The Darien Gap is an almost impenetrable area of mountainous jungle terrain between Panama and Colombia. It splits the PanAmerican Highway and unless you have a death wish you’re best advised to get a ferry around it. Alice Cook investigates…
The Pan-American Highway is one of the most famous roads in the world, it stretches more than 30,000 miles between Alaska and Argentina. Theoretically, the highway joins together North, Central and South America, but there’s one missing piece; the Darien Gap.
Undoubtedly the world’s most dangerous (absence of) road, the Darien Gap is a 90 mile stretch of undeveloped swampland and forest between Panama and Colombia. An all but impassable connection, not only because of the treacherous ground under wheel but down to the masses of druglords, guerrillas and kidnappers that hide out in the region.
When you look at the border between Panama and Colombia on the map, you would be forgiven in thinking that there couldn’t be a better place to hop from Central to South America, and there are many people who have attempted to find one, although half the problem lies with the multitude of different terrains.
On the Panama side, there are miles and miles of mountainous jungle to navigate, and it doesn’t get much better once you cross the gap over into Colombia; drug traffickers, gangs and anti-government groups are constantly playing out a territorial war.
Any sort of accessible road ends at Yaviza, Panama and only begins again in Turbo, Colombia, leaving winding rivers, quicksand and hillsides for you to tackle in between. If you are looking for an epic adventure and are thinking about taking a ride over the Darien Gap there are a few things that you need to take into consideration;
Once the road ends, you are going to have to juggle yourself, your luggage and your bike up near-vertical slopes, so the weight of your ride is going to be a deciding factor. What roads they do have are mostly dirt tracks, which in the wet season can mean soft ground with giant puddles, and even when it’s dry it doesn’t get much better.
Without even mentioning the fact that garages for repairs are pretty much non-existent, fuel is also the next issue as it’s a luxury out in The Gap, so you need to be well prepared and rehearsed in on-the-go mechanical repairs. You are going to need a decent bike too; tyres with excellent grip to improve your traction on the ‘roads’, enough power to help you up the banks and you, yourself are going to need to be fit enough to shift your bike up those that the engine cannot.
There are some travellers that have made it through the Darien Gap, but as you can imagine this journey is not one for egos, so huge teams and multiple vehicles have been needed to succeed. One of the very first vehicular expeditions was undertaken in 1959 in a Land Rover called ‘The Affectionate Cockroach’, taking five months and travelling at an average of 200m per hour. The first full motorcycle crossing of the gap was completed in March 1975 by Robert L. Webb. In the mid-eighties, Norwegian ABR Helge Pedersen became the first person to ride the entirety of the Pan American highway without skipping out The Gap.
The Darien Gap has also featured in the news for less impressive reasons with travellers going missing or being taken hostage by the gangs that call this area their home; in 2003 journalist Robert Young Pelton was taken hostage and held for 10 days. Looking back at his experience, Pelton said ‘The Darien Gap is probably the most dangerous place in the Western hemisphere’ and you can understand why.
The borders are patrolled by SENAFRONT, Panama’s Border Police, who have stationed multiple checkpoints where documents need to be produced and checked without fail and so it is essential that you register before you leave as travellers can be forced to turn around and head home at any moment.
But will there ever be a connection made between these two continents? A huge influx of companies harvesting the area means that slowly the forest will become smaller and one day a connecting road could be a possibility but there are many factors that can hinder the process; this foresting means that drug trade will then spread inland, the gap is also home to one of the highest regions of genetic diversity in the world and many of these people strongly oppose construction of any kind. Two-thirds of the wildlife in this wilderness is also under protection laws so building projects would have to be attempted sympathetically.
If the Darien Gap is still on your to-do list, then there are a few final tips that you need to take heed of; learning basic Spanish is going to improve your chances of a safe journey as will a decent GPS system.
But if humid conditions, isolated regions and being watched from the bushes aren’t your thing, then this journey is best read about from the comfort of your own home.