snakes don’t get you the narco traffickers and FARC guerrillas will.
There are also political reasons why the Darién Jungle remains a vast, road less expanse: it’s Mother Nature’s border and a really excellent buffer zone between Central America and South America. In the early 2000’s Alvaro Uribe, then President of Colombia, proposed a road through the Darién Jungle to complete the Pan-Am and make trade between nations easier. That idea obviously never got off the ground and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s never a road through the Darién.
Drive to the end of the road in the Darién
We were in Darién Provence at the end of four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle with Panama Exotic Adventures. Rather than return immediately to Panama City, we decided to drive to the end of the road in the Darién.
The road continues until you reach a town called Yaviza, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. It’s not the predictably lousy quality of the road that makes this little drive hard, it’s the hoops you have to jump through to get there.
As we mentioned before, the Darién Jungle has become something of a hot spot for illicit activity. Therefore, Panamanian officials are anxious to keep tabs (as best they can) on who goes into the region. This means that everyone, including day tripping tourists, have to follow the rules and regulations of Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (Senafront), Panama’s border police.
Senafront officers control access to the Darién region with multiple checkpoints along the Pan-American Highway. At these stops, everyone’s documents are checked and rechecked. At any point a traveler may be turned back.
Luckily, we weren’t turned back though we did have to sweet talk our way past some officials especially when we wanted to park the truck and walk around Yaviza on foot. For some reason officials were worried that we were going to abandon our truck and wander off into the Darién.
Not that there was much to see in Yaviza where reportedly less than 2,000 people live, but, hey it’s the end of the road.
A new way to stay in the Darién
It’s not exactly a hotel boom, but it is worth noting that in 2014 the folks behind Canopy Tower and two other hotels in Panama opened Canopy Camp in the Darién Jungle offering luxury safari tents from South Africa and some of the best bird watching in the country.
Here’s more about travel in Panama