Darien Gap: the missing link on Pan-American Highway

Darien Gap
Darien Gap

The Darien Gap or Darién plug (from the Spanish, tapón del Darién) is an area of swamp and forest located on the border between Colombia and Panama, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) long and 50 kilometers (31 miles) wide.

The Darien Gap is the only break in the 95 kilometers (60 miles) Pan American Highway (on the 10 longest roads in the world) without a road. In fact, this break makes it nearly impossible to cross Central America by land.

Where is the Darien Gap located?

The area is located east of the Isthmus of Panama. It’s crossing Panama and Colombia and roughly marking the border between Central and South America.

On the Panamanian side, it covers all or part of the province of Darién and the comarques of Emberá-Wounaan and Kuna Yala. In Colombia, it is located in the department of Chocó.

You can situate the road on the map below:

Enlarge the map

Facts about the Darien Gap.

On the Colombian side, the region is dominated by the Atrato Delta. Which creates a flat swamp at least 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide, half of it in the form of marshes.

In contrast, the Panamanian side is formed by a mountainous rainforest, with elevations ranging from 60 meters (196 feet) in the valleys to 1,845 meters (6,050 feet) above the sea level at the summit of Cerro Tacarcuna.

The Darién region has two national parks. The Darién National Park in Panama and the Los Katíos National Park in Colombia.

Darién National Park covers 5,790 km2. Created in 1980, it is the largest national park in Central America.

The gap has been successfully crossed a handful of times. Usually by expeditions equipped with all-terrain vehicles and manned by special forces personnel. All this in a nearly impenetrable jungle where guerrillas and drug traffickers live.

These different aspects make the region very dangerous.

Is it possible to cross Darien Gap ?

Although crossing the Darien Gap has been achieved by a handful of determined individuals and groups over the years, it remains a challenging and dangerous feat that is not recommended for the average traveler. The lack of roads and the presence of dense jungle, along with the threat of guerrilla activity, make it a treacherous journey. It’s important to consider alternative options, such as flying or taking a ferry, when planning to travel between Colombia and Panama.

Who first crossed the Darien Gap ?

The first explorations date back to 1876 by Armand Reclus and Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse. He wanted to establish the best route for their future transoceanic canal.

As the passes proved too high, the passage through the Darién was abandoned in favor of Panama. Which led to the construction of the Panama Canal.

The first mechanical crossing was made by a Land Rover and a Jeep during the Trans-Darién Expedition of 1959-1960, led by Panamanian Amado Araúz, his wife Reina Torres de Araúz, former British SAS Richard Bevir, and Australian engineer Terence John Whitfield.

So, they left Chepo in Panama on February 2, 1960, and reached Quibdó in Colombia on June 17, 1960. It took 136 days at a speed of 200 meters (650 feet) per hour.

Next, in December 1960, Danny Liska made a journey by motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina and transited through the Darién region. He was forced to abandon his motorcycle and cross the region on foot.

Then, in 1962, an attempt supported by General Motors with a team of Chevrolet Corvairs, a bulldozer, and a gasoline truck, failed.

In 1972, the British Trans-Americas expedition, led by John Blashford-Snell and driven in Range Rovers, crossed the entire American continent through the Darien region. However, this expedition used boats to cross the Atrato swamp in Colombia and received substantial help from the British army.

However, the first crossing by car entirely on land (that is, without using boats to cross the swamps) was only made between 1985 and 1987 by Loren Upton and Patty Mercier in a Jeep CJ-5. It took them 741 days to cover 201 kilometers (124 miles).

In addition to these mechanical crossings, some people also cross the region on foot. Notably, by migrants wanting to reach North America.

Darien Gap Map
Darien Gap Map

How to cross the Darien Gap ?

Crossing the Darien Gap itself is challenging, so people usually opt for alternative options :

By air:

Crossing by air remains the fastest and safest option. For example, you can take Avianca and Copa Airlines, which take travelers from Panama to Colombia.

This alternative may seem boring to most adventurers. But there’s no excuse for forgoing a flight on a land trip when safety is a major concern. This is the best option if you don’t have vehicles.

By boat:

If you have a vehicle to drive through, this is the only way to get from Panama to Colombia. In fact, the whole trip can take several days and is quite difficult to organize due to lack of information. This is especially true if you have a motorized vehicle to take.

Efforts to fill the missing link in the American highway have always failed, mainly due to environmental and economic issues (in addition to the enormous technical difficulties of building a road in these conditions). The Emberá, Wounaans, and Kunas indigenous peoples have also expressed concern about the possible erosion of their culture if the road is built. For the time being, crossing the Darien Gap remains impossible!

Credits: By Pepe Robles (Roblespepe), translation by me – translation of this image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Regi%C3%B3n_Dari%C3%A9n.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28178515 / unknow

Discover our other roads around the world: click here or see our road map!