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Try to drive from Washington, D.C. all the way to Buenos Aires, and you’ll discover that you can’t.  As you leave Panama and try to enter Colombia, you’ll hit the Darien Gap, a 100-mile long swath of undeveloped swampland and forest.  It’s the only break in the Pan-American Highway (map below) which otherwise connects the outer reaches of Alaska to the tip of South America.

Due to the treacherous terrain, construction in the Darien Gap is incredibly expensive, but twice, governments have made attempts to connect Central and South America.  Both times, environmental concerns trumped development, with the most recent attempt (1992-1994) ended when the United Nations concluded that the damage done to the surrounding environment would be too extensive to warrant the gains of construction.

That isn’t to say that the Gap is impassable.  It can be transversed by ATV and, of course, by foot, but both are risky.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group of Marxist guerrillas, maintains a significant presence in the Gap and has a track record of being hostile to those in the area, especially to foreigners.  In 2000, British horticulturist Tom Hart Dyke entered the Gap in search of rare orchids; he and his fellow traveler were held for nine months by FARC insurgents.  In 2003, Robert Young Pelton, a journalist, was kidnapped by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (an anti-FARC militia, itself considered a terrorist organization by the United States) while on assignment for National Geographic.  He and his two companions were held for ten days, over which he lost 20 pounds.

Bonus fact: The Pan-American Highway measures just under 30,000 miles (including the 50 miles of the Gap).   The standard practice of changing one’s car’s oil every 3,000 miles would mean 10 oil changes are needed to make the trip.  But that’s the old rule.  Philip Reed, a consumer advice columnist for Edmunds.com, a car site, told the New York Times that most newer cars can go up 5,000 and sometimes up to 10,000 miles before needing an oil change.)

From the Archives: Rainbow River: Another of Colombia’s neat features — this one, not as treacherous.

Related: “The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama” by Martin Mitchinson. Five stars on five reviews.

Originally published

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