The Hellish Journey through the Darien Gap
The Darién Gap is a thick, unruly wilderness running along the border between Colombia and Panama. It is here that the impenetrability of the jungle cuts the Pan-American Highway in two. It is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet, yet the dense vegetation has become a backdrop to the irregular flow of migrants and drug traffickers.
BBC Mundo spent seven days here to find out what life is like in this place – considered by American journalist Jason Motlagh to be “the world’s most dangerous jungle”.
Day 1: Metetí
The tour for us starts where it ends for so many others: at the jungle’s northern entrance.
“This is a concentration camp, we've been here for several days and they do not let us out. We are enduring the worst living conditions.”
Mohamed Nasser Al Humaikani is talking to us. Slender, soft spoken and meek-eyed, he has dozens of flies orbiting around his head. He swats them away with his hands, but to no avail. The insects keep coming back and after a few more turns they finally land on his clammy forehead.
Mohamed is Yemeni.
In early August of 2017 he was detained by an officer of Panama’s National Border Service, the Senafront. He was trying to cross the Darién Gap on foot from the South, a daring undertaking that involves walking through the 575,000 hectare wilderness of the Gap that spans the border between Panama and Colombia.
He was heading to North America and was intercepted by the authorities after he had been trudging through thick jungle for four days. He said he surrendered without resistance because he was exhausted and he was taken to the military base in Metetí, some 250 kilometers east of Panama City.
He was 3,500 kilometers away from the United States border he was trying to reach, and almost four times that distance from his home country.
Since then, he has not been allowed to continue with his journey. In this migratory limbo, he met six other compatriots who had all undergone similar vicissitudes.
The stranded Yemenis have become just a symptom of a chronic condition.
In the last three years, Panama has received an influx of migrants coming through Colombia, originally from countries as diverse as Cuba, Haiti, Bangladesh or Somalia, all determined to venture through the Darién to arrive, many kilometres later, in the US.
Deputy Commissioner Jorge Gobea, coordinator of migration issues for the Senafront, looks surprisingly young for his status of military commander. He is tall, dressed in a neat and meticulously ironed uniform that looks fit for a military parade.
Behind him, in a large white tent with a dirt floor, some 42 migrants mingle aimlessly.
They are being held in this military camp set up by the Panamanian authorities, who provide them with food, a bed and some basic medical attention.
The camp has been named, very much in the bombastic style of Latin American bureaucracy, the “Temporary Humanitarian Aid Station”. Here everyone knows is as “la Etah“.
According to Commissioner Gobea, most of the people they hosted here in 2016, when they reached a record number of 27,000 migrants, were Cuban citizens who wanted to take advantage of the American “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, which allowed them to pursue legal residency in United States if they managed to reach country’s soil by any means (and without a visa).
“Don’t do it. The Darién Gap is hell itself” – Migrant from Ghana
Many experts agree that the warming of US-Cuba diplomatic relations under the Obama administration (the so called Cuban thaw), in 2014, was behind this massive exodus.
“Seeing Obama's diplomatic turnaround, many Cubans told me they feared that the privileges gained during the embargo would come to an end. So many rushed through the Darién trail to get to the US before it was too late,” says Deacon Víctor Berrío, president of the Catholic NGO Caritas in Panama, who personally attended to the migrants going through.
Mr Gobea does not want to comment on the matter, but he does tell us that during the most tense periods of the crisis his men would, on a daily basis, come across 20 to 30 Cuban migrants travelling through the area on foot.
Now there are no Cubans using this route after Obama put an immediate end to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” rule in late 2016.
But there are Africans and Asians as well as the Yemeni refugees. The Yemenis are fleeing the fierce conflict that has been devastating their country since 2015, with a death toll of at least 12,000, a million people displaced and a trail of famine and cholera. A few of them are arrested every time the Senafront patrols go on a raid.
“We´d rather go pee among the trees with the venomous snakes than use the camp’s toilet” – Mohamed, Yemeni migrant
According to the National Directorate of Migration of Colombia, in 2016 only two Yemeni nationals were issued a temporary safe-conduct pass in the Colombian city of Turbo, near the border, so that they could leave the country for Panama.
In 2017 there were eight.
The War Against the Flies
“La Etah” in Metetí has been set up in the back yard of the military complex.
It is surrounded by a metal fence, and inside the large tent there are three rows of double bunkbeds with dirty, weathered mattresses where the migrants lay even during daytime.
As they await a decision from the authorities, they have nothing to do other than hide as best they can from an unexpected enemy: the flies.
They scare them with towels, but there are too many. Some try to catch them with a sudden, futile grasp of the fist, as if they could then throw them against the wall and perhaps drown the frustration of the wait.
Mr Gobea stands in front of the group of men. The migrants barely understand him and he asks if anyone speaks any English. Mohamed gets up and approaches him. He walks as slowly as he speaks.
The intention, the Commander tells him, is that he tells us how well they have been treated at the camp.
Mohamed often finds himself being the translator for his fellow migrants.
They are all siting together on a single group of bunks that has become an impromptu meeting room. They are all men, dressed in dusty jeans, plastic flip-flops and the same shirts they arrived in, that have since then been washed over and over.
One of them, says Mohamed, is quite ill.
“He has a fever, and no one here gives us adequate health care, they just give us a few pills and that’s that,” he explains in a whisper, as he pulls up the hem of his mate’s trousers to reveal an infected swelling on the left ankle.
Before the war broke out in Yemen, Mohamed was a family doctor in Sana'a, the country’s capital, and it is because of his profession that he can speak another language: most of the texts he had to read in medical school were only available in English.
His fellow migrants, on the other hand, only speak Arabic. They used to work as farmers or craftsmen, and they did not live in the capital but in more remote towns like Taiz, Al Hudaydah or Al Bayda.
Now they look at Mohamed with anxiety, as if they were witnessing the world collapse in front of their eyes after all the perils they endured while crossing the jungle – and just when the “American dream” seemed a lot closer.
Moreover, they are heading towards a country where they are likely to be rejected: soon after he took office, US president Donald Trump imposed a “travel ban” on five Muslim-majority countries, among which was Yemen.
How did you get here?, I ask Mohamed.
“I flew to Ecuador, one of the few countries that do not ask Yemenis for an entry visa. I met several of them there,” he says, as he points to one of the bunk beds where two of his fellow travelers are taking a nap under the relentless buzz of the flies.
“From Ecuador we took a bus to Turbo (Colombia) and from there we set foot in the jungle and walked through it all“.
I ask what it was like crossing the Darién Gap.
He wipes the sweat off his face with his shirt. The humidity under the tent is suffocating, but it is still better than standing under the sun outside.
“Those were the worst four days of my life,” he answers without a hint of hesitation.
“We didn’t have resources, I saw people sink because they wanted to cross a river but they did not know how to swim. Then I met several young people, very young, who cried inconsolably because they couldn’t take it any more”.
On top of the dangers of the dense tropical forest, where anyone is an easy prey for venomous snakes and jaguars, there is a stealthy operation of a human-trafficking cartel, whose scope is difficult to estimate.
In July this year, Interpol and the Colombian National Police published a joint report in which they estimated that the migrant-smuggling business through the Darién amounted to almost a million dollars a week.
Many of those who willingly hand all their savings over to a “coyote” are often abandoned to their fate in the roadless maze of jungle, sometimes without food or water, until they are spotted by the Senafront soldiers. If they are lucky, that is.
- Why would you choose this pathway that is so far away from Yemen and is so dangerous, if Europe is much closer?
- Because we have more options of being granted refugee status. In Europe they would treat us as migrants, not as refugees. And our country is burning and we cannot go back.
- But you knew when you traveled here that the US has imposed a travel ban for Yemenis…
- Oh but we're not going to the United States, we're heading to Canada!
He turns round and says it also in Arabic, seeking confirmation from his group. Everyone nods, silently.
The very idea that - if the authorities allow them to finally leave Panama instead of deporting them back to Yemen- they still have to travel through Central America and Mexico, enter through the heavily-guarded southern US border and then cross the entire US territory from South to North, seems truly daunting. Unfathomable.
Mohamed breaks the silence. For him the most pressing issue is to get the Panamanian authorities to return them their passports and let them continue their journey. The rest, he says, they will sort it along the way.
“We left hell behind and landed in hell again. Just to give you an idea of the conditions we have to endure here: we´d rather go pee among the trees with the venomous snakes than use the camp’s toilet facilities.”
Commissioner Gobea says there is no discrimination of any kind against the migrants they detain, much less one based on nationality.
“Our only aim is to coordinate the flow of illegal migration through Panama. We try to provide the best attention we can to everyone that comes through this aid station, they eat our food and they shower with and drink from the same water as our soldiers,” he says.
“Our only aim is to coordinate the flow of illegal migration through Panama” – Deputy Commissioner Jorge Gobea, Senafront
Meanwhile, when asked by the BBC about the situation of the Yemenis delayed in Metetí, the National Migration Service of Panama said they “will not refer to these cases due to security policies“.
But Mohamed is sure there is something else behind.
“The big question is why are they not letting us get out of here, are they doing the United States a favour? Migrants with other nationalities come, they are held for a couple of days and then they are released to continue their journey towards the border with Costa Rica.”
Mohamed shows me his arm with a fluorescent paper bracelet with the number 3,405. They put it around his wrist on the day he arrived. Most of the other migrants in the tent, mostly from Bangladesh and East Africa, have bracelets with numbers above 4,000
“And we, the Yemenis, are still here.”
Mohamed and his group, we find out later, would still stay in Metetí for another couple of weeks, before being taken to Panama City and deported to their country of origin.
At the exit of the military base we spot a bus full of migrants from different African countries, who arrived in Panama after crossing two jungles: the Brazilian Amazon and the Darién.
They are on their way out. Inside the bus, you can feel the sense of urgency: when we jump on, nobody seems willing to talk to us. Their faces tell a tale of exhaustion and need. They don’t mind our taking a photo as long as we do it fast. They just want to continue their journey.
Finally one of them waves at us. Ibrahim is his name, and the football shirt he is wearing reveals his country of origin: Sierra Leone. He talks to us about the sport, about Falcao, about Messi. About his dream of making it to the United States.
“My sister told me not to go back. Whatever happened, she said I shouldn’t return because the situation in my country is terrible.”
When I tell him that I am going to cross the Darién Gap, he looks at me with eyes wide open.
“Don’t do it. If I had known what it was like, I would not have come through here. We didn’t have anyone to guide us and we got lost, we had to sleep outdoors thinking that we would be eaten by a tiger (jaguar), we had to swim across rivers, put up with mosquitoes, walk on mud for hours… “.
“I was able to endure it all because I am a young man, but she almost didn’t make it“, says Ibrahim, as he points to the woman in the seat next to his.
The woman, who will later tell us she comes from Ghana, emerges from the bottom of the seat. She doesn’t smile, even though her companion, whom she met in the ordeal of the jungle, tells her a joke or two and gives her some nice compliments.
“Do not do it,” she says a few times.
She extends her right leg to reveal her foot. On the heel, a reminder of the Darién: the shoes she used during the six days of the trek through the Gap left her with a sore the size of a coin that does not stop bleeding.
“Don’t do it, it is hell. We did it because we had no other option.”
Day 2: Camarón
When the road comes to an end, life becomes a little more primitive.
In Yaviza, a town some 300 kilometers from Panama City, the strip of asphalt of the Pan-American Highway suddenly vanishes, after a 12,500-kilometre stretch that runs South from Prudhoe, Alaska.
And once the road ends, there is only water and canoes.
- You can fit 50 sacks in here, says Camarón.
Despite being short and heavy, Camarón moves swiftly through the narrow confines of his canoe to place a huge leather armchair over two bags of yams and bananas that he must take to the neighboring town of El Real.
He does not know exactly how many kilos are 50 sacks. He doesn’t need to know. Here, in the port of Yaviza, things are not weighed. They are counted.
“After 50 packages, the canoes begin to sink,” he explains as he draws a sinking boat with his hand in the air.
Where the asphalt ends and the Tuira river rises, is where the Darién Gap technically begins – an extension of land that represents 13% of the territory of Panama and holds the largest concentration of bird species in the world.
On the other side of the border is Colombia, and over the last 30 years this jungle has been the setting for crossfires, massacres, torture and kidnappings of civilians by Colombian guerrilla fronts and paramilitary commandos.
Yet the jungle at this point seems hellish not because of the perils of nature and the dangers of human actions – it is mostly because of its humidity, unbearable heat and the fact that once in it, you can hardly see the sky.
You cannot really see where the sun rises or where it sets, it is impossible to tell North from South without the aid of a compass or GPS. If there is no one to guide you, you can spend days on end walking in circles like a dog chasing its tail.
When Camarón comes back from transporting the leather chair to the neighbouring town, we are going to ride in his canoe and go off into the domains of the green giant.
Day 3: Waters
To feel the soul of the Darién you have to caress the water.
While Camarón accelerates his 40-horsepower Suzuki engine, we can feel in our fingertips the crisp, cold particles of the Tuira waters, the mighty green river that glides over a bed of polished rocks and fallen trees.
The water here is ever-present. This region is one of the wettest on Earth and since we left Yaviza we have been able to attest to that: a soft but steady drizzle has been falling on us during most of the journey.
But the abundance of water from both rainfall and rivers does not guarantee good mobility. It takes six hours to cover just 30 kilometers. With the highway, it would take less than two hours to drive to Colombia.
So, at this pace, this journey on foot and barges will take us another six days.
This unresolved conflict between nature and progress has been a part of life here for over 50 years. Different parties have not managed to agree on whether the jungle should be opened to allow for the 108 kilometers of road that are missing to be finally built – between Yaviza and the Colombian port of Turbo, where the continental highway resumes its course.
