The Pan-American Highway is a 19,000-mile road route from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. The route is continuous except for a small missing section on the southern border of Panama often referred to as one of the most inhospitable places on the planet: the Darién Gap.
The Darién Gap is 66 miles without roads consisting of mountainous jungle, swamp, armed guerillas, drug traffickers and deadly creatures covering the border of Panama and Colombia.
The environmental impact on the area and the sheer cost of building road through it have thwarted any attempts at building roads through the area. Others are concerned that the Gap is a natural barrier against drugs and disease flowing freely into North America and the U.S.
The first-ever successful vehicle expedition through the Darién Gap was an expedition led by British army officer Gavin Thompson. His team of 6 started in Alaska driving all the way to Panama in the newly created Range Rover. Hitting the Darién Gap he brought in a team of another 64 engineers and scientists to hack their way through the jungle and float the Range Rovers across the rivers.
Thompson, and all the expeditions since, ran headlong into what the Gap is famous for: Things that will kill you.
Fer-de-lance Pit Vipers
The Fer-de-lance pit viper is one of the most venomous creatures in the Darién Gap. They’re irritable, fast-moving and large enough to bite above your knees. Antivenom usually solves your problem if you get bitten but if left untreated the venom can cause local necrosis (death of body tissue) leading to gangrene or death.
Conflict journalist Jason Motlagh crossed the Gap in 2016 for a Dateline story and has this to say after receiving their anti-venom kit and instructions for use before the crossing, “If one of us is bitten, we have ten minutes to inject the anti-venom before death. We can only carry six vials. If a larger pit viper were to strike, the expert concedes no amount of anti-venom would be enough to save us. We might as well lie down and smoke a cigarette until the lights go out.”
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to bring drugs into the U.S. so the drug traffickers are turning to other avenues. The lawlessness and lack of many residents makes the Darién Gap a perfect path for cocaine and other drugs on their journey from South America.
FARC Armed Guerillas
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have made a name for themselves since 1964 terrorizing the government and many cities in Colombia. Many from the group have made their home in the lawless jungles of the Darién Gap. A backpacker from Sweden was shot in the head in 2013, and only found two years later. Multiple others have been kidnapped for weeks or months after venturing into the Gap.
Since a peace deal in 2017 with the United Nations, the group has reformed into an official political party but a few thousand rebels still continue with drug, arms, and human trafficking.
Brazilian Wandering Spiders
Spiders fill the jungles of the Darién Gap but one of the most “medically important” is the Brazilian Wandering spider. “Medically important” is just the nice term for “you’re going to have a really bad day if this bites you.”
This family of spiders (there are more than one!) has a leg span of five to seven inches. They wander the jungle floor at night, and hide in hiking boots, logs, and banana plants. They’ve been nicknamed the Banana spider as that’s often where people run into them. Bites from this spider can put you in the hospital or, from particularly bad ones, cause death in two to six hours.
Scorpions look like they’re from another planet. A few species of scorpion prefer conditions in Colombia and southern Panama and call the Darién Gap home, particularly the Black Scorpion.
The Black Scorpion can be two to four inches long with a black or reddish black coloring. They live under rocks and logs and hunt for larva and cockroaches at night. They are part of the thick-tailed scorpion family, giving them their stocky appearance. Their sting is very painful but is rarely deadly to humans … as long as you are treated in a safe amount of time.
Even the heat in the jungle can put a serious dent in your mood. The temperatures can reach a balmy 95 degree Fahrenheit and 95% humidity, creating a serious problem if you run out of water. With trips through the gap taking the 20 to 50 days, you had better be prepared for the heat.
There’s a lot of water in the Darién Gap but it is far from clean. Even a sip can hold a host of viruses or parasites that could ruin the rest of your trip. Hopefully you have a good water filter with you.
Spiked Chunga Palm Trees
Many kinds of trees call the jungle home and the local people make use of many of them. The fiber from the leaves of the Chunga Palm are used to make everything from furniture, hats, and jewelry to fishing nets.
This palm might have one of the best defenses for a tree in the area. Long black spines cover the Chunga to prevent animals from climbing and taking the fruit. The spines can be up to 8 inches long.
Unfortunately for us, these spines are covered in all sorts of bacteria. One brush with a Chunga and you might find yourself with infected puncture wounds embedded with shards of Chunga spines.
During the mid-eighties Helge Peterson found himself in Colombia trying to complete his motorcycle tour from Argentina to Alaska. A small problem stood in his way: The Darién Gap.
Convincing a young German backpacker to make the journey with him, they started their journey. They began the 20-day trek hauling Helge’s 400-pound BMW motorcycle into the jungle, through rivers and ravines.
At the end of each day, tired and broken, Helge and his backpacking partner would set up camp and starting the removal of over 100 ticks from their skin and clothing. Ticks in the Panama area can carry Ehrlichiosis or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, neither of which you want in the middle of the jungle days or weeks from the nearest hospital.
Trench foot was first described during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812 but the common name references a condition common during World War I. The condition originates with wet skin that isn’t allowed to dry. Wet conditions and limited blood flow cause the tissue to tingle or itch, often turn red or blue, and eventually decaying. Any open wounds quickly develop fungal infections. All of this happening in as little as 10 hours doesn’t give you much time to to fix the problem.
Botflies like to get under your skin, literally. They lay their eggs on mosquitos. What do mosquitos like to do? Bite humans. This conveniently deposits the botfly eggs under our skin. The eggs hatch and the larva have a nice warm place to live.
Through a small hole in your skin, the larva can breathe. They feed of the flesh in their little skin-cave and stay cozy warm. Once they grow into bumble-bee sized adults, they crawl out to lay eggs somewhere else. If there are many larvae involved, it can be called myiasis or an infestation under the skin.
Make sure to pack a good bug spray.
Cold War Bombs
During the Cold War, the U.S. military ran training runs, dropping bombs over the jungle. Most of the bombs detonated. Some did not. These remaining explosives still sit in the jungle waiting for someone to step off the trail what little trail is there just a bit too far.
So the Darién Gap sounds downright peachy to visit. We’re sure you’ll be booking a trip there the minute COVID travel restrictions lift.
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