The Most Dangerous Jungle In The World Is Not Where You Expect

A spit of land so dangerous it is considered impassable the world-over

A massive tree in the most dangerous jungle in the world. (Gustavo Ross / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 2013 a Swedish man by the name of Jan Philip Braunisch embarked on a journey to achieve his highest goal as a backpacker and adventurer: to hike into North America from Colombia. On its face, this does not seem like such a monumental task. Panama connects to Colombia via a land bridge and, from a map, it does not seem like the daunting task it is made out to be. Seasoned hikers, backpackers and adventurers have crossed far longer distances and more impressive spans.

In May of 2013, after trekking through Colombia, Braunisch would find an internet cafe in a small town in the north of the country. This town was the last speck of civilization before traveling into the jungle. He stopped in to send an email to his wife who was at home back in Sweden. This message is the last communication ever received from the explorer.

In the same internet cafe he also updated his travel blog with the following message:

“I’m in Ríosucio now. From here it’s not far to Panama. There are supposedly quite many paths. We’ll see how it goes.”

He had set out with a local guide down a river through the jungle with hopes of reaching Panama proper. However, he never made it. According to reports, his boat was stopped and seized by a local militia who took Braunisch, a tall white man, for a spy and killed him in the jungle.

His wife would not learn the truth of this until years after the fact. The Colombian officials chalked him up to just another person to vanish in the deep jungles, one of tens of thousands of similar cases. The place in which Jan Philip Braunisch vanished is known as the Darién Gap.

The Darién Gap is widely regarded as the most dangerous jungle in the world and the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere.

The geography

An antiquated map showing the Darien Gap. (“A letter giving a description of the Isthmus of Darian”, 1699)

Continental borders are often defined by bodies of water. The ones that are not are usually well known places. The Suez defines the boundary between Africa and Asia in the Levant. Asia and Europe are famously divided by the Ural mountains. The one continental barrier that is not as well known is the Darién Gap which connects North and South America.

In the past, this area was known as the Isthmus of Darien derived from the language of a, now deceased, population of natives who had named a host of natural features in the area. Today, it is known as the Darién Gap because it effectively forms a natural divide between North and South America that cannot be tamed or crossed.

The gap itself consists of roughly 70 miles of inhospitable terrain. It has heavily forested mountains that stretch across the northern part of Colombia. The Serranía del Baudó blocks the Darién Gap with peaks that reach as high as 6,000ft and valleys at sea level. The steep muddy ravines and tangled slopes make for a challenge for even the most hardened locals.

The flat land is clogged with wetlands and rain forests. The jungles of the Darién Gap are some of the wettest in the world receiving meters of rainfall each year. The rivers are winding and often dump off into marshy tributaries that make finding your way nearly impossible.

Mosquitos, flies and leeches harass anyone who attempts to cross. The weather is often hot, humid and cloying.

Becoming a true gap

A map showing the break in the Pan-American Highway (OpenStreetMap / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Pan-American Highway is an interconnected series of roads that stretches for nearly 19,000 miles. It begins in the upper reaches of Alaska in the United States and snakes its way down the Pacific coast of two continents before terminating in southern Chile. This stretch of road holds the Guinness World Record for the longest road in the world. And it only has one gap.

Out of 19,000 miles of paved roadways, there is a break of 66 miles through the forests of the Darién Gap. The highway abruptly stops in Yaviza, Panama and picks back up in Turbo, Colombia. If you want to continue your journey down the highways, you must either have your car shipped via boat around the gap or swap to an all-terrain vehicle and pray you make it to the other side.

Many attempts were made to finish the Pan-American Highway, with efforts beginning as far back as the 1920s but various blocks always arise. At first, officials were worried that a continuous stretch of road from the interior of South America to Central America would make the spreading of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease more likely. Then the monetary and geographical issues came into play before the region was plunged into armed conflict when the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) launched their socialist guerilla war in the 1960s.

Environmental concerns and consideration of the native people who still live there in small but clustered numbers kept the project from ever coming to fruition. The jungles of the Darién Gap are some of the most diverse in the world. The impassable terrain has also left it as one of the few truly untouched wildernesses left on Earth.

Today, the gap is still not bridged by any official roads and the area is effectively a dead zone.

Armed groups and criminal enterprises

FARC soldiers march in Colombia (Public domain)

If the terrain of the Darién Gap was not indomitable enough, today, the region is home to some of the most dangerous groups of people in the world. Preying on a lack of official control, infrastructure and outsiders, criminal groups and para-military militias have moved into the area.

The deep jungles of the Darién Gap have been home to heavily armed factions of the FARC for decades. The remote region has also attracted outcasts, human traffickers, drug smugglers and modern day highway men. Where the terrain does not block passage through the gap, someone with a gun likely will.

The detailed knowledge of the terrain and years of experience navigating the jungles have made the local criminal elements much more effective than official military and police forces. On both sides of the border, both in Panama and Colombia, regular army forces routinely find themselves outgunned and overstretched in the fierce terrain.

The first officially recognized overland crossing of this spit of land came only in 1960. The men who accomplished the feat only managed to progress at 201 meters per hour.

In 2003 a journalist on assignment for National Geographic was kidnapped, along with a handful of others, while inside the Darién Gap. He described the place as:

“[P]robably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It’s used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there’s no military, the trails aren’t marked.”

Those taken were eventually released. A decade later in 2013 Jan Philip Braunisch would not be as lucky.

Adventure calls

Despite the dangers, the call of the wild still beckons to dozens of travelers and adventurers each year. It only takes a cursory search to find story after story of journalists, backpackers and self-styled explorers delving into the jungles with hopes of finding fame, glory and blogging success. It is still a lawless place where migrants are preyed upon by human smugglers and drugs struggle to flow from South America to lucrative distribution points in Central America.

The Pan-American Highway still leaves the area untouched and no current plans are in the works to change that any time soon. The safest way around the gap is via local charter boat which can sail people from Panama to the northern shores of Colombia and back, safely skirting the dangerous spat of land.

It is crazy to think, in a world connected on almost every level, that two continents as closely linked as North America and South America can be so separate. No trucks can drive through the gap. There is no official commerce in that place. No real towns. No internet or cell signal. No marked trails or paved roads. It is a true wild expanse of natural land breaking up a link between two massive continents.

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Ardent believer that history is stranger than fiction.

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