The Isthmus of Panama is the crossroads of the Americas, the link between the vast continents of North and South. As a result Panama’s fauna and flora is incredibly diverse, including species from both continents. With more than 900 bird and 218 mammal species, Panama is a naturalist’s paradise, not to mention its 226 reptile and 164 amphibian species. In addition to its natural wonders, Panama is home to the famous Canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal took 34 years to complete, and has been traversed by nearly 900,000 ships in its 99 year history.
This itinerary explores Panama from north to south, east to west, starting with a pre-extension to the remote area of Punta Patiño and the Darien in search of wildlife. From here we travel to the far west of Panama to visit the mountainous Chiriqui region, home to a variety of birds and mammals, including the resplendent quetzal, more than 20 species of hummingbirds, flocks of colourful tanagers, as well as capuchin and howler monkeys. Our adventure continues at the world-renowned Canopy Tower, a former US radar station which has been turned into a characterful lodge, and is the perfect location to find birds and mammals. From the observation platform on top of the lodge ships can be seen passing along the Canal, seemingly floating through the rainforest, while birds and monkeys feed in the treetops. The forest around the Canal has been protected and so this is one of the best areas in Panama to look for mammals and birds. We end our tour in the gorgeous environs of El Valle, a village nestled in the caldera of an extinct volcano, surrounded by lush rainforest.
Day 01; January 15th
Arrive in Panama City, and transfer to our lovely hotel in the Casco Antiguo, the Colonial-era old city. This evening we meet for our Welcome Dinner.
Day 02; January 16th
After breakfast we begin our adventure, visiting the highlights of Panama City. Founded in 1519 the original city, Panama Viejo, was destroyed by fire when the English pirate, Henry Morgan, sacked the city in 1671. The city was rebuilt further west along the coast during the Colonial period, and today the Casco Antiguo is one of the highlights of the city, with a variety of beautiful churches, grand houses and theatres. The area was designated a World Heritage Site in 2003, and is currently undergoing extensive redevelopment with many of its old buildings being renovated.
This afternoon we fly to David, gateway to the cloud forest-clad slopes of the Talamanca Mountains. The Chiriqui region has some of the most beautiful highland scenery in Central America, and we can appreciate the views as we drive to our lodge at the foot of Volcan Barú, highest mountain in Panama at over 11,000 feet. The lodge is surrounded by forest, and we start our adventure here looking for some of the birds and mammals which make this area their home.
Day 03; January 17th
Over the next two days we continue our exploration of this area, visiting forest reserves, orchid gardens and hummingbird feeders. One of the highlights is looking for the resplendent quetzal, sacred bird of both the Aztec and Maya peoples, and one of the world’s most gorgeous and gaudy birds with the male’s red breast, iridescent green back and three foot long tail feathers. Today we visit La Amistad International Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. This reserve is shared between Costa Rica and Panama, and falls in an area where flora and fauna reach their maximum diversity. Among the more than 300 species of bird found here, we look for long-tailed and black-and-yellow silky-flycatchers, black guan and spangle-cheeked tanager, while mammals include white-faced capuchin, mantled howler and Central American agouti.
Day 04; January 18th
This morning we drive round the other side of Volcan Barú, visiting the Volcan Lagoons en route looking for orange-bellied and collared trogon, silvery-throated jay, little tinamou and masked duck among many other species. We also visit the pre-Colombian archaeological site of Sitio Barriles, part of the Grand Chiriqui culture. Our destination is a charming lodge, set in a coffee plantation surrounded by cloud forest. The beautiful gardens are a haven for birds, with hummingbird feeders and fruit tables all around which attract birds and create great photographic opportunities. We can also explore the trails behind the lodge in our search for more wildlife.
Day 05; January 19th
After a final morning in the cloud forest we fly back to Panama City. From here we drive to Canopy Tower, located at the top of Semaphore Hill in the rainforest of Soberanía National Park, and our home for the next seven days. There are hummingbird feeders at the base of the Tower, which attract a variety of species, including long-billed hermit, white-necked jacobin, violet-bellied and blue-chested hummingbirds, as well as white-vented plumeleteer.
Once settled in we can go up to the observation deck. From here we get a unique eye-level view of the rainforest canopy, and have the opportunity of seeing dozens of species of birds, including toucans, parrots, tanagers and raptors among many others, as well as three- and two-toed sloths, mantled howler, Geoffroy’s tamarin and white-faced capuchin monkeys. From this vantage point we can also see ships transiting the Panama Canal, surrounded by miles and miles of rainforest. Tonight we go on a night drive looking for nocturnal mammals, such as Western night monkey, four-eyed opossum and the rare Rothschild’s porcupine.
