The common thread connecting most of these information sources, is that often the authors have never spent any time in the region. Beyond these continually repeated warnings, much of the confusion and fear stems from the lack of distinction between a traveler's plan to “visit”, to “travel through”, or “to cross” the Darien Gap. These three goals cannot be collectively assessed and labeled by one universal and short judgment – “Safe” or “Dangerous.”
What are the stated dangers?
a) The jungle itself:
This is like saying that downtown Toronto, an alpine meadow, or a hike in a national park is dangerous. It is true, and it is false. The geography or natural life isn’t actually the problem, but rather it is a traveler’s ignorance concerning conditions and precautions that causes most disasters. There are plants, snakes, jaguars, caimans, and other situations to avoid in Darien’s jungle, but families have raised their children and have enjoyed life in this region for thousands of years. The jungle is a rich provider for those who are familiar with it, and the scene of disasters for those who go unprepared and without due respect for the land and people.
During the 500 years, Darien has been the site of many of these avoidable catastrophes. The failed American Navy expedition is one of those. A group of 27 men searching for a possible canal route wandered lost and starving for almost three months in Darien’s relatively tiny jungle. Six of the men eventually died before a rescue team arrived, and many of the remaining men never fully recovered from the hardships and horror. At the exact same time, a British surveyor following Kuna guides comfortably walked across the American expedition’s intended route in less than four days. A very different experience thanks to local knowledge and support.
This pattern has repeated itself time and time again in Darien - from the time of the conquistador Balboa, to French and British pirates, and on into the present day. Those that travel with local advice or guides, tend to do very well. Those individuals who ignore local knowledge normally do very poorly indeed. During the year and a half that I spent living and traveling in Darien while collecting material for my book, the same pattern applied. My worst moments (swamping my dugout alone on a jungle river in the dark; falling apart from fear while trapped in a mangrove swamp at night, etc) occurred while I was striking out “fearlessly” on my own. My best travel – and the times that I truly was able to learn something and absorb the experience – took place while walking with local indigenous people, or at least following their advice.
I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t choose to strike out on your own when it feels right – just be aware of the likelihood of success and disaster. Some adventurous travelers, Karl Bushby for instance, have made incredibly courageous and successful solo trips through and across Darien. Others have fallen far short – sometimes dying in the process.
b) Colombian Guerrillas, Narco-Traffickers, and those so-called Maleantes (bad people):
This is likely the most-often cited danger in the Darien Gap. And it is true that all of these elements are present and active in some parts and for periods of time in the region. That said, unless you are making an attempt to cross over the Colombian border through the forests and mountains (as opposed by boat on either coast), the risk of encountering violence in this way would most likely come from maleantes – people who decide that you look like easy money; people who are willing to use force to take whatever they want from you. Many of these same characters might also be connected with the drug trade. It is amazing to see the number of incredibly expensive outboard motors (100 hp and larger) on the back of new boats in parts of Darien. This money wasn’t earned by stretching a shrimp net across mangrove channels.
Attacks and kidnappings by Colombian Guerillas or Paramilitary groups have occurred a number of times in various parts of Darien (New Tribes Missionaries from Pucuro village -3 people killed; Robert Pelton and his two companions were released unharmed, however four Kuna elders were brutally beaten and killed; A number of Panamanian small-business owners have been kidnapped for ransom – some of them have never been returned, etc,). While a decade or longer can pass without any similar incident, the consequences of being taken can be fatal and tragic – not only for you, but for your family who will be forced to sell everything they own to respond to the demands and threats.
During the year and a half I spent traveling by sailboat and cargo boat, and by foot and dugout canoe, I worried constantly about this risk. At one point, a Colombian living in La Palma urged me to stop my travels upriver. He put me into contact with his friend Alex in Meteti (see “The Hostage,” to be posted in the next few weeks) who in turn made me realize that there really isn’t any fully “safe” zone in Darien. That said, my “fears” weren’t the type to stop me from going where I wanted to go, but they were always there in the background. Only in a few rare moments did they rise up to cripple me, turning me into an inconsolable ball of tears. Fear can be an overwhelming force.
My personal decision to stay in the region, and to travel upriver into areas around the Colombian border, was done to gather the stories and voices that I felt I needed to write my book and tell Darien’s story well. Responding to advice from a few locals and other experienced Darien researchers, I adopted a few simple tactics that might or might not have helped keep me from trouble:
- Interact with locals. Don’t try to isolate yourself when you are in a village. You will meet good and bad this way, but for the large part you will find that locals try to steer you away from trouble. They don’t want you to get hurt, or worse.
-Share your exact travel plans with only those people who need to know (almost a contradiction of the first point). It appears that most kidnappings need to be organized on various levels, with a local person contacting someone else, who passes it on to another group for approval and action. This takes time, so it is likely best to not be so explicit with your travel itinerary.
- Consider moving and visiting a number of places, rather than staying in just one village for many weeks or months (related to the reasons listed in the previous point.)
- Don’t show off money or take along flashy or expensive items that are bound to attract the attention of those who are looking for an easy score.
- Trust your instincts. You don’t have to keep up a constant guard against everyone you meet, but try to keep your eyes open. I know that some recent books have discounted our ability to accurately perceive any real truth in this manner. Still, I have seen dogs squirm and cry when encountering a new individual who meant them harm – it is that sort of instinct that I believe we can sometimes count on.
So there is no clear and easy answer to the original question – Dangerous or Safe? Conditions might change month by month, and year by year.
As I stated in an earlier posting, I think that there is room for a good and worthwhile visit to Darien. I would suggest that you take your time, whether you travel by foot or cargo boat, or any other means. Travel “through Darien” and make some connections with the land and people rather than attempting a reckless overland crossing between Panama and Colombia. In the latter journey (“a crossing”) you might gain a notch on your belt, but mostly you will come away with stories of how to hide, and perhaps a trail of bodies after your journey endangers those who help you on your way. In the former journey style (“through Darien”), you will likely come away understanding a great deal more about an amazing pocket of stubborn jungle and the people and struggles that inhabit the region. You’ll be a richer traveler for the experience you gain.