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Panama

a promised land of indigenous culture and pristine nature, with long Pacific and Atlantic coastlines

Tailor-Made Holidays
To Panama

Occupying the last section of the Central American isthmus before South America, Panama benefits from considerable species overlap resulting in impressive biodiversity.

Although best known for the Canal, Panama possesses an astonishing array of natural, historical and cultural riches: extensive Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, exuberant coral reefs, castaway islands and deserted beaches, semi-autonomous Amerindian tribes, Spanish colonial architecture and rainforests teeming with a wealth of flora and fauna such as cannot be seen anywhere else in Central America.

Panama’s volcanic mountains, coastal plains, virgin rainforests, cloud forests and dry tropical forests are home to myriad plant species, including some 1200 native orchids and an enviable amount of wildlife. A birdwatcher’s paradise, Panama boasts around 1000 species including harpy eagle, resplendent quetzal, five macaw species and 52 hummingbirds. Its fauna includes bush dog, jaguar, puma, two- and three-toed sloth, 350 species of bat, five species of monkey, and specific island-endemic poison dart frogs – pure evolution in action.

In short, Panama has it all – a promised land of exceptional cultural and natural history, additionally benefiting from a small number of visitors.

A wonderful shot of an inquisitive young Gorilla in Nyungwe park

Photography by Dan Burton

Best Time To Visit Panama

Panama lies below the hurricane belt and has not experienced appreciable volcanic activity since Baru erupted over 600 years ago. The tropical climate is divided between the wetter ‘winter’ season (mid-April to December) and the drier ‘summer’ (mid-December to mid-April), although generally it is wetter on the Caribbean side. Temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year, averaging 80F/27C in the humid lowlands, but becoming increasingly cooler and less humid as one gains altitude.

Panama Travel

Getting There

Flight Time

14 Hours plus stops

Time Zone

GMT -5

Language

Spanish

Population

3.57 million

Highlights

What To See

Chiriqui Highlands

Chiriquí Province in western Panama is blessed with a temperate climate, varying altitudes and many attractive towns. Boquete, Cerro Punta and Volcán serve as convenient bases from which to explore the flora and fauna of the beautiful region. Dominated by Barú, Panama’s largest dormant volcano, the cool, verdant highlands offer breathtaking scenery and contain enchanting cloud forests – more virgin rainforest than any other region of Panama – and birds such as long-tailed silky flycatcher, three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal. A number of endangered mammals exist here, including five cat species and Baird’s tapir. Many trails traverse a variety of natural habitats bursting with life: for instance, the Los Quetzales Trail around Barú Volcano passes through open forest, cloud forest and rainforest and provides excellent opportunities to spot many upland species.

Darien National Park

Containing Panama’s largest national park, Darién is the most sparsely populated and wildest province in Panama. Its impenetrability is illustrated by the fact it is the only gap in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs uninterrupted from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. The 576,000 hectares Darién National Park borders Colombia and includes some Pacific coastline and the Pirre mountain range. Its importance is such that it was awarded World Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. The pristine rainforests and old growth dry forests are home to bush dog, jaguar, giant anteater, Geoffroy’s tamarin, Baird’s tapir, jaguarundi, ocelot, puma and capybara. More than 400 bird species have been recorded in the park, including harpy eagle and four species of macaw.

Panama City

Sited at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, Panama City comprises a modern city centre, the old colonial streets of Casco Viejo and the ruins of Panama la Vieja, the original Spanish city sacked by Sir Henry Morgan in 1671 which lies a little out of today’s town. Subsequently rebuilt in a different location, what is now Casco Viejo contains renovated colonial buildings and a plethora of chic bars, restaurants and small hotels, making this historical spot well worth a visit.

The Panama Canal

A visit to Panama would be incomplete without witnessing this incredible engineering feat, usually by visiting Miraflores Lock with its excellent museum’s historical displays.

The canal has a long history, having defeated the French who thought that, having built the Suez Canal, they would be able to manage to build Panama’s. After toiling from 1881 to 1889 the 40,000 workers suffered many casualties (22,000 is one estimate) and finally France abandoned the project. The US took over and through sheer determination, new inventions, dynamite and physical labour finally carved out the canal as we know it today.

The desire to control the canal zone led to a US-led revolt over Colombia and the creation of modern-day Panama. The canal was finally opened in 1914: thus 2014 was the Canal’s 100th anniversary. There is currently a project to widen the canal from the old Panamax width to one which can take larger modern vessels – a further impressive engineering feat.

