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Why Panama Is An Ecotourism Mecca For Learning

A Land Bridge Between Oceans And Continents

With its unique geography as an isthmus between North and South America, Panama has some of the highest levels of tropical biodiversity on Earth.

Home to one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest rainforests, Panama makes the ideal outdoor classroom to combine travel and learning about tropical ecology, ocean and forest biodiversity.

Explore an enchanted land of soaring mountains, raging rivers and panoramic ocean vistas that is home to many North and South American species of birds and wildlife.

Wildlife conservation is taken seriously in Panama and almost 30% of the country is occupied by wildlife refuges, forest reserves, and 18 national parks – 6 of which are less than a two-hour drive from Panama City. Watersheds crucial for the operation of the Panama Canal, through which where 5% of maritime trade passes, have been preserved and protected within the national park system.

While Costa Rica is a more well-known ecotourism destination, Panama isn't packed full of tourists in high season. The country offers a much more off-the-beaten path and nature- connected experience away from crowds and remains largely free from the big box tourism and overdevelopment that ruins many tropical destinations.

Then there is the newly opened Museum of Biodiversity designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center, which is the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States and is dedicated to understanding the past, present and future of tropical ecosystems and their relevance to human welfare.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center grew out of the Barro Colorado Research Station in the Panama Canal Zone, which was established in 1923 and is one of the world's leading tropical research organizations. The museum’s facilities provide for long-term ecological studies in the tropics and are used by some 1,200 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions around the world every year.

As part of its ecological efforts, the Panamanian government is committed to developing the ecotourism sector in a sustainable way by working with the nation's seven indigenous groups.

Indigenous Ecotourism In Panama

There are seven indigenous tribes in Panama, each one speaking its own dialect.

The most accessible of the tribes are the Emberá living in the upper Chagres River valley near the Panama Canal.

Until the 1990s, most of the Emberá peoples lived in an extremely remote section of the Darien Gap's jungle. Under the leadership of chief Antonio Tocamo, several families migrated to the banks of the Chagres River in Chagres National Park to establish Parara Puru, a village devoted to demonstrating traditional Emberá culture and providing guided nature hikes that serve as informal, educational discussions about the Emberá way of life.

The Emberá language is not a single language but a group of mutually-intelligible languages spoken throughout Panama and Colombia.

There are approximately 33,000 people living in Panama and 50,000 in Colombia who identify as Emberá.

Most of the rainforests reserves of Panama are located within indigenous territory and the indigenous communities have been given special opportunities to develop ecotourism in harmony with their own land management practices.

Panama's Biodiversity of Flora and Fauna

Panama is considered one of the world's best birding destinations, and the amount of wildlife you will see in the tropical rainforests of Panama is truly astounding.

Here are the major flora and fauna found in Panama's tropical rainforests:

  • Over 10,000 species of native plants and 1,500 types of trees, many found nowhere else in the world.
  • Over 1,000 species of birds, including the resplendent quetzal, collared aracari, blue-footed boobys, brown pelican, ornate hawk-eagle, rofous-ventaul, ground cuckoo, toucans, parrots and scarlet macaws.
  • The list of mammals is also vast, including the brown-throated three-toed sloth, the giant anteater, Geoffroy's spider monkey, Panamanian white-headed capuchin, Central American squirrel monkey, ocelot, pumas, green iguanas and the capybara.
  • There are a variety of different coral reef habitats found in both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea along the Panamanian coast.

Panama also offers excellent opportunities for whale watching. Humpback whales from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres come to breed and give birth (July–October and December–February are the best times).

In the waters along Panama's coast you will find other whales, dolphins, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, whitetip reef sharks, caymans, crocodiles, manatees, turtles and an endless rainbow of exotic tropical fish.

1. Bocas Del Toro Archipelago

In the Bocas Del Toro archipelago you will find Bastimentos National Park, the country's first national marine park created in 1988. It is home to a variety of plant and animal species. 

The national marine park protects forests, mangroves, monkeys, sloths, caiman, crocodile, and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles. Playa Larga (Long Beach), on Isla Bastimentos is an important nesting site for sea turtles. Four species of endangered sea turtles use it as a nesting site (April through September).

There are excellent waves off Colon and Bastimentos Islands for surfers. Snorkelers and scuba divers flock to the coral reefs in Admiral Bay and Bastimentos National Marine Park where the mangrove islets feature crystalline waters and an otherworldly underwater forest.

The local indigenous tribe in Bocas Del Toro is known as the Ngobe, and they offer eco tours on San Cristobal and Bastimentos Islands.

2. Guna Yala Islands

Also known as the San Blas Islands, Guna Yala is an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands and cays, of which 49 are inhabited. These islands lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, just east of the Panama Canal, and they are accessible by a short flight from Panama City's airport.

The San Blas Islands are administered by the Guna people, an indigenous group on the Caribbean coast of Panama in the province of Guna Yala.

