Spanning the border of Colombia and Panama is a 10,000-square-mile (25,900-square-kilometer) swath of roadless jungle called the Darién Gap. Only muddy footpaths guide travelers through this mountainous region covered with vast cloud forests, mangrove swamps, raging rivers and densely packed old-growth jungle.
For anyone with a passport and money looking to get from South America to Central or North America, the best decision is to bypass the Darién Gap altogether. Go over by plane or around by sea or else risk being kidnapped by guerillas, robbed by bandits or suffering slow painful death by snakebite from one of the world's most venomous snakes.
But for the 91,000 migrants who have passed through the Darién Gap so far in 2021, over and around aren't options because of Panama's closed border policy. For desperate migrants, the only way to get from one side of the Darién to the other is to go through.
What Is the Darién Gap?
The isolated tropical jungle is one of the largest areas of old-growth forest in Latin America. It also happens to be the only break in the Pan American Highway, a 30,000-mile system of highways that runs all the way from Argentina to Alaska. Darién National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is thought to be as diverse in its flora and fauna as the Amazon with many endemic plants and animals found only in the Darién.
There you'll find sandy beaches, rocky shores and mangroves along the coast, plus numerous wetlands, rivers and creeks, and the largest lowland rainforest on Central America's Pacific coast. It's also home to capybaras, jaguars, howler monkeys, American crocodiles, venomous snakes and frogs, as well as two Indian tribes.
Though the Darién Gap is rich in biodiversity, its difficult terrain means it's not well-studied. Sofía Rodriguez is an integrative biologist who studied frogs in the Darién Gap in 2015. She was curious if a fungus, called chytrid that was infecting frogs in South America, had made it to frogs in the gap.
She found it hard to plan a trip because there was so little information about the region. "You have this chunk of forest that's not that well-studied," she says. "We're learning more about the Darién Gap by going farther in and talking to people, but it's hard to find information on how to get there."
Snakes, Guerillas and Bandits, Oh My!
Being a human in this hot, wet jungle is inhospitable, to say the least. Without preparation or protection, you could succumb to any of the many dangers of the Darién Gap including fatal pit viper bites, starvation, injury, drowning or attacks by bandits or guerillas.
"The Darién Gap is one of the wettest places in the world, and when it rains it means that a calm river can turn into a raging river very quickly," says Nadja Drost, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist who did a PBS series on migrant travel in the Darién Gap.
Sometimes migrants must cross rivers 15 times a day, and many have drowned. "If they make camp by a riverbank, and overnight the river level rises, it often sweeps migrants away while they're still wrapped up tents," Drost says.
Even a normally nonfatal injury like a sprained ankle can mean a death sentence to travelers. If this happens, which is often down the slippery slopes of the gap, says Drost, "You can't keep up with your group, you fall behind, or you run out of food and you have to somehow make it out of there by yourself. A lot of people don't; they end up immobilized and starving to death."
Many migrants or travelers aren't prepared for the journey. There isn't a lot of information available as to how long the journey will take, what supplies you need or how to get through safely. Sometimes, paid guides abandon groups a quarter of the way into the jungle. Migrants walk in circles until they escape or starve. Even if they do bring food, tents or money, it's likely bandits will take everything before they leave.
Being a woman has even more risks, too, warns Drost. "Right now, a woman going through the Darién Gap has a very high chance of being sexually assaulted or raped."
When it comes to traveling the gap, you're lucky to get out alive.
Even tourists and researchers have been killed or kidnapped. Orchid-hunter Tom Hart Dyke and his traveling partner Paul Winder were kidnapped in 2000 in the Darien Gap and held hostage for nine months by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) guerillas, only to be suddenly released. In 2013, FARC rebels killed 26-year-old Jan Philip Braunisch, a Swedish tourist they suspected of being a spy.
Many aren't aware of — or ignore — the dangers at first, including Rodriguez. She says she remembers walking trails at night in Darién National Park looking for frogs. When Park Rangers found out, they insisted she travel with a machete.
"They told me, 'You have to take it!' and I didn't understand why, I'm just on the trail. I'm thinking my machete is to cut through the forest if I need to, but I didn't leave the trails," she remembers. But they explained that there were guerillas close by, and they were watching her moves closely. "Then I understood that I need to be armed, to have something to defend myself with. Though nothing happened to me while I was there, I started learning more of the dynamics of the groups inside of the Darién."
A Conflicted History
Since the 1990s groups including FARC guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries have found cover in the Darién Gap. Because it straddles the border of Colombia and Panama, it's relatively void of government influence. That makes it the perfect place for drug and weapon traffickers to operate unseen, but groups have often fought each other and attacked unwelcome guests.
After a 2016 peace deal with Colombia, the FARC left the Darién a year later. The paramilitary dissolved in the mid-2000s, but its units turned into drug-trafficking groups. The largest of which, called Urabeños, controls much of the Darién Gap. The channels created by the Urabeños are important routes for trafficking migrants from Haiti, Columbia, Africa and the Middle East seeking passage to Central and North America.
So, Why Not Just Drive?
Talks about putting a road through the Darién Gap to connect the Pan-American Highway have come up now and then, but the cost of building a passable road would be incredibly expensive and devastating to the ecology. "I hope nobody thinks about building a road through the Darién," says Rodriguez. "It needs to be kept as it is — better than it is."
Despite the lack of roads, adventurers have tried to travel the length of the Pan American Highway in vehicles, including the Darién Gap. In the 1960s and '70s expeditions took weeks or months.
Steep slopes, impassable rivers and dense forest damaged the vehicles regularly. To get the cars over rivers, expeditions had to build rafts and bridges by hand. Though the trips were ultimately successful, the travelers rarely managed to go more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) per day and suffered malaria, dysentery and heat exhaustion.
The Darién Gap: A Hub of Human Crises
What would make anyone so desperate to cross the Darién Gap? The reasons that migrants choose to cross have changed over the years, says Drost. "It's really unlikely that in the middle of this isolated jungle, it's actually one of the best places to learn about what's going wrong around the world and what's pushing people out of their countries."
For some, it's war and conflict, others it's devastating poverty and the hope of a better life for their families. For researchers like Rodriguez, however, the Darién Gap is a rare and astounding example of untouched ecosystems that have a lot left to teach us about biodiversity — if only we could get inside without being killed.