Read on to discover our ethos and team-centered approach and for the nitty gritty like flight and visa advice, insurance requirements and kit recommendations.
Use the buttons below to ask questions or if this handbook answers all of your questions you can request a space on the team by completing the booking form and submitting a deposit (bound by our T&Cs). We will then be in touch by phone or email to hopefully approve your place on the team!
Upcoming Expedition Dates
10 April to 24 April 2021.
Arrive: by 1600 on Day 1 into Panama City.
Depart: leave Panama City any time on Day 15 onwards.
Insurance: Ensure you have comprehensive cover.
Docs: send your flight, insurance and passport copy in.
The aim of this epic jungle trekking expedition is to trek a route through the infamous Darien Gap on foot from Puerto Quimba to Jicaralito on the Pacific coast.
Forging a route through the humid, mostly uninhabited rainforests – which divide North America from South – you’ll uncover 5,000-year-old stone carvings seen only by a privileged handful of explorers for generations. In the company of renowned naturalist and local expert Rick Morales, you’ll scour the trees and jungle floor for signs of wildlife and meet Embera Indians en route (an autonomous indigenous Indian group living in the Darien). At night, you’ll wild camp in hammocks near isolated village communities. Take on the challenge to trek the Gap, and break through one of adventure travel’s final frontiers.
Explore the legendary jungles which separate the Americas.
Learn jungle survival skills from expert guides.
Cross rivers, hack through vegetation and ascend steep terrain.
Test your grit and perseverance in a merciless environment.
Meet local villagers including Embera Indians.
See the mysterious petroglyphs, remnants of an ancient culture.
Explore the jungle rivers by boat.
You need to organise your own international flights. It is advised that you book a flexible flight ticket that can be changed or refunded if the expedition dates are changed or if it is cancelled for any reason. See our online Terms and Conditions.
You will need to be in Panama City by 1600 on Day 1. Many of the flights from the UK either arrive late or the following day and so it is advised that you take a flight departing the UK the day before so you arrive in time to relax before meeting the team on Day 1. The major US carriers, American Airlines, Delta and United all have flights into Panama City via the US or Amsterdam (Delta). You are free to depart any time on the Day 15.
Visas are your responsibility. British Nationals do not require a visa to visit Panama (except if arriving by sea) but are required, on arrival, to have a return or onward ticket and have the equivalent of US$500 or a credit card. An initial stay of 90 days is granted upon entry. All relevant tourist permits will be organised by Secret Compass.
You should have a passport valid for the duration of the expedition and your travel dates. Panama does not require any validity beyond this but it we recommend 6 months remaining before expiry.
Please send a clear, colour copy of your passport to Secret Compass ahead of the expedition and carry photocopies with you on the expedition in a safe place.
Travel insurance that provides cover for emergency repatriation in case of a medical emergency is compulsory for all expeditions. You should be aware that many standard insurance policies may not cover you adequately for all aspects of a remote expedition and so we strongly recommend that you purchase a suitably designed insurance policy. Secret Compass cannot comment on the suitability of your cover so if you are in any doubt please contact your policy provider and ask them to confirm that you are covered to our minimum standard (below).
Emergency medical repatriation (to home country) including any associated expenses abroad of at least $500,000.
Activities: ensure that any expedition activities are included, these could be trekking, horse riding, rafting, MTB etc.
Geographical region: check the geographical region you are going to is insured (often the US and Canada or countries such as Afghanistan are not insured).
Foreign Ministry advice: check your insurance is not sensitive to any travel warnings issued by your respective foreign ministry. In the UK, many insurers will not insure you when the Foreign Office warns against travel to this area. Foreign Office advice will not necessarily mean we cancel an expedition or do not travel to a particular area. Please check @FCOtravel and the Travel Aware site. https://www.gov.uk/travelaware
Dates: make sure the period of cover begins at the departure and ends at the return to your home country. Many flights take a day or two and time zones vary. Insurance companies may prejudice your claims due to this.
Pre-existing medical conditions: disclose these to your insurance company and to Secret Compass.
Prior to travel Secret Compass will require the name of your insurance policy provider, their 24-hour emergency contact number and your policy number. For full information on travel insurance and links to suggested companies, please visit the insurance
page on our website.