Day 06; January 20th
We have six full days to explore the best wildlife-watching areas in central Panama, using the Canopy Tower as our base. We start at dawn on the observation deck looking for birds and mammals passing by. After breakfast we walk down Semaphore Hill continuing our search for Geoffroy’s tamarin, mantled howler and red-tailed squirrel, as well as a plethora of birds. Both brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth are often seen in the forest, and northern tamandua is also possible. After lunch we visit Summit Botanical Garden, home to a colony of common tent-making bats, before driving to Gamboa in search of lesser capybara (a smaller version of the capybara found in South America). Also around Gamboa we look for red and variegated squirrels, Central American agouti and (if we are lucky) a Neotropical river otter.
Day 07; January 21st
This morning we take a pre-dawn drive down Semaphore Hill to look for some of Panama’s most interesting nocturnal creatures, including Allen’s olingo, kinkajou, Western night monkey, common and Central American woolly opossums, nine-banded and Northern naked-tailed armadillos, the endemic Rothschild´s porcupine, as well as owls and potoos. We return to the lodge for breakfast and then spend the morning exploring the world-famous Pipeline Rd. This 17-km gravel road is most famous for its four hundred-plus bird species, but is also a great place for mammals, including white-faced capuchin, mantled howler, Central American agouti, white-nosed coati, tayra and collared peccary. There have also been sightings of three species of cats along the trail: jaguarundi, ocelot and even, rarely, jaguar.
After lunch we walk Plantation Road, which passes through mature forest following the Chico Masambi River. During this walk there is the chance to find mantled howlers, Geoffroy’s tamarins and white-faced capuchins, as well as northern tamandua. Late this afternoon we return to the Tower to enjoy the sunset, and wait until nightfall to see false vampire (spectral) bats, the largest bat in the New World with a wingspan of nearly three feet, foraging around the Tower.
Day 08; January 22nd
Today we visit Barro Colorado Island (BCI). BCI is a 1,500-hectare island in the middle of the Panama Canal which, together with five adjacent peninsulas, forms a 5400-hectare Natural Monument.
BCI has been run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute since 1923, and is home to more than 200 researchers from around the world. The island is considered to be the most studied area in the Neotropics. It houses a field station and modern labs, only open to researchers and tourists with special permission. As well as research facilities BCI also has a great network of trails through the forest, and offers a great opportunity to see a variety of mammals, including brown-headed spider monkey, mantled howler, Central American agouti, both species of sloth and white-nosed coatis.
Day 09; January 23rd
This morning we take a boat tour on the Panama Canal. Most of the Panama Canal is actually an artificial lake, Lake Gatun. On our cruise huge cargo ships and ocean liners may pass us as they cross from ocean to ocean. We stop at one of the islands to look for spider monkeys, mantled howlers and white-faced capuchins. There is also a chance to see some interesting reptiles, including basilisk lizard, black river turtle, the endangered American crocodile, and its smaller relative, spectacled caiman. Neotropical river otter is a possibility and, if we are really lucky, a manatee may raise his nostrils above the water. Manatees were introduced to the Panama Canal in the 1960s to control the growth of water weeds, and they have adjusted very well to this habitat.
We return to the lodge for lunch, and then visit the Rainforest Discovery Center this afternoon. The Rainforest Discovery Center is an ecotourism and environmental education facility which also benefits from a canopy tower. From the top of the tower we scan the canopy for mammals and birds. As dusk falls we enjoy a picnic dinner at the Center before spotlighting along the road looking for mammals, including ocelot, jaguarundi, collared peccary, gray fox, paca, Western night monkey, white-tailed deer, silky anteater and lesser capybara.
Day 10; January 24th
After breakfast we head to Metropolitan Natural Park, located on the outskirts of Panama City. The forests of the Metropolitan Natural Park are much drier than those around the Canopy Tower, and are home to a different suite of birds. In addition to birds, we also hope to find Geoffroy’s tamarin, and variegated and red-tailed squirrels. Northern tamandua is also a possibility. There is a wonderful look-out at the summit of the hill, which gives an incredible perspective over Panama City, the scenic bay and some of the closer islands.
This afternoon we visit the eighth wonder of engineering history, the world-famous Panama Canal. There are four exhibition halls at the Miraflores museum, which includes historic artifacts used in the construction of the Canal, interactive modules, video presentations, models of the Panama Canal, and objects used in Canal operations. We may also be lucky enough to see huge cargo ships and cruise liners negotiate the tight-fitting locks.
Day 11; January 25th
After an early breakfast we drive to the Caribbean side of Panama. Today’s quest is to look for mammals at San Lorenzo Forest Preserve. This area was the site of the US Army Jungle Training School, also known as Fort Sherman. San Lorenzo National Park is known for the abundance of mantled howlers, white-faced capuchins and sloths that live here. Some elusive animals, such as jaguarundi and collared peccary, are also sometimes seen. There is also the added benefit of visiting the old Spanish fortress of San Lorenzo, a World Heritage Site, built on a promontory at the entrance of the Chagres River. This fort was the last bastion of the Spanish Empire on mainland America and was abandoned by the Spanish in 1821.
