The Darién Gap (Spanish: Región del Darién or Tapón del Darién) is a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama's Darién Province in Central America from Colombia in South America. It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide. Roadbuilding through this area is expensive, and the environmental toll is steep. Political consensus in favor of road construction has not emerged. Consequently there is no road connection through the Darién Gap connecting North/Central America with South America and it is the missing link of the Pan-American Highway.
The geography of the Darién Gap on the Colombian side is dominated primarily by the river delta of the Atrato River, which creates a flat marshland at least 80 km (50 mi) wide, half of this being swampland. The Panamanian side, in sharp contrast, is a mountainous rain forest, with terrain reaching from 60 m (200 ft) in the valley floors to 1,845 m (6,053 ft) at the tallest peaks (Cerro Tacarcuna).
The Pan-American Highway (Spanish: Carretera Panamericana) is a system of roads measuring about 48,000 km (30,000 mi) long that crosses through the entirety of North, Central, and South America, with the sole exception of the Darién Gap. On the Colombian side, the highway terminates at about 27 km (17 mi) west of Barranquillita, at Lomas Aisiadas (Casa 40) located at . On the Panamanian side, the road terminus is the town of Yaviza at . This marks a straight-line separation of about 100 km (62 mi). In between is marshland and forest.
Efforts have been made for decades to remedy this missing link in the Pan-American highway. Planning began in 1971 with the help of United States funding, but this was halted in 1974 after concerns raised by environmentalists. Another effort to build the road began in 1992, but by 1994 a United Nations agency reported that it would cause extensive environmental damage. There is evidence in favor of the argument that the Darién Gap has prevented the spread of diseased cattle into Central and North America, which have not seen foot and mouth disease since 1954, and at least since the 1970s this has been a substantial factor in preventing a road link through the Darién Gap. The Embera-Wounaan and Kuna have also expressed concern that the road would bring about the potential erosion of their cultures.
The Darién Gap is home to the Embera-Wounaan and Kuna Indians (and former home of the Cueva people before their extermination in the 16th century). Travel is often by dugout canoe (piragua). On the Panamanian side, La Palma is the capital of the province and the main cultural centre. Other Mestizo population centers include Yaviza and El Real. It had a reported population of 1,700 in 1980. Corn, mandioca, plantains and bananas are staple crops wherever land is developed.
Two major national parks exist in the Darién Gap: Darién National Park (Spanish: Parque Nacional Darién) in Panama and Los Katíos National Park (Spanish: Parque Nacional de Los Katíos) in Colombia. The Darién Gap forests had extensive cedrela and mahogany cover at one time, but many of these trees were removed by loggers.
The Darién National Park covers around 5,790 square kilometres of land and was established in 1980. It is the largest national park in Central America.
Crossing the Darien Gap
The Gap is frequented by four wheel drive (4WD) and other vehicles that attempt intercontinental journeys. The first post-Colonial expedition to the Darién was the Marsh Darien Expedition in 1924–25, supported by several major sponsors including the Smithsonian Institution.
The first vehicular crossing of the Gap was by the Land Rover La Cucaracha Cariñosa (The Affectionate Cockroach) and a Jeep of the Trans-Darién Expedition 1959–60, crewed by Amado Araúz (Panama), his wife Reina Torres de Araúz, former SAS man Richard E. Bevir (UK), and engineer Terence John Whitfield (Australia). They left Chepo, Panama on 2 February 1960 and reached Quibdó, Colombia on 17 June 1960, averaging 201 m (220 yd) per hour over 136 days. They traveled a great deal of the distance up the vast Atrato River.
In December, 1960 on a motorcycle trip from Alaska to Argentina, adventurer Danny Liska transited the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia. Liska was forced to abandon his motorcycle and proceed across the Gap by boat and foot. 1962 saw a failed attempt by General Motors with a team of Chevrolet Corvairs supported by a bulldozer and a fuel truck.