Day 1 – Panama City
Land in Panama City, transfer (not included) to your hotel to meet the team. Introductions and briefing from your expedition leader.
Day 2 to 12 – Darien National Park
After an early morning start to reach Puerta Quimba in time for the tide, start your journey in a motorized boat before beginning your expedition on foot deep into the heart of the Darien National Park. Spend the next 10 days traversing dense jungle, crossing and wading up rivers and over mountain ranges and sleeping in hammocks. Your first few days will be spent hiking up and over undulating hills and bushwhacking along newly forged and little used trails to visit mysterious 5,000 year old petroglyphs that few have had the opportunity to see.
From here the going will get tougher as you continue the expedition following the Venao river up to its headwaters. Initially the gradients will be gentle, but then will become increasingly steep terrain as you cross the watershed to traverse the mountain range. Descend to the Piñas River from where there’s just one more day of hiking left, crossing another smaller coastal range of hills before achieving your goal and finishing the trek on a stunning secluded beach known as Jicaralito.
Day 13 – Playa Muerto
Relax and celebrate at Jicaralito before a short transfer to the tiny village and beach at Playa Muerto. Today is a contingency day for any unexpected delays, or just a day to relax on the beach!
Day 14 – Panama City
Head by boat back to Puerto Quimba where your journey began, then by road back to Panama City for a shower and celebratory final group meal.
Day 15 – Panama City
Fly home anytime today.
About Secret Compass itineraries
Please remember that this itinerary acts as a framework plan. It provides guidance as to our intentions but may not be followed religiously. This is an adventure and by definition the outcome is uncertain. The leadership team will adapt, flex and change the plan depending on the numerous frictions you may encounter along the way.
All our expeditions are achievable by people with an active and healthy lifestyle. However, this is an arduous expedition that will test you and at times you may be sore, tired, hungry and possibly wet! You must be prepared physically and mentally for the expedition and for living in basic conditions for the duration. Please ensure that you train for the expedition and arrive fit and ready to go. You will be required to be fit enough for the following:
Daily activity: varies during the expedition but up to approx. six to ten hours’ trekking per day.
Walk: up to 15km a day.
Carry: up to 15kg.
Terrain: expect boggy, wet and close tropical rainforest with steep terrain and river crossings. The last section of the trek will see you cross a mountain range with a maximum elevation of 1000m.
Climate: in a hot and humid environment.
Swim: a return boat journey and river crossings and journeys (wading and in dug-out canoes) are essential parts of this expedition. Being 100% comfortable around water is required and being able to swim will be very beneficial.
No previous experience of jungle trekking is necessary to join this expedition but team members would benefit from trekking or hill-walking practice and being used to carrying 10 – 20kg for multiple days or be willing to get this experience prior to the expedition as part of their training.
At a basic level, you should be comfortable jogging for at least 45 minutes and be able to walk for 8 hours per day in the British hills (or equivalent) carrying 15kg for at least 3 days running.
Vaccinations. Please seek advice from your health professional on recommended vaccinations. The NHS Fit For Travel site and Travel Health Pro are both useful sources of information.
Dental. It is strongly recommended that you have a dental check up prior to departure. Dental problems far from help are very unpleasant.
Foot care. On this expedition your feet will be constantly wet as we are regularly wading through rivers. It is ESSENTIAL that you bring foot care items to ensure your feet do not deteriorate, recommendations from your experienced expedition leader are included in the kit list and will be discussed during your pre-departure skype briefing.
The US dollar is the standard currency in Panama. There are ATMs in Panama City.
This expedition is all-inclusive so you won’t need much money, except for tipping (see ‘on exped’ tab) and to buy a beer or two in Panama City and some souvenirs on the way.
Secret Compass always suggest carrying an emergency fund of $100-$200 in cash.
The following is Secret Compass’s recommended kit list for our Darien expedition to Panama.
Some items are vital so please read carefully, your leader will discuss this list with you during your Skype briefing. There are some examples and videos on our website under the kit section or please contact Secret Compass with any questions.
Secret Compass have arranged team members discounts with Cotswold Outdoor, Nordic Life, Outdoor Hire and Expedition Kit Hire, details of these will be sent through on booking.
HAT: Lightweight with neck protection.
LONG SLEEVE SHIRT: Quick drying.
