Panama is famous for its canal (of course) and, increasingly, for its Old City. But there is much more to this Central American country than shipping and history – it’s also a tropical paradise to rival neighbouring Costa Rica. Here’s our list of the 10 best wildlife adventures in Panama.
You don’t even need to leave Panama City to get back to nature. What other capital can boast of a rainforest inside its limits? The Parque Natural Metropolitano is part of the green belt protecting the watershed of the Panama Canal. It has hiking trails, a forest canopy crane and countless birds, monkeys and other fauna and flora to spot as well as a butterfly house.
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You can’t grasp Panama’s ecologic importance without first understanding its canal. Within easy reach of the city centre, this lock has an impressive four-storey Visitor's Centre dedicated to the history and biodiversity of the Panama Canal. Watching a massive ship ease through the lock is part of the experience. Several local tour companies also offer partial or complete transits through the canal, including Miraflores Lock, with guides explaining its environmental footprint.
Panama is an isthmus linking North and South America, a meeting place for flora and fauna as well as weather systems from the Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific coasts. The result in terms of biodiversity (Panama has more species of birds than the US and Canada combined) is explored through interactive, child-friendly exhibits in Biomuseo, a colourful museum on the Amador Causeway. Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s his only building in Latin America.
The largest man-made lake in the world at the time was made during the construction of the Panama Canal by damming the Chagres River. Some 30km long, its store of water is essential to the operation of the canal’s locks and the success of the lake depends on the preservation of the rainforest around it. Small boat tours are an accessible way to learn about the lake’s ecology and see the varied wildlife, with a stop on Monkey Island to see and hear its many species of primates, including Capuchins, Tamarins and Howler monkeys.
This centre is a paradise for birdwatchers, with the chance to spot over 500 species. A 40-meter tower takes you into the forest canopy to see toucans, while a lake attracts species such as herons. It’s on Pipeline Road, a 17.5km dirt track through the primary and secondary rainforest of Parque Nacional Soberanía that makes for a great hike in itself. As well as birds, expect to see everything from monkeys and butterflies to coatis and anteaters.
The San Blas Archipelago on the north (Caribbean) coast of Panama is the domain of the Guna indigenous people. Visitors can fly by small plane, or by ferry after a two-hour drive from Panama City. There are some 380 beautiful islands, of which 50 are inhabited, lying in crystal clear waters. For the full experience, arrange to be dropped off for a few hours on one of the uninhabited ones. Coral reefs abound, so bring your snorkelling gear (scuba diving is banned to help protect the environment).
The San Blas Islands – one of the more relaxed adventures in Panama © Stefan Neumann/Shutterstock
This park in the extreme west of Panama runs across the border into an equally remote area of Costa Rica. While technically possible to fly in and out on a day trip from Panama City, it realistically needs a longer stay. Hikes are strenuous, given the humidity and mountainous terrain, but there is a lot to experience in this cloudforest region. Highlights include the many orchid and tree fern species, Barú Volcano and some hair-raising whitewater rapids.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute – a study centre on Barro Colorado in Gatun Lake – is a major draw for scientists from all over the world. The island has almost 400 bird species, 500 species of butterflies and 500 species of trees, along with monkeys, birds and many other species. Joining one of the regular group tours is the only way for most visitors to enjoy the island. Experienced guides lead hikes through the forest, and you can even have lunch with the scientists.
This reserve on the Caribbean Sea spans environments ranging from coral reefs to mangrove swamps and rainforests. It’s home to dolphins and crocodiles, frogs, sloths and monkeys. Sea turtles nest on Playa Larga from April to September, while Nivida Bat Cave (more of an underground river) is home to fruit bats and spiders. The best way to get around is by boat, but there are also plenty of hikes and you can camp overnight on some of the beaches and more remote islands.
Although Panama City is on the southern coast of Panama, it's actually considered the Pacific side. Between July and October, the Gulf of Chiriqui is visited by humpback whales who have made the incredible journey up the Pacific from the Antarctic and Chile to give birth in and around Parque Nacional Coiba. Other species to spot include pilot whales, Bryde’s and minke whales as well as large numbers of dolphins. There are 25 uninhabited islands, with coral reefs and beaches, so bring your swimsuit.
Top image: An aerial view of the Panama Canal © dani3315/Shutterstock