The Pan-American Highway was first conceived in 1929 during a presidential summit, but it was not until 1937 that 13 countries, led by the United States, agreed to build it, based on a principle that on paper would have facilitated construction: each country was meant to take care of the stretch of road in its territory.
The project ran relatively smoothly for about 25 years.
But the first major problem arose in the early 60s, when Panama and Colombia engaged in negotiations to decide how to get the road through the jungle: some suggested “carving” a straight line through the vegetation, others pointed out that the best option was to plan a small detour to the north and build the road closer to the Caribbean coast.
Decisions were lost in bureaucratic paperwork and bitter budget disputes, and as a result this section of the road was never built.
So it is just streams and rivers.
Six hours of navigation on the Tuira finally leave us at Boca de Cupe.
We are greeted by a couple of roosters near the port and, as we enter the narrow streets of this village of some 800 inhabitants, hundreds of these birds appear everywhere - in the gardens, in the schoolyard, in the grounds of the Senafront battalion.
“The rivers are the only means for us to travel across the jungle, and they dry up completely during the summer” – René Alvarado Ballesteros, farmer
The power of the rooster kingdom does not become evident until late at night, when they all join in a chorus, one raucous cock-a-doodle-do after another, not quite like a synchronized choir but more like a bunch of fighters facing a firing squad and scared by the imminence of death.
The house of René Alvarado Ballesteros is guarded by three roosters that peck the ground.
Mr Alvarado comes out to the front porch dressed in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He introduces himself as a farmer, although most of the neighbors point to him as a widely respected community leader.
He is among those who want the road to be built, because despite the numerous streams and canals that are available throughout the Darién Gap none of them can really guarantee that locals will be able to travel on them at any time.
“The rivers are the only means for us to travel across, and they dry up completely during the summer (December-April). In winter the trip to Yaviza can be done in six hours, in summer it takes two days,” he says.
In his plot he produces yam, a starchy tuber similar to cassava, as well as plantain and rice. During the tough summer months, plantains ripen before he manages to sell them. “And the yam rots, for the most part.”
“A good road would change our lives. A road so that people could transport their produce. Opening a path through the Darién would be a good thing, of course it would be good,” he says enthusiastically.
The last attempt to complete this stretch of road came in February 2010, when the then president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, argued that it was a matter of national security.
“I understand that this is a very sensitive issue, but I think we need to better connect Colombia and Panama. It is in the best interests of the bandits that this route is not built, because bandits like mischievous roads,” he said during a business summit.
According to Interpol, the trafficking of migrants in this area amounts to over 3 million dollars per month.
And also, Panamanian authorities seized about five tons of cocaine in the area in the first half of this year, mostly transported in backpacks through the jungle.
In Boca de Cupe, life slows down after sunset.
People seek comfort inside their homes, the porches and patios become gradually empty and only some of the younger locals stay out, their eyes riveted to the screen of their mobile phones, that in turn project a rainbow-coloured light onto their faces.
They all stand in line next to the school building. I ask them why they choose such location.
“It's the Internet, the only one that works is the school’s,” replies one of them, before being hypnotized again by the screen.
Day 4: Lorencita
With the first crow of the roosters begins another leg of our journey. Back on the canoe with six hours of navigation ahead of us, the river waters splash against the wooden edge of the boat while the sky spits thick rain on us.
Travelling from Boca de Cupe to Paya – the indigenous community where, we will later find out, we will start the hardest part of the journey-, trees become taller and greener, so green that they seem black.
Although it has rained constantly for the past few days, the Tuira is shallow. So much so that we have to get off Camarón’s canoe several times to push it forward over the gravel of the riverbed.
It is hard to get our heads around it: it rains relentlessly, yet the river has no water.
At the back of the canoe, quiet and observant, is Isaac Pizarro, a park guide. He is small and sturdy, with a perennial smile that make his small eyes even smaller. He is one of the few people that know this area like the back of his hand, but most of all he is a man who knows about birds.
So much so that, unlike the amateur birdwatcher who has to relate the song to the physical features of each species with the aid of taxonomy cards, Pizarro distinguishes each bird in the distance, just by the way it flies.
“Let me explain,” he says, “the problem is that it’s not raining near the river source, that's why the water is not enough”.
“I don’t agree with the idea of opening the Darién Gap. We will lose all our food. If we let all those people in, our animals will disappear” – Lorencita Bastidas, Kuna woman
This is just one anomaly, he says. Environmentalists and local indigenous communities anticipate there could be many more if a highway is built in an area with such rich biodiversity.