LONG TROUSERS: Quick drying.
SOCKS: At least 3 pairs and fitting well with your boots.
JUNGLE BOOTS: Well-fitting and worn in ahead of the expedition. We suggest jungle boots and visiting a specialist store for advice on fitting.
SANDALS: For around camp.
GAITERS: Thick gaiters or dedicated snake gaiters.
ULTRALIGHT RAIN SHELL: Un-insulated and packing small. You will be wet in the jungle, this is to help retain heat if caught in a heavy downpour.
SPARE SHIRT AND SHORTS: An ultralight change of clothing.
PAJAMAS: Completely separate system to your day clothes (which will get wet).
PERMETHRIN: To treat your clothes ahead of the expedition.
RUCKSACK: 55-65 litres, must be large enough for all your personal kit and a hammock provided by Secret Compass. Ensure this is a technical trekking backpack.
WATERPROOF RUCKSACK LINER: To line your entire bag.
DRY BAGS: To waterproof and organise your personal kit.
LIGHTWEIGHT SLEEPING SYSTEM: For example a sleeping bag liner, sheet or travel blanket. If you know you sleep very cold, discuss options with SCHQ as you may prefer a one-season sleeping bag.
TRAVEL TOWEL: Or sarong or similar.
REPAIR KIT: Zip ties, duct tape, needle and thread, paracord (4 pieces or bring spare boot laces).
LIGHTWEIGHT BOWL AND CUP
SPORK: Or similar.
WATER BLADDER: 3 litre capacity, Camelbak, Platypus or similar. Bring a mouthpiece cap.
WATER BOTTLE: 500ml. In addition to your bladder.
TREKKING POLES: Optional but highly recommended.
SMALL WASHBAG: A ziplok or dry bag is ideal, with toothpaste, toothbrush etc.
BIODEGRADABLE SOAP: Consider a concentrate eg. Lifesystems All Purpose.
HAND SANITSER: Enough for the whole trip.
SANITARY PRODUCTS: If required. Also bring ziplok bags to carry any waste out.
RUBBING ALCOHOL: To dry feet in the evening.
LIQUID CONTAINERS: Bring at least 1 small empty spray bottle. You will be provided with “montico” a refreshing spray. A set of small 100 ml liquid containers are also great for decanting from larger bottles of liquid e.g. sun tan lotion or rubbing alcohol.
SNACKS: A daily morale boost in the form of your favourite snack.
CARABINER: To secure your bag on vehicles, in boats etc. Generally useful.
HEADTORCH AND BATTERIES
SUNGLASSES WITH UV LENSES
SPARE GLASSES/CONTACT LENSES: If required.
EAR PLUGS: Recommended for at night and on motorised boat transfers.
ELECTROLYTES: Bring enough to have some each day as a preventative measure, eg. Xero or Nuun tablets.
BLISTER PLASTERS: Also consider New Skin or similar.
ZINC OXIDE TAPE: Leukoplast is great if you can source it.
CORTISONE CREAM: For insect bites.
ALLERGY TABLETS: For example piriton.
DRESSING PADS AND BANDAGES: Two of each.
PAINKILLERS AND ANTI-INFLAMATORIES: eg. paracetamol and ibuprofen – the jungle is hard on your body!
ANTIBIOTICS: Due to the remote nature of this trek and the close living conditions, team members are requested to bring a personal supply of antibiotics. Recommended suggestions are Amoxicillin (upper airway), Ciproflaxacin or Azithromycin (urinary and GI tract) and Dicloxacillin (skin). Read the FAQ for advice on how to purchase these.
ANTI NAUSEA: Motion sickness tablets.
ANT-ACIDS: Tablets or liquid eg. Ranitidin, Pepto-bismol
PERSONAL MEDICATION: This should be declared to Secret Compass and your insurance company prior to travel. Find out the generic/chemical name for your medication in case you need to buy more in-country. Please also check that your medication is legal in your destination and that you carry any necessary paperwork eg. Prescriptions.
Optional items – suggested by previous team members
CAMERA AND BATTERIES
CHILL HAMMOCK: Such as Hummingbird, Sea to Summit, Mesh army etc.
LIGHTWEIGHT TARP: Small size and very lightweight for organising your personal kit in camp if the ground is damp. A Tyvek or similar groundsheet would be ideal or a large plastic bag.
