Kidnapped for Cash on the Darién Gap

Each day adventure seekers set out to explore new territories and bear witness to nature in its purest form. As they absorb breathtaking sites and experience new cultures, many people return from their trips with a new outlook on life. In Locked up Abroad: The Orchid Hunters,  Paul Winders was on a quest to travel to new places while his friend Tom Hart Dyke, a self-proclaimed plant hunter, was elated by the opportunity to see wild orchids. Together, the two men set out on an endeavor that would change their lives.

When Paul Winders met Tom Hart Dyke, he was entertained by Tom’s enthusiasm for orchids. Seizing the opportunity, Paul easily convinced his new friend to travel to the Darién Gap with him, promising Tom wild orchids. The orchid family is one of the largest flowering plant families with over 25,000 species currently known. Surpassing the number of bird and mammal species in the world, these fragrant flowers can be found in nearly every habitat except for the glaciers. The exotic flowers have botanists and plant enthusiasts alike on the quest to see them in their natural habitats which includes areas that are rarely explored.

Dividing Columbia and Panama’s Darien Province, the Darién Gap is not frequented by many people as its undeveloped swampland and forests are difficult to travel across. Those who dare to venture into this “No Man’s Land” tend to do so in four-wheel drive vehicles. Though some travelers have successfully crossed the Darién Gap via motorcycle as well as on foot. In addition to being a difficult landmass to travel through, the Darién Gap is considered highly dangerous due to guerrilla organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia.

FARC rebels have been at war with the Colombian government for decades. They have committed numerous crimes in the Darién Gap including kidnappings and assassinations. A right-wing pro government paramilitary organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia is also active within the Darién Gap. In 2003, the group, also known as AUC, detained journalist Robert Young Pelton while on assignment for National Geographic Adventure. He was held against his will along with two other individuals for 10 days before being released.

Though Paul and Tom were warned by Panamanian soldiers that the Darién Gap is unsafe, both were willing to take their chances. With several opportunities to turn around the men traveled half way to Columbia before their luck ran out and their adventure turned into a nightmare. The men, along with their tour guides from the village of Paya, were detained by guerrillas. Despite their pleas, the men were marched at gun point into the thick forests of  the Darién Gap.

For nine months, Paul and Tom feared for their lives as they were marched through the wilderness. Subjected to the abuse of guerrillas and harsh conditions of the Darién Gap, Paul and Tom were physically and mentally exhausted. Mosquitoes ravished their bodies and Tom became the unlucky host of botfly larvae—a parasitic insect that grows inside the flesh of mammals. The British duo schemed ways to escape their captors  even going as far as stealing items one by one for weeks. However, opportunities for a successful getaway never presented itself leaving the men discouraged.

Guerrillas often demand ransom for their hostages in order to fund their operations. When the FARC learned that Paul worked at a bank they immediately saw dollar signs. Their ransom request of $3 million was aiming high as Paul was merely a bank clerk and obtaining that amount of money in the time allotted was next to impossible. Of course outrageous ransom requests by the FARC have been met, a Colombian politician by the name of Luis Francisco Cuéllar Carvajal was kidnapped four times and released once the ransom was paid. Unfortunately the Caquetá governor’s last kidnapping in 2009 ended in death.

Paul and Tom’s lives were ultimately spared and they were released into the Darién Gap forests to find their way home. After days of wandering lost, they were eventually pointed in the right direction by their captors and were able to return to their families. In February of 2012, 12 years after Paul and Tom’s ordeal, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced they would no longer kidnap civilians for money though did not agree to stop kidnapping for political purposes.

Watch Locked Up Abroad: The Orchid Hunters August 6th at 10p et/pt


  1. Helen Cookson
    March 28, 2015, 12:10 pm

    WOW what brave men Love you TOM