Darien Province is the wildest part of Panama, southeast of Panama City and bordering Colombia. The Darien contains huge swaths of untouched jungle and indigenous peoples living much as they have for centuries. Nearly all of Panama’s 927 bird species (as many as the USA and Canada combined) can be found in the Darien making it a birder’s paradise. The problem in seeing what the Darien has to offer has always been transportation and accommodations.
Today there are several tours operating out of Panama City that will provide you with a mixture of cultural and eco tourism for a few days or a couple of weeks. For example, you can visit or stay in indigenous villages in one of the two comarcas in the Darien. Comarcas are semi autonomous regions of Panama, self governed by the indigenous people. In the Darien. The Embera and Wounan tribes welcome visitors to some of their villages.
A typical tour might be a flight from Panama City followed by a morning trip up river in a dugout canoe. This will bring you to a jungle village where you will eat traditionally prepared food, fish with local fisherman using traditional techniques, and cruise the jungle rivers in a land little changed since the days of Columbus.
The Darien is where the Panamerican Highway gives out at the Darien Gap, a hundred mile long and thirty mile wide expanse of jungle stretching to the Colombian border. The Panamerican Highway will probably never be completed across the Darien Gap for two reasons. It is difficult terrain for building and, more to the point, Panama was a Colombian province that gained its independence in a US-supported revolution in 1903. Despite active trade and travel between the countries old memories die hard and there are no connecting roads between Bogotá and Panama City. There may never be.
The Darien is home to the 1.4 million acre Darien National Park, declared a Biosphere Reserve of Humankind by the United Nations. This park, established in 1980, is the largest national park in Central America at 5,790 square kilometers. Many tours from Panama City can take you to El Real as a jumping-off point for a visit to the park.
Besides being a birder’s paradise the Darien’s Pacific coast is a fisherman’s dream. In 1961 a Texas oilman, Ray Smith, built a fishing lodge a hundred miles from any roads on Piñas Bay with jungle in back and the Pacific Ocean in front. Since 1976 the Tropic Star Lodge has been operated by the Kittredge family of Orlando. You reach the lodge by boat or airplane, flying from Panama City to the airstrip at Piñas Bay. Tropic Star Lodge offers one week stays at the air conditioned lodge with daily deep sea fishing.
Good accommodations can be found at the Hotel Filo del Tallo, near the town of Metetí. The Filo del Tallo is a forest reserve and part of the Central American Biological Corridor that contains protected forests from Southern Mexico to the Darien. Hotel Filo del Tallo has a small “ecologic footprint” and allows one to tour the jungle including mangrove swamps, visit indigenous villages, watch the birds, or ride horseback. A variety of tours is available through Michel Puech’s Panama Exotic Adventures tours. Michel built the lodge and has been taking folks into the Darien for over a decade.
If your preference is to enjoy the Darien’s of untouched nature on your own it is possible, with Spanish fluency, lots of insect repellant, and stamina. One can fly to El Real or drive to Yaviza and connect to El Real by boat in order to visit Darien National Park. If you “go it alone” you will still need to find a guide at El Real and also cope with very basic accommodations.
For the really adventuresome, and Spanish-fluent, one can go to the old docks in Panama City at Salsipuedes which translates to “get out if you can” and book passage on a boat taking supplies to the Darien. We emphasize that this in not our recommended route. Parts of the Darien are trackless and lawless, making stories of the “Wild West” seem tame. Unless you are a seasoned adventure traveler stick with the tours and have a great, and safe, time.