Welcome to the end of the road. And not just any road: Yaviza (yaw-VEE-sa, pop. 3,177) marks the abrupt end of the Interamericana, which those in a less environmentally aware time once dreamed would link North and South America.
Fortunately, sanity has so far prevailed and the road has been indefinitely halted, which is at least delaying the ecological destruction that would inevitably follow. The famous Darién Gap begins here. Depending on how one measures it, the gap consists of about 100 kilometers of unbroken wilderness near the borders of Panama and Colombia, through which no road has ever been built.
Just paving the existing stretch of road between the Lago Bayano  area and Yaviza, which might possibly be completed in the next few years, will likely bring dramatic change to this backwater.
Only a true optimist would be confident those changes will be for the better. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Yaviza getting much sketchier. It’s got the vaguely menacing, unpredictable vibe one expects from a frontier town in the middle of nowhere. It’s also hot and humid, the very essence of jungle rot.
When the first vehicles ever to make it to Yaviza emerged from the jungle in 1960, on a brutal expedition to study the feasibility of a road through the Darién Gap, some townspeople were so frightened by these mechanical beasts they jumped into the river. Not a whole lot has changed since then. Yaviza still looks like a backwater Panamanian town from 100 years ago.
Yaviza is certainly colorful, and it’s an interesting place to spend an hour or so on the way to somewhere better. That’s all the time needed to get the flavor of this tiny town. Those who need to spend the night in the area are better off in the nearby (and much friendlier) town of El Real , or in Metetí , back west along the Interamericana. That said, if you get stuck here there is one semi-okay place to stay.
Yaviza has a long history. A Spanish fort, Fuerte San Jerónimo de Yaviza, was built by the Spanish in the 18th century to prevent pirates from raiding the gold mines of Cana by river. What’s left of the fort’s crumbling walls can still be seen perched on the edge of the Río Chucunaque. Erosion is wearing away the riverbanks, and this haunting bit of history is slowly tumbling into the murky waters, with no attempt to preserve it. It’s the only real sight in town and is worth a quick visit. It’s a short walk toward the water from the Hotel Tres Americas. It’s easy to find, but if you have trouble ask anyone where the fuerte is.
The Chucunaque snakes around the edge of Yaviza, making for a natural boundary. There’s a boat landing, on the right at the entrance to town, where 45-foot-long piraguas (dugout canoes) loaded with plétanos (plantains) and ñames (yams) from riverside plantations unload their cargo onto trucks, which carry them to Panama City . These same boats are the main source of transportation for those venturing deeper into the Darién .
Watching the piraguas in “port” is just about the only other entertainment in town. The wiry stevedores who do the unloading are impressive guys. They carry huge, hand-woven baskets on their backs up a slippery incline to the trucks. There the baskets are weighed on a mechanical scale, and the weight is shouted to a supervisor sitting comfortably in the shade, who makes a note in his ledger. Each basketful weighs 60–90 kilos. It hurts just watching them.
Party days in Yaviza include the Festival de San Francisco Javier, the town’s patron saint, on March 12, and the Festival de la Virgen del Carmen, usually celebrated throughout the province and the country on July 16, though sometimes it comes earlier here.
The town consists mainly of dilapidated two-story wooden buildings, incongruously well-paved streets, and a large, fenced-in police station. Ask for the cuartel (police station). Travelers should register their passport information and intended destination at the station as soon as they arrive. It’s the law, and it’s an excellent idea in any case. Those who go missing out here—and, sadly, it does happen—have a better chance of being found if there’s a record of where they were last spotted. Travelers will need to register at every town, village, or checkpoint they pass through from this point on. Drivers can park their vehicles at the police station, where it should be safe.
Hotel Tres Americas (no phone, US$15 s/d with fan, US$20 s/d with a/c) is the only real option for those who get stuck in Yaviza, and it’s not a great one. It’s by the basketball courts in the plaza at the center of town and offers rooms with fan . A couple of the rooms are okay; the others aren’t. The shared bathroom is icky. Air-conditioned rooms are in a separate building behind the main hotel. These are actually grimmer and literally stink. The hotel also has a basic bar and restaurant. The bar can get raucous at night—don’t expect to get much sleep on the weekends or holidays.
Those who forgot something in Panama City  can find all kinds of basic provisions at hole-in-the-wall stores in Yaviza: food, equipment, machetes, rope, ammo—everything one needs for a Darién expedition. Yaviza also has a small hospital.
If the road is especially bad, which is likelier in the rainy season, buses make it only as far as Metetí . In that case, getting to Yaviza from there often means traveling up the Río Tuira.
It takes about 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.
If you’re able to convince a taxi driver with a four-wheel drive to make the trip to the end of the road, expect to pay at least US$200 one-way from Panama City, depending on the condition of the road and fuel prices.
There are only two ways to venture farther into the Darién  from Yaviza: by foot or by river. Continuing east toward the Colombian border is highly dangerous. Those foolish enough to try run a real risk of meeting Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries, or plain old bandits. The far better option is to head southwest by boat, first on the Chucunaque and then onto the mighty Río Tuira, to El Real. It’s a good base for reaching the national park and other parts of the Darién. The closest airport in this whole region is in El Real.
Cargo-carrying piraguas (long dugout canoes) charge about US$5 a head to El Real, a trip that takes less than an hour with a 30-horsepower motor. Those attempting this trip on their own should note that piraguas aren’t always available, and even when they are it can take hours to unload the thousands of kilos of produce before the boatmen are ready to head back out.