POWER BANK: To recharge electronics
WATERPROOF WALLET: Bring souvenir/tip money in small denominations.
WET WIPES: If required. Please also bring ziplok bags to carry out waste.
HANDHELD FAN (optional)
ENTERTAINMENT: eg. card games, kindle etc
Secret Compass organises expeditions, not sightseeing tours. Our expeditions are team-centred, flexible and dynamic. Teams are managed on the ground by Secret Compass staff: industry-leading professionals and guides of the highest calibre. They put the structure in place for your team to have an incredible experience while achieving your expedition’s aims. Our people are as passionate as you are about achieving the extraordinary in the world’s wildest places. Secret Compass teams often go to places that others don’t. This makes our expeditions truly different, taking you beneath the skin and beyond the headlines of the world’s most remote reaches. Inspired by history’s great explorers and challenges, you’ll be set ambitious goals and will overcome similar hardships to those experienced on the audacious journeys of the past.
Remember this is not an organised tour. It is an adventure. More often than not expeditions don’t run smoothly! The nature of the areas we operate in mean that we will encounter a number of challenges that we expect everyone to meet and relish. Friction and hurdles are all part and parcel of an arduous expedition and also to our success as a team. These make the journey more interesting and are often the best and most amusing parts when looking back. Each expedition is thoroughly reviewed on its return and team members will have the opportunity to provide feedback which helps to inform planning for future expeditions.
Local partners and bureaucracy
Our teammates can only achieve the extraordinary with the help of people in the communities we travel through. NGO and aid workers, guides, fixers and interpreters all work extremely hard and are generous in their hospitality to us and our teams: visitors in their land. They are crucial to our success. Please remember and respect that their perspectives and concepts of time, environmental responsibility and customer service might differ to yours. Occasionally there is no established protocol for outside visitors which means we encounter local power struggles or disagreements. Our leaders have years of experience in delicate negotiations like these and conversational chess – especially through an interpreter – and these interchanges are often memorable parts of any expedition.
Infrastructure and natural events
The areas we travel to often especially remote. Transport infrastructure can be ageing, inadequate or non-existent. Flooded roads, collapsed bridges, fallen trees and vehicle break-downs are all par for the course. Our teams thrive on overcoming challenges like these – be prepared to get stuck in and push occasionally! Natural phenomena like desert sand storms, early monsoons, landslides across key routes, winter coming early, gale force winds and driving snow can all make for a more interesting time on the expedition.
In some areas our teams explore, we rely on local food sources. This can often be outstanding (but can also be very average) and we always make the best out of the resources available. In other cases, we will supply filling and high-calorie dehydrated expedition foods (ration packs)
Part of a team
Secret Compass fosters a team mentality across all its expeditions and projects. Like all teams you will have a leader who will give direction to your progress. Crucial to your team’s success – especially when the going gets tough – is the attitude of the teammates working together to achieve the aim. You really are part of a team, not a cosseted guest on a tour. We ask teammates to muck in and help out any aspect of the expedition, from fetching water and helping to prepare and cook food, to carrying some group kit and equipment if required. The working language of all teams is English.
There really is no typical expedition member, though everyone needs to be fit, healthy and ready to take on the expedition’s aim by the time of departure. Participants range from 21 to 65+ in age and come from all over the world. Backgrounds include contract workers and engineers, IT specialists and students, teachers and literature lovers, journalists and keen photographers and so many more. What bonds our pioneering teams is their shared spirit of adventure and their sense of humour and positive outlook. A good teammate looks on the bright side when the 4×4 breaks down, the rain comes early and when a meal is distinctly pedestrian. Our teammates help each other, look out for each, encourage each other and help each other when needed. Our teams have done us proud in working together to achieve their common goal: the aim of the expedition. If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right expedition company.
You need a robust, spirited and can-do attitude to cope with demanding days and rough camping in rugged and wild places. You’ll cover good daily distances (generally carrying your own kit and equipment), eating expedition foods or relying on local food sources. These elements combine to create the unique character of each expedition. On expedition, challenges, frictions and changes to plans are inevitable. Teammates should meet and relish these as an integral part of any arduous expedition and its ultimate success. Such things make the journey more interesting and are often most memorable parts when looking back.