A Range Rover on the British Trans-Americas Expedition in 1972 led by John Blashford-Snell is claimed to be the first vehicle-based expedition to traverse both American continents north-to-south through the Darién Gap. However, this expedition used boats to bypass the Atrato Swamp in Colombia which lies on the "direct" Trans-Americas route and received substantial support from the British Army. The Hundred Days of Darien, a book written by Russell Braddon in 1974, chronicles this expedition.
The first fully overland wheeled crossing (others used boats for some sections) of the Gap was that of British cyclist Ian Hibell who rode from Cape Horn to Alaska between 1971 and 1973. Hibell took the "direct" overland south-to-north route including an overland crossing of the Atrato Swamp in Colombia. Hibell completed his crossing accompanied across the Gap by two New Zealand cycling companions who had ridden with him from Cape Horn, but neither of these continued with Hibell on to Alaska. Hibell's "Cape Horn to Alaska" expedition forms part of his 1984 book Into the Remote Places.
The first motorcycle crossing was by Robert L. Webb in March 1975. Another four wheel drive crossing was in 1978–1979 by Mark A Smith and his team. Smith and his team drove the 400 km (250 mi) stretch of the gap in 30 days using five stock Jeep CJ-7s. They travelled many miles up the Atrato River via barges. Mark Smith has released his book Driven by a Dream, which documents the crossing.
The first all-land auto crossing was in 1985–1987 by Loren Upton and Patty Mercier in a CJ-5 Jeep, taking 741 days to travel 125 miles (201 km), all on land. This crossing is documented in the 1992 Guinness Book of Records. In addition Upton returned in 1995 and became the first to drive a motorcycle, a two-wheel drive Rokon motorcycle, all on land through the Darién Gap, in 49 days.
In the 1990s, the gap was briefly enjoined by ferry service provided by the Crucera Express, but this company ceased operations in 1997.
There have been several notable crossings by foot. Sebastian Snow crossed the Gap with Wade Davis in 1975 as part of his unbroken walk from Tierra Del Fuego to Costa Rica. The trip is documented in his 1976 book The Rucksack Man. In 1981, George Meegan crossed the gap on a similar journey. He too started in Tierra Del Fuego and eventually ended in Alaska. His 1988 biography The Longest Walk describes the trip and includes a 25 page chapter on his foray through the Gap. In 2001, as a part of his Goliath Expedition, a trek to forge an unbroken footpath from the tip of South America to the Bering Strait and back to his home in England, Karl Bushby (UK) crossed the gap on foot, using no transport or boats, from Colombia to Panama.
Most crossings of the Darién Gap region have been from Panama to Colombia. In July 1961, three college students crossed from the Bay of San Miguel to Puerto Obaldia on the Gulf of Parita (near Colombia) and ultimately to Mulatupu in what was then known as San Blas and now identified as Kuna Yala. The trip across the Darién was by banana boat, piraqua and foot via the Rio Turia (La Palma and El Real de Santa Maria), Rio Chucunaque (Yaviza), Rio Tuquesa (Chaua's (General Choco Chief) Trading Post—Choco Indian village) and Serranía del Darién.
In 1985, Project Raleigh, which evolved from Project Drake in 1984 and in 1989 became Raleigh International, sponsored an expedition which also crossed the Darién coast to coast. Their path was similar to the 1961 above, though in reverse. The expedition started in The Bay of Caledonia at the Serranía del Darién and followed the Rio Membrillo ultimately to the Rio Chucunaque and Yaviza. Roughly following the route followed by Balboa in 1513.
In 2000, Tom Hart Dyke and a fellow traveller, Paul Winder, were kidnapped by suspected FARC guerillas in the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia while hunting for rare orchids, a plant for which he has a particular passion. He and his travel companion were held captive for nine months and threatened with death, before eventually being released unharmed and without a ransom being paid.
