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November 27, 2013 5:48 AM   Subscribe

I did not know that there were no roads connecting Central and South America. Previously, but it was over 10 years ago...
posted by COD (68 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oddly enough I did know that. And I blame it on preventing me from doing an Arctic-to-Antarctic bike trip!

because clearly it's not about my lack of money, time, or in-shapeness.
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:52 AM on November 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


It is apparently a surprise to many. I have worked in travel and tourism in Canada for decades and I have met dozens or perhaps hundreds of people who had grand plans to drive or cycle from here to Tierra del Fuego.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:54 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is apparently a surprise to many.

As long as you plan for taking an airplane or boat around that piece, it's no big deal. But you have to wonder how many people didn't look at their maps or read the guidebook and get all the way to Panama before learning they are going to have to budget for the trip around the missing section of road.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:00 AM on November 27, 2013


In my experience: most.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:01 AM on November 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


There was a car-shipping service for awhile, right? Not quite a roll-on, roll-off ferry, but I was under the impression that driving to South America was possible if you were willing to put your car on a boat for a bit.
posted by downing street memo at 6:04 AM on November 27, 2013


I wanted to do this but then I realized I valued my organs and their relative order and current state of liquefaction ......

From the comments:

Motorcycle trip through the darien

Also, search for the comment beginning with:

"I went through the Darien in 1976. ".
posted by lalochezia at 6:08 AM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


In Tim Cahill's book "Road Fever", he attempted to set a new record for bottom-to-top of the N/S America continents. There were some negotiations with the Guinness Records folks around getting through the Darien Gap. As I recall the general intent was that you couldn't get the truck from one side to the other in a fashion that would be faster than driving if they ever put a road there.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:10 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Darien Gap is one the places I really want to take my truck to. Also, Road of Bones.

So many places to see and things to do. So little time.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:15 AM on November 27, 2013


If you thinking about an Arctic to Antarctic bike trip and don't know about Ian Hibbell, (or even if you're not planning such a trek), you really should check him out.

Video of Ian Hibbell's Darien Gap trek

Economist article

posted by dukes909 at 6:17 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


interesting! thanks for all the links in the comments! can't wait to go through them. i was really enjoying the link in the fpp until it got to "pretty and cute girls! ohhhh scary fighter men!"
posted by nadawi at 6:29 AM on November 27, 2013


There is no easy solution in sight, either. There is a lot of pressure to build a road, but the locals are quite opposed to it and have put up every obstacle they can.

I can't say I blame them -- having been born and raised in Central America, I actually would like to think that I would do the same. The road will likely bring corruption, drugs and more violence to the many villages in the jungle that live life at their own pace.

Here is a great New Yorker article (short-ish, for NYer standards) from this spring which sheds some light on the current situation.
posted by papafrita at 6:35 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


so you're saying the ending to Knight and Day was unrealistic?
posted by lulz at 6:41 AM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


In Tim Cahill's book "Road Fever", he attempted to set a new record for bottom-to-top of the N/S America continents. There were some negotiations with the Guinness Records folks around getting through the Darien Gap.

A few years ago, a buddy of mine actually set the record for a North-South trip on a motorcycle. To do that, he had to catch a flight over the Darien Gap, and then backtrack on the South American side to a point north of where he left off - I think in his case it was Cartagena, Colombia.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:45 AM on November 27, 2013


That main link is utterly destroying Safari on a quad-core i7 with 12 gb of RAM on a 20 mbps connection. What is the deal with web developers? Don't they want anyone to actually see their pages any more?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:49 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's funny how they list thieves and criminals as the worst danger in this "utterly unexplored" region. Apparently the thieves and criminals have explored it well enough to become a worse danger than the snakes, so it's a kind of paternalistic, condescending point of view.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:55 AM on November 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


my system is just about that, except i'm on chrome, and it loaded just fine. do you have any blockers running? there's a side loading video ad that might be trying to load and if i can't it might make things screwy. it's not the best coded page but it doesn't seem egregious.
posted by nadawi at 6:56 AM on November 27, 2013


I need to get an ad blocker going, I guess. It's still not scrolling without a long hesitation & it's been loaded for 5 minutes.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:58 AM on November 27, 2013


That main link is utterly destroying Safari on a quad-core i7 with 12 gb of RAM on a 20 mbps connection.

