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ADV RidesThe Hard Way Down: Army Vets Cross Dangerous Darien Gap on KLRs

The Hard Way Down: Army Vets Cross Dangerous Darien Gap on KLRs

 Army paratroopers undertake transcontinental journey thru perilous jungle.

Published on 09.07.2018

Here’s a bit of advice you rarely hear from someone who just completed a first-of-its kind adventure: Don’t. As in, don’t try this yourself.

That’s the advice of Wayne Mitchell, part of a 4-rider team of army paratroopers on a motorcycle expedition from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Argentina. Many others have made the trek, but virtually everyone that has undertaken the journey has one thing in common: they skipped the roadless expanse of dense jungle linking Panama and Colombia. It’s that 80-mile section of dangerous jungle known as the Darien Gap that prompts Mitchell’s warning.

“Unless you have a strong desire to take a bike through the jungle, don’t do it,” he said. “It’s costly in money, time and personal pain. There were not many fun moments in the jungle. If you are walking with a lightweight backpack, the jungle can be a magical place. If you are dragging a 500-pound bike through, it’s not much fun.”

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap
The team of US Army Vets rode their motorcycles from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, crossing thru the infamous Darien Gap. The entire expedition was filmed and will be turned into a feature length documentary.

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He got the same advice in the two years spent planning this 19,000-mile odyssey dubbed ‘Where the Road Ends.’ It’s not impossible to cross the Darien Gap with a vehicle; a few others have done it in four-wheel-drive trucks and on motorcycles. But the team of army vets pressed on despite the area’s reputation for drug smugglers, political violence, dangerous fauna and punishing terrain. Arguably setting a record, they rode the whole tip-to-tip transcontinental expedition continuously, including the Darien Gap, in just five months. Four started the expedition, three of them made it to where the road actually ends, in Ushuaia, Argentina.

A Cold Start

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

To reach the Darien Gap during the January dry season, the team had to set out from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in November 2017. That meant bitter temps and fighting the elements, including white-out conditions on Alaska’s Atigun Pass, about 170 miles south of their starting point. They began the trip with sidecars attached to their 2017 Kawasaki KLR650s for stability on the icy roads, but the going was treacherous. One of the team’s first Facebook videos shows them repairing lights and adding studs to one of the bike’s tires while the wind howls. It’s shiver-inducing footage.

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap
The Team’s weapon of choice, the KLR650, was outfitted with a custom sidecar for stability on the ice and extra storage on the Arctic portion of the journey. Once in Oregon, the sidecars were dropped.

“The extreme cold was pretty hard to deal with on a motorcycle, and camping at night was brutal,” Mitchell said.

The frosty conditions on the first leg of the journey led to a near tragedy when team member Rich Doering’s KLR was hit by a car that spun out control on the ice in Canada. Fortunately, both bike and rider were able to continue south.

WATCH: Clip from the upcoming “Where the Road Ends” feature length documentary.

They dropped the sidecars in Portland and aimed for their next big obstacle: the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia.

Closing the Gap

The Darien Gap may be roadless, but it is crisscrossed with trails used by indigenous peoples, smugglers, immigrants headed north and paramilitary groups. That’s one reason it’s so dangerous.

“I think the biggest challenge is the political,” Mitchell said. “We knew going into it, we had been working for two years to gain the trust of all parties involved.”

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap
The road physically ends in Yaviza. It then takes 1-2 days in dug out canoes to get to Paya where many miles of tortuous jungle riding and trekking await.

Officials from the Darien National Park gave their OK early on, but Senafront, the Panamanian border patrol agency, was much harder to pin down. Until the day the team showed up at the border, Mitchell said, they were still not sure they would be allowed to proceed.

“Unfortunately, Senafront had just had a huge firefight in the jungle with drug smugglers on the Colombian side about a month prior so there was a little bit of tension.”

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

With the help of a fixer in Panama City, the team eventually got Senafront’s permission on the condition that an armed patrol accompany them to the Colombian border. They finally had the green light, so the team rode to Yaviza, the last town in Panama, and put the bikes on boats manned by hired Kuna locals for the two-day river trip to Paya, where the jungle “riding” began.

It was short lived.

Crossing the Uncrossable

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

Though they timed their arrival to the Darien Gap during the dry season, it rained every day, turning tracks into a muddy quagmire. “Once we entered the Darien, we quickly realized how much wear the mud was putting on the clutches and engines,” said Mitchell. The Kuna villagers hacked a path through the jungle, and the KLRs followed, stopping every 300 meters or so to clear mud packed into the rear wheels tight enough to stop their progress.

