To prepare for our own adventurous journey to Colombia, a friend and I listened to Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood, a British Army veteran. Mr. Wood starts farther south than we did, but is handicapped by not having any assistance from Royal Caribbean. Without a boat, Mr. Wood will have to push through the notoriously challenging Darien Gap. Today we tend to think that this term refers to a “gap” in the highway that would otherwise connect Alaska to Argentina. One of the locals interviewed in the book says that the name refers to a gap in the mountains that made it easier to travel through from Atlantic to Pacific than through other parts of Panama.
Mr. Wood’s companion is Alberto, a 42-year-old Mexican fashion photographer who often says “chinga”. Alberto was ready for a distraction in 2016 because he’d recently been targeted in Mexican family court by his wife of one year, availing herself of the then-new no-fault divorce law to obtain a free house after a one-year marriage. From “Do changes in divorce legislation have an impact on divorce rates? The case of unilateral divorce in Mexico” (Aguirre 2019; Latin American Economic Review):
In 2008, Mexico City was the first entity to approve unilateral divorce in Mexico. Since then, 17 states out of 31 have also moved to eliminate fault-based divorce. … The results indicate that divorce on no grounds accounts for a 26.4% increase in the total number of divorces in the adopting states during the period 2009–2015. … Unilateral legislation has proved to be an effective tool in modifying family structures in Mexico…
Alberto’s achievement in walking from Merida, Yucatan to Colombia is more impressive than the author’s. Alberto was not writing a book and was not a former paratrooper.
The Darien Gap turns out not to be all that challenging for our heroes. They have enough connections to get the Panamanian authorities to bless the expedition. They hire Emberá and Kuna Indians as porters and guides (I visited these folks about 20 years ago via Robinson R22 helicopter from the local flight school). But the rest of the book features plenty of challenges, e.g., hiking to 12,536′ to the top of Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak and walking through gang-held areas of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The author points out that Central America’s population is 4X what it was a few decades ago and, in his opinion, this is the principal explanation for the region’s poverty.
The migrants whom the walkers encounter are from Africa, Haiti, Nepal, and Pakistan and have typically entered the Americas by flying to Brazil. The Panamanian authorities explain that, after arresting migrants, they will typically assist them in reaching the United States by transporting them to the border with Costa Rica. This gets the migrants out of Panama, which does not want them, and is cheaper than deportation (Panama pays for some bus rides instead of paying for plane tickets back across the Atlantic).
Here are some of the animals that we saw while walking through the Colombian jungle (at the cruise port in Cartagena). Warning: the toucans are friendly, but one of them likes to bite sneakers and it hurts!
The book lends itself well to the audio format and the narrator is convincingly British. I recommend Walking the Americas to anyone planning a journey to or through Central America. Separately, if you want to see a restored Spanish colonial town and a lot of beautiful nature, I recommend the UNESCO World Heritage site of the old city within Panama City and then do your nature excursions in Panama, which is much wealthier and better developed than other nations in the region. They don’t promote tourism as much as the Costa Ricans do because any time they need $1 million they can let a big container ship through the new locks. Cartagena is jammed with tourists, locals trying to sell things to the tourists, car traffic, massive holes in the sidewalks, etc.