It would be like giving a free pass to the already implacable threat of global warming.
That is why so many people have shown uttermost commitment to protect the Darién.
The first step was taken in 1972, when Panama created the special reserve land of Alto Darién, thus guarantying governmental control over what became the largest conservation area in Central America.
Later, when those efforts proved futile to prevent the invasion of illegal loggers, UNESCO put the Gap on the World Heritage List during the 1980s, also extending its protection to the area on the Colombian side of the border.
“It is in the best interests of the bandits that this route is not built, because bandits like mischievous roads” – Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia’s former president
The Darién jungle is home to over 900 species of birds, 2,163 plants, 160 species of mammals and 50 of amphibians, as well as protected coastal areas, plateaus and virgin forest.
“Any attempt to build a highway across it would represent a direct threat, which is why we have rejected the project of the Pan-American (road),” says Julia Miranda Londoño, director of Colombia's National Natural Parks, in a meeting we had before heading off to the jungle.
The locals who accompany us do not know about statistics, but they share a similar vision on what to do with this mostly uninhabited wilderness.
They refute two misleading conclusions that, with our inexperienced eyes, we made at the beginning of our journey. One, that the Darien is virtually inexhaustible. And two, that after decades of fighting off every attempt to get the road built this place remains unchanged.
Our jungle is essentially fragile, they repeat emphatically.
“It's like a child trapped inside a cage with hungry lions,” says Mr Pizarro.
But this environmental discourse has not resonated far enough, and trees are still being cut down both sides of the border.
Just as a measure of the problem, and according to the Panamanian government’s records, 96% of the illegal wood that is traded in the country comes from Darién.
That is probably why when we walk through Paya – a village of the Kuna indigenous community, made up of neatly arranged houses with wooden walls and thatched roofs, trimmed lawns and not a single trace of rubbish on the sidewalks- the arguments that we hear more often about why the forest should be preserved do not resort to big environmental slogans, but rather to the need of guarantying the locals’ own survival.
Image caption: Lorencita Bastidas wants to keep the traditions of the Kuna community she belongs to.
“I do not agree with opening a road through the land, we're going to lose all our food.”
Among all those who repeat the same argument to us, Lorencita Bastidas stands out. Rather, the colours of Lorencita Bastidas stand out.
She struts with her chest out covered in a blue “mola” blouse, the traditional textile that is laboriously made by local weavers by overlapping several layers of fabric and drawing motifs of native flora and fauna.
She has a golden ring hanging from her nose and a “chaquiras”, a colourful mesh of knitted beads, wrapped around her legs down to the knees.
“From the minute people see me, I want them to know I’m a Kuna woman,” she says with pride.
Image caption: “If they open up the Darién, our traditions will come to an end”, says Lorencita, voicing the concerns of her Kuna community.
She says her Spanish is not very polished; she closes her fists and puts them in front of her chest, a gesture that comes across as both reaffirming and threatening.
“If we let people in, all my animals are going to disappear, they will go far away,” she shakes her head as she speaks.
Lorencita, like everybody else in Paya, feels the rigors of the isolation and the lack of proper transportation.
She tells us the story of the local school's primary teacher, who has a 2-year-old boy and for more than two months she hasn’t been able to talk to her husband, who lives in Panama City, because electricity is restricted here. There is no telephone line in Paya and the only chance to access the internet depends on the generosity of the commander of the Senafront base.
“To communicate, she has to write letters and send them in one of the canoes to Boca de Cupe, and then she has to wait for someone to travel back from there to get her husband’s written reply.”
Despite this, Lorencita prefers to live in isolation. “The water is clean and, with the river running under the shade of the trees, it's always cool. If they build the highway, the water will be dirty and everything will be contaminated.”
After lunch, Mr Pizarro suggests that we have some rest. Tomorrow we will be getting up very early to make the most of daylight and the trek ahead of us is challenging, he says.
With Algis Barrios, one of the Darién’s park rangers who happens to be here in Paya, we review the rigors that the trip will entail.
I confess that my main fear is being bitten by a snake. I have my reasons: the community doctor has seen several of his patients die on the floor of a canoe, as they ran out of time to get to the first aid clinic in Yaviza.
- You’d better pray that it doesn’t rain then, he tells me.
- Because snakes get fretful with the rain.
Day 5: Jungle
As soon as we enter the thicket, after crossing two streams and a large banana plantation, we immediately understand why it is so easy to get lost in this terrain: there is no way to guess the way. There are few visual aids, very little by way of a signpost that could help us navigate the jungle.
So we blindly obey any indication given by the four local men that are coming with us, alongside Mr Pizarro, to help us with what - we are told several times- will be the roughest stretch of the journey.
