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Friday, May 7, 2010

Traversing the Darién Gap

Darien Gap (click to enlarge) The end of the Panamerican highway
can be seen just to the right of "Darien".

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
-- John Keats

A principal impediment to our overland journey from Ecuador to Mexico is the Darien Gap, so I thought it would be entertaining to do a review of this area unique to human history and culture before we leave, since we can't actually traverse it on the trip.

The Darien Gap is a notorious area of swamp, jungle and 6,000 ft high mountain ranges, separating South and Cental America on the Panamanian isthmus. Despite an original intention to run the Pan-American highway from the US through South America, there is currently no regular surface transport by land, or even by sea, between South and Central America so, apart from hitching a ride on a yacht, or an occasional freighter, the only way across is to fly.

The Darién Gap is home to the Embera-Wounaan and Kuna Indians. It is also a wild west crossing point for a mix of FARC revolutionaries, right-wing AUC paramilitaries, drug traffickers and local bandits, as well as subject to a number of tropical diseases from Yellow Fever to Malaria, so its not a place to go trekking unless you know what you are doing. Travel is often by dugout canoe. On the Panamanian side, Yaviza is the main cultural center. It had a reported population of 1700 in 1980. Corn, mandioca, plantains and bananas are staple crops wherever land is developed.

New Caledonia

The history of the Darién includes many colourful and disastrous episodes. The late 17th century was a difficult period economically for Scotland. The country's economy was relatively small, and Scotland was in a weak political position in relation to England and the great powers of Europe. An ambitious plan was devised to establish a colony called "New Caledonia" on the isthmus in the hope of establishing trade with th Far East. The first expedition of five ships set sail on 14 July 1698, with around 1,200 people on board. Their orders were to proceed to the Bay of Darien and make the Isle called the Golden Island … some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darién … and there make a settlement on the mainland. Inadequate provisions, caused by the English refusing to help in case it offended the Spanish, combined with the unfamiliar hot and humid climate, soon caused fever to spread and many settlers died. In July 1699, after barely eight months, the colony was abandoned. Only 300 of the 1,200 settlers survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland.

The Caribbean colony that brought down Scotland BBC

Word of the disastrous first expedition did not reach Scotland in time to prevent a second voyage of more than 1,000 people leaving. The second expedition arrived on November 30, 1699 to discover the settlement of 'New Edinburgh' deserted and overgrown, but quickly set about rebuilding it. However, their fear of being driven out by the Spaniards, who regarded the territory as theirs, led them to attack the Spanish fort at Toubacanti in January 1700. The Scots were then subjected to sustained Spanish attacks at Fort St Andrew for a month before surrendering, and were afterwards allowed to leave. Of the total 2,500 settlers that set off, just a few hundred survived.
This led almost immediately to the union of Scotland with England. The Scottish establishment realized that it could never be a major power on its own and that if it wanted to share the benefits of England's international trade and the growth of the Empire then its future would have to lie in unity with England. More so, the Scottish economy had been bankrupted by the "Darién Fiasco" and Westminster had been petitioned by Scotland to wipe out the Scottish national debt and stabilize the currency.

Members of the Darien Ship Canal Expedition cut through forest during their march across the Isthmus of Darien in Panama. Led by Commander Selfridge, the expedition sought to plot a location for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Ca. 1871.
The Darkest Jungle tells the harrowing story of America’s first ship canal exploration across the Darién. In the 1850s, the whole world looked to the Darien Gap in eastern Panama as the site for a glorious canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But someone had to survey the land of the Darien Gap. That task fell to the U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, and what a task it was! Misled by the false maps of a fraudulent earlier "explorer," the expedition was faced with two mountain ranges, damp and brutal heat, swarming mosquitoes and flies, a hostile native population, and a catalog of other hardships. The expedition was soon at the brink of disaster; the men's ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, disease, madness, and ultimate despair as they succumbed to the brutal jungle is one of the great untold tales in the history of exploration.

The first post-Colonial expedition to the Darién was the Marsh Darien Expedition in 1924–25, supported by several major sponsors including the Smithsonian. 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.
A Range Rover on the British Trans-Americas Expedition in 1972 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. The Hundred Days of Darien, a book written by Russell Braddon in 1974, chronicles this expedition.
There have also been several crossings by bicycle. The first fully overland wheeled crossing 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. Hibell's "Cape Horn to Alaska" expedition forms part of his 1984 book Into the Remote Places.

The Atrato swamp area from M, M & M
Men, Mud and Motorcycles (PDF, Part1, Part2) records, in a PDF book and photo blog, an expedition to the Darién by Robert Webb on a specialized motor cycle the Rokon Trail Breaker Explorer MkIII, in 1974.

(Left) the 26km to Yaviza (1980), (Centre-right) the Panama Colombia border markers (1975).
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.

In much more recent times there are a number of books and blog postings describing journeys into or across the Darién. The Darién Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama by Martin Mitchinson gives advice from his experiences of one such journey.
"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."
"Is it safe to visit the Darién Gap? There is a long answer to that question. 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."
"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."

Andrew Egan in his accompanying photos to "Crossing the Darién Gap" provides several illustrations of life in the region.

For a close experience of traveling through Panama in the region just north of the Gap, there is Rick Thompson's excellent photoblog of a journey to Yaviza the town at the end of the Pan-American, and then NW across the inlets of the Bay of San Miguel on the Pacific Coast through La Palma to the Rio Negro.

In "A State of Nature" (2013) Jennie Erin Smith in New Yorker describes an unsuccessful attempt to cross the gap.

Two views of Yaviza

1 comment:

  1. Here is a another account of the Darien Gap: Crossing the Darién Gap (2013).

    That documentary was filmed on March 2013.

    Happy travels!