The road to Panamá is one of the least traveled along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and even though many travelers equate the Darien Gap with impenetrable, low-lying rainforest, much of this narrow isthmus – on the Colombian side of the border – is mountainous, with peaks shrouded in rolling mist. It’s no coincidence that the Darien is referred to as the “Green Inferno.”
On the Eastern slopes of the Serranía del Darién, the blue waters of the Caribbean lap up against sand and pebbles in the bays of Trigana, Capurgana and Sapzurro, and three small communities that have established a tourism idyll at the heart the rainforest and exuberant plant and animal life.
For hotel owner Diego Palacio of the Tacaruna Lodge in Capurgana, this pristine corner of Colombia receives a majority of tourists from Medellín, given regular flights from Olaya Herrera airport close to the city’s downtown, as well as flights to Acandi on the border with Panama. Bogotanos have yet to “discover paradise” believes Palacio, who was in the capital promoting two lodges (the other in Bahía Solano), during the recent tourism fair Anato. As a way to connect the Darien with the interior of the country, without having to cross the Urabá Gulf in a speed boat, the small airport of Capurganá will inaugurate, in May, flights to Montería offering tourists the chance to also enjoy the capital of Cordoba, with its Republican façades and promenade on the Sinu River.
The crescent-shaped bays of Capurganá, Sapzurro and La Miel are popular with yachters cruising the San Blas islands, and often on their last ports of call in the Atlantic before entering the Panama Canal at Colón. There are boats that sail from Cartagena to this remote region, but if on a schedule, get a seat in one of the many fast lanchas that connect Acandí with Necocli.
The Panamanian border is separated from Colombia by 200 concrete steps that wind their up a hill from the bay of Sapzurro, offering great views of a Caribbean void of cruise ships and souvenir shops. Lodging is quite basic in this part of the world, with operators offering bungalows to bunk and terraces to hang a hammock. For diving, there are reefs that extend up to Cabo Tiburón, and as its name suggests, among the many species that inhabit these waters, are leatherback turtles, dolphins and spotted whale sharks.
The Darien Gap is one of the densest rainforests in the world, and even though a handful of adventurous – and often foolhardy – hikers have attempted to cross the 100 kilometers of treacherous swamp and raging rivers, for visitors to Capurganá there are plenty of trails where one can get a sense of the Darien’s intimidating darkness, and where footpaths are washed away with each passing tropical storm. And storms are frequent, as the Chocó is one of the wettest places on earth, so pack a plastic poncho and rubber boots. A visit to the El Cielo free-flowing waterfalls is also a must, and an easy-going hike accompanied by the sounds of howler monkeys, parrots and toucans. A local guide will charge $15,000 pesos for the one-hour hike and necessary for spotting some of the Darien’s other inhabitants – tiny, fluorescent colored frogs.
Colombia’s tourism offering covers every imaginable terrain, from the pastoral of the central Andes to the rugged and unforgiving deserts of La Guajira. As one of many entry points to the Darien, Capurgana is a laid-back resort where locals will cook for visitors and motorized transport is a fancy term for horse and cart.
As there are no ATMs in this part of the jungle, travel on a budget and keep your cash and passport pad-locked at your hostel – hotel, and as there are more loudspeakers than beds it seems, the night can get quite raucous – one aspect of local operators are trying to control. For Palacio, Capurganá is under-sold as a Caribbean destination, compared to San Andrés and Cartagena, but a place that is now coming of age thanks to empty coves, white sand beaches, and an untamed rainforest that could turn Tayrona green with envy.