Monday, November 23, 2009

Some Travel Advice for Visitors to Panama's Darien Gap. A Long Answer.

In internet postings and magazine articles, the Darien province of Panama is usually described as a “no-go” zone, rife with violence, kidnappings, narco-traffickers, and Colombian guerrillas. Most foreign embassy websites publish travel warnings for the province, stating that the area east of Yaviza should be avoided at all costs. Even when you are in Panama City, local nationals will usually try to dissuade you from visiting the province.
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.

Travel well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sailboat "Ishmael" on the Rio Tuira: Darien Gap

On an earlier trip I had come up this same river aboard my 36' ketch Ishmael. The trip had been difficult, negotiating shallows and 20' tide swings.

After almost a week at Mercadeo, the first major rain of the wet season flooded the Tuira higher up in the mountains. It wasn't raining at our anchorage, but the flood unleased a massive flow of water, sweeping dead heads and other logs loose from the banks and hammering the hull in the middle of the night. In the dark I had to cut away the stern anchor as the rode had become tangled in a massive log jam. Soon the bow anchor chain also began to snag logs. I was hanging under the bowsprit, slashing at tree roots with my machete, but it soon became hopeless.

Unfortunately I couldn't easily cut loose from the chain, and in the end Ishmael was dragged downriver. Eventually we were pushed up onto a sand bar where I was able to free the chain, one log at a time.

Before the floods had subsided, and as the sky had just begun to grow light, I managed to kedge Ishmael off the bank and find a more protected nook in the river before I could collapse, cook up a batch of pancakes, and organize the mess of tools and mud that were spread around the deck.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is it Safe to Visit the Darien Gap? A Short Answer.

There is a long answer to that question. In the next post, I will try to tackle that and share some of the perspective I gained from the year and a half I spent in Panama's Darien Province.

The shorter version is that there are many factors that can make the visit more or less dangerous. Many of these would be in your control - Whether you take a guide; Who that guide is; What areas you visit; Your style and communication skills; How long you remain in Darien, and in each individual community. As well, there are many factors that are outside a traveller's control. Some of it is simply being in the wrong place at the wrong moment; meeting the wrong individual; or natural factors such as severe river flooding, encounters with snakes, scorpions, jaguars, and other animal residents of a jungle.

But the shortest answer, is that I strongly believe that it is possible, and worthwhile, to make a trip into Darien. This can be done by foot, canoe, motorized boat, cargo ship, airplane or sailboat.

In upcoming posts, I'll try to outline some thoughts concerning a few situations to avoid. But mostly I'll try to offer a few suggestions as to how to make a trip into the Darien Gap - one in which you can come away having seen and learned something of value.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rusty Cargo Boats to Darien

One trip that I recommend for those who insist on traveling in parts of the Darien Gap is to buy a cheap ticket on board one of the rusty cargo ships that load at the municipal dock (muelle fiscal) in a part of Panama City known as Salsipuedes - which translates literally to "get out of here if you can."

When I first arrived in Panama, I made a number of trips into Darien aboard different cargo boats. However, the one that I used most often was the Dona Flor. With that crew I travelled down to Jaque on the Pacific Coast, surfing in a number of villages while the boat was loading and unloading, and staying for a number of days in Jaque with the family of the crew mechanic. On another trip, we entered the Rio Sambu to unload at Sambu and Puerto Indio. From there we continued up the Tuira, stopping at La Palma, Chepigana, Yaviza, and then Mercadeo for a number of days.

The captain ran aground regularly, and we were stuck on a sandbar for a day and a half in the mouth of the Rio Sambu. The crew drank cheap liquor until they were blind in Yaviza, ending up in a brawl on shore with locals at a bar, followed by an all-out fight amongst the crew members once they were back on deck. The youngest crewman fell off the dock while trying to board. His foot misjudged the distance in the dark and he disappeared between the dock and the hull, cracking his head on the rusty steel as he went down. To make matters worse, the tide waters had receded so that instead of a six foot drop into the water, he fell about twelve feet landing crumpled and broken in the river mud and rocks.

It was a sad and penniless crew, nursing their wounds on the trip back. To make matters worse, the captain is night-blind, and he misjudged the direction for the return to Panama City. In heavy rolling seas, we ran out of fuel at two in the morning. No idea where we were. Heavy fog in the morning kept us confused until a large ocean cargo ship pushed through the haze and narrowly missed us before disappearing again. Dona Flor's captain asked me to call the ship (in English) on their radio to get our position so that we could radio to shore for fuel and assistance.

A beautiful cruise through Darien. Eleven dollars, including meals and a place to hang my hammock. Never a dull moment for the two weeks. Five stars.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Award Nomination

Press release from Friday, October 30, that The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama has been shortlisted for Wilfrid Laurier University's "Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction." Final selection to be announced on November 9, 2009.
For a complete version of this release, see Link listed below or visit: