Dangers & Annoyances
The greatest hazard in the Darién is the difficult environment. Trails, when they exist at all, are often poorly defined and are rarely marked. Many large rivers that form the backbone of the Darién transportation network create their own hazards. Any help at all, let alone medical assistance, is very far away. If you get lost, you are almost certainly 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 qualified guide.
Dengue and malaria are risks. Consult your doctor before you go about necessary medication, and cover up as much as possible, especially at dusk. Areas of the Parque Nacional Darién are prime territory for the deadly fer-de-lance snake. The chances of getting a snakebite are remote, but do be careful and always wear boots on treks. Although they don’t carry Lyme disease, ticks are widespread. Bring tweezers and a few books of matches to ensure you’re able to remove the entire tick if it’s burrowed well into your skin.
In May 2017 the US State Department lifted its warning about visiting remote areas of the Darién off the Interamericana, including the entire Parque Nacional Darién. It does, however, continue to advise on security, choosing safe transportation, health issues and documentation.
Although the no-go zones in the Darién are well removed from the traditional tourist destinations, their dangers cannot be underestimated. Drug traffickers who utilize these jungle routes don’t appreciate encountering travelers. In the past, former Colombian guerrillas or runaways took refuge here. Missionaries and travelers alike have been kidnapped and killed in the southern area of the Darién.
The areas between Boca de Cupe and Colombia, the traditional path through the Darién Gap, remain particularly treacherous. As there's only minimal police or military presence here, you're on your own if trouble arises.
Despite all this, most parts of the Darién can be visited in total safety.
Feature: Surviving the Darién
The Parque Nacional Darién is the most ecologically diverse land-based national park in all Central America, yet it is also one of the least-visited. Chalk it up to its reputation: with its oft-repeated security risks and poisonous snakes, the Darién isn’t for everyone. Yet as a destination it is fascinating and fulfilling – provided you take the necessary precautions and come prepared.
In the past, the rugged and roadless expanse from the border to the start of the Interamericana proved to be the perfect hideout for armed groups taking a break from military action in Colombia. Today the jungle remains an ideal hideout for rogue elements and a transit point for illegal migrants. The Panamanian police take defending this area very seriously and it is unwise to go against their recommendations for the sport of it.
Established routes are recommended both for your safety and for legal reasons. The police have been known to detain those on unauthorized routes and suspect them of illegal activity – even if they are with a guide.
Even if you have crossed Central America on your own by bus, solo travel here is not recommended. Since trails are largely unmarked, it is easy to get lost. No one is likely to come to your aid, but you might come across poisonous snakes or a vicious (and omnivorous) peccary (puerco de monte), which could end your trip (and life on earth) unexpectedly.
Though it's remote, the Darién is far from cheap. Travelers should make a careful budget, noting that even those who loathe taking tours will have to do so here. Decide whether going with an independent guide and paying all the fuel and food costs separately will really work out to your advantage – especially since the cost of fuel can be astronomical. Those who contract a local guide should speak Spanish, otherwise the whole endeavor is prone to frustrating misunderstandings.
Keep your baggage to a minimum on any jungle trek. Insect repellent, sunblock, a hat and rain gear are essential. Food can only be found in the few towns; it's not available at the ranger stations. Bring some drinking water and a means of purifying water.
Visit during the dry season (mid-December through mid-April); otherwise, you’ll be slogging your way through thick mud and swatting at moth-size mosquitoes.
Engines break down, flights are postponed; in short, travel delays are as common as raindrops in the Darién. Go with extra food and cash, a flashlight, matches, good personal equipment and flexibility in your schedule.
Guides are required in the Parque Nacional Darién. Paying more usually means getting better value. A naturalist guide will have a different skill set from that of a guía local (local or community guide). Consider your needs and criteria.
The following are essential attributes in a guide:
- Knowledge of and experience in the area
- Extensive local contacts and problem-solving skills
- A planned itinerary with realistic travel times and contracted transportation
- Good equipment (tents etc) if you do not have your own
- All necessary permits
The following are desirable attributes:
- Skill at spotting birds and wildlife
- Knowledge of local history, animals and plants
- Knowledge of English (or another language)
- First-aid kit and skills
- Handheld radio and/or cell phone for areas with coverage
Fellow travelers can provide guide references, but it is important to meet your guide beforehand – particularly if you're traveling alone.
Find out ahead of time if gas, transportation, food and fees are included. Perhaps the most important factor for a local guide is that they have extensive contacts in the region, people who can help arrange logistics and know the actual terrain. Don’t assume that a local guide is experienced – some have sold trips despite never having set foot in the national park. The Sede Administrativa Parque Nacional Darién keeps a list of community guides.
Information on the Darién quickly goes out of date. Always seek updates, ideally from a guide who leads frequent trips to the area or lives there.
Note that in order to travel in the area you must write to Senafront in Panama City ahead of time, in Spanish, with details of your itinerary and carry a half-dozen photocopies of the letter (and the same number of copies of your passport) with you as it will be examined at checkpoints. The office can also suggest local guides.
In Yaviza, the Sede Administrativa Parque Nacional Darién can provide some information on the park and potentially help you find guides (usually rangers with days off). Travelers must register here to visit the park and check in with the police before heading out into the jungle. There are also a half-dozen checkpoints along the road to Yaviza beginning at Chepo and at all ports.
Panama City’s Instituto Geográfico Nacional sells topographical maps for some regions of the Darién.