Would you like to visit one of the most isolated and undiscovered parts of the planet? Then you could be part of a tight-knit group trekking across the Darien Gap, an infamous and inhospitable stretch of mountains, swamp and rainforest separating Central and South America.
The Darien Gap is the only break in the 30,000-mile Pan-American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Argentina and you’ll be immersed in one of the world’s densest jungles, home to incredible wildlife including colourful frogs, snakes, scorpions and crocodiles.
The trip is being organised by travel company Secret Compass, who arrange tours to some of the wildest and most inaccessible places – from Siberia to North Korea. “You’ll be very close to hundreds of different species of wildlife but you probably won’t see them because the canopy is so dense,” says Managing Director Tom Bodkin, who adds, “The birdlife is spectacular and our guide is particularly knowledgeable.” Tom’s guests can experience the culture of the indigenous Embera people and they’ll view undisturbed historic sites including petroglyph carvings.
Until I spoke with Tom I had no idea that this remote piece of jungle influenced modern British history. When Scotland was an independent country in the late 1600s, they tried to set up a colony on the Caribbean side of the gap. It was a disaster and led to a financial crisis, as around half of the money circulating in Scotland was used to underwrite the project. That weakened the country and helped introduce the 1707 Act of Union, which brought together England and Scotland. Without the Darien Gap, the United Kingdom might not have been formed.
Tom says this is a holiday for the adventurous. “You have to be prepared to live in a hammock in the jungle in basic conditions for ten days. The thought of wild camping in the jungle is an attractive experience for many.” This area of jungle was once considered extremely dangerous because it provided a hideaway for rebel fighters but the situation has improved. Tom explained: “The Darien has a reputation for being unsafe and occupied by Farc, which was the case ten or more years ago. Now, combined with the political situation in Colombia, they’ve moved out of that part of the Darien. The area is quite heavily patrolled by the Panamanian forces and they haven’t had any incidents in the area for over five years. But it is a remote jungle so there are still risks involved with that environment,” he adds. Secret Compass has taken a variety of guests on this trip, from an active grandmother to students.
Most travellers will look forward to cooling off when they reach the coast. “We arrive on a deserted beach on the Pacific Ocean, which is a relief after ten hot, sweaty days in the jungle. It’s nice to have a dip in the Pacific and feel the refreshing sea breezes,” says Tom.
Another of the company’s challenging trips is a 20-day trek around the isolated Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Here the company arranges a trek along the finger of Afghanistan – the land pointing towards China. It’s an extremely remote area and it takes six days to reach. Because of its remoteness, geography and cultural make up, Tom says it is a low-risk area. There have been no incidents in the corridor since the Russians left in the 1980s. Tom says, “We have been going there for six years and have had a fantastic expereince every time.”
So, what sort of person goes on that trip? “We emphasise having a positive attitude,” says Tom. “If you travel somewhere like Afghanistan it is not going to run smoothly. We’ve had landslides blocking roads, vehicle breakdowns and local bureaucracy holding us up. You have to take it for the adventure that it is. If you go along without attitude that’s what it’s all about.”
I asked Tom what sort of feedback he’d received at the end of the holidays? What aspect of the trip stays with them? “Some people go there for culture. Some travel to meet new people and understand how other people live. Some guests want the challenge of trekking over the mountains and they are testing themselves physically and mentally. Some people are there purely for the landscape and the escapism of it. That’s something which should not be underestimated,” says Tom. “Going somewhere like that and being off grid for the best part of twenty days, with no iPhone bleeping in your pocket, no emails coming through and no day-to-day trivia to worry about, that’s an incredibly good way to switch off and reconnect.”
Tom says the halfway point is a highlight for many tourists on the Afghan trip. “We cross over a high pass which is 4800m high. It separates two watersheds. When you get to the top of that and look at the view people realise that they are in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
So what about insurance? Afghanistan is one place where the foreign office advises Britons not to travel to. So you do need to get specialist insurance and Secret Compass can advise about that. Find out more at SecretCompass.com.