To fully appreciate what the Darién Gap represents, one must first learn about the Pan-American Highway. This highway stretches nearly 30,000 miles from the northern shore of Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America. Crossing mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts in an attempt to connect the North and South American continents, this road holds the Guinness World Record as the longest motorable road in the world. The only break in the highway is a 54-mile-wide missing piece known as the Darién Gap.
Separating the countries of Panama and Colombia, the remote Darién region is the site a national park declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO due to its abundance of rare plants and wildlife. Besides being home to rare wildlife, the region is also populated by both indigenous people and a wide variety of paramilitary groups who earn money from drugs and kidnapping.
Historical attempts to build a transportation route across the area have all encountered phenomenal problems from the geography and native populations. One such attempt was a railroad built by the British to allow for gold mining in the region. Visitors to the area are still confronted by abandoned railway equipment and track from this enterprise rusting in the jungle.
Many successful crossings of the forbidding terrain have been accomplished over the years. The first serious expedition to make the journey was undertaken in 1960 with the use of a Land Rover vehicle nicknamed “The Affectionate Cockroach.” The first completely over-land crossing didn’t occur until the early 1970s when Ian Hibell used a bicycle to forge a path through the wilderness. The first completely over-land auto crossing took place in 1985 utilizing a modified CJ-5 Jeep. With this vehicle, Loren Upton spent 714 days journeying a total of just 125 miles to accomplish this feat.
Today the region has a split personality. One face of the region is that of a fragile oasis, teeming with incredible biodiversity that requires protection to ensure its survival. The other face, however, is of an area with a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere, covered in lethal mountainous jungle that is patrolled by bands of armed guerillas. The Darién Gap is made up of both extremes, a place of no trails, no police, and few guides. As such, it is a destination only for the most experienced, the most intrepid or the most foolhardy.