Panama’s historic Darién Gap – a 10,000-square-mile swath of jungle on the border of Central and South America – has eaten explorers alive for centuries. Today, guerrillas, American trained Panamanian soldiers, drug smugglers, their bushwhackers, poachers, and jaguars rule this vast no-man’s-land. I’ve tried to penetrate the Darien four times, and turned back as many, but it’s always been thrilling.
I’ve tried and tried just because it’s there. My first attempt was in 1985 during a racquetball clinic tour that was seeding the sport throughout Mexico, Central and South America. The last stop in the overland route before the Darien was at the US Ft. Clayton two-court racquetball gym. (I did a recent Dec. 2012 ’30th anniversary’ clinic and saw some of the same old Army backhands.) After the clinic, in 1984, and in 2012, the Army set me up with Darien maps and some hard advice.
In 1985, the package included a bulky first-aid kit with three anti-snake venoms, and the counsel that the primary danger was drug carriers crossing from Colombia into Panama, and their hijackers. ‘You could be mistaken for either,’ a sergeant cautioned. I made it a ways into the Darien, and ended on a cow pasture air strip taking a single engine plane out.
In 2012, after the clinic, pictures and a couple of autographs, I set sail on the tiny sloop ‘El Gato’ that got tossed in a New Year’s 20′ sea troughs before the boat broke nearly into half, and after two days floundered in the Caribbean without sail, motor or rudder. Tankers in the night bore down on us until we shined them off with jumping flashlights. ‘Mayday!’ cried a Portuguese container ship on our radio, that received, but could not transmit. A day later, we were towed by the incredulous Colombian Coast Guard into Cartagena.
The third jab into the Darien, in the mid-90s, occurred on another personal vacation, While waiting for a canoe on a midnight riverbank at end-of-road Yaviza, Panama, a thick finger suddenly wagged under my chin that I followed up to a NY Yankees baseball cap worn by a tall Caucasian who spoke Spanish with a suspicious gringo accent.’ You’ll die if you go in there, and, besides, it isn’t allowed.’ He identified himself as Panamanian Immigration, and so I about faced for one hundred meters. I slept in a parked bus, and got lucky that at 7am the next morning it returned to Panama City.
The fourth assault into the Darien was just a few months ago, at the specific invitation of a Panamanian expat, to fly in from Florida to hook up with of a native guide who promised, for a reasonable fee, that he, and his kin who lived the length from Panama into Colombia, would get me across safely. On arrival, the guide had tics and bowed out, saying, ‘Infiltrating guerrillas for two months have filled the gap, and none of my kin is willing to travel.’
The year old story goes, from one of my expat pals in Iquitos, Peru, that a Colombian General with a deformed foot went to his orthopedist for a special raised sole. The CIA had bribed the shoemaker to implant a GPS transmitter into the heel. They wisely let Achilles wander, from Colombia down into the Darien, and followed by his troops. The US government is presently putting the screws to the Colombia guerrillas via financial and high-tech support such as the GPS heel. The resulting exodus is housed under the war on drugs, and Panamanians are upset.
A Panamanian first year school teacher told me on my last attempt that she has been stationed in a one-room school house on the Darien’s fringe because she has no señiority. Guerrillas materialize like hungry ghosts from the rainforest to prey on her and the students for their lunchpails, which they yield to drive them back; otherwise, they steal, or worse. It is terrorist situation.
The Pan-American highway is continuous from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego except for one 100km section through the Darien. The misnomer ‘highway’ is a dirt track that peters into footpaths at Yaviza, Panama. There the missing segment, that my friend George Meegan last covered in 1978, laces the beautiful, terribly occupied jungle where George was held up by his guide. He pressed on, and at that instant, part of the high academic story of human migration received its death blow that the entire Americas could not be journeyed by foot.
Even then, road construction technology had advanced along to enable a paved road that would link all the Americas. George, the teacher, the Army, racquetball players, and my chicken guide during each of my four crossing attempts have opined that that the Darien is ‘closed’ to a unbroken Pan America for three political reasons. A negotiable route would open three huge gates from South to the North Americas: drugs, prostitutes and illegal immigrants, including Colombian guerrillas.
A paved Darien would ruin my dream, and I probably wouldn’t go there.