“We had vines wrapped around the axles, around the sprockets… It was just a constant battle digging mud out of the bikes. We ended up pushing and pulling a lot. And then we would hit really steep sections,” explained Mitchell. It was so slow and tortuous that Richard, who had the least off-road riding experience of the group, burned out the clutch on his KLR in the first mile. He flattened one of his tires and tore off the back sprocket also. “Richard decided he wanted to turn back around and we ended up abandoning the bike in the jungle,” he said. The rest of them continued the journey on their bikes.

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap
The team had pulleys, winches, climbing gear and set a cable up a couple of times to zip-line bikes across big ravines and rivers.

The other three KLRs suffered fried clutches within two days. But the riders pressed on, with the help of the Kuna, pushing, pulling and winching the bikes up steep, greasy hills and down jungle-choked ravines. “There was no “riding” after that point. It was all using ropes and pulleys and man power to get the bikes forward. Flat sections of the route were rare, it was mostly up and down. Up jungle chocked hills and down into muddy steep river banks,” explained Mitchell.

When they reached the border, the Kuna handed the team off to Colombian helpers who provided the muscle to reach Cristales, the first town on the Colombian side. Once again, they found themselves at the mercy of a political situation they could not anticipate, or control.

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

The region is controlled by armed drug smugglers, they learned, and they would need the group’s permission to pass. “So that kind of freaked us out a little bit,” Mitchell said. “One of our guides went out and told them, ‘Hey we got this group of guys filming, they’re taking motorcycles through the Darien Gap and in the morning they are gonna get on the boat and go.’ So they came back and said, ‘you can sleep in the village but you have to leave first thing in the morning, and don’t fly your drones.’ So basically we slept a pretty nervous night in Cristales on the Colombian side.”

WATCH: “Where the Road Ends” Team pushes through the unforgiving Darien jungle.

Early the next day, they loaded their bikes on boats again and crossed the Atrato swamp, pushing and pulling the boats and bikes when the water wasn’t deep enough. They reached the seaport of Turbo, Colombia, eight days after beginning their trek across Darien Gap.

“It was as bad as we thought,” he said. “Snakes, scorpions, huge spiders…you end up covered in mud, mosquitoes are biting you, and it is hot and humid. It is one of the toughest places I’ve ever been.”

They still had thousand of miles to ride to reach Ushuaia, but nothing that compared to the difficulty of crossing the Darien Gap. They easily found replacement clutch parts for the KLR650s in Turbo – access to spare parts is one reason they chose KLRs – then continued south, cutting mileage out of the trip because team members had to get back to work. All told, the expedition took five months.

Where the Road Ends Motorcycle journey through Darien Gap

There is no perfect bike for a trip like this, Mitchell said, but the KLRs took the punishment, fried clutches notwithstanding. “We put those bikes through hell in the jungle. We dropped them constantly, fell over, fell down, when we were transporting the bikes by dugout canoe they got bashed into the banks of the river, driven into trees. We really beat the hell out of them. We had them back on the road in Colombia and finished the trip all the way south with no real issues,” he said.

For those who still aren’t dissuaded and want to try riding the Darien Gap, Mitchell has a few more pieces of advice: make sure you bring spare clutch plates. “The first lesson learned is big bikes plus deep mud equals fried clutches.” Also, make sure you know as much as possible about the political situation, talk to the locals, a guide, and scout ahead of time so you know what you are getting into.

Mitchell and a video crew filmed the expedition with the goal of releasing a full-length documentary. The film is now in production and he hopes to have it ready for distribution by January, 2019. To follow the “Where the Road Ends” team visit their Facebook page.


The “Where the Road Ends” Team will be presenting at AIMEXPO this October in Las Vegas. Meet the crew and catch a sneak peek of the film!

Author: Bob Whitby

Bob has been riding motorcycles since age 19 and working as a journalist since he was 24, which was a long time ago, let’s put it that way. He quit for the better part of a decade to raise a family, then rediscovered adventure, dual sport and enduro riding in the early 2000s. He lives in Arkansas, America’s best-kept secret when it comes to riding destinations, and travels far and wide in search of dirt roads and trails.

Author: Bob Whitby
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5 thoughts on “The Hard Way Down: Army Vets Cross Dangerous Darien Gap on KLRs

  1. I’m surprised they just abandoned a late-model KLR in the jungle. But I also don’t blame the guy for wanting to quit. I’d love to do that trip minus the Darien part, but there’s so much BS to deal with crossing all the borders that I don’t want to fool with it.

  2. It’s real cool what they did, but being a KLR owner and having ridden the Trans America Trail on it, the KLR is not the bike I would take on that trip. It’s far to heavy and not enough ground clearance in real rough terrain. I’d go XR650L or DRZ400S if on a budget, otherwise I’d look into a KTM690R or 500 EXC-F. That 500 seat is rough through.

    • I say XR650R. I love KTM, but you’d have to adjust the valves a dozen times along the way and rebuild the top end at least once LOL

  3. …and this is how the legend of the “lost KLR” started, and how thousands of riders went in search for it and never returned.