FWIW, no problems with web page here (FF 25, Quad core with 8Gb RAM, about same speed connection - maybe you're having local congestion?).

Re the FPP - as a map nerd, I've always known about this "gap," but I've never taken it personally like these adventurers and "tourists" who feel absolutely compelled to intrude somewhere the locals clearly do not want them just because they're told they can't or shouldn't. There's actually a part of me that feels happy that there's not continuous paved road between the two continents.
posted by aught at 7:00 AM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mobile devices not allowed to deep link, I guess.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:06 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's funny how they list thieves and criminals as the worst danger in this "utterly unexplored" region. Apparently the thieves and criminals have explored it well enough to become a worse danger than the snakes, so it's a kind of paternalistic, condescending point of view.

What exactly is paternalistic about noting that there are no marked trails through the whole thing and that the area is used as a hideout for thieves and criminals because it's so hard to find a way through?
posted by psoas at 7:09 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


AdBlock installed, site works -- sorry about the derail. Should have done this long ago.

Back to the jungle! Snakes and Tapirs and Drug Traffickers. OH MYY!
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:09 AM on November 27, 2013


It's funny how they list thieves and criminals as the worst danger in this "utterly unexplored" region.

Yup, reminiscent of European explorers in various parts of Africa who considered it "unknown" and "unexplored," despite all the tribal peoples already living there. I have to say the whole adventure tourism angle of this stinks of imperialist privilege and ignorance. Like so much tourism in the developing world, of course.
posted by aught at 7:09 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ten years ago I had a dream of driving my near-mint Westy to TDF and back. I wonder if I could have hired a ferry to carry it that past that bit.

Though I doubt a even brand new Vanagon could have actually pulled it off.
posted by sourwookie at 7:09 AM on November 27, 2013


What exactly is paternalistic about noting that there are no marked trails through the whole thing

Saying it was "unexplored." Unexplored by white people does not equal unexplored.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:10 AM on November 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I can't read the article (or any dark roasted blend) on my tablet, but I was always under the assumption that the Darien Gap was in part caused by America's wonderful war on drugs. I have always had a fascination with the area, but will probably not make it there any time soon due to life.

This, I thought was a great read.
posted by Literaryhero at 7:13 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


So it's just not worth it to build and maintain (and guard, I suppose) a road or rail route through there? There must be lots of dollars (freight and tourists) to be made in a land route, but not enough to make it worth the effort?
posted by pracowity at 7:15 AM on November 27, 2013


I used to spend quite a bit of time on backpacker travel forums, planning (or just fantasizing about) various trips. Pretty much once a month or so, some poor sap would come into the forums, breathless over their plans to drive/bike/bus/ride-on-a-pony from Alaska to Chile, only to be shot down by the "been there, done that" forum regulars. So nope, most people have not heard of the Darien Gap.

I briefly considered such a trip and looked into how one would get from Panama to Colombia without flying. The answer seems to be that you have to wait around in Panama to find a boat you can hitch a ride on, and basically go around the gap, but it can take weeks or months to find a ride ...
posted by lunasol at 7:21 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I first heard of the Darien Gap from a song of the same name.
posted by JDHarper at 7:28 AM on November 27, 2013


The harshness of Darien essentially bankrupted Scotland in the late 17th century, leading to the Act of Union and the modern UK.
posted by rocket88 at 7:46 AM on November 27, 2013 [13 favorites]


Ah, the Darien, where Scottish independence died.

The terrain through that region enabled the Indians in that region to defend their way of life with little to no violence. WHen invaders came in looking to plow through, the Indians would just wait for them to be exhausted by conditions, and then helped them back out to the edge, making sure to help them exit from the same place they entered.

I hope they never build a road there.
posted by ocschwar at 7:47 AM on November 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Can you just get a ferry around if you're on foot/bike? Not sure of this insistence of sloshing though the swamp. It's not like people walk to Vashon island.
posted by Joe Chip at 7:52 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is odd. One might think that the pressure of millions of people desiring to get from one huge continent to another would naturally (in a way) make such a road happen!
Now, for practical purposes, and using only satellite maps, from North to South, take the road to Yaviza. From there, take the river east into the mountains. Disembark at around (8.197558,-77.416935), and then it's a 15 mile hike over the divide to Balboa. Might want to bring a poncho of invisibility / veil of anti-mosquito.
posted by joecacti at 7:52 AM on November 27, 2013


The answer seems to be that you have to wait around in Panama to find a boat you can hitch a ride on, and basically go around the gap, but it can take weeks or months to find a ride ...

