At the southern end of the country, 135 mi/215 km east of Panama City, Darien Province, Panama, includes Darien National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that extends to the border of Colombia and serves as a natural buffer between Central and South America. The park's insurmountably rugged rain forest and watery terrain creates the only break in the Pan-American Highway in its lengthy course from Alaska to Argentina.
Darien Province contains a few tiny towns, dozens of Embera-Wounaan Amerindian villages, countless muddy rivers and vast expanses of wilderness teeming with wildlife. Darien is as wild as it gets in Panama—or practically anywhere else for that matter. Cana is acknowledged as one of the top birding locales in the world, and the chances of seeing jaguar, harpy eagles, poison-dart frogs and tapir are as great there as anywhere in the Americas. Cana has an ecolodge, one of only two dedicated ecolodges in this vast national park, run by Ancon Expeditions. Phone 269-9415. http://www.anconexpeditions.com.
The main reasons travelers go to Darien are to experience a vast tract of unspoiled rain forest and to come in contact with the Embera and Wounaan Indians, who live in remote villages and survive as hunter-gatherers and, increasingly, through ecotourism. Interacting with these welcoming and gracious peoples—who still dress in nothing more than loincloths (for men) and sarongs (for women)—is a highlight of any visit to Panama.
The rugged Darien also attracts others, however: drug smugglers, kidnappers, guerrillas fighting against the Colombian government and Colombian soldiers fighting against the guerrillas. In short, it is not a place to visit on your own: Go only with an experienced guide or a group tour. Several Panamanian nature-tour operators offer trips that include jungle treks and visits to Embera villages.
Anyone thinking of making the entire trip along the Pan-American Highway needs to know that the road ends—literally—in Darien and there is no land-based passage into Colombia, no matter what some guidebooks say. Your only option is a very expensive one: putting your vehicle onboard a rickety ferry to Turbo, the nearest port of entry on the other side, and a hotbed for smuggling and guerilla activity.
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