The landscape is overwhelming: the ancient trees look like skyscrapers and we are under a weave of leaves and stems that barely let the sun-rays come through. They do not seem as effective to mitigate the intensity of the heat, though.
The jungle hits us in the face. All those warnings suddenly makes sense – that one does not cross the Darién Gap but rather bounces against it.
Against the tangled thorny bushes that scratch our arms and hands. Against the insurmountable corpses of the trees that have fallen down and now lie on the ground until nature swallows them up, which force us to change our course every few meters.
Against the branches that rattle and shake every time one of us walks past, and then become a dry, painful lash against the body of the person walking right behind.
Against the evidence left behind by migrants, too: Adidas sweatshirts hanging from the trees, plastic bottles of energy drinks now filled with mud, empty bags of rehydration gel, a purple bra, a pair of trainers, a baby romper.
Pizarro asks us not to touch anything, to leave everything as we find it.
“Those who walk past leave their belongings as references, so as not to lose their way and to help others who come behind,” he explains.
“And where are these migrants?”, I ask.
“They will not let us see them, they don’t know if we are from the Senafront, if we are backpackers carrying drugs... Usually migrants hide when they hear there is somebody else around, they don’t want to risk it,” he replies.
Further down the road he shows us a gravesite for someone who did not survive the crossing. There is no headstone or cross, only the visible lines of a rectangular hole dug in the ground.
Mr Pizarro says he was an African migrant and he was lucky to get a proper burial, thanks to some of his companions who intercepted some indigenous men that walked past to ask them for help to dig the grave.
Another nameless victim to add to the statistics: truth is, the number of people who never made it to the other side of the jungle over the past few years, since the migratory flow increased, remains unknown. There are no official figures, just fragmented stories.
One of them is told to us by Sister Margina Cuadra Gaitán, a Nicaraguan nun who has been living in Boca de Cupe for the past 20 years.
“I remember there were three men who had drowned in the river. The Senafront found them and brought them to me, they asked me if I could say a prayer during the burial in the local cemetery,” says Sister Cuadra.
“I didn’t know if they were Catholic or not, but since I was the only nun in the area they asked if I could just be there and say something, so that their funeral would not just be a formality.”
Death here must be a burdensome affair.
It hasn´t rained at all during the past few hours – not a single drop. Which may be good to spare us the threat of the snakes, but does not help with the heat and the body sweat.
Mr Pizarro says we will be taking our first break soon. “We are about to reach the car”, he says.
- The car?
- Yes, it’s about an hour and a half walk from here.
- A car in the middle of the jungle…
- Yes, that’s right.
The lack of roads has not stopped some daring travelers from venturing through the jungle by car.
One of them was Dick Doane, a car dealer from Chicago who in 1961 funded the expedition of three red Corvairs -a model launched by General Motors two years earlier- from Illinois to Buenos Aires, to prove that the sturdy brand new vehicle was able to conquer the Gap.
They brought trucks, they knocked down trees to create a trail wide enough for the cars to circulate, and they hired some indigenous people to guide the expedition.
“At some point they miscalculated the amount of gasoline in one of the vehicles. So they sent some people back to Paya to get fuel, while the other two cars continued the journey,”
Pizarro tells me.
“When they made it back, the most expensive parts of the car were gone, they had been stolen. So the vehicle had to be left there.”
“It's a car in the middle of the jungle!”, shouts my travel companion, perhaps excited at seeing something that interrupts the monotony of the landscape. He takes out his mobile phone and takes several selfies.
I only manage to lie for a moment against the red corpse of the car. The rust had eaten through the metal. I imagine that this could well be a metaphor for every failed attempt to conquer the Darién. All is turned into rusty leftovers by the almighty jungle.
Less than 100 meters away is the national border – an area that geography books often describe as the spot where Central American biodiversity meets the exuberance of South American indigenous vegetation.
Difficult to tell, really: for the untrained eye, the transition between two continents is only noticeable thanks to a slate milepost with an inscription on each side, “Panama” on the northern edge and “Colombia” on the southern one.
To reach it, we have to crawl for about 200 meters under a tunnel of bamboo stalks.
As José E. Mosquera, a Colombian political analyst who has done extensive research on the the Pan-American project, told me, this border also explains one of the main issues that brought the construction of the highway to a halt.
“In the early 1970s, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease affected the Colombian livestock. That triggered the alarms in the United States, which had been the main sponsor of the continental road”, Mr Mosquera explained to us during a meeting in Medellin, a few weeks earlier.
According to analysts, the US government then thought that the best way to stop the spread of the virus was to take advantage of the natural barrier created by the jungle. They offered Colombia some support to create a conservation space in the area through which the continental route was supposed to run.
