Navigating the Impenetrable Darien Gap

Continued from Xplorer Journal: Darien Gap Trek to the Monkey Stone, aka Yarre Mongara...

Leaving Puerto Quimba, Darien Province, Panama our expedition team traveled by motor boat along the Rio Turia passed Isla Mangle, and on to the river’s southern fork, Rio Balsas, or “River of Rafts”. Rio Balsas journeys through the heart of Darien Gap all the way to the Colombian border. Most settlements and villages in the Darien lie along its rivers as these are the main arteries and highways for travel, communication, medical attention, and to transport goods and livestock. The only other means to reach these remote locations is by foot, though some primitive dirt roads are in place for motorbikes and even off-road vehicles. However, where our expedition trekked, there were usually no trails, and the only means to venture forward were by bushwhacking and wading rivers.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

The water level of Rio Balsas was lower than expected, and our boat was marooned many times along the snaking, switch backs of the river. As a result, our voyage took hours longer than expected and forced our first night’s stay at Camoganti, a small village nestled between the Chepigana Forest Reserve and the river’s edge. To get our gear to dry land we had to form a human chain, passing each piece of luggage from one to another off the boat and up on to the riverbank.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

Human chain on the banks of Rio Balsas by Julia at XplorMor

The Camoganti townspeople were very accommodating to our unexpected arrival. A shelter made from a simple concrete slab and beamed roof with three open walls became our “hotel” for the night, and enough hammocks were hung between beams in the ceiling to fit our entire group. Once our sleeping arrangements were in place, and while we waited for dinner to be cooked, a small one room general store opened to serve us ice-cold drinks. What a wonder in the tropical heat! A short time later, we were escorted to a nearby wooden cottage on stilts, and asked to take a seat in the living room. A lovely, smiling Embera woman brought out plates of typical Panamanian fare: meat, tostones (fried plantains) and rice. Hearty, filling and delicious.

We arose before dawn the next morning to get back on schedule. Our headlamps barely illuminated the pitch black veil still enveloping the village. As the river was so very low, our team left the motor boat at Camoganti and switched to several piraguas (dugout canoes made for navigating shallow river waters). Getting into the canoes was an adventure in itself due to the lack of light, low water level, steep slippery bank and muddy shore. We moved one at a time, holding on to poles and stepping aboard. Then one by one our canoes continued on Rio Balsas into Darien.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

Tucuti homes with unexpected power lines and satellite dishes by Julia at XplorMor

Despite having switched to the dugouts, we continued to be marooned and forced to jump in the water and push. Even with the setbacks we arrived at Tucuti on the right side of noon. From the river bank, Tucuti looked like a very small village with a cluster of homes and a cemetery with few graves. However, upon closer look, there were power poles and lines in the trees and satellite dishes on roofs, even on the thatched stilted huts. So much for getting away from it all!

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

SENAFRONT, our escorts through Tucuti by Julia at XplorMor

Our dugouts were pulled on shore by some locals to be picked up later by their owners, as from here our expedition team would trek through the jungle all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We disembarked, heaved on our heavy backpacks and headed into town. Soon we found ourselves once again accompanied by SENAFRONT (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras de Panama), Panama’s border patrol. Fortunately they were warned by guards from the previous checkpoint that we would be arriving. While paperwork was sorted, we found more hospitality and a warm breakfast of fried eggs, tostones, and thick black sugared coffee.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

Breakfast of Darien Champions by Julia at XplorMor

The expedition continues in Tucuti and then heads into the Darien Jungle… Tucuti: Gateway to the perilous Darien Gap

Watch our Impenetrable Darien Gap Expedition slide show, and read more about Panama’s Darien Province. 


  1. clarissa fishman August 9, 2014 at 4:57 PM #

    beautiful! I feel like I just went on a journey…the pictures, the story… I heard the sound of the boat slicing water, I felt the humidity of the jungle, I heard the nightly animal sounds coming out of the jungle…and the excitement and fatigue combined, that you all must have felt. Thank you for sharing the adventure!

    • XplorMor August 10, 2014 at 10:19 AM #

      Thank you Clarissa! Happy to take you on the journey with us 🙂 Working on the next excerpt…

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