Panama's Deadly Darien Jungle

An expanse of tropical woods wild called The Darien has conquered travelers for hundreds of years. Explorers attracted to the Darien Gap are many, but the results have largely been devastating. The Spanish made their very first settlement in 1510 here in mainland Americas, simply to have it torched by native tribes 14 years later. It stands as it was during the days of the conquest, and in lots of ways, the place stays just as wild. It's remarkable considering that we live in the 21st Century, in a nation that adopts technology and is infamous for joining oceans, cultures, and world business at incredibly rapid pace. Following the conquistadors, the Scots also wagered poorly here. The Scots having created a coastal trading colony in 1698, most settlers perished from the Spanish and diseased events. The loss would deplete enough riches that the Scottish were forced to sign the Treaty of Union; undermining their autonomy less than a decade afterward. It was only in 1960 that some folks managed to cross the Darien Gap in a Land Rover dubbed 'The Tender Cockroach' plus a Jeep for support and supplies. It took almost five months, averaging only 200m per hour. Palm-chopping their way through the jungle with large machetes, they improvising bridges from palm trunks that didn't always last and bridged hundreds of rivers with what they had. Their study later helped establish the Unesco World Heritage Site, the Darien National Park. The team comprised of Panamanian anthropologist and her cartographer husband, Amado Arauz, and Reina Torres de Arauz. Twelve years later, a crazy explorer named Col John Blashford-Snell, directed a 60-man crew in Range Rovers on the very first whole road trip from Alaska to Cape Horn, via the Darien Gap. This short segment of the route through dense jungle, he describes as the most demanding challenge of his adventure career. The seasonal rains arrived and locked the vehicles in mud. "Something had to go, and it was the rear axles," He recounts in his book. "They burst like shells with shrapnel coming through the floor of the rover." Nowadays, custom built vehicles floated around the issue region of the Atrato swamp that is one of the most difficult parts to cross in this region. The narrative of the ill-fated Scots colony at Darien lives in the oral history of the Kuna Indians, who are the few individuals who have settled in this inhospitable region. In 1698, a fleet of five boats sailed from Leith docks near Edinburgh, taking 12,000 settlers to a colony in the New World. Panama. Half a century on, the number of successful crossings that motorized their way through this lush green beast, can be numbered under two digits. Nowadays, there's ample sightings of brave immigrants escaping cruel lives for northern prosperity, armed drug runners are largely the risks one takes, mixed well with deadly pit vipers hissing at your intrusion. The Darien Both Columbian and Panamanian governments have set up check stops. At these points, Passport/Visas are checked and rechecked with the keenest eyes. At any point, if the official sees fit, an explorer might have to turn back the other way involuntarily or arrested. Rivers are the highways of the Darian with dugout canoes and little motor boats supplying infrequent and high-priced passage. The trips need to be timed to coincide with ocean tides frequently. The destination is the town of Turbo in Colombia. Traveling inside is worth the effort for conservationists, for who the Darien is a site that is key to solving some of the largest genetic diversity in the world undiscovered.

Over a giant bowl of Sancocho(soup) in a village near by, my hired guide told me of a doctor from Canada headed to Pena Bijagual. With just a handful of pupils and eight other co-workers, the biologist led them there to examine a weak-studied electric fish. This special fish uses electrical signals for communication and navigation.

Pena Bijagual. A hamlet of thatched huts, a 45-minute excursion via motor canoe from Yaviza, was the research base that was close to perfect for this group of explorers. Their Embera hosts served them with incredible hospitality and offered security, culinary specialty most evenings. The researchers had so far merely examined the macana, a one-metre-long fish. However, this year, there clearly was no village to return for the scientists. In 2013, Pena Bijagual was invaded by a group of armed outsiders. In which Senafront, Panama's border patrol, participated in a shootout which killed one assailant and two injured officers. Not all villagers have not returned months later but the spirits were still high with those home. The dilemma with drug trafficking has grown even as marine patrols are stepped up, as well as the major commerce being pushed inland.

My friend, says the traffickers demobilized guerrilla groups and came from the remnants of Colombian drug cartels. They employ local people, mainly indigenous natives, like rebellious teens, porters or guides - to the misery of regional cacique, Tino Quintana or leader of the Comarca Embera, a semi-sovereign native territory. A portion of the problem, he says, is isolation which reduces trade and work chances. "They offer significant amounts of work to our youth, and as you know, ingenious natives aren't always on the priority list."

Once in a while, the vision of finishing the Pan-American Highway is resurrected. The past drive arrived a decade ago from former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who expected a boom in business as the clash between the government and guerrillas waned for awhile. It is bandits who gain from keeping the Difference a no-go area. With recent peace talks, I am sure they will be discussed once again. But Panama, together with local native people and the US, have a variety of objections. A road hastens deforestation, would present a danger to native cultures and permit the spread of much disorder - such as foot and mouth cattle disease, which the Difference has so far efficiently prevented from spreading to North America. Rainforest destruction is evident to Yaviza. In 2014 the sale of cocobolo or rosewood was frozen in Panama after it was discovered that much of it was flowing from prohibited sources, and mainly from the Darien. The exotic hardwood was valued at $2,000 per cubic meter. It is still a very high black market product in 2016. As we arrived to checkpoint, my guide pointing out, "The worst thing that could happen to the mighty Darien would be the finish of the Pan-American highway across the Darien Gap. The loggers will follow the road, woods will fall, and enormous chunks of heaven will likely be wept for and lost eternally." I completely agree.

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