In Yaviza, a town of contrabandistas, barefoot prostitutes, and drunken men fighting in the streets with machetes and broken bottles, I'm spotted by two Panamanian policemen and ordered to the cuartel (barracks). It's noon on a Saturday, and I've just arrived in this forlorn 3,200-person trading outpost in the Darién Gap.
"Pasaporte," demands the sour-faced officer at the cuartel. Taking it from my hands, he asks, "Americano?" Then he writes my name in his registry of visitors. "Have a seat," he says. "The comandante is coming."
Yaviza, 30 miles from the Colombian border, is famous for lawlessness—it's a magnet for fugitives, poachers, and bootleggers. Many of the restaurants openly sell sea turtle eggs (fried or scrambled), a prized but illegal delicacy. Put out the word that you want a blue-and-yellow macaw as a pet and eventually there will be a knock on your hotel-room door. Yaviza's whorehouses have long been favored by anti-government guerrillas from Colombia—indeed, a high-ranking rebel is said to maintain a pied-à-terre here.
So there's irony in being grabbed by the police. But the humor vanishes when the balding comandante, dressed in fatigues, shows up and tells me the whole area has been shut down.
"Shut down?" I ask. "Including Darién National Park?"
The comandante nods. "For security reasons," he says.
The national park is what I have come to see. It's December 2003, and I've traveled 145 miles southeast from Panama City by a succession of rickety buses and farm vehicles. The 2,200-square-mile park, untamed and essentially roadless, sits like a lopsided U against the Colombian border. The rarely visited area, which makes for an impassible divide between North and South America, is a mystery zone within an extraordinary, much larger wilderness—the 10,000-square-mile Darién Gap. Stretching from the sandy shores of the Caribbean south to the rocky cliffs of the Pacific, the Gap begins just beyond the suburbs of Panama City and sprawls east, thickening as it goes, until it has erased all roads, all telephone lines, all signs of civilization, turning the landscape into one solid band of unruly vegetation filled with jaguars, deadly bushmasters, and other exotic wildlife.
The mere existence of such a throwback in the modern world suggests an inviolate timelessness. But as I learned in Panama City, the park is in trouble, jeopardized by its remoteness, the very quality that in the past has ensured its survival.