The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama


284 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 978-1-55017-421-2
DDC 917.287'780454





Reviewed by J.H. Galloway

J.H. Galloway is a geography professor at the University of Toronto.


Darien is a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean and the Pacific some 200 kilometres long that connects Panama, of which it is the most southerly province, to Colombia, of which it was once a part. It is mountainous in places, with numerous rivers, often difficult to navigate, many tidal for a good distance inland. The hot, wet climate supports tropical diseases. It occupies a strategic location between two continents and two oceans and its narrow, short length suggests north-south and east-west communication should be easy, but over the five centuries since the European arrival this has not proved to be the case. Roads are still few, poor in quality, and even the Pan-American Highway remains incomplete. There is little in the way of economic development. At the western end there is a threat to security because Colombian guerrillas take little notice of the international border.

Why, then, did Martin Mitchinson choose to spend a year or so in this place? He sells the yacht on which he arrived; his girlfriend says “goodbye;” and he moves into a hut with a beautiful view a few miles upriver from the main town to live among the local rural community. Briefly, he muses why he is where he is, raising the possibility of writing a book. He wanders widely by canoe and on foot, but he is not an anthropologist with procedures to follow. He alludes occasionally to European activity in the region over the centuries, but does not link this activity to the evolution of the indigenous society. Without scholarship he needed good travel writing. Unfortunately he did not hold my interest through many of these pages.

Mitchinson comes into his own only at the end, in the section “Across the Divide,” where he describes his own difficult crossing from sea to sea, intermingled with that of the tragic crossing of Lt. Strain in 1854 with his company from the U.S. Navy. These are gripping pages. Mitchinson can tell a tale. This is his forte.




Mitchinson, Martin, “The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,