Riverside Sambú is an interesting stop, populated by Emberá and Cimarron people (whose ancestors escaped the slave trade by living in the jungle). Urban by Darién standards, it has an airstrip, hospital and pay phone. Given the ease of flying in here, it makes a good launch point to visit riverside Emberá and Wounaan communities and absorb the slow jungle pace.
Riverside El Real dates from the conquistador days when it was merely a fort beside Río Tuira. The settlement prevented pirates from sailing upriver to plunder Santa María, where gold from the Cana mines was stored. Today, El Real is one of the largest towns in the Darién, though it’s still very much a backwater settlement.
Parque Nacional Darién
Parque Nacional Darién is the most ecologically diverse land-based national park in all of Central America. Although it’s often overshadowed by the security situation in the province, there is no doubt that it is the crown jewel of Panama’s national parks, mostly sought after by specialists like biologists and botanists.
Part bazaar and part bizarre, this concrete village is the end of the road. Here the Interamericana grinds to a halt and beyond lies the famous Darién Gap. Rough edged and misshapen, it’s hardly a destination unless you had cockfighting in mind. For travelers, it is an essential stop to check in for entry to Parque Nacional Darién.
Located 1km southeast of the police checkpoint, Metetí buzzes with passing traffic, but few stay. The town’s primary function is to get travelers to La Palma via a scenic boat ride. Yet lodging options are preferable to those in Yaviza. For last-minute purchases there is a good-sized grocery store.
Thirteen kilometers south of El Real, as the lemon-spectacled tanager flies, is the Rancho Frío sector of Parque Nacional Darién. It’s home to Pirre Station, or Pirre 2, not be confused with the station at the top of Mount Pirre near Cana. Rare bird species represented here include the crimson-bellied woodpecker, the white-fronted nunbird and the striped woodhaunter.
Overlooking Bahía Piña on the Pacific Coast, near the southern tip of the Darién, the legendary Tropic Star Lodge boasts the most International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records. No expense has been spared in creating this remote luxury lodge with first-class facilities.
Reserva Natural Punta Patiño
On the southern shore of the Golfo de San Miguel, 25km from La Palma, is this private 263-sq-km wildlife preserve owned by ANCON and managed by the organization’s for-profit arm, Ancon Expeditions. The only way to reach the preserve is by boat or plane. Landing on the tiny strip of ocean-side grass that’s called a runway in these parts is definitely part of the experience.
The mouth of the wide, brown Río Sambú is 1½ hours by boat south of Punta Patiño. Boats pass through spectacular jungle, gliding past traditional Emberá and Wounaan villages. Fortitude is a must. You will have to deal with hours on board under a broiling tropical sun with leaking gasoline cans onboard.