Our friend, Inti, was the first to come up with this phrase when trying to understand why there isn’t a road from Panama to Colombia, through the Darien – and to be honest it’s as good as an explanation as any other…
The Panamerican Highway comes in two parts: North and South. The north part, fresh from its 4-12 lane iteration in Canada, USA and Mexico, continuing as a purposeful hardtop road threading through the states of Central America, dies out somewhere east of Panama City, just a couple of hundred miles before the first proper roads in Colombia begin again. In between there is a thick, tropical jungle known as the Darien Gap. Getting your vehicle around this tiny piece of uncivilisation, using container ships, costs more than crossing that other, much larger, natural barrier known as the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, the Darien Gap represents something of a conundrum: Why does it exist? I can’t believe it exists. Why, when there are roads going everywhere, there are no roads here? And why the hell do we have to pay $2500 to get round it?
For it is indeed the price of paradise and always has been. But who has paid that price? And who receives the money? Let us start at the beginning – or, at least, the time when Europeans first heard of Darien. The seventeenth century.
The paradise for the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French were the colonies – the massive land grabs that brought riches to those countries and ushered in the new world of empires. Scotland was then not part of a union with England and wanted desperately to join in this race for resources. They came up with the Darien scheme, a plan to send a few ships and over a thousand people to this thin ribbon of land between Panama and Colombia, to establish a colony and a trading company that would enrich the folk back home. And, if you look at some of the oldest maps there is a New Caledonia and a New Edinburgh located on the Darien’s Caribbean coast. But then they paid the price: the expedition was a complete failure. The indigenous people didn’t want them there, the Spanish gave them problems and the English refused to help in any way: Their food rotted, they succumbed to the heat, humidity and disease and only a few hundred survived after a few months. And, in real terms, the price was enormous for Scotland: a fifth of her wealth had been invested in the Darien scheme. It is generally thought that this disaster quickly convinced the Scots that their future had to be with England, to share in the benefits of being a world power and to be an integral part of the British Empire. A few years later, then, there was the Act of Union and the rest is history: this Darien, indeed, seems the price Scotland paid for paradise.
Inti wasn’t referring to Scotland, though. Of that I’m sure. He is from the Amazon. He saw his first ever road when he was ten years old and hitched a ride on the first ever truck he saw to a big city somewhere that he’d never heard of… After a career working for the military as an underwater welder, he has these last four years settled in Panama City. He’s done pretty well for himself here – his workshop profiting from the money-bubble that this international zone has become. Is this what he meant? Has the Darien Gap, a barrier that isolates Panama from the economic and political confusion of South America, contributed to the success story?
This does seem a realistic proposition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the USA helped Panama separate from Colombia and remained to build and operate the Panama Canal. They wouldn’t have appreciated the difficulties that a land border with Colombia would have brought: That they had annexed part of an independent nation could be dispelled by the fact that Panama had always been geographically cut off from the rest of the country. In general, in more modern times, the popular idea is that a road would have brought an increase in drug and human traffic but, I think, more importantly, it would have brought distraction for the Panamanian/American authorities whose attention was focused on linking the oceans together rather than being a through-fare for revolting banana republics. One the one hand, then, the Darien Gap is a buffer-zone; a good example of the colonial custom of divide and rule. On the other it is the price Panama pays for its paradise.
But, no, Inti was referring to the price we are paying to get to the paradise of the South America that he knows; the Amazon, the Andes, the original New World and his home.
So who profits now in the twenty-first century from the Darien Gap? Who actually receives money for its continuing existence? The price that we paid for our paradise, our slow orbit of the earth is nearly $4000 in all – to ship the vehicle, to transport ourselves, to exist in hostels while we wait for the return of our home at the port in Cartagena, Colombia…
Last year there was talk of a new ferry route that would have provided a much cheaper option for both the gringo overlanders and the thousands of Latin Americans who want to travel between north and south. After many press releases, advertising and even the opening of a booking office, the ferry remains a dream, the boat itself still docked in Greece. As others have put it, the idea seems to have sunk under the weight of bureaucracy or, at least, because of the lack of ferry-terminal facilities in both Colon and Cartagena. But one thing is obvious; those who profit from the continuing situation are those who happily reside over the remaining travel options: Copa Airlines mostly, who charge $350 for an hour’s flight over the jungle, but also the Guna Yala people (who have paid their own bloody price for this paradise – LINK) – they too must profit from the small amount of people who prefer, like us, to travel by speedboat around it.
But is it right to demand that a road be built through the Darien? Through a pristine, original growth jungle? A road is just a road, after all, and can be constructed with those green bridges and tunnels that encourage wildlife to cross safely and minimizes the disruption to the continuum of the surrounding environment. It could be a showcase road – an example to the Brazilians where their jungle roads are simply tools for the land clearing, destruction that spreads like a disease through the Amazon – capillaries that feed the cancer of a disappearing rain forest. Could that ever happen? Could the Panamanian authorities resist the corruption and self-interests that bedevil good intentions? Probably not. So this is the price we all pay for one last piece of paradise: maybe the Darien should always remain a gap…