Migrants, adventure seekers head to the Darien Gap

Sat, July 22, 2023 at 5:05 AM EDT

STORY: It’s not a journey for the faint of heart.

These thrill seekers are embarking on a multi-day excursion into the Panamanian jungle through the Darien Gap.

A few dozen miles away, another group are attempting the same feat.

Rather than adrenaline junkies, these are migrants.

The two camps will rarely come face to face… and they often have vastly different experiences.

The Darien is the only missing section - or gap - on the Pan-American highway that stretches from Alaska to Argentina.

And it’s dangerous.

For decades, only the most intrepid of travelers ventured into this once impenetrable jungle.

But in recent years, it’s also become the site of humanitarian catastrophe.

“We are from Ecuador, we’re going to the United States” this man says.

He says the trip is going well, “with God’s blessing.”

From as far as Afghanistan and China, a quarter of a million migrants attempted to cross the difficult terrain in 2022, in hopes of reaching the U.S. border.

Visa restrictions block them from entering countries any closer.

At least 137 of those migrants died or went missing while making the trip, including at least 13 minors, according to the United Nations.

Money and resources separate the tourists from migrants.

Tourist packages can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars per person, and can include medical care, satellite phones, appropriate equipment, and a cook.

Even so, injuries are still part of the norm. Marko Wanske came to Panama from Germany for the Darien Gap.

“Well, I would say that everyone had minor injuries, whether it was pressure marks on the hips and shoulders from the backpack, blisters on the feet. After a while, many got tropical ulcers, which is a fungus that affects the feet and then bursts open. That’s very painful. There was a participant whom we had to carry out on the last day because she could no longer walk.”

Migrants often get a lot less for their money.

One migrant from Venezuela told Reuters she paid $4,000 for a guide who abandoned her and her four children and mother-in-law just two days into the trek.

The global adventure tourism market topped $680 billion in 2021, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Humanitarian aid groups have criticized tourism in the Darien Gap alongside the suffering of migrants.

In written responses to Reuters' questions about the ethics of such tours, the Tourism Ministry said Panama is "blessed with sprawling jungles, mighty rivers, mountain peaks, endless coastlines, and diverse cultures."

They also acknowledged the “catastrophic humanitarian crisis” in a separate part of the Darien due to migration.

Rick Morales has spent 25 years as a tour guide taking people into the Darien.

He said he plans his routes to keep these worlds apart.

“We're in one area of the Darien and this activity happens to take place in a completely different area of the Darien. So, there's that. The second thing is: get to wonder what kind of tourism would be sustainable if we were taking people to see other human beings suffer, you know, what kind of activity would that be, I mean, that's sick, that's pretty morbid.”

Panama says it has stepped up efforts to stop migrants from crossing the jungle.
But the numbers of migrants heading to the Darien continues to rise.