San Blas and its surrounding area is a haven for ecotourism because of its pristine natural environment. The area is also popular for sailing, as it is known for its beauty, mountains, white sand beaches and a lack of hurricanes.

Notable locations in the Archipelago are the main capital, El Porvenir, the densely crowded island village of Carti Sugtupu, and the two keys, Cayos Limones and Cayos Holandeses, both of which are renowned for their clear waters.

The islands could be rendered uninhabitable by sea level rise in the late 21st century.

3. Panama City:

Few cities in the world can rival Panama City's close proximity to nature. It is ultra-modern and considered the safest and most highly developed city in Latin America.

A few minutes from the downtown area you will find the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is home to 284 kinds of trees, over 250 species of birds, 45 species of mammals and 50 species of reptiles and amphibians.

There is also world-class hiking in a number of excellent national parks near the city, including famous birding hotspot Soberania National Park, Altos De Campana National Park, San Lorenzo National Park and Gaital National Park.

A must-see trail for birdwatching is called the Pipeline Road, upon which the Audubon Society organized a world record census in 1996 that recorded 525 species of birds in just one day.

Chagres National Park is one of the most well-preserved national parks in Panama due to its importance in protecting the water sources of the Panama Canal and Panama City. Spanning across 500 square miles and both the provinces of Panama and Colón, this breathtaking park is full of scenic waterfalls, untamed rivers cutting deep into the jungle, and steep mountains.

Slightly farther away (2-3 hours) you will find Cerro Hoya National Park, Portobelo National Park, Omar Torrijos National Park and Santa Fé National Park.

Near Panama City, you can do whale watching and adventure tours to a number of tropical island paradises just off the coast.

Taboga Island, which is known as the "Island of Flowers," is another popular ecotourism destination near Panama City. It offers spectacular views of the city’s coastline and surrounding mountains from across the bay.

4. Coiba National Park

Referred to as the "new Galapagos Islands,” Coiba is the largest island in Central America, with an area of 503 km2 (194 sq mi) just off the Pacific coast. 

The island served as a penal colony until recently, so access to the island was very restricted until 2004. Almost by accident, 80% of Coiba’s natural resources have therefore survived untouched and flourished through limited human contact.

With its designations as a national park reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Coiba National Park has the potential to be a world-leading ecotourism spot.

Managed by the National Authority for the Environment (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, ANAM), the park is accessible only by permit from ANAM. A number of tour operators in Panama City offer ecotours, fishing, and scuba diving trips to Coiba and can assist you in obtaining appropriate permits.

Santa Catalina is the closest access point, and it is about just over an hour boat ride from Santa Catalina's beach to Isla Coiba.

5. The Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands, known as the Archipiélago de las Perlas in Spanish, is a group of more than 200 islands and islets lying about 30 miles (48 km) off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama.

These beautiful islands are famous for their turquoise waters and mostly deserted white sand beaches. They have also become a world-class destination for both scuba diving and whale watching.

It is much easier to visit this island archipelago than Bocas Del Toro or Guna Yala because there are convenient ferries available from the Amador Causeway in Panama City. 

Pre-Columbian artifacts have been found on Contadora Island and other islands in the group. The biggest island is Isla del Rey, where more than fifteen pre-Columbian recognised archeological sites of the Cuevas and Cocle cultures have been identified.

The Islands were frequently used by pirates and were relatively undisturbed until the 1960s and 1970s when the building of the resorts on Contadora where the Shah of Iran famously took refuge in 1979.

6. Volcan Baru National Park

Volcan Baru National Park is located in Chiriqui province in the far north of Panama along the border with Costa Rica.It is named after Volcán Barú, the highest mountain in the country and an active stratovolcano towering above the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea at 3,475 metres (11,401 ft) high.

From the top, you will have an amazing view of both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. This is the only place on Earth where you can do that!The ascent takes approximately 6-8 hours, making the hike a challenging experience for both avid and inexperienced hikers. Camping is also available near the summit.

The place to base yourself to explore the national park is a mountain expat haven called Boquete.This idyllic towns sits just outside the boundaries of the smoke-spluttering Volcan Baru National Park.

To the north and west are some of the largest tropical forest reserves in the world, including Fortuna Forest Reserve, Bosque Protector de Palo Seco and La Amistad International Park.

To the south are the world famous coral reefs and whale watching destinations of Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park and Isla Parida.

7. Darién National Park

If you really want to get off the beaten track, Darien has become synonymous with some of the most primeval hinterlands left on Earth.

Darien National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve that covers the rugged mountains and impenetrable rainforests of the so-called Darien Gap; bridging the way between Central and South America.

There are virtually no roads in this nature reserve, and it can only be explored by trekking or by river boat.

The Cana Valley in the Darien National Park is considered to be the top birding site in Central America, and it is home to many macaws and parrots.

You will also find rare monkeys, jaguars and ocelots in large numbers in the national park.

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