The Darien Gap: Welcome to the Jungle
To ride the length of the Americas overland in one go, you’ve got to machete your way through one of the most dangerous places on earth first. There’s a reason no-one has done it before. Until now…
The Darien Gap
Imagine a fun off-road day with your mates the day after a heavy rain storm… Except, it’s in one of the most dangerous places on earth and nobody’s idea of fun. Throw in eight days of 42C heat, constant tropical downpours, the world’s most venomous snakes, poisonous spiders and swarms of diseased mosquitos. Then mix in drug smugglers, human traffickers and anti-government bandits with knee deep muck, swamps and trench foot and you’ve got the Darien Gap. Not the best place to ride a motorcycle.
“But we had to,” said Where the Road Ends Team Leader Wayne Mitchell. “Our aim was to be the first to ride the length of the Americas overland in one go, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina and that meant getting our bikes through the Gap.”
Off to a chilly start
Sane Pan-American riders avoid the Darien at all costs by shipping their bikes from Panama City to where the road picks up again in Turbo, Colombia. There are, however, a small handful of nutters who have taken vehicles through the Darien Gap before. But to ride from top to bottom, including the Darien, in one fell swoop means starting the trip from the northernmost point of Alaska in the depths of winter and riding 3000 miles through ridiculously cold temperatures, just to make it to the world’s most dangerous jungle in time for dry season (might explain why the record was up for grabs).
Remembering the start of the ride in Alaska, Wayne recalled: “It was brutal. The wind propelled ice and snow onto little gaps of exposed skin. The initial stinging sensations disappeared as cells started to die. The skin turned whitish and waxy because its surface was freezing and frostbite kicked in. We were left aching, stiff and numb on week one.”
But the frozen ride was long behind them as they sat in the Senafront Battalion Commander’s office in Yaviza – the end of the road in Panama.
“Fourteen years of planning and we didn’t know if we were going to be allowed through. It took a year and a half to get permission from the governments, Guna villagers and the National Park. But Senafront (Panama’s elite border patrol rangers) recently had a shootout on the border with drug smugglers and didn’t want to let us go,” said Wayne.
After tense negotiations the commander finally agreed they could enter on condition that a patrol of 20 armed rangers would go ahead of them to the Colombian border. From there they were on their own.
The team were now five days behind schedule. With no time to waste, they loaded their bikes into dug-out canoes and set off for a two-day boat ride to Paya, the last village before starting on the jungle path. As the boats docked, the armed guards disappeared into the trees to start their patrol towards the border and the team finally started their ride into the Darien Gap.
“One-mile into the jungle on the first day and one of the Kawasaki KLR’s clutches burnt out. The sidecars we used for the Alaska stretch put a lot of wear on them and we didn’t pack spares. We didn’t anticipate that they’d take such a beating here,” explained Wayne. It took the team 12 hours to cover two miles that day and Rich decided he didn’t want to push a lifeless bike the rest of the way and would slow the team down. The KLR was abandoned and Rich turned around and walked back to Paya. It was about to get a lot worse for the remaining three.
From bad to worse
“We planned on riding over dry ground but being five days late into the jungle made a world of difference. It was unseasonably wet and constantly raining hard. The ground was a swamp of muck, mud and thick tree roots,” said Wayne.
The area is inhabited by traditional natives called Guna Indians. They travel back and forth using canoes used for transporting plantains and a maze of tight footpaths. The team hired a group of 15 tribesmen as well as a local guide to help navigate, carry supplies, heave the bikes and cut through the thick jungle.
“It’s so lucky we had them with us. They’re physically fit and used to working hard in those conditions. But we were still physically exhausted. We constantly cleared trails with machetes and chainsaws just wide enough to squeeze our handlebars through. We crashed almost instantly when we tried riding. Vines caught and snatched our bars, huge tree roots sent us flying and front tyres continuously washed out in knee deep mud. And it wasn’t normal mud either. It was seriously sticky, creating a gluey paste of leaves, twigs and vines around the rear wheel. Even if we could ride more than 100m in one go we’d have to stop and use knives to cut it all out of the chain, sprockets and rear wheel. It was physically and mentally exhausting and we were constantly filthy, wet and covered brown muck,” said Wayne.
