Planning Your Time
Where you go and how long you choose to stay in the Darién depends on how deeply you want to enter into this formidable world. It may help to think in terms of three Dariéns: the coast, the rivers, and the foothills and highlands of Parque Nacional Darién. Ecosystems, accommodations, and the overall experience are quite different in each.
Those with the time and ability for serious trekking should consider an organized trip that touches on all three Dariéns. This requires at least a week and perhaps two and involves all-day hikes in rugged, hot, and humid conditions. These trips are really mini-expeditions and do not come cheap. The best way to arrange one is through a good tour operator that can provide qualified guides, keep trekkers safe, and handle the considerable logistics.
Visiting just one part of the Darién can be done in as little as two or three days, particularly if you fly. Given the time and expense involved in getting around this part of the country, visitors will not get much out of the experience if they attempt a stay shorter than that. Visitors to Tropic Star Lodge, the only true resort in the entire Darién, generally stay for a week, though half-week packages are sometimes available.
The only parts of the Darién you can consider visiting without a guide are the towns along the Interamericana or those that can be reached by air, which also happen to be among the least appealing and least attractive places in the Darién. No one should set foot in the forest or venture far on a river without experienced guides.
The coast is the most accessible part of the Darién, and the least rugged. The most comfortable accommodations are found here. This area includes the Bahía de Piñas, Jaqué, and Punta Patiño, as well as the town of La Palma, the provincial capital of the Darién. Most people fly in or come by ocean-going vessel.
The rivers are the main means of transportation in the interior of the Darién, and most visitors spend at least a little time on them. It can be a pleasant way to get around, and it’s certainly scenic, but boat travel can also be hot, humid, and wet. Most transport is by long dugout canoes called piraguas, which can get uncomfortable after an hour or two. Getting any distance by boat can take a long time, depending on conditions: The crew may need to clear tree falls or drag the piragua through shallow stretches of some rivers.
The Río Pirre is far less densely settled and quite beautiful. The Río Tuira is wide and lightly populated between La Palma and El Real, then narrows and is lined by villages as it flows farther east. For their own safety, visitors are not allowed to travel up the Tuira past the village of Boca de Cupe, and sometimes not even that far. The same goes for the Río Jaqué (near the Bahía de Piñas) past the village of Biroquera. For more information on satying safe while exploring the Darién, please visit the Safety Concerns page.
Those who want to spend a night on the river will probably camp in a village with few facilities.
Only Mogue and the Río Sambú area have true visitors’ accommodations; staying in any other village requires negotiating for a spot in someone’s hut or a place to pitch one’s tent. The town of El Real, on the Río Tuira near the Río Pirre, also has guest accommodations and a couple of basic places to eat and drink.
The foothills and highlands of Parque Nacional Darién are among the wildest and most beautiful parts of the country. Most visitors go to the area around Cerro Pirre, usually making their base at Rancho Frío, in the lowlands just northwest of the mountain, or Cana, on its eastern slope. Hikers can stay at Pirre Station (the ranger station at Rancho Frío) or the rustic lodge at Cana. This area is particularly treasured by bird-watchers, but the magnificent primary and secondary forests will impress anyone.
Cana has more trails and facilities, it’s more comfortable, and it has a nifty cloud-forest camp. Conditions at Pirre Station are more rustic, but a trip there can be arranged far more cheaply. Those on a moderate budget will find Pirre Station the most accessible part of the national park. (Pirre Station and Cana are only about 20 kilometers apart, but no trails connect them.)
The average temperature in the Darién is 26°C (79°F), but as usual in the tropics that average sounds milder than it feels. the Darién lowlands are hot and humid year-round. Be prepared to feel wet and sticky even in the dry season, and don’t expect ever to get completely dry in the rainy season. The Pacific and central parts of the Darién can see as much as 2.5 meters of rain a year. The Caribbean side gets up to 3.5 meters a year.
Trekkers on long expeditions often take just two sets of clothing, which after the first day can be categorized as “wet” and “wetter.” Sleep in the former; hike in the latter.
The highlands, however, can get surprisingly cool at night. You’ll probably need a light jacket or windbreaker, for instance, at Cana’s cloud-forest camp.
With few exceptions, transactions are cash only in the Darién, and there are no ATMs anywhere east of Metetí. Those traveling independently should calculate a rough budget ahead of time and bring a stash of cash with them, including lots of small bills.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition