The Dark, Dark Jungle

Are you afraid of the dark? Imagine finding yourself lost at night in an infamously dangerous jungle, with no electricity. Read on to find out what I did in exactly that situation… if you dare.

In 2017 I visited the Darién jungle with my friend Brandon – specifically a town called Capurganá. It is remote enough that there are no roads to the area – which made for an interesting travel experience that I detailed in a previous blog post. At the time, Capurganá only received electricity during certain hours of the day.  We usually had light to eat dinner, but then by 9 PM or so the town and surrounding farms and jungles descended into complete darkness. 

I’ll tell you all about the crazy things that happened to me there… But first let me tell you more about the Darién and just why it’s so scary.

The Dark History of the Darién

The Pan-American highway stretches 19,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina, with the sole exception of the Darién Gap. This gap stretches across the Panama-Colombia border, connecting Central America to South America. Here the jungle is dense, dangerous and wild. Steep muddy hills drop off to swampy river valleys. It’s home to poisonous frogs, black jungle scorpions and deadly fire ants. Devilish fer-de-lance snakes, sneaky jaguars, wild pigs, and bot flies that lay eggs under your skin. Even the palm trees are deadly, sporting long bacteria-covered spines.

Panamanian jaguar from Researchgate

This region was once inhabited by the Cuna Indians and the name Capurgana translates to the “land of chili” in the Cuna language. During the Spanish conquest, the natives were subjected to unspeakable atrocities – which is unfortunately all-too-familiar a story in the history of the Americas. The darkness of these first tragedies seeped into the soul of the land, and evil continued to rear its ugly head for many years to come.

Map from Wikipedia

Outdoor Magazine summarizes the colonial history of the Darien:

“The Gap’s legend as a black zone is steeped in bloodshed and tragedy. After Spanish conquistadors discovered the region in 1501, they consolidated their first mainland colony in the Americas by slaughtering tens of thousands of natives, often by turning ravenous dogs loose on villages. The Spanish conquered the Amazon and the Andes but eventually gave up on taming the Gap, which became a bastion for pirates and runaway slaves. In 1699, more than 2,000 Scottish colonists perished from malaria and starvation, and in 1854 nine explorers died from disease and exposure on a U.S. Navy survey expedition, scuttling plans for a grand canal project through the isthmus.”

Modern Natives in the Darien region

That alone is enough sadness and misery for one place… but more recently the Darien Gap was central to the war known as the Colombian Conflict.

If you’ve visited the country you will know that Colombians have been putting forth great effort to ensure that the story is understood as it really happened, and not in the glamorous light portrayed in certain Hollywood films.  I did not learn about this conflict in school, even though it happened during my lifetime.  I’m certainly not an expert, nor was I there in person, but I’ll summarize the situation as I understand it based on my research.

The FARC, an acronym for the Spanish version of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was an armed communist group that came about in the 1960’s.  There had already been communist uprisings throughout the country at that time, but they were subdued by the Colombian army.  FARC basically wanted to be the armed force that protected all the other communist groups against the government.  The FARC rebels hid in the Darien, recognizing its ravines and swampy river valleys as perfect hiding places.  

Photo from the World Politic Review

Eventually the FARC gained control and ousted law enforcement from the region.  

The lack of police attracted other anti-government guerrilla movements as well.  The guerrillas funded their lives and their war by trafficking cocaine, extorting businesses and kidnapping civilians. Their abductees were sometimes chained up in the jungle for years until their families forked over large ransom payments.  The Darien turned into a violent and chaotic warzone. 

But it was about to become even worse.

In the 1980’s, Panama was taken over by the brutal dictator Manuel Noriega.  Among other things, Noriega is known for having amassed a personal fortune through drug trafficking operations.  The majority of these drugs passed from South American through the Darien.  The indigenous tribes were especially impacted at this time.  Tribal leaders reported that traffickers forced indigenous communities to act as drug mules.  Threatened by violence, they were made to haul packs of cocaine through the Darien’s rivers and hike the swampy, mountainous rainforest.  

After Noriega was ousted in 1989, Panamanian officials tried to regain control of the region. They clamped down on travel, shut down trade, and choked out FARC supply lines by limiting food shipments to the region.  In a 2010 Reuters interview, residents of the Darien complained that the government would not allow them to leave the jungle for food or medicine.  Besides limiting food shipments, police restricted travel, taking over river towns and forcing locals to stay in their villages during spates of violence.  Police-provided food rations did not make up for a clampdown on free movement and river trade… especially because their supplies are frequently raided by gunmen emerging from the forest.

The Darien turned into a black hole.  What went in, never came out.  Since 1985, an estimated 8,000 people have disappeared there; such an extensive number that Colombia established a Special Unit to search for missing persons specifically related to the conflict with FARC.

