By Irene Escudero
Bogota, Jun 25 (EFE).- “Our objective is to cross what is probably the most notorious jungle in the world.” Those words could be spoken by the migrants who brave the dangers of the Darien Gap to get from Colombia to Panama in hopes of reaching the United States, but the statement is instead part of an adventure tourism firm’s sales pitch for an expedition.
German-based Wandermut is asking 3,643 euros (nearly $4,000) per person to join one of three two-week expeditions to Darien set for late 2023 and early 2024.
The company has chosen a route on the Pacific side of Darien, entirely within the territory of Panama, while northbound migrants make the crossing roughly 90 km (55 mi) to the east along the Caribbean coast.
The planned expeditions have drawn criticism in light of the migrant crisis.
“The Darien Gap is a very vast region. We operate in the Pacific, the southwestern zone of the Darien, far from the border. While the migration routes are found in the Caribbean,” Wandermut guide Rick Morales told EFE in a written statement.
“There is almost 100 km of dense jungle and wide rivers between them and us,” he wrote.
On Friday, the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) likewise defended Wandermut and the suitability of Darien as a tourist destination.
The migration crisis, “as a relatively new phenomenon, has nothing to do with the tourist activities that have been carried out for decades in Darien and the rest of our territory,” the ATP said.
It is true that the volume of migrants has exploded. More than 184,000 have crossed Darien so far in 2023, a 500 percent increase over the same period last year.
But migrants, including some from Africa and Asia, have been making the journey for more than a decade.
“We are witnesses to what crossing this jungle means for the migrants. It’s an inhospitable jungle, very difficult, without services. The migrants are exposed to an enormous number of accidents due to the geography, to illnesses due to the deficient sanitary conditions,” Luis Eguiluz, chief of mission in Colombia and Panama for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors Without Borders), told EFE.
MSF personnel tend to the migrants at the reception stations in Meteti, Panama.
“It’s an authentic humanitarian crisis,” Eguiluz said. “We are talking about more than 500 people a day exposed to this situation, children, adolescents, pregnant women.”
And while the Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries who once used Darien as a hideout have disbanded, the criminal gangs that continue to operate in the jungle prey on the migrants.
Tourists who sign up for one of Wandermut’s expeditions are promised security and the latest in GPS technology to avoid getting lost.
The guides will also be equipped with a satellite telephone in case of emergency.
The migrants, however, “can’t pay for security, can’t pay for the easiest routes, so they are exposed to the more difficult doses,” Eguiluz said.
“We see the suffering the exposure to this jungle causes them, so all trivialization of this humanitarian crisis makes it hard to show the tragedy of these people,” he said. EFE