Linda’s suggestion that we write about Settings this month was a welcome one, as I’ve been deep in the jungle this week, researching Panama’s dark and fearsome Darien Gap for my new thriller, ESCAPE TO PANAMA. Once upon a time, all of Panama was like the nearly impenetrable Darien, though today sections have been so hacked and burned that you can’t tell much difference from the U.S.
But if you leave any part of this little tropical country untended for a time, the jungle grows back with a vengeance, bringing venomous snakes, monster insects, howler monkeys, and poisonous plants. So, despite never having been to the Darien Gap itself, I’ve seen portions of my garden become wildly intimidating, and, only moments from my house, have driven through unpopulated areas that certainly look like a jungle to me.
Before I say more about the Darien, I want to mention the sad case of two young Dutch women who came to Boquete, my town, a month ago on vacation. They were following a long line of visitors from Europe who’ve traveled to Boquete to climb its cool, green mountains, some searching for a glimpse of the shy Quetzal, said to be the most beautiful bird in the world. Ingrid Bergman came here, as did Greta Garbo, and it was indeed Scandinavian and Swiss families who founded Boquete 100 years ago.
Before them had been the nomadic Ngöbe Buglé indigenous tribes, who’d trekked through our hills and valleys for eons. The Europeans built houses, the latter erected temporary huts that were abandoned when they moved. Today, both groups live in harmony, the pathetic huts still lingering on.
They came here on holiday, buoyantly celebrating graduation, happily studying Spanish and preparing to volunteer at a local school.
One beautiful Springlike day (it is always some version of Spring here), the young women set out for a trek, possibly on the Quetzal Trail, which skirts the lower to middle portions (4000-7000 ft.) of Volcan Baru, an 11,000 foot dormant volcano.
They never returned.
If they’d stayed on the trail, they would have encountered wet and slippery ground, rocky slopes, thick vegetation, possibly needing a machete, and landslides.
If they stepped off the trail, they might have fallen into a nightmare.
Although Boquete looks civilized on the outside, with our jazz festival and little theatre and state of the art library, dig a little deeper and you’re back in the jungle. And if you step off a trail, any trail, you can be swallowed up in the blink of an eye.
It’s been more than a month since Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers went missing. In addition to the Panamanian authorities, our multi-cultural expat community has been doing its best to help find them. Search parties have been organized. There are frequent reminders on all the local social media. “Missing” posters are everywhere. Even a private detective has been hired, just in case the trail the women stepped off was of a different, even more menacing, kind.
When something like this happens our small community is deeply affected.
The dangers in the Darien are the stuff of legend. Rachel and Avi Adams of the blog “Dark Roasted Blend – Weird and Wonderful Things” http://www.darkroastedblend.com sum it up well:
“Jungles, swamps, guerillas and corrupt military – all in the most intense 90km on Earth.”
Then there’s this descriptive prose:
“This area is a forbidding mountainous jungle on the Panama side; full of swamps, guerrillas, drug traffikers and kidnappers on the Colombian side, making travel through the area not just a struggle against a hostile environment but also a maze of bribing the right people for passage and ducking bullets.
“In case you missed the dangers we just enumerated, here is an easy list to remember:
– tough nasty jungle with plenty of disagreeable wildlife.
– impenetrable swamps
– crazed drug traffikers
– pissed-off guerrillas
– greedy kidnappers (all of the guys mentioned above)
– paranoid government police
– no marked trails”
Here’s a picture of FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the Marxist narco-terrorists referenced above.
And, just in case you want to see more, here’s their website. http://farc-ep.co/ Yes, a terrorist group actually has a website. But, don’t be deceived. These are the people who force the Indigenous to carry bricks of “cocaine” through the Darien, acting as “mules” on pain of death. These are the people who storm innocent villages, confiscate the food, rape the women, and execute whomever they feel like. This is the danger you face if you step off the path in the Darien.
My fictional hero, Pen, battles the Darien and FARC, coming out bloody but victorious, as fictional heroes do.
I think about the lost women and our “tamer” jungle, one lacking terrorists, for sure, but possibly one that presented just enough danger that they couldn’t conquer it.
I wonder if Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers will, like Pen, ultimately be victorious. And like everyone in Boquete, I keep saying my prayers that they will.
~~ Britt Vasarhelyi