Panama has 16 national parks and reserves encompassing around 5 million acres, setting aside approximately 30% of its land aside for conservation. From La Amistad National Park in the west (on the border with Costa Rica) to Darién National Park in the east (on the border with Colombia), each of these parks offers a taste of the country’s rich biodiversity.
The flora and fauna that can be found in Panama is nothing short of phenomenal. There are around 10,000 different species of plants in Panama, including 1,500 species of trees, 1,200 types of orchids, and 687 varieties of ferns.
Wildlife lovers will find lots to look at as well. Animals in Panama include 354 species of reptiles and amphibians and some 220 mammals, around 125 of which are endemic to the area.
But when it comes to birdwatching, that’s where Panama’s national parks really shine. There have been nearly 1,000 different bird species recorded in the country, of which only 122 are migratory. Here’s a look at a few of the national parks International Expeditions visits on its 3 Panama tours, as well as some of the highlighted species you may see along the way.
Panamas National Parks & Reserves
Barro Colorado Island
Located in the middle of the Panama Canal, Barro Colorado Island was formed when the Chagres River basin was flooded to create Lake Gatún during the canal’s construction. Established in 1923, it became one of the first protected biological reserves in the entire Neotropic region.
The island is best known for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s station there, which oversees the Barro Colorado Nature Monument (including the island and five adjacent peninsulas). The 21-square-mile area is home to a remarkably diverse tropical forest ecosystem that has remained relatively unaltered by humans over the last century thanks to its isolated location.
This isolation has unfortunately led to the loss of some of the mammals (particularly jaguars) and bird species that once inhabited the mountaintop ecosystem. But there are still several hundred bird species found in the area, some of which can be seen on two- to three-hour guided hiking tours. Keep your eyes peeled for Black-faced Antthrush, Collared Forest-falcons, Crane Hawks, Crested Guan, Great Curassows, Keel-billed Toucans, Rufescent Tiger-herons, Tanagers, Wattled Jacana, and more.
Charges National Park
Located just 24 miles from Panama City, Chagres National Park encompasses about 320,000 acres in the eastern sector of Panama. Its central feature is the Chagres River, which is surrounded by lush tropical rainforest habitat and feeds into Gatun Lake. This is the largest man-made lake in the world, as well as the main lake of the Panama Canal. It drains into two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific.
The park features numerous hiking trails through the old growth forest that are great for birdwatching, especially along the banks of the Chagres River (which also has seven tributaries). The park includes numerous mountains, most of which climb at steep angles of 45º or more, in the upper Chagres watershed. There are also Embera Indian settlements in the area.
In terms of birds you might see during your visit, the park’s resident species are extensive. Sightings of Amazon, Green, and American Pygmy Kingfishers, Whooping Motmot, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Anhinga, Cormorant, and various Herons are all but guaranteed. It’s also possible to spot the Cocoi, Wattled Jacana, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-chested Jay, Lesser Kiskadee, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cacique, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and Blue Cotinga.
Darien National Park
Located approximately 200 miles from Panama City, the largest national park in Panama is also arguably Central America’s most important UNESCO World Heritage Site. Encompassing 3317-square mile, Darién National Park is a biosphere reserve that acts as a natural bridge to South America, with myriad different ecosystems contained within its boundaries.
This vast swath of jungle is situated right along the Panama-Colombia border. It’s impassable by car and thus largely remains a no-man’s land of dense wilderness. As a result, it’s home to an exceptional array of wildlife, including several species of monkeys, Jaguars, Agouti, Ocelots, Giant Anteaters, Spotted Paca, White-lipped Peccary, Capybaras, and more.
In terms of bird life, the park’s 575,000 hectares are a hotbed of avian activity, with more than 530 recorded species. Boat rides into the Darién’s mangrove estuary may produce sightings of the brilliant Roseate Spoonbill, Amazon Kingfisher, White Ibis, and various species of Heron. The park is also home to threatened and endangered species such as the Great Green Macaw, Great Curassow, and a significant population of Harpy Eagles.
Soberania National Park
Established in 1980 and located just 15 miles from Panama City along the eastern side of the Panama Canal, Soberania National Park covers over 19,000 hectares of rainforest. Here, wildlife enthusiasts will find mammals such as jaguar and white-tailed deer as well as weird reptiles like the warty snake.
But the park is perhaps best known among birders for a trail called the Pipeline Road, on which the Audubon Society organized a world record census that recorded 525 bird species in just one day back in 1996. From the endangered Crested Eagle to the Ground Cuckoo, the trail is a birdwatcher’s dream come true. The Semaphore Hill Road offers great chances to see understory birds such as the Slaty-tailed and Gartered Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, and several species of Antbirds.
Travelers on this Panama Wildlife Adventure have a unique opportunity to see the park’s species– avian and otherwise– from a unique angle. Spending several nights at the Canopy Tower lodge, they’ll have a bird’s eye view from the observation deck. Regularly seen species include Green & Red-legged Honeycreepers, Mealy and Red-lored Parrots, Collared Araçari, and raptors such as the King Vulture and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.