There are few places on Earth like the Darién. Since its introduction to the outside world, the Darién has peaked the interest of biologists, anthropologists, drug-runners, business owners, and even foreign nations. It is a place with immense beauty and incredible bounty, where the natural world is raw and the indigenous people real. It is Panama’s – and by some measure, the world’s – last frontier.
The Darién is huge. The province itself spans some 16,671 square kilometers (6,437 sq. mi.) and stretches to the border with Colombia. It contains the country’s largest national park and most extensive lowland tropical forest. But with only 40,000 inhabitants, the Darién is also the most sparsely populated part of Panama. Its residents live in small, impoverished towns, and include members of the Guna and Emberà-Wounaan indigenous groups.
In the minds of many, however, the Darién is little more than the place where the Interamerican Highway ends and the Darién Gap begins. The gap is the only missing link in a system of roads that connects North and South America, all the way from Alaska to Patagonia. It is a source of both pride and contention within Panama. Conservationists want it to stay untouched to better protect the biodiversity that thrives within its borders. Developers see dollar signs in its beautiful outdoor areas and virtually limitless land. The battle over this 100-kilometer (62 mi) stretch will be duked out in the coming decades and will be extremely important to the country’s future.
The Darién has three main towns, La Palma, Yaviza and El Real, none of which have any inherent draw for tourists. La Palma is the provincial capital and most populated town in the Darién. Set along the Pacific coastline, its location is stunning, but the town itself dirty and unfriendly. The highway that cuts down the center of the Darién province comes to an abrupt halt in the town of Yaviza. Yaviza has scant services and, aside from being a place to refuel on gas or snacks, is of little interest to tourists. El Real de Santa María (or simply El Real) sits along the banks of the Río Tuira, and is friendlier and more laid-back than Yaviza. It’s the closest transportation hub to Pirre Station.
Visitors to the Darién will undoubtedly visit the national park. Parque Nacional Darién, which spans a total of 579,000 hectares (1,430,740 acres), is the largest national park in Central America. Established in 1980, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and a World Biosphere Reserve in 1982. Rising from the Pacific coast to the top of Cerro Tacarcuna (the Darién’s tallest peak), the park’s trails traverse all types of terrain and weave through foliage of Jurassic proportions. The park protects habitat for avian species such as the scarlet macaw, toucan and harpy eagle, as well as mammalian species including the ocelot, jaguar, Baird’s tapir, anteater, sloth, coatis and kinkajou.
A trek through Parque Nacional Darién is an incredible experience but should not be attempted without a knowledgeable guide. There are several places to stay within the park. Santa Cruz de Cana, known simply as Cana, is one of the best. It’s the most remote location in all of Panama and is host to both fantastic outdoors and relatively comfortable facilities.
Given its isolation today, it’s hard to believe that Cana once entertained a lively past. Vast gold deposits were discovered here in 1665 and mines and settlements followed. At one point during the Spanish colonial rule, Cana grew to be a town of 20,000 people. However, attacks by the English and disease forced the Spanish to leave in 1727, and the jungle reclaimed much of the area. These days, Cana is known as a nature destination of epic proportions. Spider and howler monkeys hang about abandoned mines, and jaguars occasionally stroll down the Cana airstrip. The area is also one of the top ten birding destinations on Earth.
Pirre Station is another place to visit the park. It’s similar to Cana in look and feel but is much cheaper. Trails from the station wind up mountains and to waterfalls, and give visitors the opportunity to spot macaws, spider monkeys, and sloths. As with Cana, the facilities here are extremely basic (little more than concrete rooms with beds), but are surrounded by some of the country’s most impressive outdoor areas.
Aside from the park, another major draw to the Darién is the more accessible and less-rugged coastline. One such place is Bahía de Piñas (Piñas Bay), which is considered to be one of the best sport fishing destinations on the planet. Nearly 200 deep-sea fishing world records have been set here, more than anywhere else on Earth. At just 56 km (35 mi) from the Colombian border, Bahía de Piñas is deep in the Darién and full of both natural and cultural vibrancy. And unlike other places in the Darién, it’s possible to lodge in relative luxury here.
The easiest and safest way to visit the Darién is with a tour operator. They set a coherent itinerary and facilitate a safe, tailor-made adventure into the park. We do not recommend travelers going into the Darién on their own. Those who decide to visit the Darién need to be clear that they are heading into a place where tourist services and modern amenities are largely nonexistent. Be prepared to be dirty and sweaty at times and sleep in basic conditions. Safety is also an issue. In recent years, Colombian guerrillas and drug runners have made the forested area between Panama and Colombia unsafe for travelers. Knowing which areas are safe or unsafe can be difficult. Due to this, portions of the park may be off-limits and not allow travelers at any given time.
Anyone interested in visiting the Darién should first consult their home embassy and register their arrival with Panamanian officials. The Darién is a fantastic, dynamic place; but exploring the park without the aid of a professional guide is dangerous and stupid. Be smart, do your research, and take precautions when visiting this part of Panama.