Paola Blanco 

What is the Darien Gap like and how does it affect tourism in Latin America?

A journey of thousands of people to a new life

All migrants from South America who want to reach the United States have to pass through the Darién bottleneck. When they reach the border between Colombia and Panama, the road ends and the Darién begins, an odyssey of kilometres of jungle.

According to Panamanian authorities, in 2021 more than 130,000 people made the route, 19,000 of whom were children. Many of the migrants who venture on the route are illegal immigrants from South American countries who fear deportation to their countries of origin, so the only way out is to cross the jungle to make their way to the United States.

Apart from the human losses, this migratory phenomenon is also affecting the economy and tourism in the area, especially along the coasts of Colombia and Panama.

Necocli: makeshift camps

The journey begins in Necoclí, a spot on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, a place where countless travellers arrive in search of a weekend of cocktails, sand and sun. But it is also where immigrants from all over the world gather. In the port of Necoclí, up to 15,000 immigrants have gathered, a very high number for a place that does not have the infrastructure to accommodate such a large number of visitors, so they set up makeshift camps on the beaches and settle there for weeks waiting for a place on one of the boats that will take them from Necoclí to the other side of the gulf, Capurganá.

The camps in Necoclí are unsanitary, there are no toilets or showers and many migrants have to sleep outdoors. Diseases spread more easily in such an environment, and the authorities have warned of possible outbreaks of measles. At the port, the desperation to get a place on the boats is growing, coupled with mental exhaustion and physical fatigue. Many families have to wait their turn for hours, some improvising mountain backpacks while others use plastic bags to carry what little luggage they have. They stick their names on the bags to avoid confusion, carrying the essentials to start a new life elsewhere.

Capurganá: the wildest jungle

Despite the poverty of the place, some migrants manage to get food thanks to the collections of the Catholic church in their parishes, where the faithful provide food for those in need. It is worth noting that in many cases there is a language barrier; most migrants from countries such as Haiti speak Creole, but they still try to find a way to understand each other.

Once on the boat that will take them to Panama, many migrants are unaware that the crossing usually lasts an average of one week. According to the Panamanian authorities, in 2021, more than 50 children made the route alone in the Darién jungle. Migrants crossing the jungle, apart from the difficult terrain, have to overcome assaults, extortion and women are often raped; in 2021, 88 cases of rape were reported. On the boats, two very different realities come together: tourists (who are becoming fewer and fewer) who come to enjoy the beaches of the Caribbean and refugee migrants who pay more than twice as much for the same trip.

In Capugnará, the situation is not easy; the municipality has lost much of its tourist attraction to migrants. At the entrance to the jungle, some ecological trails were tourist attractions that have now become clandestine entrances to the Darien Gap. Many hotels, restaurants and other businesses linked to the tourism sector have had to close their doors. Mayors in the area express their concern and their helplessness in the face of a global problem.

Although the authorities have reported some 50 corpses in the Darién, migrants' testimonies suggest that the number could be much higher. The complexity of the route means that many of the migrants leave some of their belongings such as clothes in the middle of the route.

Central America: the difficulties continue

After the Darien Gap, Central America begins, where migrants face extortion by corrupt police systems, risks from drug gangs and criminal gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha.

Entry into Mexico: the bureaucratic border arrives

Those fortunate enough to reach Tapachula, on the Guatemala-Mexico border, will now face another problem, bureaucracy. Mexico requires a visa for migrants to continue their journey north. While waiting for the document, some are stranded for months. In order to get preference in the visa process, the authorities ask for more than 1,000 dollars.

Border with the United States: jumping into a new life

Once at the US border, migrants must find a way to get over the US-Mexico border fence and avoid being harassed by the US authorities. Those who succeed become illegal immigrants who will have to struggle to make their new life better than their harsh past.

The Darien Gap is not an alien problem

The problem experienced on the border with the United States is not the only one in the world, there is also one in Europe and the problems with migratory movements are a global phenomenon, for example in Myanmar there is the persecution of the Rohingya people, who have to live in the mountains in dwellings without access to basic services or water. Food and energy resources are unaffordable for thousands of people, incomes are reduced and costs such as the price of electricity (for those who have access) multiply for these families living in precarious conditions.

However, a number of questions also need to be asked in order to address the problem: how can receiving countries coordinate with migrant-sending countries to cushion the phenomenon; can citizens support refugees in any way beyond the management of the authorities? And finally, should we allow tragedies such as the Darien Gap to occur in the 21st century? 

Author: Paola Blanco


The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and to analyze traffic. Information about your use of this site is shared with Google. By using this site, you agree to its use of cookies.