Photo from Outside Magazine

There are boundless kidnapping incidents I could rattle off at this point – some reported, most not.  Some of the more recent ones include three missionaries who disappeared in 1993 and two British orchid hunters who were kidnapped in 2000.  They were held captive for nine months before eventually being released unharmed – an unexpected miracle.  In 2003 a National Geographic correspondent was held for a week by a far-right military group posted in the region.  Backpackers and scientists are among those reported missing or murdered, and countless refugees attempting to leave South America.  

It’s a horribly sad history that impacted so many people.

An attempt to motorcyle through the Darien; photo from ADV Pulse

Now that the threats have mostly abated, there are also the tourists – like me.  The Darien is a big attraction for nature lovers.  Because it was held by the FARC for so long, and now due to environmental concerns, the region is nearly undeveloped. It is free of motor vehicles, a big attracting feature in itself, and the water is some of the cleanest you will find in the Caribbean.  On top of that, endangered species abound, attracting ecologists and explorers.  Tours are even offered by ex-FARC members, who lead multi-day treks through the jungle, camping in FARC resettlement camps still decorated in communist propaganda.

An Adventure Through the Darkness

.Our first full day in Capurgana, Brandon and I did the #1 tourist thing which is to walk across the Panama border to Playa Miel.  This involved taking a short boat ride to a town called Sapzurro, then hiking up a little hill to where a lone border agent sat in a grass hut.  We held out our passports and he gave a nod, waving us through.  I asked if he was going to stamp them, since you know – I wanted proof that I’d been to Panama!  He replied that he didn’t have a stamp.  It was all semi-unofficial.

Playa Miel was that type of paradise you see in tourism magazines.  Clear turquoise water and white sand lined with palm trees.  Brandon and I were joined by a group of friends from our catastrophic boat road the day before (read story), as well as a Croatian girl named Helena.  

Helena was traveling solo and we struck up a conversation with her on the boat ride to Sapzurro.  I was curious what had brought her way out to this remote corner of the universe.

“I followed a boy,” she answered wryly, then told me her story.

She’d been living in Santa Marta, Colombia, working as a pet sitter.  One day she met an attractive Colombian man named Enrique, with whom she felt an immediate “spiritual connection.” Enrique said he felt the same, and a whirlwind romance commenced.

“Come meet my mother,” he said to her one day. She agreed, feeling like the luckiest woman alive.

He brought her to the outskirts of Capurgana, where his mother ran a small hostel and restaurant.

The mother was kind and welcoming, and an amazing cook. Everything was going perfectly, until that morning when Helena woke up to the sight of Enrique packing his bags.

“Where are you going?” she asked him.
“To Medellin to see my wife,” he responded.
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘wife’? You’re married??”
“Yes of course.”
“What do you mean, ‘of course’??”
“Well you’re my friend on facebook. I assumed you’d noticed.”

“Oh my God, that’s horrible!” I exclaimed.

The Colombian women on the boat shook their heads.  “That’s why you should never date a Colombian man,” they said.  “Colombian men are pigs.”

I glanced at their husbands, sitting right there with us on the boat.  They merely shrugged.

I spent the day with Helena and the other women, taking turns telling horror stories about South American men (I have a couple doozies of my own, that’s for sure).  

That evening, back in Capurgana, Helena joined Brandon and me for dinner and drinks.  We struck up a conversation with the cute young bartenders.  We told them about Helena’s situation and it turned out they’d grown up with Enrique and knew him quite well.  He was known for being a womanizer, they said.  They could have warned Helena if they’d met her earlier!  The restaurant was about to close for the night, due to the impending end of electrical current.  But we were having a great time and not ready to let the night end.

“We should go for a swim!” someone said.

Nobody had swimsuits with them, but we all raced out to the bay just as the lights turned off.  Perfect timing for a skinny dip!  

I was the first to run into the water, diving into the wonderfully warm Caribbean water.  I paddled the water around with my hands, and that was when I noticed something spectacular: dazzling little lights all around me.  Bioluminescent plankton.

Bioluminescent plankton in the Caribbean: photo from The Guardian

I had no idea there was bioluminescence in this area; no one did!  Even the local bartenders were surprised and fascinated. I think it would be special to see this phenomenon in any situation, but particularly so when you’re not expecting it.

A sketch of our midnight swim

Helena’s stuff was still at Enrique’s mom’s hostel; she had left that morning in a huff and hadn’t yet returned.  Brandon and I offered to walk her back there, since it didn’t seem safe in the dark.  We put on our clothes and headlamps, said goodbye to the Colombian boys, and set off for Helena’s hostel.  The path was dark.  Very dark.  I could see nothing other than whatever my headlamp was pointing at.  