So the Los Katíos National Park was created as a barrier of sorts against foot-and-mouth disease. We set foot in the park as soon as we leave the border monolith behind: this is now the Colombian Darién.
“Thus, the United States neutralized any chance of opening a direct route between Colombia and the US. For that reason, for many years the park was known as ‘Los Katíos USDA’, the acronym that stands for US Department of Agriculture, the entity that funded the project,” he added.
With the emergence of a civil war in Colombia between guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and the army, Panama found new arguments to delay the construction of the road: the jungle would work not only as a barrier against bovine virus, but also as an unofficial deterrent to prevent the armed conflict from expanding.
We have been walking for over eight hours, the temperature has hit 30 degrees, my clothes are soaked and weigh twice as much.
Our guide Pizarro outlines the plan of what is to come: we must cross the Tula river ravine, not following its bank but in a straight line to save ourselves time. That may be shorter, but not easier, as we will have to climb up and down eight hills along the way.
“We are behind schedule,” he says, by way of an explanation. And he points upwards, to a threat that is breathing down our necks. “Days are shorter in the jungle… the light will be gone very soon.”
But the heat and the strenuous trek take a toll on us. Despite our efforts to keep hydrated, we start to struggle. Our steps become slower and our need for a break, more frequent.
Mr Pizarro gets nervous and keeps repeating the goal: we have to get to our destination before nightfall.
To make things worse, an unplanned hurdle: the track ahead is totally flooded, turned into a mud pool that swallows our feet and legs up to the ankles – in some parts, even up to the knees.
Over the marsh there are traces of mules and donkeys.
“The (illegal) logging companies use mules to take the wood out of the forest. That has caused damage to the quality of the soil in some areas of the park“, explains Nianza Ángulo Paredes, director of Los Katíos reserve.
“We now have several control measures in place to try and control these practices,” she says. “In fact, UNESCO has taken us off the list of endangered areas in 2015, after we successfully reduced deforestation in the area”, insists the official.
The truth is that this place is not designed for anyone to travel through, much less on foot.
Next comes a challenging trek, over mud that sticks to our hands and feet and seems to have a life of its own. Every time my feet get sucked in, my boots get trapped and I need to fight to get my leg back out, as if the mud were about to eat it.
Each step forward is also a step downwards. We sink deeper and deeper into the mud and all our efforts are focused on getting the foot off the bottom, only to start the fight against the marsh again with the next step. The journey becomes a painful trek of mud-drenched legs and escalating fatigue, which will last for another four hours.
Pizarro's worst fears come true.
The night falls and I suddenly understand the guide’s urgency: the jungle after dusk is a murky place. Like wearing a mask that does not let you breathe.
“I can’t do this anymore,” says my travel partner, his knees give way, his body falls to the ground. He huffs and puffs and the five men who have been walking with us stand in a circle with their torches on to prevent any animal from approaching.
I am just as exhausted. It’s been 12 hours of putting up a fight against nature, in a suffocating atmosphere that crushes your body covered in ever-wet garments.
Mr Pizarro talks on his radio and brings us some encouraging news: “We are 25 minutes away from the Cacarica river, where a boat is waiting and will take us to the Juin Phubuur community. Let’s go!”
When I get up again and walk for a few meters, I see a straw hut and a table with rustic chairs symmetrically arranged around it against the backdrop of the jungle. Also a canoe, oscillating over a placid river.
It’s the perfect picture, I see it clearly. “There it is, we made it, we have arrived,” I say with elation.
“No, there's nothing there,” says the guide next to me. “You're starting to hallucinate, we have to get out fast.”
He pours water on my neck and makes me drink large sips, which help me concentrate on the road again. Those remaining 25 minutes in fact become an hour, meandering through the mud until we finally reached the boat.
I lie down on the boat’s hull and feel the urge to close my eyes, but one of the guides suggests we stay awake until we get to Juin Phubuur, in case the boat turns turtle and we cannot react in time to swim out of the water.
“Look at the sky, look how beautiful it is here,” he says, distracting us so that we don’t fall asleep.
Silver stars burst over the violet background of the Darién sky. The waning moon shines brighter here, without any sign of air pollution.
While the canoe holds its course, I cannot help but think that what we’ve just done is what hundreds of migrants do on foot every day.
But we did it with the support of five expert locals, abundant water and food, specialized clothing and a communication system. They venture through without any such resources.
There were 47,000 migrants in the last ten years (and 27,000 of those in 2016 alone), some travelling through the jungle without proper advice, guidance, food or shoes, with the only aim of fleeing from misery and seeking a better future elsewhere – in a land that lays many dangers and many miles away.