Secret Compass is an expedition company not a tour company. Expeditions contain inherent risk. This is part of the appeal for teammates. We do not make expeditions safe as, by definition, that is impossible. We construct and implement a three-staged risk management approach to reduce risk to what we perceive as a tolerable level.
We conduct a thorough risk assessment of potential hazards and threats that may be encountered on the expedition and provide recommendations to reduce the likelihood of harm occurring/ severity if it does occur.
As part of our expedition plan, we detail actions to be taken to implement and resource the recommendations of the risk assessment. This includes a detailed medical and communications plan.
The expedition leader is responsible for dynamic risk management on the expedition itself.
Key risks encountered on this specific expedition include insect-borne diseases such as malaria, climatic injury such as dehydration and heat stroke and road traffic accidents. If you would like to see the full Risk Assessment for this expedition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Incident management and medical
As part of the safety plan, Secret Compass has a full incident and emergency plan for medical and other emergencies. This will be discussed in full at the arrival brief, so everyone is aware what action will be taken. In summary, incidences are usually managed on the ground by the expedition leader in the first instance with remote support from Secret Compass’s 24 hour Operations Room before evacuation to the nearest appropriate medical centre.
It is your responsibility to understand the risks associated with adventure travel in remote areas. You also must understand that medical evacuation will take an extended period of time (potentially up to 5 days) and will require wilderness extraction techniques and long carries by stretcher. In-country search and rescue and emergency services are very basic or non-existent and the expedition will rely on internal resources for medical evacuation. By joining this expedition, you accept the risks associated with the venture. If you require any more information on specific risk management for this expedition, or would like to speak to us about our medical planning prior to the trip, please get in touch.
Read team Testimonials or watch this short video featuring expedition teammates (filmed on location in Ethiopia) for an insight into life on expedition.
Tipping. Central America follows North America when it comes to tipping for services. It is expected and forms a crucial part of the wages. This will be especially important for the porters, who will change every 2-3 days and will expect a tip at the end of their service. The best way to do this is for us to come to an agreement at the beginning of the trip and then one of us will collect all the tips and present to them publicly. Please bring some US$ in small denominations for this!
Responsible travel. Our porters will be primarily indigenous people from the Embera tribe, and AfroDarienites. The former immigrated into the Darien from present-day Colombia nearly 300 hundred years ago, the latter were brought in as slaves during the Spanish colonial times. They both practice subsistence fishing and agriculture, but due to Western influence they’re more and more resorting to slash-and-burning to grow crops or raise livestock hoping that they can sell these products at markets. Our low-impact activities give them an opportunity to profit from non-destructive practices and helps inspire in them an appreciation for their natural heritage.
The average temperature will be between 22 and 32 degrees Celsius. It will be the dry season, but there is still a 15% chance of rain, which will be in short, sharp bursts. Humidity will be high.
Flights. You need to organise your own international flights, see the “To Do” section for details. You will also need to organise your own taxi to and from the airport. This is not covered by Secret Compass. We will meet you at the hotel in Panama City.
Road. We will be driving to and from Puerto Quimba from Panama City in comfortable minibuses.
Boat/Traditional Canoe. We will start the expedition proper by travelling in motorised boats and we may use traditional canoes for some sections of travel in the jungle.
Foot. For the majority of the expedition we will be travelling by foot through the jungle. We will be travelling between 10 and 15 km a day through thick, humid tropical jungle. You will be required to carry up to 15kg of personal gear. Keep in mind that this jungle terrain isn’t flat. Every day there are hills to climb up and down especially in the latter half of the expedition. Be sure to exercise and prepare for this accordingly.
Panama City. In Panama City we will be staying in a comfortable hotel in downtown.
During the expedition. For the majority of the expedition we will be sleeping in hammocks provided by Secret Compass. When we reach our destination at Jicaralito we will be in our hammocks or in a basic beach hut.
Reality of living rough for days. Occasionally people on our expeditions are not prepared for camping for multiple days. Living in these conditions can degrade your health if you do not look after yourself and increase fatigue if you are not used to living rough. You need to be highly organised so that your night and morning routine is done efficiently and quickly. If you are inexperienced at camping, it is essential that you get as much practice as possible prior to the expedition.