Boats transiting the 80 kilometres of the canal pass from the Pacific through three sets of locks into Lake Gatun (once the largest man-made lake in the world) then on to the Caribbean. Partial and whole transits of the canal by boat are possible for visitors. The lake’s rainforest islands (former hills) play host to a surprising amount of easily observable wildlife, including spider monkey, white-faced capuchin, squirrel monkey, endemic red-naped tamarin, two- and three-toed sloth, spectacled caiman, osprey, snail kite, whistling duck and keel-billed toucan.

Soberania National Park

Lying on the eastern banks of the Panama Canal, Soberanía’s 293,000 rainforest acres contain 525 species of birds, 105 of mammals including jaguar, tamandua and the cotton-topped tamarin monkey, 79 species of reptile, 55 amphibians and 59 endemic plant species. Within is the Pipeline Road, famous amongst birders and nature lovers for high wildlife diversity including rarities such as yellow-eared toucanet, slaty-winged foliage cleaner and crimson-bellied woodpecker: there have also been regular sightings of the national bird of Panama, the awesome harpy eagle.

The Rainforest Discovery Center is found by the Pipeline Road on the border of Soberania and boasts a 40m-high canopy observation tower, various walking trails and a Visitor Center with hummingbird feeders.

Guna Yala

The San Blas archipelago, some 400 tiny islands scattered along the Caribbean coast of eastern Panama, is ruled by the fiercely independent Kuna who won semi-autonomy following an uprising against the Panamanian government in 1925. The colourfully attired tribe, who fled Colombia and were never conquered by the Spanish, inhabits only 40 of the islands, maintaining their old traditions within bustling small communities. The pristine uninhabited islands consist of white sand beaches and swaying palms – classic Caribbean coral cays – surrounded by turquoise waters and coral reefs providing good snorkelling. Although diving in San Blas itself is prohibited, it is possible to dive the outer reefs on the western border of Kuna territory. The San Blas reef system has been identified as one of the 10 best preserved in the world, with an abundance of marine life including manta rays, moray eels, porpoises and a bewildering assortment of polychromatic reef fish and hard and soft corals.

Guna Yala also refers to land to the south of San Blas, on the Panamanian mainland, which is also inhabited by members of the tribe. The Kuna as a whole form a powerful voting block and wield a large amount of power in Panama’s general elections, ensuring the preservation of their rights and independence.

Gulf Of Chiriqui

The Chiriquí National Marine Park on the Pacific coast is a collection of 25 islands and 19 coral reefs, home to an extraordinary diversity of terrestrial and marine life. Amongst the lush island vegetation and sandy beaches reside three species of monkey (one endemic to Coiba), four species of turtle, and a plethora of bird species. Underwater, the reefs are rich with colourful marine life, and humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, whale sharks and schools of giant manta rays are frequently observed. Also of note in the Gulf of Chiriqui is Coiba Island National Park (see separate entry).

Bocas del Toro Archipelago

A Caribbean archipelago of mangrove islands, coral reefs and calm waters, cosmopolitan Bocas del Toro is the country’s most popular marine location with visitors. The largest island, Colon, contains Bocas Town with its shops, bars, restaurants and numerous small hotels. Offshore there are other islands, including Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park with good reefs for snorkelling and diving, one or two restaurants and a few hotels of varying standard. Sloths and monkeys can be seen on Colon and of particular interest is the local endemicity of red dendrobates poison dart frogs, with distinctive different colourations found on closely neighbouring islands: a testimony to Darwinism.

Coiba Island National Park

In the Gulf of Chiriquí yet distinct from the eponymous marine park, Coiba National Park is a wild, unspoiled island (Panama’s largest). The island is cloaked in virgin rainforest and the subject of much research into its unique fauna and flora which evolved after Coiba split from the mainland around 18,000 years ago.

Until 2004 Coiba had a harsh penal colony which effectively protected its natural environment from development so that now it harbours several endemic birds and mammals, including sub-species of howler monkey, agouti and possum. The surrounding waters support the eastern Pacific’s second largest coral reef and provide world-class diving on offshore pinnacles for encounters with bull, whale and tiger sharks, manta and eagle rays and huge schools of fish. Twenty-three cetacean species inhabit the waters, including humpback and sperm whales. Accommodation for visitors is limited to camping or staying in one of the basic park huts; dive gear is brought over from the mainland. A visit to this extraordinary island should be regarded as a rare privilege, despite the rustic conditions.

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Accommodation

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Your Very Own

Panama Specialist

John Melton

Area Specialist

If you have any questions regarding travel to Panama, please feel free to contact me on +44 (0)1803 866965