Darién Gap

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

I read that a team of Cambridge explorers have finally completed their attempt to drive the length of the Pan-American Highway, some fifty-five years after they were forced to abandon it.

The group, Mike Andrews, 76, Martin Hugh-Jones, 79, and Ben Mackworth-Praed, 79, drove in 1960-61 from the southern-most point of South America, Tierra del Fuego, up the coast of South America, through Central America and North America to Alaska. However, they were forced to abandon their journey when only (!?) 500 miles from its conclusion owing to inclement (i.e. Alaskan) winter conditions. They sold their vehicle, a 1960 Land Rover, and flew home.

In 2010 the vehicle was bought and restored by an enthusiast, Eddie Angel, who somehow contacted the trio and arranged for them to complete their journey. Which they now have.


The Pan-American Highway is not a single road: it diverges and forks here and there, there are alternate routes and alternate points of departure (or arrival) in South America.

And the road is of highly variable quality.  At one critical point it disappears altogether, at the juncture of Central and South America in the region of Panama/Columbia known as Darién. For 150 miles there is nothing but swamp and jungle, and most expeditions (the Cambridge expedition being no exception) have had to compromise one way or another.

I do not know that there are many peaks in Darién, Darién being mostly swamp, but it is from a peak in Darién that Keats has his stout Cortez stare in silent amazement, not to mention with a wild surmise, upon the Pacific. Those attentive to historical detail (unlike Keats) will recall that it was not in fact Cortez who first set European eyes upon the Pacific, but Balboa. No matter. If anywhere on earth can accommodate a little mythologizing and inaccuracy, it is Darien, the umbilical break in the longest road in the world.