The primeval meets the present at the Darién Gap

  The Salt Lake Tribune: Edging along the Panamanian-Colombian border, the Darién Gap is one of the wildest frontiers in the Americas. It's home to Panama's most spectacular national park, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Parque Nacional Darién. The Darién is where the primeval meets the present - where the scenery appears much as it did a million years ago. Even today, local Embera populations still maintain many of their traditional practices and remain the guardians of generations-old knowledge of the rain forest.     Although Parque Nacional Corcovado in neighboring Costa Rica sees tens of thousands of tourists each year, a paltry few hundred visit Parque Nacional Darién. Unfortunately, a string of bad press, ill-informed U.S. travel warnings and grave misconceptions about safety in the region have squashed the tourism potential of the Darién.

   Although the myths would have you believe that the Darién is a no-go zone of Colombian guerrillas and narcotraffickers, the reality proves contrary and eye-opening, to say the least. Through the efforts of Ancon Expeditions, the for-profit arm of the Panamanian conservation organization ANCON, travelers can experience rich diversity deep within the Darién Gap.

    For starters, the park and particularly its historic gold-mining settlement of Cana are regarded among the top birding destinations in the world. Nestled in foothills on the eastern slope of Pirre Ridge, the Cana Valley is the most isolated place in the Republic of Panama. It is very much the heart of the national park.

    Cana boasts four species of macaws, several varieties of parrots and other avian rarities including jacamars, motmots and trogons. From the floor of the valley, you'll also spot several species of primates in the surrounding canopy, including howler monkeys, spider monkeys and tamarinds.

    A five-day, four-night package that includes private charter flights between Panama City and Cana, an English-speaking guide, all meals and accommodations costs $1,400 per person. The trip leaves on fixed departure dates in the high season (December to April) with a minimum of four people. Expedition guests stay in a rustic wooden structure that was built by gold workers in the 1970s, and are led on a variety of nature walks in the surrounding rain forests and mountains.

    Another popular destination in the Darién is Reserva Natural Punta Patiño, which is along the Pacific Coast and is home to ANCON's private 65,000-acre wildlife reserve. Although Punta Patiño protects a species-rich primary forest, a major drawing card of the reserve is that it provides easy access via the Mogue River to the Embera village Mogue.

    Traveling upriver is a heart-of-darkness experience that might not even be possible anywhere in the tropics 50 years from now. Even if you venture deep into the Amazon, you'd be hard-pressed to find such wilderness these days.

    The joy of visiting Mogue is that it is very much an authentic Embera village, as opposed to a human zoo. Since mass-market tourism in the Darién is wholly absent, the Embera continue to rely on ancestral means of survival, and village life continues unabated whether tourists are there or not.

    However, guests to Mogue are treated to an open and honest look at traditional Embera lifestyles, traditions, dance and crafts. If you speak a little Spanish, you'll revel in the opportunity to talk with some of the last remaining inhabitants of the Neotropical rain forest.

    A four-day, three-night package that includes private charter flights between Panama City and Punta Patiño, an English-speaking guide, all meals and accommodations costs $695 per person. The trip is available on request and has a minimum of four people.

    The Darién also offers spectacular opportunities for rugged exploration by trail and by river, though it's best approached by travelers with youthful hearts, intrepid spirits and a yearning for something truly wild. Roughly twice a year, Ancon Expeditions offers its highly recommended Darién Explorer Trek, a two-week overland trip between Punta Patiño and Cana. The cost is $2,450 per person, and the trip leaves on fixed departure dates with a minimum of four people.

    Ancon Expeditions provides charter flights to the furthest-flung corners of the Darién. Highly recommended by travelers the world over, Ancon Expeditions was created by Panama's top conservation organization and employs some of the country's finest nature guides; 011-507-269-9415; Ancon Expeditions is the sole tour operator in the Darién, and it offers a variety of trips, ranging from three-day birding excursions to two-week jungle treks. If you're still worried about safety - don't be. The safety record of Ancon Expeditions is flawless, so you'd be wise to abandon your Darién misconceptions and prepare for the trip of a lifetime.