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    a village near a river

    Into the Darién Gap

    Straddling the Panama-Colombia border, the Darién is notorious as a treacherous jungle. My experiences there have shown there is more to its story.

    By Guido Bilbao

    October 9, 2023
    • MIreland

      What an absolutely gorgeous article. This kind of journalism seems to be growing more scarce, so I really appreciate this gem. I hope the author writes a book; the irony is not lost on me considering the nature of verbal history in the region, but I want more! Thanks to Guido Bilbao for bringing out this story!

    Articles about the Darién Gap usually deploy the same set of clichés. That the Darién, a sparsely populated wedge of land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, on the border between Panama and Colombia, is the only place between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego where the Pan-American Highway cannot run. That in the Darién you’ll find seven of the ten most poisonous snakes on the planet, life-threatening heat, giant trees, mosquitoes as big as spiders and spiders as big as apes, eerie howler monkeys and the legendary elusive jaguar. That the Darién is a lawless place where traffickers move their cargo with impunity: drugs, weapons, rare woods, minerals, people. In short, the usual narrative runs, the Darién is a treacherous and accursed jungle, a tropical Siberia, a twenty-first-century Wild West.

    This picture of the Darién goes back to the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who traversed the region to reach the body of water he called the South Sea and we know as the Pacific Ocean. The Spaniards he brought to the Darién could never tame it completely. Then the Scots tried to establish a trading colony there at the end of the seventeenth century, but the attempt ended badly. In the nineteenth century a Dutch mining project was devoured by the jungle. And in the 1960s, the United States considered using nuclear weapons to build a second Panama Canal. Unsurprisingly, the idea was soon abandoned.

    And it’s this image of the Darién that has gone viral in recent years through stories of migrants from South America who have no choice but to struggle through the jungle on their long journey to the United States. In 2022 alone, more than 250,000 people made the crossing. Journalists from around the world come to this wilderness to write about how terrible the region is to pass through. Although such accounts aren’t inaccurate – the jungle really is an inhospitable and sometimes dangerous place – my experiences there have shown me complexities that are usually obscured by its nefarious reputation.

    The first time I visited the Darién was in 2003, when, at age twenty-seven, I moved to Panama from Argentina, the country where I was born. I prepared for my passage through the jungle as if for a war, packing anti-snake tents, a complete first-aid kit, and watertight hammocks. As things turned out, I didn’t ever set foot in the Darién. When I arrived at an entrance to the province, a police checkpoint turned me away: foreigners, I discovered, need a special permit to travel in the area.

    a village near a river

    Puerto Lara, Darién Gap, 2019. © Alexander Arosemena. Images used by permission.

    My second visit, in 2005, was unplanned. At the time, I was working at La Prensa, a newspaper in Panama City, about 250 kilometers north of the Darién. One day I arrived at my office to receive an unexpected order from the paper’s vice-president: “Guido, I’ve hired you a helicopter. The rivers have flooded and Yaviza is underwater. Go at once.” Yavisa, a town of about four thousand people, is the place the Pan-American Highway ends and the untamed wilderness begins. I was going back to the Darién.

    Forty minutes later I was strapped into the passenger seat of a helicopter headed south, the small glass capsule of the cockpit shaken by relentless wind and rain. After a week of storms, the rivers of the Darién had swollen with rainfall to the point of overflowing, then merged into one great flow to flood entire villages. From the air, my helicopter’s pilot and I looked down on a shining mirror of brown water dotted with the occasional tree. We looked for somewhere we could land.

    On finally disembarking from the helicopter, I vomited violently. I was still retching when I heard a woman shout at me: “Get over here quick, it’s full of twenty-fours where you are!”

    Pale and shaky on my feet, I approached the small shelter where the woman was standing to ask what she meant. “Snakes,” she replied. “We call them ‘twenty-fours’ because if they bite you, you have twenty-four hours to live.footnote Drink some water, you look sick.”

    Taking photos and interviewing survivors, I was amazed how the people I spoke to laughed as they told me of their misfortune. With crops in the area ruined by the floods, they knew famine would follow later in the year. But, even in the face of this disaster, the local residents I talked with seemed to have preserved a calm, positive perspective. The popular image of the Darién as a dark, hopeless place does not square up with the people I met that day. My visit in 2005 was, however, a brief one: within an hour of landing, my pilot told me we had to leave immediately because weather conditions were worsening again.

    The Darién snuck up on me again one morning in 2008.