Day 6: Fear
On the other edge of the Darién Gap, in Colombia, the indigenous community of Juin Phubuur allows us to stay for a few days when we arrive dirty and exhausted.
They first thing they all talk about is their constant fear.
A little over a year ago, and after five decades of civil conflict, the Colombian government led by President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which used to be in control of most of this territory (through its unit “57th Front”).
Other insurgent groups, such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, also known as Los Urabeños, have tried to take advantage of the vacuum left by the FARC after the ceasefire.
“We’ve already had to kick the paramilitaries out of our territory twice this year. Here we will not allow any kind of violence,” says Ovidio Chocho Mepaquito, the community chief.
They fought the paramilitaries with the weapons they had at hand – heavy batons that men and women here carry around in case they have to defend themselves from the dangers of the jungle.
“Until now we have kept them at bay, but they are armed and we don’t know if one day they will come and bring us under… not much we can do, because here there is no state control of any kind”, says the chief, a small man wearing a yellow shirt with the name of a candidate for the past elections printed on it.
But down the Cacaricas river, fear grows bigger. In the district of Bijao – a town with a mostly Afro-Colombian population, which has already experienced the horrors of violence-, you can feel fear in the air, without even naming it.
Luis Aristarco is standing outside the front porch of his house. He is getting ready to stand in for the pastor, who could not make it to the local church this Sunday. He is already spruced-up, dressed in a white shirt, with freshly ironed trousers and a piece of orange towel as a handkerchief.
Twenty years ago, several men from the paramilitary block Elmer Cárdenas decapitated his brother Marino with a machete and dismembered him in front of the entire community.
“I didn’t see any of it because I wasn’t in Bijao that day, but a week later I had to come back to pick up the parts of my brother's body, they were floating in the river,” he recalls as he attempts to hold back his tears.
He has also heard the rumors that the paramilitaries want to regain control of the area. I ask him about the peace process: does he feel anything has changed here with the newly signed agreements?
“Peace is a gift that only God can give us“, he stops me.
“But it's very difficult (to feel any improvement) when we don’t even have a school (its roof was destroyed when an anti-narcotics helicopter landed in the town, and it was never repaired) or a health centre, and we can barely use our boats to travel.”
“Fear is still there, it is impossible not to think that it can all happen again,” he adds.
And fears are not unfounded: humanitarian organizations working in the area attended to 18,000 emergencies related to the conflict between January and July of 2017.
The commander of the Colombian army himself, General Alberto José Mejía, flags up the difficulties that controlling this region entails.
“To operate in the Chocó region is very challenging, there is a fight over the control (of the business) of coca production between the ELN (the guerrilla group National Liberation Army) and criminal gangs,” General Mejía told BBC Mundo.
Day 7: Exit
The last leg of the trip takes us to Turbo. It is meant to be a five-hour boat ride, we are told. Yet we have to get off the canoe half way, to push it forward as we walk on the riverbed.
We pass a canoe travelling in the opposite direction loaded with goods: mattresses, soft drinks cans, bananas, drums of gasoline. Pushing from the bow of the boat, a thin, bearded man walks with water up to his knees, pushing vigorously to get it to move just a couple of metres at a time.
“This is our daily ordeal, coming back and forth we have to get off and push,” he says. His name is Felipe. “But it's the only way we are able to travel around,” he sighs and continues to move forward on the stream of water, shallow and laden with woody sediments.
He does not mention the highway – nobody does unless you ask them. It is only when the waters of the Cacaricas meet the mighty Atrato river that the Pan-American project resurfaces: it is not a coincidence that this place is called Puente América (America Bridge).
Jota works on a floating café, placed on wooden planks over the river, and he offers us something to eat for breakfast.
“They call this place Puente América because there… – he points North in the direction of the horizon- they were going to build the bridge for the Pan-American road. But that never happened.”
The locals have already forgotten about it, he says, and almost nobody on this side of the Darién Gap talks about the highway these days.
“We have more pressing matters… For instance, why don’t they spend all that money that has been spent on the peace process on helping us drain the river?”
The boat gains speed when the Atrato gets deeper, as it encounters the Caribbean Sea just where Turbo lies.
I once again caress the water. I close my eyes, open my palms wide and think back to the waning moon and the stars over the violet Darién sky.
Behind, covered by a misty drizzle, the compact mass of the Darién Gap gradually vanishes in the horizon.
A giant loaded with nightmares, so otherworldly that it could just as well be a mere invention of the imagination.
900 bird species
2,163 plant species
160 species of mammals
50 species of amphibians
Source: Darién National Park, Panama.