by Jennifer A. Roberts
While Panama has become increasingly popular as a tourist destination over the past 15 years, many still don’t know much about this diverse nation. Popular with ex-pats and a haven for international banking, most think of only one thing when Panama comes to mind- the Canal. But, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to connect with some of the wilder side of Panama, then there are many options for travelers interested in cozying up to the native flora and fauna of Central America. Here are the top five places you should definitely visit for wildlife viewing and encounters in Panama.
1. Volcán Barú, the only volcano in Panama, stands at 11,500 feet. While the lower slopes are home to coffee plantations, the higher ground is home to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú. This rain forest, set outside Boquete in Panama’s western highlands, is habitat for thousands of species, including many types of birds. If you are lucky, you will see one of Central America’s most elusive birds, the resplendent quetzal, here.
2. You don’t have to venture too far off the beaten path to see some amazing sites! Just outside Panama City are three rain forest parks with wonderful hiking, bird watching, and wildlife viewing opportunities. Parque Soberania, Parque Metropolitano, and Parque Chagres are all easily reached from the city and offer opportunities for wildlife experiences. Be on the lookout for anteaters, sloths, and monkeys, and you’ll also see many species of reptiles and birds.
3. While Panama offers many wildlife experiences on land, don’t forget the abundance of life just offshore. A visit to Parque Nacional Coiba, one of Panama's national marine park, will give you chances to see several species of dolphin and whale, crocodiles, turtles, and snakes, as well as an abundance of fish and other marine creatures.
4. Encompassing the 130 islands of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos is also a wonderful aquatic destination. This was Panama’s first marine preserve, and it is home to coral-fringed islands, wetlands on several islands, mangroves, caiman, and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles.
5. The Punta Patiño Nature Reserve is also a great stop on any wildlife watchers list. Bordering the Gulf of San Miguel, this private reserve is about an hour by boat from La Palma. It is highly advised to visit the area with a guiding service who will help you make the most of your experience here. A favorite among birders, Punta Patiño is home to a large variety of feathered creatures, including the harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird and the world’s most powerful bird of prey. You can also view capybaras, gray foxes, tamarins, jaguars, sloths, iguanas, and much more in this diverse habitat. There are miles of hiking trails here to help you get up close and personal with the amazing animals that live here.
There are so many opportunities to see native flora and fauna in Panama, and reaching most of these places is relatively easy. Be sure to work with local guides whenever heading out into the rain forest, as one wrong turn could leave you lost in the jungle, though. Guides will help you stay safe and provide you with the best opportunities for spotting wildlife. Take some time to explore Panama's wild side, and you will not leave disappointed.
Jennifer A. Roberts lives a location-independent lifestyle with her husband, Chris, in their RV. They currently work and travel throughout North America, combining their passion for travel with a minimalistic life and freelance work. Jennifer is a former educator, an avid home cook, and an aspiring writer.