Darien Gap



As I climbed into my hammock I ran through the checklist of safety measures that was becoming almost a routine after a week trekking through the Darien jungle.  My hammock was tied high enough to allow jaguars, pumas, caiman to pass underneath and all our packs were likewise suspended from the branches to make them less attractive homes for the dreaded fer de lance snakes. Suspended as we were from the trees it would be possible even for one of the hundred-strong herds of killer wild pigs that inhabit this jungle to pass unhindered right through the camp. My mossi-net was well sealed to keep out the mosquitoes that are the real terror of what is one of the world’s worst malarial regions. With luck, the thick fabric of my jungle hammock would even provide some protection in case of attack by unpredictable Africanised bees. I had sprayed the hammock strings with industrial strength DEET to deter scorpions, spiders, red ants and (I hoped) snakes and we had lanterns hung up around the camp to keep vampire bats at bay. I was uncomfortably aware though that these lights could also reveal our position to guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and sundry ne’er-do-wells who also inhabit this area.


There are many good reasons why Panama’s Darien Gap is often described as the most dangerous place on earth.  Over the centuries many expeditions have attempted to explore this mysterious wilderness. The vast majority of them fell foul to what became known as the ‘curse of the Darien.’ It once took just over a year for the Darien fevers to wipe out a colony of over 2,000 Scottish settlers. In 1854, an American military expedition set out to cross the 50-odd miles that lie between the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts of Panama. In the seventy-four days that they were lost in the jungle several died and many were driven the to brink of cannibalism.  We had come here to try to retrace as closely as possible the route that conquistador Nuñez de Balboa followed in 1513 when he marched across the isthmus to become the first westerner ever to set eyes on the Pacific coast of the Americas. In researching this expedition it soon became obvious to me that the few successful expeditions that achieved their aims with at least a minimum of suffering all had one thing in common: they relied on experienced local guides and hunters.


As I lay in my hammock though I could hear the reassuring chatter of our three Kuna Indian friends, from where they sat around the glowing campfire. A shaman with the unlikely name of Teddy Cooper was their leader. Many of the Kuna of Teddy’s island in the San Blas archipelago found work in the American Canal Zone and it seems that they started a trend of adopting whatever names caught their imagination. Our other porters were the brothers Mellington and Rommelin Merry. Back in San Blas when we were preparing the expedition I had, on one memorable evening, drank beer with Bill Clinton and a young lady called John F Kennedy. (Apparently elsewhere in the islands you can find a Kuna Madonna, a Silvester Stalone and even an Osama bin Laden).


The most stalwart and certainly the strongest of our porters was Berto, a Panamanian from farther up the Caribbean coast. He was already snoring in his hammock next to Jose Angel Murrillo, a well-known Panamanian photographer and one of the most experienced Darien explorers alive. Angel was the local mastermind behind an expedition that I had been planning with American explorers Jud Traphagen and Dave Demers for almost a year. Jud and ‘D-bar’ were now similarly locked into their own hermetically sealed hammocks.  Apart from the advantage of being close to water for cooking and washing riverbanks are less than ideal campsites since they attract insects and are the preferred habitat of snakes, including the fer de lance, which can kill with a single bite in a matter of minutes. Yet the Kuna infinitely prefer to take their chances here rather than sleep on the hilltops, which are believed to be the domain of a far more terrifying creature.


“The boachu is like a flying dragon with the head of a jaguar,” Teddy Cooper had explained as we made the long climb over the Sierra de Darien. “It takes its prey up onto hills to eat it. This is why we Kuna always pass as quickly as possible over the mountains. A man from my village was killed by a boachu a couple of years ago…someone saw what happened to him in a dream.”  For some reason it seems that    the indigenous people of Darien have seen fit to populate what is already the most dangerous jungle in the world it with all sorts of supernatural beasts and jai (spirits). They talk of the madre de agua who lives under whirlpools where she can drown passers-by and of the arripada, a monster with one hand shaped like a hook for tearing the heart out of its victims. The most bizarre is the old witch known as tuluvieja who has a face like a sieve and is so ugly that she wears her long hair over her face in shame. As if this wasn’t enough she has a single sagging, distended breast that hangs down in front of her. The local people say that she steals children and when the fathers come to rescue them the witch sprays the rocks with slippery milk from this unsightly appendage to make them impassable. Before entering the remotest and most feared section of the Darien Teddy Cooper – as spiritual leader of our expedition – insisted on painting all our faces with bright red achote juice.


“Now the spirits will know that we come in peace and that we are here to treat the jungle with respect,” he explained. Teddy made a point always to ask permission of the jai before hunting or even before picking plants.  We carried as many food supplies as possible but this was a long trek and we were also counting on our guns to supply some meat. The Kuna consider almost anything fair game though and must be one of the few tribes in the world that even eat big cats. So we had to warn our guides about what they could and could not shoot. Teddy argued that jaguar meat was ‘very tasty’ but we were all convinced that it would have to be a matter of life and death before we were forced to kill one of Latin America’s endangered super-predators. The closest we came to a big cat was the spoor of a puma that had circled our camp one night, perhaps attracted by the scent of paca meat. It was Nuñez de Balboa’s conquistadors who gave the animal its Spanish name which means ‘painted rabbit’ but the paca is more often described as a giant jungle rat. The meat is tasty but armadillo is better.