Group food. In Panama City we will eat in decent restaurants. When on the expedition we will eat a mixture of local dishes provided by villagers, local fresh food and dehydrated rations.
Vegetarians. Non-meat protein is very limited in places such as Panama. As a result, we will ask you to bring your own protein source. We will send you the menu plan prior to departure and highlight meals where you will benefit from providing your own protein source of your choice.
You will be trekking deep into the heart of the Darien National Park: chopping through overgrown, humid, wild jungle; picking up little-used paths; wading through rivers; and sometimes navigate waterways in dug-out canoes or other vessels. Keep in mind that this jungle terrain isn’t flat. Every day there are hills to climb up and down. Be sure to exercise and prepare for this accordingly.
We will have Rick Morales guiding us in country. Rick has been working as a wilderness guide in the Darien and Panama since 1998. Currently he is one of the most competent interpretation guides and well recognized for his skills in bird watching in Panama. In recent years he has been directly related to the rediscovery of the colonial trial “Camino Real Colonial”. In 2011 he became the first person to walk the Panama Trail, a thru hike from the Colombian border to Costa Rica. This is part of the TransPanama project, aiming to develop and map sections of trail connecting regions and people throughout Panama. For more information visit http://www.transpanama.org/en.
Secret Compass staff will be carrying at least two methods of communication, usually a Satellite Phone and a DeLorme two-way communication device. These will be used for regular updates to head office and for emergencies.
Unfortunately, routine communication between team members and family/friends is not possible – please reassure them that no news is good news! If there is an emergency and someone needs to contact a team member, they can contact Secret Compass’s Operations Room on +44207 096 8428 who will endeavour to pass a message on within 24hours.
Cell Phone. Your mobile roaming will work in towns. There may be no coverage along the majority of the route.
Here are some frequently asked questions that are specific to this expedition. Read our general FAQ too for questions such as ‘how do I join an expedition’ and more. Can’t find your answer? Contact SCHQ.
Can you recommend any jungle kit?
The Secret Compass Journal (The Compass) contains advice on boots, shirts and trousers for jungle treks. Our YouTube channel also has Expedition Kit Advice videos. Teammates will receive a full kit list which will answer most kit questions.
Can I check I’m bringing the right kit?
Our Darien expedition leader is very happy to have individual kit conversations via Skype with those booked onto this team in the build-up to departure to ensure everyone is prepared and has the right kit.
Will there be phone signal in the Darien?
There will be mobile phone coverage in Panama City at the beginning and end of the expedition. Signal in the jungle is unlikely. Joining this expedition with the mindset of escaping technology and the day-to-day routine is advisable.
I’ve never done jungle trekking before. Can I come?
Yes. As long as you fulfil the fitness requirements and have an adventurous spirit and willing to work as a team, then you will have no problems.
Can I arrive a day late?
As the plan outlines, there is a chain of transport to get teammates to the location where the training will commence, so start and end dates are not flexible.
Can I charge my gadgets?
Power sources are infrequent in the Darien. Each teammate is advised to bring their own spare batteries or power packs. Due to the shade of the jungle, solar packs might not work as well as usual.
Can vegetarians come?
This expedition can accept people with some dietary requirements. Outline your specific needs on the Application Form to help us best provision the team and we’ll go from there.
There are some prescription only medicines on the kit list – how do I get these?
In the UK your NHS GP may not be willing to prescribe you medicines on a “just in case” basis. If this is the case then try a specialist travel clinic who will often be able to give you a private prescription for “just in case” medicines for travellers such as antibiotics for travellers diarrhoea or jungle skin infections. If you search online there are plenty of options, and for some medications you may be able to complete an online or phone consultation rather than visiting in person.
Could local activity affect us?
Secret Compass has operated successfully in this challenging region for many years on TV and film projects, working with the very best in-country partners. If any local developments affected the planned expedition region, robust contingency plans would come into play as with all Secret Compass expeditions. In the case of the Darien expedition specifically, the team would undertake a challenging and equally adventurous jungle expedition in a different part of the Panamanian jungle.
Do you provide further advice?
You might find our Get Ready section useful, with further advice about fitness, flights, travel insurance, visas and our approach to risk management.
How can I join this team?
If you feel that the Handbook answers all your questions, you can request a space on the team by completing the booking form and submitting a deposit.