How many places in the world don’t have roads? Not many.
But between Panama and Colombia, there exists a 100-mile stretch of swamp and mountain that no road can cross. It’s called the “Darien Gap.”
Camino a la Copa
Camino a la Copa is a group taking a five-month journey from Steamboat Springs to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Read more columns here, and visit www.caminoalacopa.com for more information.
For Camino a la Copa and our overland journey to the World Cup, this jungle blockade represented a huge red light. But as they say, if you can’t go through it, you’d better go around. For us, that meant shipping our van from the Panama Canal to Colombia on a giant cargo ship.
This included an incredible adventure that involved stepping off the beaten path.
First, we got a 4x4 car service from Panama City over the mountains to the Kuna Yala Indian reservation, known as the San Blas Islands. To protect their culture, these people fled the mainland to the islands. We ferried out to the island of Carti, where 1,000 people live in bamboo and grass huts.
The Kuna Yala look like indigenous pirates from some sort of ancient world, covered in beads and hand-stitched fabrics with nose rings and cropped hair. Most were about 4 feet tall. Their language is filled with short, choppy words, and those that did speak Spanish were eager to tell us the story of how the Kuna Yala fought against Panama to gain their land, political autonomy and respect.
This is an indigenous world fighting to keep out the modern world. There are no hotels to stay in, nor is there running water or bathrooms. Luckily, a cordial family hung hammocks for us over their dock, and they assured us that, one of these days, there would be a boat heading south toward Colombia.
Finally, a boat materialized and we headed southward, outboard motors roaring, bouncing for eight hours in a skiff loaded with Coca-Cola and cheese crackers. The ocean swells crashed over us again and again, and sometimes the motors filled with water and we were left bobbing in the ocean, wondering if we ever would see our families again.
The other passenger was a nine-fingered man in a polo shirt who claimed to be a “recycling mechanic” and later would be arrested when we reached the Colombian border.
There is no road connecting North and South America. Part of the reason is geographical. The landscape is filled with rugged mountains and deep, wet jungle. The other reason is sociopolitical. On the Panama side, the Kuna Yala people don’t want the government to intrude on their land, and on the Colombia side, armed guerillas such as the FARC often have controlled those forests.
By the time we reached the border, the sun was setting and the customs office was closed. We found a small hotel, and took a bucket shower. The only meat left in the only restaurant was boiled pig’s feet.
We crossed the border in the morning, got back in the boat, and continued around high, rocky cliffs. Two more boats and two buses got us to Cartegena to reunite with our van. After three days of port-entry paperwork, we whooped with joy as we drove our car off the lot.
In total, it took us 10 days to navigate around a 100-mile roadless stretch. It wasn’t easy, but it was an unforgettable adventure.