In his first expedition Balboa befriended Indian guides who offered support and meat, it was only later that he began to massacre them with swords and vicious war-dogs. It was then too that his own problems began (he was beheaded less than four years later). The Scottish colonists alienated their Indian neighbours within a short time of settling here and according to John Prebble’s book The Darien Disaster their crossing of these mountains was immeasurably harder than either Balboa’s or ours. ‘They sank to their knees in a millennium of vegetable decay,’ Prebble wrote, ‘they were blinded by leaf-splintered sunlight, and deafened by the raucous protest of hidden birds.’ Our trek had been relatively tough but we were neither blinded nor deafened. And only rarely did we sink to our knees.  These days of course there are fantastic facilities and research sources that make the planning of an expedition far easier than ever. Google Earth is the greatest boon that can be imagined for a traveller who is planning a trip into uncharted territory. Far from detracting from the thrill of exploration, increased access to this sort of information can actually make it easier to get farther off the beaten track. Many of those empty spaces on the world’s maps – what Joseph Conrad once called ‘a blank space of delightful mystery’ – are now revealed in all their glory…beckoning to the adventurous with their unexplored rivers and unclimbed peaks.


As is so often the case, even the best maps we could get were still woefully inaccurate but we also carried a simple handheld Garmin GPS (a Venture HC) and were amazed to find that even under the dense jungle canopy we almost always managed to get a signal. Another backup security measure came in the form of the new state-of-the-art Spot satellite messenger device (www.findmespot.com). I could send a pre-set ‘all ok’ email to a list of recipients back home each evening and in the event of a real disaster there was even a ‘panic button’ that would alert rescue services. These cunning gadgets can be set to operate as a satellite-tracking system so that our position was relayed as a blip on a Google Earth page every ten minutes. Family and friends were able to follow our progress through the jungle almost in real-time and even before we were able to phone from the coastal town of La Palma they knew that we had made it from coast to coast.


The reassurance that this offered was wonderful but I knew that once we were on the ground we would soon find that the jungle was still the same jungle that it always was. With the mud, the insects, the thorns and the sweat it is one of the most challenging environments in the world. You trudge onward, frequently with mud up to your knees. Several times a day you struggle across rivers with the current swirling around your thighs and your backpack shucked up to keep it high-and-dry on your shoulders. You can feel your energy drain with the sweat that never stops running and in the tropical heat scratches and bites soon begin to fester. It can be tough and you often wonder what you are doing this for. But then, just at the right moment, something beautiful invariably happens to boost drooping morale: a pair of scarlet macaws flap squawking overheard or a giant blue morpho butterfly flitters past – looking like the patch of fallen heaven that the ancient Mayans believed it to be. All adventurous travellers are, at some stage, captivated by the myth of the rainforest, that pristine emerald world where the silence is broken only by birdsong or perhaps the uplifting serenade of the howler monkeys.


While these images are a part of the ‘lure of the jungle’, the harsh reality is often very different. Spend a little quality time in that Garden of Eden and you quickly begin to imagine that every living thing has decided to dedicate its life’s mission to your torment. If it can’t bite you, it will sting you. If it can’t sting you, it will scratch you. If it can’t scratch you it will, at the very least, do its best to give you a nasty suck.  I had already been warned about the Darien’s giant fulofo poison ants. They look like bullet ants but deliver a dose of venom that is said to be worse than that of a scorpion. One experienced Central American traveller I know (a big Panamanian weighing in at around about 200 pounds) spent almost three days vomiting and fainting after being bitten by just two of these vicious insects. Next to the fer de lance I was told that these were the creatures to beware of.


Then one fateful afternoon as we were nearing the end of our trip I scratched something that was tickling my ear and felt the jab of pain as a fulofo sank its pincers into my finger. I swore and cursed and rubbed the inflamed digit, which began to swell instantly to almost twice its size. Less than fifteen minutes later I was bitten by a second fulofo under my arm. This time – after I had finally convinced my attacker to let go – I just shook my head in stunned disbelief. My best bet now I realised was to get to the next river, make camp and climb into my hammock to try to sleep the poison off before the delirium kicked in.  Half-hour later as I climbed down to the river to remove the mud of another day’s trekking I brushed a poisonous plant with my arm. A large patch of blisters instantly broke out over my skin and as I hauled myself back out of the river after my wash a horsefly stung me on the back. Suddenly I had a feeling that I finally grasped what the ‘curse of the Darien’ was all about.


“Okay, okay!” I shouted at the jungle in general. “I get the message! I’m leaving okay?!! Give me a chance! I’m leaving!”