Stretching from Alaska to the pencil tip of Argentina, the 48,000km-long Pan-American Highway holds the record for the world’s longest motorable road. But there is a gap – an expanse of wild tropical forest – that has defeated travellers for centuries.
Explorers have always been drawn to the Darien Gap, but the results have mostly been disastrous. The Spanish made their first settlement in the mainland Americas right here in 1510, only to have it torched by indigenous tribes 14 years later – and in many ways the area remains as wild today as it was during the days of the conquest.
“If history had followed its usual course, the Darien should be today one of the most populated regions in the Americas, but it isn’t,” says Rick Morales, a Panamian and owner of Jungle Treks, one of a few adventure tour companies operating in the region.
“That’s remarkable if you consider that we live in the 21st Century, in a country that embraces technology and is notorious for connecting oceans, cultures, and world commerce.”
The Darien gap stretches from the north to the south coast of Panama – from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It’s between 100km and 160km (60-100 miles) long, and there is no way round, except by sea.
Half a century on, the number of successful motorised crossings can be counted on two hands. These days armed drug runners are as big a hazard as the region’s lethal pit vipers.