When anteaters, coatis, and colorful birds litter highways as roadkill, one begins to grasp that Panamá is crawling with exotic wildlife! This narrow isthmus, linking the Americas, nurtures one of the most bio diverse environments in the world. Yet frequent travelers in all parts of the country complained they'd yet to see whatever they'd came looking for. I didn't have to ask why.
Chirping birds provided daily, 5am wake-up calls for hitting trails at the crack of dawn. By 6am, forests were lively beyond comprehension. What's not seen is heard like a rumble in the jungle, that slowly tapers into a deafening silence as morning progresses. The only things faithfully appearing after 9:30am, just like clockwork, were other people.
Get-up or miss-out! It's that simple but apparently not that comprehensible. Independent explorers will fare much better. Guided hikes and excursions seemed to rarely depart before 9am, regardless of destinations. The Gamboa Resort was unloading passengers, just as we were leaving Nacional Parque Soberanía around 10am. For $125, guests were basically paying to carry extensive camera equipment along an abandoned trail that was enlivened hours earlier.
These were my first attempts at wildlife and bird watching. Quite honestly, I'd have been more delighted with binoculars than a camera. Trying to capture, rather than purely witness, compromised too much of the experience. A standard zoom didn't begin to reach the canopies. Even if having an assortment of high-powered lenses, low lighting makes tripods essential. Illusions of shooting close-ups, like found in publications, were just that. Not that subjects were expected to cooperate, but they didn't.
Hot on the Greenhorn Trail
The assortment of birds in Panamá is astounding, and are what travelers readily encounter even if hiking isn't part of the agenda. Panamá City's tree-lined streets were amazingly aflutter with chattering parrots, parakeets, radiant songbirds, and with no shortage of grotesque turkey vultures. Two-foot tall woodpeckers can generate quite the racket, but nothing compared to ghastly honkings from what topped most people's "must see" lists, including mine.
Toucans thrive in the rainforests and woodlands of lower-lying areas. Whether from growing-up with the Fruit Loop bird, or curiosities towards what has become Central America's natural icon, guides say this is what travelers most request, and expect to see. I'll forewarn you - it's easier said than done!
When these playful birds spot humans, they start squawking and flying overhead like a game of cat-and-mouse. The teasings were on-going and frustrating for actually getting a good look, little alone snapping photos. Fortunately my check-list was completed in the Capital's city park, of all places.
Monkeys are the other commonly expected encounter, and while Panamá harbors four different species, I never came across any of the cute ones. Howler monkeys abound at all elevation levels, and behave like watch-dogs of the forests. Their haunting cries shatter tranquility, and were rude awakenings especially when heading-out in the dark.
Howlers retreat to cooler, deep-woods as the day heats up, but here's a tip for trekkers getting a late start. Once you've heard their guttural calls, they're easy to "ape". Cup hands to mouth, and give it your best whoop. Any monkeys within hearing range will quickly respond. Answering back rallies the ones in close proximity.
These primates are very territorial, and incessant barkings are a first-line of defense. It never took long for canopies to swing into action with spectators surveying invaders. While watching them watching you, keep your guard up! Howlers are prone for throwing things, including half-eaten pieces of fruit, and they'll even urinate from tree-tops.
Where you decide to venture largely determines types and amounts of fauna discovered. Panama's higher elevations in western sections support two distinguishable habitats, dictated by the Continental Divide. The drier, Pacific side isn't nearly as populated as lush terrains rolling towards the Caribbean.
Aside from quetzals, nothing out of the ordinary was found around Boquete and Parque Nacional Volcán Barú. Howler monkeys could be heard deep within the forest, but there was an alarming moment along the Quetzal Trail when the crisp air suddenly took on stench from something marking its territory. Pungency grew with each step until Lucho pointed out a den; my adding it smelled just like big cat cages at the zoo!
Eyes popping out of our heads, we quickly moved on before recapping potentials. While several mammals were discussed, that undeniable odor likely came from a jaguar or cougar, which have growing populations across peaks in Parque Internacional La Amistad and Bosque Protector de Palo Seco. These, along with impenetrable jungles of the Darién Province, support large predators including the Harpy Eagle, though sightings of either are usually unheard of.
Most travelers never venture to the far stretches, and have no cause when the richest environments are centrally located along eastern banks of the Canal. Beginning at Parque Nacional Metropolitano, which serves as a buffer zone from the capital, six National Parks form a continuous sprawl northward to the Caribbean.
Parque Nacional Soberanía is by far the best destination for seeing the most, with the least amount of effort. Getting out of cars may not even be required with what appears along roadways. Trail systems are outlined, and take on historical significance following paths Spaniards used for transporting gold.
More than 25% of Panama's landmass has been designated for conservation within 11 National Parks and 28 protected reserves. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has several research centers; the Isla Barro Colorado station so popular, tour reservations are required months in advance. While purpose of this U.S. organization is solely to monitor and catalogue species of plants and animals, hands are tied regarding critical issues for the very nature of their work.
For a Limited Time Only?
Rendering a popular claim, "50 bird watchers may see one toucan in Costa Rica where one bird watcher may see 50 toucans in Panamá". Costa Rica has long been the Central American magnet for eco-tourism, but popularity has compromised the very things which spurred growth. When speaking with travelers, scuttlebutts were unanimous that Costa Rica was too overdeveloped compared to all that Panamá still fostered. Unfortunately, this likely won't be the case within the next decade.
Ongoing controversies plague the nation concerning economic development at the sacrifice of natural resources. Deforestation has consumed almost 30% of the country's ground cover in the last 50 years. Logging and development of crucial watersheds are even threatening daily operations of the Panama Canal. Expanses around Bocas del Toro and the Chiriquí Highlands are being parceled and sold at an alarming rate as some of the hottest new retirement destinations in the world.
The Panamanian government and population are divided on issues. The growing number of expats, and their almighty currencies, continue tipping scales towards mass destruction. Vigilantes most recently thwarted a sanctioned attempt of building a highway through Nacional Parque Volcán Barú, that would have connected Boquete to Cerro Punta. Efforts to maintain and establish other protected reserves are met with uphill battles.
As our planet continues getting smaller, global debates regarding the fragile, shrinking environment should concern everyone including the conscious traveler. Traipsing through these pristine areas solicits guilty pleasures; knowing that mere presence supports the causes for why exploitations continue.
I justified coming to Panamá as will countless others. The nation's economic future is banking on that, too! Considering the exorbitant interest rate, you better get here soon before the National Zoo and Gardens become the greatest natural attractions.