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Geo-Joint: The Darien Gap

Posted on February 12 2017

If you’re feeling like a major road trip, the longest point-to-point, motorable road you can undertake is the Pan-American Highway, a jaunt between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Ushuaia, Argentina. That’s the length of two continents, for a total of close to 30,000 miles. But this long-drive record holder comes with a qualifier. Unfortunately, as you head south, the road sputters out at a town called Yaviza, in eastern Panama. Should you be coming north, reminiscing about your adventures in Patagonia, the farthest you’ll easily get towards Yaviza is Turbo, in northwestern Colombia. These two places are roughly 60 miles apart, and out of 30,000 that might not sound so bad. However, those 60 (or 100, depending on how you route yourself) miles, called the Darien Gap, are some of the most arduous, untracked, punishing, and dangerous miles you could travel anywhere.

To begin with, it’s all tropical jungle, filled with every kind of bug and snake that you don’t want to have on your neck or in your boot. There are many broad rivers to cross, as well as two mountain ranges. It rains copiously, and the heat and humidity are intense. That’s all an inconvenience of liveable extent for the hardy, but here is the kicker. There are plenty of people you may encounter—soldiers, bandits, smugglers, drug dealers—who will gladly send you back, rob you, abuse you, or just plain kill you. Most people opt to take routes that skirt around this forbidding region, going by air from Cartagena, Colombia to Panama City, or taking a boat across the Brazo Leon Rio Atrato from Turbo to connections in Panama. Cars, trucks, and other large vehicles go by ferry.

In days of yore, when the narcotics trade did not present such life-threatening conditions, some few adventurers made the overland trip on four wheels. Back in 1960, a team managed to hack their way through the Gap with a Land Rover, stopping now and again to build bridges across waterways, mud bogs, and ravines. It took them five months. Remember, we’re only talking about something less than 100 miles. Land Rovers again led the charge in 1972 when a gang of doughty Brits challenged the route, blowing apart axles and relying on car parts dropped by parachutes for repairs. Purpose-built rafts helped them across impassable swamps, and the sick and weary band eventually made it through. A few others made the journey in better time on motorcycles, but these days any such expeditions would probably have all their equipment stolen before they got very far.

Those who dare to cross the Darien Gap nowadays are the desperate—those who have already logged hundreds or thousands of perilous miles in pursuit of a better life. Migrants from not only South America and Cuba but as far away as Africa and Asia choose to take their chances with an overland trek to the U.S. or some country along the way where they can find work and a safer life than in their homeland. A boat from Turbo can get them to the Panamanian coast. From there, it’s on through the jungle. The typically week-long trek by foot is as fraught with danger from unscrupulous human smugglers as from poisonous snakes. Many die from the extreme conditions or are killed for their possessions along the way.

It hardly seems possible in this modern world that a road couldn’t be pushed through the Darien Gap, no matter how challenging. There are innumerable roads crossing miles and miles of tough jungle and mountains. But there are a number of good reasons not to do it. A road, while it would facilitate travel and trade, would also be a boon to the already rich drug market. As can be seen all over Brazil and other rainforest areas, roads into the wilderness bring uncontrolled development and exploitation of timber and animal resources. Environmental damage is sometimes immense. The forests of the Darien Gap are pristine, and are the homelands of some indigenous peoples who are not keen on invasion from the outside world. Some say North American cattle producers don’t want to see an easy route for the passage of hoof and mouth disease, a devastating and common disease in South American livestock. Others think U.S. money has been sent in the past to build a road, but it all disappeared into corrupt governmental hands. For whatever reasons, the road is still nothing but a dream—or a nightmare—and the challenge for adventurers to cross the Darien Gap remains.

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