    “Did you read this?” asked my wife, Cris, who has aristocratic habits like reading Nobel Prize Lectures in Literature while preparing coffee at eight o’clock in the morning. “Listen,” she said, and began to read the words of the 2008 lecture, given by that year’s Nobel Laureate, French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio:

    This was about thirty years ago, in a region of Central America known as El Tapón del Darién, the Darién Gap…. I had landed there by chance, and was so fascinated by [the Emberá and Wounaan peoples] that I stayed there several times for fairly lengthy periods, over roughly three years.footnote

    Le Clézio then observed that the peoples of the Darién have no word for what the West calls “art,” nor do they paint canvases to sell: our notion of art as individual expression has little meaning for them. Rather, art is life itself. They paint their bodies, make baskets, work tools. Then Le Clézio made a confession rarely heard from the lips of European writers: he paid tribute to the power of the oral storytelling tradition found among indigenous peoples. He introduced his audience to Elvira, an Emberá storyteller known throughout the area for her skills in recounting ancient myths. “I quickly realized that she was a great artist, in the best sense of the term … she was poetry in action, ancient theater, and the most contemporary of all novels at the same time.” Therefore, Le Clézio continued, “It is to her, to Elvira, that I address this tribute – and to her that I dedicate the Prize which the Swedish Academy is awarding me.”

    Cris and I looked at each other. Then we said, almost in unison: “We have to find her!”

    Not long after that morning, life took us in a different direction when Cris and I became parents. Still, the idea of finding Elvira never left us. One weekend in 2012, I traveled with my three-year-old daughter, Leire, to Piriati, an Emberá community on the edge of the Darién, just off the Pan-American Highway, to ask about Elvira. No one could answer my questions about Le Clézio’s great storyteller, but they welcomed my daughter as if she were a child of their own. With her sisters, Raquel Cunampio, a local activist for environmental and indigenous rights, dressed my daughter in a traditional paruma fabric skirt and painted her with a dye made from boiled fruit. Leire was delighted.

    It felt as if only a tiny step separated us, and the world we had left, from the prospect of a paradise I knew we would never find. 

    I wasn’t to return to the Darién itself for another four years, until 2016. The Chinese luxury furniture industry was booming, and the corresponding rise in global demand for precious wood had driven deforestation in the Darién to record highs. Cocobolo, a species of mahogany local to the region, had been rated third in the world for timber quality by the Chinese government: soon, bulldozers were pouring into the province. Indigenous communities fought back against the advance of illegal loggers, which was devastating local ecosystems with the tacit approval, if not the active complicity, of the Panamanian state. I had traveled to the Darién, funded by the Pulitzer Center, to carry out research into these resistance movements. Secretly, I still wanted to find Elvira.

    We arrived in Puerto Lara, a Wounaan community on the outskirts of the Darién. Local leaders, with the support of the non-profit organization Futuro Nativo,footnote were developing an innovative volunteer birdwatching program, monitoring the avian life which functions as an indicator of the health of an entire ecosystem. My research trip would be far longer than previous visits to the region. Puerto Lara was the first village of eight I planned to stop in over the course of my research trip.

    But not even a day had passed before the Darién showed its claws again – or was it my own clumsiness? Before breakfast with my host family, I tried to raise a laugh from the children of the house by performing a pirouette. My attempt at entertaining the children was only too successful: a floorboard gave way beneath me, and my dance concluded abruptly with one of my legs wedged firmly in the resulting hole, in a pose reminiscent of a cartoon character. I didn’t break anything, but neither could I walk – or continue my trip as planned. While the rest of the team continued without me, I remained in Puerto Lara to recover under the birdwatchers’ care. For a third time, the Darién had rejected me.

    birdwatchers in a forest

    Wounaan birdwatchers, 2019. © Alexander Arosemena.

    I had a long week ahead of me. Every three hours, the village’s midwife came by to speed my healing by placing a poultice of hot comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale) on my leg. I sought out the oldest man in Puerto Lara, Palo Liso, to ask him about Elvira. He knew nothing but told me a story of his own.

    The kokorrdit is a small bird that, in Wounaan mythology, taught human beings how to dance. When the first man appeared on earth, explained Palo Liso, he met the kokorrdit and the ñeque (Dasyprocta punctate), a South American rodent about the size of a rabbit. While the kokorrdit danced and sang, the ñeque imitated his singing with a flute. The first man copied their movements. And so it was that the kokorrdit gave us dance and the ñeque gave us music, and everyone became one big family.

    Traditional Wounaan dances imitate the movements of different animals; each successive generation learns them by copying their elders, as the first man copied the kokorrdit. These dances performed both to celebrate and to heal are a communion between man and nature that goes back thousands of years. But just as Palo Liso was explaining this to me, Jairo, the community’s chief bird watcher, joined our conversation, binoculars hanging around his neck. “Because of deforestation,” Jairo said, “we don’t see the kokorrdit anymore. And if the children don’t see the birds, they can’t learn the dances. Our culture is in danger. So we are organizing an expedition to go and look for kokorrdit in the mountains.” I said nothing, but I knew then there was a story to be told. I left Elvira to the past and embraced the Wounaan’s search for the kokorrdit.

