Unspoiled Nature in Panama’s Darién National Park

Harpy Eagle, Darién National Park, Panama
Harpy Eagle
On the great planetary picture window that is Google Earth, at coordinates 7.75, -77.5, there is a large swath of undifferentiated green.

Undifferentiated, as in, virginally unmarked. Pristine. If you use the controls to scroll around and zoom in, names of villages and other landmarks will pop up on the surrounding terrain. But on this broad stretch of southeastern Panama, the only detail that mars the baize-like verdure is the zigzag border with its onetime parent state of Colombia. Which isn’t even real, ocularly and tactilely speaking.

It’s a question, in other words, of a vast tract where civilization has not yet managed to penetrate. A 1.4 million-acre blank on the map, where no roads enter.

This is Darién National Park, and it’s one of the hemisphere’s last refuges from progress’s juggernaut. A holdout, where nature has so far rebuffed the advances of restless humanity.

Not that there haven’t been attempts. Just to the north, the hairline fracture of Panama’s Route 1 appears in yellow, then abruptly stops. This is the mighty Pan-American Highway, which otherwise unspools its 16,000-plus miles unimpeded from Alaska to Patagonia. Here, though, it’s roundly defeated. If you want to pick it up again, you’ve got to teleport yourself from the run-down village of Yaviza to Turbo, Colombia some 60 miles away.

Or consider the 1962 attempt by General Motors to get three Chevy Corvairs across Darién off-road. Very quickly the cars bogged down. This is because in Darién, oftentimes there’s nary a path through the encroaching vegetation. No paths, no landmarks, not even solid ground through the swamplands, which are crisscrossed by narrow streams navigable only by pirogues.

What there is in Darién, is wild nature. Acres and acres of it, stretching from one coast of the isthmus to the other and encompassing one of the most teeming biospheres on the planet. This slender waist of land may be a geographic snag for epic road-trippers seeking to cross between the two Americas, but for birders, hikers, animal spotters, environmental scientists, extreme adventurers, and ecotourists of all stripes, it’s an unspoiled paradise, full of species visible nowhere else on earth and more alluring still for being just this side of inaccessible.

A wide expanse of silent nature, just like in Keats’s poem.

But be warned: this uncharted wilderness is not for the faint of heart.

Into the Wild

It started with an expedition, one of those off-the-wall trips young people dream up and that not infrequently end in late-night phone calls for help to parents. Only in this case, the phone call was to UNESCO. And the help was actually forthcoming.

Reina Torres de Araúz was known as the doyenne of Panamanian anthropology. A distinguished professor, she founded several museums in her native country and worked tirelessly for the conservation of Panama’s pre-Colombian heritage. But in 1960 she was still in her 20s, and recently married, and about to finish her Ph.D. So she decided to take a road trip, one that ended up making Central American history.

The proposal was to cross the notorious gap at Darién by car, studying the area’s indigenous peoples along the way. No one before had pulled it off. The Spanish had worked mines there in the colonial period, but pirates and disease had driven them out. The Scots too had come to grief in the 18th century, nearly losing their shirts in a failed attempt to set up a trading colony (the culprits were again raids, this time by the Spanish, and disease). So when Torres and her cartographer husband, Amado Araúz, made their plans, they knew they were heading into some hairy territory.

Against the odds, they made it. In a trip that lasted 136 days and that averaged 200 meters per hour, they drove their Land Rover—which they named “The Tender Cockroach”—through thick swaths of jungle, across flooded rivers, and over improvised bridges made from tree trunks. The biodiversity they saw was spectacular, so spectacular that they started lobbying both the Panamanian government and the U.N., who turned the area first into a protected national park in 1980 and finally into a World Heritage site in 1981.

Today Darién receives funds and political support, but the “park” in its title is laughably euphemistic in the face of what remains one of the toughest gnarls of jungle in the hemisphere. Thirty years later, it remains as pristinely impregnable as ever, gorgeous and forbidding. Some time back, Colombian paramilitaries and drug runners were a concern, but today the dangers have subsided to the ones endemic to such terrain: malaria and botflies, caimans and the fer-de-lance, the Americas’ most dangerous snake.

Only some 1,000 tourists make it to Darién every year, so rugged are the conditions.

All of which means that if you go, a trained guide is absolutely imperative.

Three-Toed Sloth, Darién National Park, Panama
Three-Toed Sloth

A Jungle Symphony

The two prime places to visit the park are Santa Cruz de Cana, set in the middle near the eastern slope of Cerro Pirre, and Pirre Station, a UNAM ranger outpost on the other side of the same mountain. The former is renowned as a bird-watching lookout, while the latter offers a basic dormitory—though there’s no electricity, and visitors need to furnish their own food, sheets, towels, and water-purification tablets.

From both these points, there are trails to take you into the jungle, where countless species caw and screech an unending symphony under the leaves. Chief among these are the birds, whose species are so numerous that their total almost equals that of all the varieties in the U.S. and Canada combined (Darién appears on many birders’ global top-ten lists). Macaws, parrots, and harpy eagles are in evidence, but so too are rarer breeds such as tooth-billed hummingbirds and barred forest falcons.

One especially striking show takes place daily, and involves army ants and spotted antbirds. As the former rummage the forest floor for food, the birds hover nearby, swooping in to snatch the roaches and katydids the ants succeed in dislodging. They’re typically joined in this free-for-all by avian competitors, including striped-cheeked woodpeckers and rufous-vented ground cuckoos—which happen to be one of the scarcest birds on the planet, but which are willing to put in an appearance for a feast of this magnitude.

Nor is Darién short on mammals and reptiles. Lowland pacas and howler monkeys, Central American agoutis, capybaras, and American crocodiles—all of them are here, and all of them are on the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species. On any given outing you may also cross paths with sloths draped from trees, or tapirs so docile they come right up to be petted. Geoffroy’s tamarins dart from branch to branch. Ocelots prowl the forest floor.

Environmentalists have expressed worries about Darién’s future. Illegal logging and the transplantation of non-native tree species have threatened the park’s fragile ecosystem, as have repeated proposals by Colombia to build the final link in the Pan-American. All would impact Darién immeasurably. But for now, visitors to this primeval woodland have the opportunity to glimpse one of the Americas’ undomesticated treasures before it disappears.

Hernán Araúz, a Darién official guide and Reina Torres’s son, puts it best.

“If the Darién were to be lost, Panama would lose its soul, because nature is the base of everything.”

Mike Gasparovic

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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin American Confidential.

View all posts by Mike Gasparovic