Occupying a strip of land that connects Central America to South America, Panama controls one of the most important shipping routes in the world: the Panama Canal. While it possesses ecological diversity chock full of rainforests, mountains, cloud forests and sandy coastlines, it is also home to a number of indigenous tribes who are keen on sharing their culture.
With over 10,000 species of native plants, over 950 species of birds and miles of coral reef, almost 29% of the country’s nature is protected, including the UNESCO-listed Darién National Park and the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park. In addition to guided hikes into the forests and mountains, other eco-themed adventures include rock climbing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, snorkelling with turtles, as well as ziplining through the forest canopy. Eco-friendly accommodation can be found within local tribal communities, or in many wildlife refuges.
A cosy highland village in the mountainous Chiriquí province, Boquete – the ‘Valley of Flowers’ – is an ideal base for exploring its mountains, waterfalls, coffee plantations, cloud forest and national park.
It’s also the base to explore the most famous trail in Panama: the beautiful Quetzal Trail. This 4-5 hour, one-way hike, crossing bridges and cloud forests, is ideal for spotting the rare Resplendent Quetzal with its incredible blue plume, along with other unique local species. For a challenge, you can climb Panama’s highest peak of Volcan Baru with the aid of local guides; it’s a more eco- friendly way than taking a 4×4 to the top. At the base of this volcano are a number of thermal springs, where you can soak in the waters right next to the Caldera River.
As a natural bridge that connects North and South America, Panama is home to wildlife from both continents. Lake Gatun’s boat rides are a good way to see monkeys, sloths and iguanas, in addition to visiting local tribal
At the Bastimentos Island National Park in Bocas del Toro, the protected coral reef and mangrove swamps are home to nesting marine turtles; you can dive or snorkel the reefs, spot Strawberry Poison Frogs at Red Frog Beach, or head further afield to Pacific islands like Pearl Island to see humpback and sperm whales.
A top birding site is the Pipeline Road, a well-maintained path through the rainforest of Soberanía National Park where you can spot up to 300 species in a single day, including falcons, hummingbirds, and aquatic birds, along with monkeys, sloths, frogs and capybaras.
While the Darién province – where the Darién Gap lies – is not a place to be taken lightly (due to the presence of guerillas and traffickers), the rich biome of Darién National Park contains many critically-endangered species, from the Bush Dog to the Central American Tapir, in addition to over 530 birds and undocumented wildlife.
Home to the local Emberá and Wounaan people, it offers spectacular opportunities for rugged exploration by foot and dugout canoe, and is best approached with adequate planning and guides.