There is a lot of commercial and tourist traffic through there, and there are a ton of options, including for vehicle shipping. There are a million blogs and forum posts describing various experiences, from budget hanging out and island hopping to first class, all-included party trips.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:59 AM on November 27, 2013


I first heard of the Darien Gap from a song of the same name.

*looks at JDHarper with a wild surmise*
posted by pracowity at 8:08 AM on November 27, 2013


Pretty much once a month or so, some poor sap would come into the forums, breathless over their plans to drive/bike/bus/ride-on-a-pony from Alaska to Chile, only to be shot down by the "been there, done that" forum regulars. So nope, most people have not heard of the Darien Gap.

I know the pony guy. I was working in a hostel at that point and the guy called to ask how many of our hostel had stables.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Did not know about the Darien Gap (other than having heard the name in passing) and did not know about the Darien scheme either. Amazing and fascinating.
posted by blucevalo at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2013


MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:40 AM on November 27, 2013


A swedish guy went missing trying to cross the Darien back in May. His blog details his travels up until Riosucio. There are some hearbreaking comments on that post and at least one forum thread.

.
posted by public at 9:41 AM on November 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


In fourth grade, I got a question wrong on a geography quiz. It asked whether you could drive a car from Denver to Peru. And on the map, yeah, all this land is there, but I was like, "What about the Panama Canal? Are there any bridges over the Panama Canal?" So I asked my teacher. She wouldn't tell me if it was possible to drive a car over the canal. "What do you think?" she asked. And so I used fourth grader logic to determine that no, of course not, giant boats would crash into any bridge you could build, ergo the Panama Canal must cleave the country into two parts that could never intermingle. Although I lacked the understanding to describe it this way at the time, I pretty much envisioned the canal as a Panamanian DMZ.

So I answered the question no, and I got it wrong. Many years later, I learned about the Darien Gap from a biker who had to bypass it during his trip to Tierra del Fuego. I felt this weird sense of completely inconsequential victory with which I could do absolutely nothing. The feeling was complicated by the fact that my then-wife had very recently left me for her boss, the owner of a lawn care and self-storage company, and that the man had aspirations of building personal storage units in Panama. Apparently he believed that the canal (and its regular traffic of Panamax-class freight ships) would somehow influence the local market for personal storage units. At least, that is what I was told. A man, a plan, a canal, a drab row of padlocked self-storage units.

I still have no idea what that was all about. Really, I'm just happy to know that you can't drive straight to Peru.
posted by compartment at 9:43 AM on November 27, 2013 [29 favorites]


So it's just not worth it to build and maintain (and guard, I suppose) a road or rail route through there? There must be lots of dollars (freight and tourists) to be made in a land route, but not enough to make it worth the effort?

I've read that aside from the difficulty of building a road through it, there are other considerations: the indigenous people have a very high rate of genetic diversity, lots of unique species, and so on. So the fact that it is so inaccessible has preserved it in ways that might make more sense leaving alone.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 10:00 AM on November 27, 2013


When I was in Panama, debating whether and how to get to Colombia (before I decided to fly home instead), I was reading the section of the Lonely Planet Central America book on the Darien Gap. It basically said that there have been many attempts by travelers to cross Darien Gap on foot, and some have made it. Emphasis on the some. They recommended taking a sailboat from Panama City to Cartagena, or flying. My budget was more or less already dry on my backpacking trip, so I did neither.
posted by empath at 10:14 AM on November 27, 2013


One might think that the pressure of millions of people desiring to get from one huge continent to another would naturally (in a way) make such a road happen

From what I understand, it's largely politics holding it up--American immigration policy and drug policy. They don't want people to be able to drive from Colombia to Texas.
posted by empath at 10:16 AM on November 27, 2013


Ironmouth: "Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific
"

Balboa, even.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:22 AM on November 27, 2013


It's comforting to know that there are places in this world that still are not easy to navigate. Good for the locals to have maintained a way to keep the hordes at bay.
I have long contemplated a Pan-Am hiway trip, by jeep, mt bike, motorcycle with sidecar, and have always planned on taking the slow boat to Colombia.
I have long assumed that ever since the US helped pry Panama from the Colombians, the Panamanians have been happy to have whatever excuse is convenient to keep the Colombian army on the far side of the gap.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:22 AM on November 27, 2013



I've read that aside from the difficulty of building a road through it, there are other considerations: the indigenous people have a very high rate of genetic diversity, lots of unique species, and so on. So the fact that it is so inaccessible has preserved it in ways that might make more sense leaving alone.


