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The Darién Province, a remote, sparsely populated expanse of tropical rainforest and swampland along Panama's eastern boundary with Colombia, is considered Central America's last grand, untamed wilderness. Home to nearly .8 million hectares (2 million acres) of protected land, the Darién includes La Reserva Natural Privada Punta Patiño and the Parque Nacional del Darién, the largest national park in Central America and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All of this wilderness is commonly called the "Darién Gap," which refers to the roadless swath of forest that is the "missing link" in the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Chile. Colombia would like to extend the road, but Panamanians fear widespread environmental destruction and an increase in drug trafficking. For now at least, a road seems unlikely.

Given the Darién's inaccessibility, there are few places a traveler can actually visit within the boundaries of the province. The national park measures a staggering 15,000 hectares (1.5 million acres), yet only the Pirre and Cana stations offer trails and basic services. On the southern coast at Piñas Bay is the famous Tropic Star Lodge, and there are trails and dugout canoe trips on rivers around Punta Patiño.

Travelers can drive to the end of the Pan-American Highway to Yaviza, but it's unlikely that you'd want to. The road is flanked by mostly deforested land with nothing of interest except for a few blink-and-you-miss-it hamlets providing truly grim lodging and mediocre services. The road is mostly unpaved and requires a 4WD during the rainy season. Some tours use the Pan-American Highway to reach their final destination in the Darién.

The Darién is just not developed for do-it-yourself travelers, and tales abound of travelers getting lost for days in the jungle or having run-ins with terrorist groups along the northern Colombia border. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you let someone else do the planning for you. Destinations such as the Cana Field Station actually require booking a tour that includes a charter flight to get there. Considering the lack of roads and the inexpensive flights aboard small planes that exist, most travelers fly here anyway, which can be an adventure in itself, soaring above the treetops, viewing Emberá villages below, and holding on tight for a landing on a dirt or grassy landing strip. If booking a tour, you will be put on a charter flight organized by your outfitter, or at the very least they will be able to book you on a regularly scheduled flight.

A Word of Caution for Visitors to the Darién -- Travelers to the Darién should not be cavalier. The jungle is dense and can easily disorient hikers, and any kind of walking trip here should always be undertaken with a guide. In the Darién, you'll find a lot more creepy-crawlies than you will in the rest of Panama; snakes, some of them poisonous, like to slither under fallen leaves and will surprise you if you're not scanning the trail ahead. Hikers should also protect themselves from ticks prevalent in some areas, and from invisible, skin-burrowing chiggers. Tuck your pants into your socks and bring lots of repellent with DEET. There are two seasons here, dry and wet. The May-to-December rainy season is wetter than in most parts of Panama, shrouding your vision and turning trails and roads into slick and gloppy mud. Unless you're fishing at the Tropic Star Lodge, it is not recommended that you visit the Darién during the rainy season. Also, if you're heading to higher altitudes like the Cerro Pirre, bring a jacket because the temperature is much cooler here than in the lowlands.

Although danger levels have been exaggerated greatly, the border with Colombia near the Caribbean Sea is unsafe due to narco-terrorist activity that spills over into Panama. The destinations mentioned in this chapter, however, are perfectly safe.