In this part of the world, the “Darien Gap” does not refer to a retail-clothing store in a Connecticut mall. This particular Darien Gap is a swampy 100-mile stretch of land between the border of Panama and Colombia and the only gap in the Pan-American Highway. Neither country seems too keen on building a road through the region for a number of reasons. Part of that is due to the geography. Building a road through 100 miles of swamp would be prohibitively expensive and could have devastating effects on the ecosystem by restricting the free movement of water. The indigenous Embera-Wounaan and Kuna people are not amenable to the idea of trespassers on their lands, and there are malaria-carrying mosquitoes to contend with. The climate is awful and, as if that weren’t enough, much of the area is home to the Marxist FARC rebels who have been known to kill or kidnap perceived interlopers. As one might imagine, this presents a challenge to those of us who wish to cross North and South America by land.
That’s not to say that it is completely impassible. People have tried with varying degrees of success. A loony but determined pair, one former British SAS member and an Australian engineer, crossed in a Land Rover in 1970. It took them 136 days at and average of just over 200 yards of progress per hour. Since then, people have crossed by motorcycle, bicycle and foot, with one evangelist even walking across the region carrying a wooden cross.
Not everyone makes it, however. Several visitors to the area have been kidnapped by FARC rebels and later released. A number of missionaries have simply disappeared, and earlier this year the skeletal remains of a Swedish backpacker who disappeared in 2013 were discovered. The evidence suggests that he met with a violent end and the incident is under investigation. For these reasons, I spent most of my time in Panama trying to find an alternative route around the Darien Gap.
The two only real options are by sea or by air. I spent a number of days running from freight offices to the airport to hostel bulleting boards searching for cargo companies, container ships or other vessels to move the motorcycle from Panama to Colombia. None of the vessels I found were leaving soon enough and even then, some of the process sounded sketchy. Some charter sailboats apparently bring motorcycles across, contrary to the laws of Colombian customs. That was not a risk I was willing to take, so I decided to bite the bullet and take the more expensive, but much more legitimate route of arranging for air shipment to Bogota. I left the motorcycle with the shipping company at the cargo terminal of Tocumen Airport in Panama City and booked myself on a commercial flight to Bogota.
As we flew over the Darien Gap later that night, there was a spectacular lightning storm far off below the starboard wing. As I admired the beauty of nature’s light show, I was also glad to be sitting in an Avianca Airbus, dry and eating a mediocre ham and cheese bun, while leaving the rain, lightning, malarial swamplands, angry natives, and Marxist rebels of the Darien Gap 30,000 feet below. This also means, however, that I landed several hundred miles south of the point from which I took off. In the spirit of the journey, I know that I wouldn’t forgive myself unless I backtrack for a couple of days on the Colombia side of the border to at least the latitude of Panama City, as this is not something I can return to and easily rectify later. So now, with this logistical mambo behind me, I plan on riding north towards Cartagena tomorrow.