The Darién: It’s a name filled with magic.
In many people’s minds the magic is of a dark and sinister kind. The Darién has historically been seen as a foreboding, dangerous place, a Conradian wilderness into which explorers venture, never to return.
While there are serious safety concerns  you need to be aware of, the Darién is magical in many more positive ways as well. It is one of planet Earth’s last great bastions of pristine tropical nature. Its biodiversity is so incredible it’s been named both a World Biosphere Reserve and a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The province of Darién is, at 16,671 square kilometers, by far the largest in Panama. It’s extremely sparsely inhabited; only 40,000 people live in the entire province. Parque Nacional Darién  alone is enormous, covering 579,000 hectares of wilderness that sprawl across the isthmus near the Colombian border.
It contains the most extensive lowland tropical forest left along Central America’s Pacific coast. Balboa stepped out of this forest in 1513 and became the first European to set eyes on the “South Sea.”
The great attraction of the Darién is its magnificent forests and the incredible biodiversity they contain. Hiking, trekking, and bird-watching are what draw most nature tourists. But there are a couple of places along the coast of the Darién with accessible beaches and coral reefs. And the waters off Piñas Bay offer world-class deep-sea fishing.
What’s commonly thought of as “the Darién” extends beyond Darién province itself. It encompasses all of eastern Panama except the islands of Kuna Yala .
The part of the Darién of most interest to visitors lies toward the southeast section of the province, where there are no roads. The only way to get around here is by plane, boat, and foot. This contains the most accessible entry points into Parque Nacional Darién .
Two of the best spots in the park are Cana , on the east side of 1,615-meter-high Cerro Pirre, and Pirre Station , on its west side. These are right in the middle of barely inhabited tropical forest. Cana, the most remote point in Panama , is especially impressive.
The most popular coastal areas are Punta Patiño , on the Golfo de San Miguel, and the Bahía de Piñas , farther down the coast near the Colombian border. Those looking for a trip up a Darién river usually find themselves on the Sambú , Mogue , Balsas, Pirre, or Tuira, though innumerable others crisscross this part of The Darién.
For every tree in the forest there’s a saying about the Darién. My favorite, and one likely to resonate with any visitor, is this: Though many have come before you, you’ll feel as though you’re the first to enter The Darién.
Traditionally, the Darién starts at the town of Chepo , just 50 kilometers east of Panama City , though the city has expanded so much it’s hard to believe this area was pure wilderness less than three decades ago. It’s possible to drive into the Darién as far as the town of Yaviza , but it’s not pleasant. Though the road was recently much improved, the drive still takes a solid day, and all one encounters along the way are vast expanses of deforested land.
By Air: For most travelers, flying into the Daríén is the only reasonable option. Except to places served only by charter planes, such as Cana , flights are reasonably priced and flying is a much faster and less tiring way to get to the most interesting parts of the Darién. Planes often run late out here, sometimes by many hours. But arrive at the airstrip at least an hour early on the way back. If by some miracle the plane shows up early, it’ll leave early, with or without you. The carriers are Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500, www.aeroperlas.com ) and Air Panama (tel. 316-9000, www.flyairpanama.com ).
Flight times in the Darién are rough approximations at best. Be ready to leave an hour early but prepared to wait as long as it takes, which can be many hours.
By Land: The Interamericana (Interamerican Highway) extends east from Panama City  to Yaviza , about 270 kilometers away. Here the “highway”—really a two-lane road nearly all the way from Panama City—comes to an abrupt end about 50 kilometers from the Colombian border, and the famous Darién Gap begins.
Going into the Darién by four-wheel drive or bus is becoming increasingly common. The road was mostly paved all the way to Yaviza in 2010, but is still a long, tiring trip through unlovely countryside. Anywhere the road has been extended, deforestation has followed, and the view out the windows is of sad little towns, villages, farms, and cattle pasture, not the majestic rainforest most come to the Darién to see. Roads deteriorate quickly out here, and when it’s in sad shape you can expect an all-day, vehicle-punishing journey. It can take up to eight hours by four-wheel drive, including stops for breakfast and lunch, to cover the approximately 270 kilometers from Panama City to Yaviza in the dry season, which gives some sense of the road conditions.
However, traveling by bus is the cheapest way to get into the Darién. There are frequent daily buses from Panama City that go at least as far as Metetí  and make interim stops at all the towns and villages along the highway.
Budget travelers can take a bus from Panama City to Metetí, switch buses to the nearby river port of Puerto Quimba, and then cross the wide mouth of the Río Tuira to La Palma , the capital of Darién province. From there it’s possible to arrange expeditions to explore the Emberá-Wounaan and Afro-Colonial villages and the coasts and lowland forests of southwestern Darién province. It’s also possible to hire a boat to go far up the Río Tuira toward Parque Nacional Darién .
Alternatively, when road conditions allow, those on a budget can continue all the way to Yaviza , take a motorized piragua (long dugout canoe) to the nearby town of El Real, and from there plan trips to visit villages up the Río Tuira or to Pirre Station , the most accessible part of Parque Nacional Darién .
Once you get off the bus, however, expenses mount quickly. Expect to pay US$200 round-trip per small group for transportation for any significant distance upriver to forest destinations. That doesn’t include the cost of food, guides, park fees, and so on. And a competent, knowledgeable guide is a must even for the most independent-minded traveler.