It's not like the roadways extending north from Panama are particularly worthwhile economically. It's all rough terrain and tropical weather. The benefits to cutting through the Darien are paltry. The cons are multiple: yet another pipeline for cocaine and ammunition. Environmental damage. Harm to the aborigines.
posted by ocschwar at 10:23 AM on November 27, 2013


The answer seems to be that you have to wait around in Panama to find a boat you can hitch a ride on, and basically go around the gap, but it can take weeks or months to find a ride ...

Nah, the hostels in Panama City can book you a spot on a yacht. You sail to the San blas islands for a few days, then go to Cartegena. It costs a few hundred dollars, meals included.
posted by empath at 10:25 AM on November 27, 2013


It's the main thing that crushed my dream of setting up a marmalade supply chain to needy peruvian bears.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:26 AM on November 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's not like the roadways extending north from Panama are particularly worthwhile economically. It's all rough terrain and tropical weather.

And FARC.

Wait, I thought you said south. There is a LOT north of Panama.
posted by empath at 10:26 AM on November 27, 2013


In fourth grade, I got a question wrong on a geography quiz.

Oh do I know this feeling. In middle school we had a "Research Skills" class taught by the librarian. The task was to research 10 mildly interesting questions with library resources. On my fateful day, the question was "What unit of measure would you use to describe distances in the solar system?"

After 40 minutes of head in the books, I stepped in front of the class to describe my answer, the Astronomical Unit. The librarian looked down at the answer key and said, "No, that is incorrect. The answer is light year."

But, but, but.. I tried arguing for a good ten minutes and ending up being sent to the office for talking back to a teacher. I still remember fming with righteous anger.

I suppose I learned that day that being correct isn't always about having the right answer, it's also about when to keep your mouth shut. Another success for the modern day school system!
posted by PissOnYourParade at 10:26 AM on November 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


After 40 minutes of head in the books, I stepped in front of the class to describe my answer, the Astronomical Unit. The librarian looked down at the answer key and said, "No, that is incorrect. The answer is light year."


Eponysterical!
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:30 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, come on... This is nonsense! It's not like the two continents were separated by a long, thin body of water or anything.

Geez, people, look at a map sometime!
posted by IAmBroom at 11:14 AM on November 27, 2013


Is the Bridge of the Americas on Streetsviw yet?
posted by ocschwar at 11:30 AM on November 27, 2013


Here is an interesting scar in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, far from any roads or towns.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:25 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Story from guys who bicycled Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, most of it off road and kayaked around the gap, with the blessings of the Kuna Yala congress:
earlier that day our camp had been raided by a masked man carrying an
automatic rifle, who came running out of the swampy thicket screaming
for everyone to get down
posted by morganw at 1:44 PM on November 27, 2013


If you want to visit the Darien Gap relatively safely, you can book tours with agencies that have heavily guarded Eco compounds out in the jungle. They fly you in and fly you out. It's super expensive, though.
posted by empath at 1:55 PM on November 27, 2013


What car company was it -- Hyundai, perhaps? -- touting their new SUV by a series of ads driving it from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. The way the ads told it, anyway, even they didn't anticipate the Gap and had to get on a ferryboat in Panama in the middle of a tropical rainstorm.

I'm a roads/bridges/etc. infrastructure geek, the type who drew out a series of intercontinental highways (speed limit: 200mph! just because) crossing the Bering Strait and everything as a kid. Of course, there was one going down Central America and branching out into Brazil and Chile after that. At heart I probably still have a bit of impractical faith in the power of infrastructure to improve economic conditions, and even though I recognize that it can result in localized negative externalities, I'm a bit peeved by that: they're holding up progress! I mean, follow this logic and you remove all basis for eminent domain or collective improvements, because if there's one (conscientious?) objector, then you're sunk.

