(news.com.au) Straddling the border of Panama and Colombia, it’s a region of treacherous jungle and swamps filled with venomous snakes and spiders, jaguars and crocodiles. It’s also a renowned drug and people smuggling route.
With no road through, it’s the only missing link on the Pan American highway which stretches from Alaska through the Americas to the southernmost tip of Argentina.
At the very eastern edge of the Darien Gap is La Miel beach.
Travellers are unlikely to reach this beach from the Panama side. The only way through is the notoriously hazardous stretch of jungle.
However it is possible to visit on foot from the remote Colombian seaside town of Sapzurro. From here, La Miel is an hour’s walk up stairs, over a hill and through a small border post policed with Panamanian and Colombian guards.
Aside from the beach and a small local community, there’s a simple restaurant, a military base and oddly enough, a duty-free shop.
I’d been in Sapzurro, Colombia for a week.
Every day I’d see the sign pointing towards Panama’s La Miel. Despite my initial plans to visit, I’d become hesitant to cross the border alone.
Was it worth it as a solo female traveller?
On my last day, my inquisitiveness overcame my fear and I set off on the very nondescript pathway leading out of town.
After a five-minute flat walk from Sapzurro, it takes about two hundred stairs to reach the Colombian Panama border. Arriving, it was a sombre and tense scene.
Border guards holding machine guns were speaking to a group of around fifty Cuban refugees wanting to officially cross into Panama.
I recognised some of the Cubans in the crowd as I had spoken with them earlier in the day in Sapzurro.
They had landed by boat a few days prior, gathered in briefings during the day and likely sleeping in the surrounding jungle overnight.
When I asked why they were leaving Cuba I was told: “There’s no jobs, food or money. The life is hard. We’ve heard it’s better in America.”
Displaced, they were planning on entering Panama.
From there they would attempt to cross the hostile Darien Gap on foot.
If they survived this, they would continue the intended migration, border hopping through Central America to reach their desired destination — the United States.
It’s not just Cubans who come to the Colombian border to cross into Panama. People reportedly travel great distances from Africa, Iraq, Bangladesh, Nepal and Syria.
Today, they were all refused entry.
Panama is no longer allowing their nationality to cross as the influx in recent times had become unmanageable.
The Cubans came all this way, only to find out that the rules had changed. Clutching backpacks and mobile phones, they would have to turn back.
Despair lined their faces.
For me, border control was simple.
I was directed to an undercover area where sweaty officials were checking passports.
My only disappointment was not receiving any official record of my entry into Panama. I joked with the man wading through the pages of my ‘travel’ book: “I don’t get a stamp?”
But looking back at the Cubans, it was difficult to be lighthearted.
The disparity in the realities of our lives was vast and sadly ironic.
They needed to get over the border and I didn’t.
My blue book with a kangaroo and emu emblem on the cover was full of international border stamps. They might be lucky to even have a passport.
I was directed to proceed.
Feeling guilty but grateful for my privileged nationality, I departed down another set of stairs to arrive in a town set back from the beach.
Despite the rundown housing and scarce local, the small set of streets lacked a sense of ‘regular’ life. It felt like no man’s land.
With its proximity to the remote border crossing and the smuggling in this region, I imagined living in this community would no doubt come with implications.
As I ventured further towards La Miel beach I came across the military base.
The region is a sea and land patrol point for drug trafficking and the army presence was clearly apparent. However, it is also one of the widest, most inviting stretches of beach in the area.
But while units of military were offloading cargo and weapons onto the pier, I felt too unnerved to enjoy a pleasant swim nearby.
Less confronting was the duty free shop, which further revealed the surreal dynamic of La Miel. It offered a discreet position to watch the military in action outside.
This tax-free store offered savings on a range of goods from cigarettes and liquor to beach clothing and accessories.
With the mystery unravelled and my curiosity placated, I bought a bottle of Chilean wine and set back for Colombia.
Thankfully, I never felt my safety was an issue but from La Miel there’s nowhere to go — except through the Darien Gap or back to Colombia.
I knew which direction I was thankfully heading in.
As I passed through the checkpoint again, the Cubans had left.
Later, they were in the outer edges of Sapzurro.
The next day they had all but disappeared.
No doubt they were now making the precarious journey to cross the border – unofficially – through the jungle with smugglers. Adding days of difficulty to their plans, unprepared with minimal supplies, some with small children, their plight was concerning.
For some, reaching Panama was not the easy safe feat that it had been for me.
Sally Watson is a freelance travel writer and photographer at Wing Woman Adventures. A seeker of new frontiers, adventures and international friends, she aims to inspire people to travel widely, independently and confidently! Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.