Stretching along the eastern flank of the canal, the 220-square-kilometre PARQUE NACIONAL SOBERANÍA provides essential protection for the rainforest-covered watershed that is vital for the canal’s continued operation. Just thirty minutes from Panama City by road, Soberanía is the most easily accessible national park in Panama and is popular with both locals and visitors. Most spend just a few hours exploring one of the trails, which are mostly well marked and pass over rugged terrain cloaked in pristine rainforest, offering reasonable odds of seeing monkeys and innumerable birds as well as smaller mammals such as sloths and agoutis.
You can collect trail information and pay the entrance fee at the park office, where the road to Gamboa branches off the main road from Panama City. Indicate to the bus driver that you want to go to the park office. If you ring in advance you may be able to engage the services of a park warden as a guide.
All the trails have something to recommend them, but a few stand out. The 24km Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto), accessed from Gamboa, is world famous for its birding opportunities; you can also visit the excellent, but costly, nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, whose highlight is a canopy observation tower. Plantation Road, which begins at a right-hand turn-off 1.5km past the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo – tell the bus driver where you want to get off – follows a stream and offers great birdwatching. It runs some 4km to an intersection with the 10km Camino de las Cruces, the only trail for which you would need a guide. The Camino is a remnant of the cobbled track that the Spanish colonists used to transport their goods and treasures to Portobelo on the Caribbean coast.