The crew worked 12 hours a day in 40C and 100% humidity in-between storms. And then had to set up camp by cutting more trees and clearing out three-inch long Black Palm spikes that pepper the forest. Then it’s a quick dash into netted hammocks before mosquitos feast on their skin or botflies lay eggs underneath it. The crew get a few hours’ sleep with burning muscles and soggy clothes as deadly Fer-de-lance snakes slither beneath them and poisonous spiders crawl over the nets.
The final push
Two days in and the remaining three bikes have all burnt their clutches too. “We had no choice but to throw ropes over the motorbikes and drag them through the jungle for the next six days. Streams were always a sharp 3m drop in and a steep 4m bank going back up the other side. Heaving three 200kg machines up and down all day left our bodies in pain. In the end we pushed the bikes into the rivers and then dragged them through the waist-high water instead. When the ravines were too big we set up pulleys and cables and ziplined our bikes across. When the banks were too steep we used a block and tackle to heave them up. It was slow, agonising work leaving us with raw trench foot,” said Wayne.
“We found the Senafront patrol waiting for us in a clearing by a small cement pillar marking the Colombian border. They shook our hands, wished us luck and disappeared back into the jungle. We crossed and made our way to the village of Cristales where the locals were a little uneasy. Turned out there were 80 armed paramilitary soldiers camped close by. The villagers went to ask their permission for us to stay the night. Luckily, they accepted but warned us not to fly our drone and to be gone first thing in the morning.
A European backpacker was executed near Cristales a few years back, he was found with a bullet hole in his head. There’s been foreign kidnappings from here and decapitations too. So, we were back in our canoes and out nice and early.”
It’s not over
The team still had to negotiate the Atrato Swamp before they were safely out. In places the water was only 10cm deep, forcing the crew to get out of their canoes and drag their bikes and boats through even more muck. When they finally reached the Colombian military checkpoint, they weren’t met with a hearty welcome… “Baffled soldiers had a hard time believing we had brought our bikes through the Darien Gap. We ended up with a letter of reprimand from the officials in Turbo for ‘illegally’ crossing into Colombia,” Wayne recalled.
“We’d dreamed of riding off into the sunset, but instead had three broken bikes, another one somewhere in the jungle, trenchfoot, exhaustion and a few angry officials. We probably only rode five miles in total and spent 22 miles pulling by hand and leaving the remaining 75 miles to canoes and swamp land. The biggest challenge was pushing all day without knowing how much further we had to go, with each mile taking an eternity. Physically, we were done. But it was a tremendous sense of mental relief having made it through the Darien Gap. Now all we had to do was get from Colombia to Argentina… we only had five months off work, after all.”
- Trip duration: 5 months
- Total miles: 19,500
- Breakdowns: 4
- Near misses: 3
- Abandoned bikes: 1
- Countries visited: 14
- Trip planning: 14 years
- Expedition cost: £24,000
- Highest temperature: 42C
- Lowest temperature: -30C
- River crossings: too many
Fancy a go? Here’s Team Leader, Wayne Mitchell’s, advice for those who are mad enough…
There is a reason the Darien Gap is often called the ‘Most dangerous jungle in the world’. In addition to all the venomous animals and thorny plants you also have to worry about anti-government bandits and dangerous people.
But if none of that bothers you and you still really, really want to tackle the Gap, then I recommend planning well ahead. You can’t just turn up and expect to cross unassisted. You need to hire a local Guna guide to help you navigate the spider web of trails that criss-cross the border between Panama and Colombia. You also need permission from the locals to cross their land, permission from the National Park, both governments and Senafront. And even then, it’s a gamble.
When we turned up at the Commander’s office in Panama City we took part in a photoshoot, shook his hand, gave him a bottle of brandy and got the all clear. But when we arrived at the Battalion Commander’s office he was on the fence and didn’t want us to go through. We showed him all the pics from the Panama City Commander, all our paperwork, machinery, permissions… we had to assure him that we knew what we were doing and even then, it was a close call. And if there’s been recent firefights then you can just forget it, throwing away years of planning. I think people underestimate the amount of politics involved.
Other than that, take as small a bike as possible as you’ll be carrying it most of the way, travel light and fast and take a good machete with you… you’re going to need it.
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