Book Review: The Darien Gap


In the 21st Century, we have maps of the Moon and Mars, with names assigned to mountains and canyons. In this era of Google Maps and GPS's, I find it refreshing that there are still areas of this planet that are as terra incognita now as before Columbus' voyages.

The Darién Gap is the area of Panama adjacent to the border with Colombia, and it is called a "gap" because of a 100-km. gap in the Pan-American Highway. Completion of the Pan-American Highway was a goal of the Kennedy Administration's Alliance for Progress, but construction stalled in the 1970's, due to escalating costs. The last extension in the 1990's caused severe environmental damage.

I first became aware of the Darién Gap at about the same time as my first visit to Peru in 1986. I read an account in the South American Explorers Club magazine by a person when went through the Darién Gap by bicycle, which was possible because he was able to use dugout canoes as ferries. During my travels, I have met many people who want to ride their motorcycle or drive their camper van to Tierra del Fuego, and I get a mild sadistic pleasure from telling them about the absence of a road. There has been on-again, off-again ferry service between Colon, Panama, and Cartagena, Colombia. (Currently on; see Expedition Portal.)

Martin Mitchinson, the author of The Darien Gap, now lives outside of Powell River, BC, but he lived on a sailboat for several years prior to making the exploration on foot documented in this book. He followed in the steps of Vasco Núñez de Balboa and a later explorer, Lt. Isaac C. Strain. Interestingly, Mitchinson was unable to traverse the Gap into Colombia; at the time of his expedition (ca. 2006) it was too difficult and too dangerous.

Mitchinson is very good at putting his expedition into historical context, with interesting descriptions of the Balboa and Strain expedition, as well as one by the Company of Scotland in the 1690's. He writes about the unusual population mixture in the Darién area. Along the way, Mitchinson tells us a lot about the people he spends time with in Darién, and about himself.

The Darien Gapis all the more impressive because it's Mitchinson's first book, although he acknowledges help from Harbour Publishing and editor Meg Taylor. Let's hope that Mitchinson gets opportunities to tell us more about a very interesting part of this planet.