Between the early 1980s and mid 1990s a British adventure travel company, Encounter Overland, organised 2-3 week trekking trips through the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia or vice versa. These trips used a combination of whatever transport was available–jeeps, bus, boats and of course plenty of walking with everyone carrying their supplies of food, shelter, water, etc. These groups were made up of male and female participants from any number of nationalities and age groups and were led by experienced trek leaders. One leader went on to do 9 Darien Gap trips and later acted as a logistics guide/co-ordinator for the BBC Natural History Unit during the production of a documentary called A Tramp in the Darien which screened on BBC in 1990/1991.
A complete overland crossing of the Darien Rainforest by foot and riverboat (i.e. from the last road in Panama to the first road in Colombia) became more dangerous in the 1990s because of the Colombian civil war. The Colombian portion of the Darien Rainforest in the Katios Park region eventually fell under control of armed groups. Furthermore, combatants from Colombia even entered Panama, occupied some Panamanian jungle villages and kidnapped or killed inhabitants and travelers. Just as hostilities were starting to worsen, 18-year-old Andrew Egan traversed the Darien Rainforest, and detailed the excursion in the book Crossing the Darien Gap.
In 2009, a team of three Australians (Roly Stokes, Adam Broadbent and Andrew Young) and one Bolivian (Claudia Orellana) built a boat powered solely by two Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycles to sail around the Darien Gap, from Turbo, Colombia, to Carti, Kuna Yala, Panama. The voyage took 4 weeks and is the first-ever transcontinental, international motorcycle-powered boat voyage. The documentary, Four Strokes of Luck, follows the build and voyage. Pat Farmer the Australian ultra runner is currently (September 2011) crossing the Darien on his quest to run from the North Pole to the South Pole. www.poletopolerun.com
Armed conflict and kidnappings
The Darién Gap is subject to the presence and activities of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has committed countless assassinations, kidnappings, and human rights violations during its decades-long insurgency against the Colombian government. FARC rebels are present on both the Colombian and Panamanian sides of the border.
Among the political victims of the Darién Gap were three New Tribes missionaries, who disappeared from Pucuro on the Panamanian side in 1993. British travelers were kidnapped in Darién Gap in 2000 and held for nine months, as documented in the book The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder.
In 2003, Robert Young Pelton, on assignment for National Geographic Adventure Magazine, and two traveling companions, Mark Wedeven and Megan Smaker; were detained by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a rightwing, pro-government paramilitary organization, for one week in a highly publicized incident.
- ^ http://www.gao.gov/products/PSAD-77-154
- ^ http://panama.usembassy.gov/pr031511.html
- ^ Marsh Darien Expedition
- ^ Trans Darien Expedition
- ^ Danny Liska
- ^ Danny Liska "Across the Darien Gap by River and Trail II", Peruvian Times, Vol XXI, Num. 1068(June 2, 1961), pg. 10
- ^ "Brought Back Darien Bush", Panama Star & Herald, July 9, 1961, pg. 1
- ^ Carl Adler, "A Trip to Panama", The Scholastic, Vol. 104, No. 11, January 18, 1963, pg. 18
- ^ "After Trek Through the Jungle Youth's Ready to Go Again". Raleigh News & Observer, June 25, 1985
- ^ fourstrokesofluck.com
- ^ Amnesty International | Working to Protect Human Rights
- ^ "Panama's Darien teems with FARC drug runners". Reuters. 26 May 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/05/26/us-panama-drugs-idUSTRE64P01720100526.
- ^ Alford, Deann (01 Sept 2001). "New Tribes Missionaries Kidnapped in 1993 Declared Dead". Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/septemberweb-only/9-24-44.0.html. Retrieved 27 Sept 2011.
- ^ "3 Americans freed, 2 journalists still captive in Colombia". CNN.com. 2003-01-24. http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/01/24/colombia.journalists/. Retrieved 2007-05-22.
- ^ Markey, Sean (2003-01-22). "Adventure Writer Reportedly Kidnapped in Panama". National Geographic News. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/01/0122_030122_kidnapping.html. Retrieved 2007-05-15.
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El Llano-Cartí road · Inter-American Highway
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