Helena was confident that she knew her way back.  She explained that the only way there involved crossing through neighboring farms.  She assured us that everyone here walked across each others’ property and no one would think we were trespassing.  Eventually, she said, we would cross a creek and then the hostel was just on the other side.

For almost an hour we followed her through gates and what was presumably private property.  We didn’t encounter any other people, but constantly heard the scuffling of animals in the trees around us.  We passed a handwritten painted sign that read, “Cuidan Los Niños” – meaning “watch the children.” Next to it, a child’s shirt was hanging from a pole. I’m sure it would look perfectly innocent in the daylight, but at night it was menacing.

As Helena opened yet another gate, Brandon stopped.  “Weren’t we just here?” he asked.  “Did we just go in a circle?” I shone my light off to the side and, sure enough, there was the creepy sign and T-shirt.

Helena admitted that it had never taken this long to get to the hostel before.  “Maybe we should turn around,” she said.

Another few minutes went by and we realized there was no way to re-trace our steps.  Brandon and I had been blindly following Helena, not paying attention to what turns she made.  She didn’t remember.  We were lost.

“Can anyone hear the ocean?” I asked.  “If we can get to the beach then we can figure our way back to town.”

“That’s a good idea!” exclaimed Brandon.  We fell silent, listening carefully for the sound of waves.  

I heard a large crack to my left.  It was loud: not merely a rodent, definitely something bigger.  I whirled around, the headlamp creating an arc of light which landed on a huge creature taller than myself.  I screamed.  

“GOOD GOD!” yelled Brandon.  Helena gasped.  

There were two horses standing right next to us, eyes glowing.  Had they been there the whole time??  I exhaled in relief, but the damage was done.  I was spooked.

“Let’s get out of here,” we all agreed.  

We continued walking through the endless darkness – God only knows where or in what direction – until we emerged in an open field.  In the middle of the field was a metal table.  

“Does this look familiar at all, Helena?” asked Brandon.

“Uh, I don’t remember passing a table…”

I interrupted her.  “Why is there a table in the middle of a field?” I slowly, shakily approached the table.  I came close enough to make out dried blood streaks all over it.

“It’s gotta be where they slaughter cows, right?” I said, desperate for an explanation.  I recalled cow slaughter scenes I’d seen in movies; the cows were always hung by a hook, never laid on a table.  A tingling sensation swept through my body.  This was not good.  What had we been thinking coming out here in the dark??  This was the Darien: the last place on earth you wanted to get lost.  Anything could happen out here.

“Shh,” said Helena.  “Do you hear that?”

We froze.

“It’s the water!”

We ran toward the noise as fast as we could without tripping, and emerged not at the beach but at a roaring river.

“I know where we are!” gasped Helena between breaths.  “This is the creek crossing.”

“Creek??” I exclaimed.  “I would hardly call this a creek.”

“Well there wasn’t this much water this morning.  I guess it’s flooded because of the rain this afternoon.  But it’s definitely the place!  We have to cross here; we’re really close.”

Brandon offered to go first.  There were no rocks to hop across, just murky muddy water.  He held his sandals in his hands and walked barefoot, slowly, to the other side.  The water reached halfway up his thighs, and Brandon was a tall guy.  When it was my turn it came to my hips.  There was a current, but it wasn’t terribly strong.  And now we knew the direction of the beach, since presumably the river would run to the sea.

After the river crossing, Helena quickly found the hostel.  It sat behind a shadowy iron gate and, like everything else around us, was completely dark.  

“Are you sure you don’t want to just grab your stuff and come back to our hostel?” I asked.

“Yes, it’ll be fine,” she answered.  “I leave first thing in the morning; I just have to last this one night.”  She thanked us for walking with her, admitting it would have been horrible to get lost out there alone.  

Brandon and I silently waited outside for a few minutes, just in case.  When we were convinced that Helena was safe, we headed back to the river and followed it to the beach.  There was no way we were walking back through those creepy farms.  We slowly but surely found our way  back to our own hostel, where a giant frog sat in the doorway to greet us.  I nearly kissed the floor, I was so happy to be safe at last.

I thought the scares were over. But then we entered our room to something unexpected and terrifying… A cat on the bed.

This post is available for your listening pleasure on the Boose on the Loose podcast, streaming now on Spotify.

Read more about the Darien:

2 thoughts on “The Dark, Dark Jungle

  1. I’d never heard any of this (heartbreaking) history… thank you for taking the time to learn and write about it. What a frightening place to get lost. I’m terrified of the dark when I’m outside, so I can completely relate to how panicked you guys must have been. But glad to know everyone made it home safely!

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