On the other hand, I'm surprised that if the supposed demand exists there isn't a more robust ferry system or other demonstrable attempts to bypass this obstacle that would only be eased by building through it.
posted by dhartung at 2:57 PM on November 27, 2013



A swedish guy went missing trying to cross the Darien back in May. His blog details his travels up until Riosucio. There are some hearbreaking comments on that post and at least one forum thread.


That is a terrifying and interesting read. Practically deserves it's own post.
posted by jnnla at 3:28 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here is an interesting scar in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, far from any roads or towns.

Might be an airstrip?
posted by pravit at 3:31 PM on November 27, 2013


CosmicRayCharles: "I've read that aside from the difficulty of building a road through it, there are other considerations: the indigenous people have a very high rate of genetic diversity, lots of unique species, and so on. So the fact that it is so inaccessible has preserved it in ways that might make more sense leaving alone."

Wikipedia says there is about 60 miles straight line between Turbo and Yaviza. Or about the same as the route length of the Gotthard Base Tunnel. With political will these places could be connected with essentially no local impact. Intermodal shipping has gotten so cheap though it's hard to imagine the pay off being realistic.
posted by Mitheral at 3:44 PM on November 27, 2013


Rather hilariously, the biggest modern proponent of a railway across the Darien Gap is, uh, Lyndon LaRouche. No enviro or indigenous-culture worries for him: "Unless such greenie ideology and policies [bio-reserves and national parks] are wiped off the planet, humanity will not survive" (they are a "concoction of Nazi Prince Philip and Prince Bernhard's World Wildlife Fund").

How to build a sophisticated mag-lev train through 60 miles of near-vertical mountains of impassable swampy muck? Easy-peasy: "elevated roadways and railways, among other technical advances". It's as good as done, then! ¡Mesero! Bring me those technical advances from the storeroom!
posted by Fnarf at 6:24 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia says there is about 60 miles straight line between Turbo and Yaviza. Or about the same as the route length of the Gotthard Base Tunnel. With political will these places could be connected with essentially no local impact. Intermodal shipping has gotten so cheap though it's hard to imagine the pay off being realistic.

That's precisely the thing: there is nothing, nothing, that 1. needs to move from one America to the other, 2. isn't worth transporting by air, and yet 3. is too valuable and too rushed to transport by water from Colombia to some point north, with rail transit in use elsewhere.
posted by ocschwar at 7:14 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not like the roads are fantastic once you get north of the gap anyway. They're curvy, dangerous roads around and through mountains, with problems with bandits and corrupt police and border guards all along the way, not to mention drug cartels in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Being a central american truck driver seems like the worst job imaginable, after being a central american bus driver.
posted by empath at 7:46 PM on November 27, 2013


Shit - the missing Swedish guy was a Purdue student - my Alma mater. And reading the article it seems like he wasn't a clueless hiker, he knew what he was getting into. Sadly, I suspect we'll never know the ending of his story.
posted by COD at 6:49 AM on November 28, 2013


Yeah, having that message board thread trail off into nothing was pretty heartbreaking. People go off-grid & re-surface, surprised to find they were "missing" now and again (happened last year in Peru and was a major news story?) but that does not look like it's the case here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:24 AM on November 28, 2013


Might be an airstrip?

One would presume, but why remains the question. No buildings. No roads. No nothing. I guess it might be a spot where they transfer the drugs from one plane to another? If it were military, there'd be a shack or something, at least. If it belonged to a ranch, there would be clearings and roads. I found it quite peculiar.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:31 AM on November 28, 2013


There are lots of research stations in the jungle. It's about the only untrouched rainforest in the northern hemisphere.
posted by empath at 8:32 AM on November 28, 2013


Could be. It's not far from the coast and a small river that drains in to it. I figure that's how it got there in the first place -- someone came in by boat with a bulldozer?
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2013


Devils Rancher: "I figure that's how it got there in the first place -- someone came in by boat with a bulldozer?"

Someone(s) probably hiked or parachuted in with an axe, chain saw and shovel; it's how it would be done here. A high buck operation would include helicopter support.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on November 28, 2013


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