Health & safety
The greatest hazard in the Darién is the difficult environment. Trails, when they exist at all, are often poorly defined and are never marked. Also, the many large rivers that form the backbone of the Darién transportation network create their own hazards. Any help at all, much less medical help, is very far away – if you get lost out here, you are done for. To minimize these risks, it’s recommended that you explore the Darién either as part of an organized tour or with the help of a local guide. Hiring a knowledgeable guide will also provide up-to-date information on the no-go areas and it provides safety through numbers.
Dengue and malaria are serious risks in the province. Take a prophylaxis or chloroquine – and cover up as much as possible, especially at dawn and dusk. Areas of the Parque Nacional Darién are also prime territory for the deadly fer-de-lance snake. The chance of getting a snakebite is remote, but you should be careful – always wear boots while walking in the forest. Although they don’t carry Lyme disease, ticks are everywhere in the Darién. In reality, they’re nothing more than a nuisance, but you’d be wise to bring a good pair of tweezers and a few books of matches.
The US State Department has strongly advised against crossing an imaginary line drawn from Puerto Obaldía in the north to Bahía Piña in the south, with Yaviza in the center. Unfortunately, this ill-conceived advisory includes the entirety of Parque Nacional Darién, which is a shame as the destinations listed in this chapter are completely safe to visit.
Particularly treacherous, however, are the areas between Boca de Cupe and Colombia, the traditional path through the Darién Gap – there is minimal police presence in this area, and it is unlikely that you will be given assistance if (when) trouble arises. Although the forest trails from Boca de Cupe to Cana are generally safe, it’s recommended that you avoid the towns of Balsal, El Naranjal, Púcuro, Limón, Paya and Palo de las Letras. The areas north and east of this are also considered dangerous, including the mountains Altos de Limón, the Río Tuquesa and the trail from Puerto Obaldía.
Although the no-go zones in the Darién are well removed from the traditional tourist destinations, the dangers in these spots cannot be underestimated. Narcotraffickers utilize these jungle routes and they don’t appreciate bumping into travelers trekking through the woods. Parts of the Darién Gap have also become areas of activity for guerrillas from neighboring Colombia, although they usually come to rest and hide, not to attack. However, Colombian paramilitary forces often cross the border to hunt the guerrillas and the last place you want to be is caught in the crossfire. Missionaries and travelers alike have been kidnapped and killed in the southern area of the Darién.
Despite these warnings, there are parts of the Darién that can be visited in complete safety – these areas are covered in more detail later in this chapter.
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