    It took me until the end of the pandemic to return once again to the Darién. It had taken five years to develop a plan for my documentary, The Journey of the Kokorrdit, locate a director, Elio Barrigón, and hire a producer, Maria Neyla Santamaria. The film, shot with the support of the Wounaan National Congress – the collective representative of the Emberá and Wounaan peoples – follows an older man, Areo, and his sixteen-year-old niece, Ayned, on their search for the kokorrdit. Ayned, who lives in an urban area, had hesitated before finally agreeing to join her uncle on the quest; this reluctance is shared, I’m told, by many of her peers, who often show little interest in speaking the Wounaan language or learning traditional dances.

    Our journey would be roughly opposite to that of the migrants trying to reach the distant US border, both geographically – our group traveling southward to Colombia – and in purpose. While migrants cross the Darién in pursuit of a dreamed-of future, we entered the jungle in search of a disappearing past. The day before embarking on our month-long trek, I panicked. A deep, decades-old fear gripped me. Even though I would set off with the support and guidance of the indigenous communities who lived there, my visits to the Darién had always ended badly. Why did I insist on returning?

    It was to be a difficult trip. Our equipment suffered from the heat and the wear and tear of transportation by foot. Camera lenses fogged up in the humidity. After a few days, several crew members were suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. Our financial reserves were evaporating: we didn’t know if we would make it to the end. But, frantic to get the film off the ground, and backed by the Wounaan accompanying us, who saw the importance of telling this story, we moved forward stoically.

    In front of us lay the strange mist that shrouds the region’s impassable mountains, rivers flowing between the peaks like the arteries of a vast terrestrial body. The Darién is a world apart, a time bubble. On entering it, we moved into a constricted passage between worlds, like childbirth – or like purgatory. Here, on the border between reality and fantasy, between modernity and the primordial past, between community and individualism, the Darién finally granted me access to its magic. It felt as if only a tiny step separated us, and the world we had left, from the prospect of a paradise I knew we would never find.

    men standing near a boat at a river's edge

    Puerto Indio, Darién Gap, 2019. © Alexander Arosemena.

    Despite all the setbacks, we were finally able to begin recording – but in a landscape vastly different from the idyllic scene described by Le Clézio. The continental cork of the Darién is coming unstopped. Everywhere, we found illegal bulldozers cutting down trees and opening roads along which raw materials could be shipped out. We walked through once-forested areas now converted to pastures full of grazing cattle. We found huge palm oil plantations; one the courts had ordered to close was, we discovered, working at full capacity. Many of the crossings we thought we would make by water were made by land. There were almost no cocobolo trees left.

    We made a stop at Aruza, a Wounaan community then fighting the government in court to claim legal ownership of the land surrounding their settlement – currently infested by logging and mining projects. Indigenous ownership, as satellite maps of forest cover in the region demonstrate, is the best tool for environmental conservation: outside those territories owned by peoples like the Wounaan, the devastation of the natural world is visible from orbit.

    On our journey, we met dozens of migrants traveling north. One night, in another of the villages we passed through – and after a few bottles of rum – a young indigenous man joked with us: “We have always lived from what the forest gave us. Before, the forest gave us fruit,” he said: “now it gives us migrants.” He talked about how he helped migrants cross a wide river nearby. Perhaps due to the alcohol, he confessed to us, laughing, that he routinely charged each migrant twenty dollars for his aid, and that, once, when he overloaded his boat with people, it had sunk.

    Areo, our documentary’s venerable – and teetotaler – protagonist, listened to these tales in horror. The next day, as we watched boats of migrants pass by under the guard of state police, he told his niece something, out of sight of the cameras: “Take a good look at them: this is happening to them because they have lost their place in the world. If things keep going on like this, the same could happen to us. An indigenous person without land is dead. That is why it is important to find the kokorrdit.”

    Against all odds, we managed to finish filming, and I left the Darién, this time, apparently, unscathed. I returned to the warmth of hearth and home thinking to myself: “I survived.” But when it comes to the Darién, nothing is ever that simple. A few days after my arrival home, a raging fever took hold of me. I ended up hospitalized for a week with malaria. Over the course of the next year, I had five relapses; it’s only now, with the help of medication, that I’m starting to recover. But even as I return to health, I feel the Darién alive in my blood, haunting my dreams. I still hope to meet Elvira someday, so she can teach me to understand the jungle that now lives inside me.

    This article first appeared in Spanish in Revista UNAM Centroamérica, July 2023. Translated and edited for length and clarity by Coretta Thomson.


    1. The scientific name of this species is Bothriechis schlegelii.
    2. Le Clézio’s speech, entitled “In the forest of paradoxes” and delivered on December 7, 2008, can be read in full here.
    3. Futuro Nativo is a non-profit organization that supports indigenous communities to preserve and share their cultural traditions and practices in countries such as Costa Rica, Brazil and Peru.
    Contributed By GuidoBilbao Guido Bilbao

    Guido Bilbao is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who focuses on Latin American environmental and indigenous rights stories.

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