Often deadly for migrants, crossing the Darién Gap is ‘adventure tourism’ for some German vacationers
By Catalina Oquendo
The Darién jungle, which separates Colombia from Panama, is the epicenter of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. Thousands of migrants attempt to cross this dense patch of jungle every day, risking their lives in doing so. So far in 2023 alone, according to the latest figures released by the Panamanian authorities, 166,649 migrants of Latin American and non-Latin American origin traversed the dangerous route.
But while people risk death in the Darién Gap in search of a better life, fleeing armed conflicts, persecution or gender discrimination, a German company is selling packages that follow the same route as if it were a form of adventure tourism. A documentary by journalist Katja Döhne, who joined one of the tours, says the Cologne-based operating company, Wandermut, markets it as a survival trip. “Only those who are fit enough and willing to take risks can participate. Because the tour is life-threatening; even the organizers themselves say so,” the documentary filmmaker points out. Wandermut presents itself as “an adventure startup.”
The contrasts are staggering. While these European tourists pay €3,500 ($3,790) plus the cost of flights to Panama, which includes insurance to be extracted by helicopter in case of an accident, migrants die in the Darién jungle precisely due to the lack of anyone able to rescue them. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 258 people died or disappeared on the Darién route between January 2018 and June 2, 2023, of which 41 were minors.
The tourists, who are often young social media influencers from various sectors, are kitted out in specialist jungle attire and carry satellite phones in case of emergencies; the migrants, malnourished, make do with clothes and shoes that put them at greater risk of slipping on a cliff. The tours go a step further than the contrasting image of tourists on European beaches where desperate migrants arrive in small boats. In this case, the tourists are playing at survival. Döhne acknowledges in the documentary that while the group of 12 people she accompanied are there for thrill-seeking, the migrants expose themselves to a variety of dangers “without a safety net.”
The documentary poses the question: what drives people to voluntarily risk their own lives and pay around $4,000 to do so? It also asks whether these packages designed for social media exposure will fill the jungle with tourists and damage the environment, but it superficially passes over the crux of what it means to go on a package vacation in a place where thousands of people are suffering through a record-breaking humanitarian crisis.
One of the company’s founders states they will continue to sell tours to “extreme places where no one else goes.” But that is not the case in the Darién jungle. Although the route taken by tourists does not coincide with the ones used by migrants — in order to avoid the more dangerous areas where the risk of being attacked is greater — up to 2,000 people pass through the same stretch of jungle every day. The Panamanian government recently launched a military strategy called Operation Shield, insisting that the Darién is not a migratory route but a natural reserve that must be protected. The Gap, however, is becoming more crowded every day.
Credit: El Pais