Day 12; January 26th
This morning, after a relaxed breakfast and a last look from the observation deck, we drive to the beautiful Canopy Lodge in the village of El Valle de Anton. El Valle is located at an altitude of 700m, in the crater of a gigantic volcano that erupted 3.5 million years ago. It is the largest inhabited caldera in the world. The volcano has been dormant for many years, but there are still mud baths and thermal pools in some areas of the caldera. Our lodge is in a gorgeous location, set by a rushing river, with tanager and hummingbird feeders all round.
After lunch we take a walk on trails near the lodge, including a visit to a 120ft high waterfall. Mammals seen in this area include gray, four-eyed, Virginia and water opossums, Western pygmy squirrel, Rothschild´s porcupine, orange nectar bat (which feeds from the hummingbird feeders at night), Western night monkeys, tayra, striped hog-nosed skunk and white-tailed deer.
Day 13; January 27th
We spend our two days here walking the many trails around El Valle looking for mammals and birds. After breakfast today we explore Cerro Gaital, a forested, mist-shrouded mountain which protects black guan, blue-throated toucan, spotted barbtail and a host of other birds. From the top of this mountain, on a clear day, we can appreciate the extent of the caldera and see the Pacific Ocean beyond the rim of the crater. This afternoon we visit other trails on our hunt for the area’s wildlife. We also have the opportunity to visit the El Valle Amphibian Rescue Center. This installation is an effort of the Houston Zoo and local conservationists to quarantine and treat ailing frogs, and is also undertaking captive breeding of the most endangered species. The central exhibit showcases the golden frog, a cultural icon and national symbol for wildlife conservation in Panama.
Day 14; January 28th
Today we drive up into the mountains, marvelling at the spectacular views of mountain peaks, narrow valleys and towering cliffs. Set in the mountains on the continental divide east of El Valle, the cloud forest of Altos del Maria provides a spectacular end to our adventure. This area harbours an exciting variety of highland forest birds, and is also a good area for silky anteater. Some of the star species of this cloud forest include black-crowned antpitta, black-headed saltator, white hawk, orange-bellied trogon, white-ruffed manakin and yellow-eared toucan. Hummingbirds are common in the forest flowers, and we may spot the exquisite snow-cap, purple-throated mountain-gem, white-tipped sicklebill and bronze-tailed plumeleteer.
Day 15; January 29th
After a leisurely breakfast, and some last minute birding round the lodge, we transfer to the International Airport for our flights home.
Darien & Punta Patiño extension:
Day 01; January 11th
Arrive in Panama City, and transfer to our lovely hotel in Casco Antiguo, the Colonial-era old city.
Day 02; January 12th
Early this morning we begin our adventure with a scenic four hour drive along the Pan-American Highway, east to Puerto Quimba in the Darien. Along the way we watch the landscape change from a vibrant cosmopolitan city to small farming towns and indigenous villages; from multi-lane highways to narrow country roads; from skyscrapers to simple houses along rivers bordered by meadows and forests. In a small village along the way we stop for a typical Panamanian breakfast where we enjoy an assortment of local dishes, fresh fruits, freshly brewed coffee and local specialties.
Late morning we arrive at Puerto Quimba, board a motorized boat and enjoy a one and a half hour boat ride along the Tuira River and the Pacific Ocean to the private 65,000-acre Punta Patiño Nature Reserve, overlooking the Gulf of San Miguel. After lunch we head into the forest in search of the fauna and flora that makes this remote area its home. Along the way we learn about the work that the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON) is carrying out to protect the reserve and how the rainforest is regenerating. This evening we take a night walk looking for caiman, owls and other nocturnal species.
Day 3; January 13th
We have two full days to explore this area. This morning we take a motorized dugout canoe along the Mogue River, through vast areas of mangrove looking for roseate spoonbill, white ibis, osprey and kingfishers, as well as crab-eating raccoons fishing along the river. On arrival at the village of Mogue we are greeting by its inhabitants, members of the Emberá tribe. After the formalities and presentations we learn about their culture and traditions. The men are expert carvers of Cocobolo wood, while the women weave extraordinary baskets from palm fibres using natural plant dyes. On our return trip to the lodge we take a coastal tour of the reserve looking out for cetaceans.
Day 4; January 14th
Today we take a tractor ride into the primary forest of the reserve, where we hike trails in search of the region’s flora and fauna. The forest is wonderfully lush here, and the emergent tree species, the impressive Cuipo, towers above us. Mammals we hope to see include white-nosed coati, Central American agouti, mantled howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys. After lunch we take a boat trip along the coast to visit the sea bird nesting areas of El Morro, watching out for brown pelicans and boobies.
Day 5; January 15th
This morning we enjoy birding around the lodge, or relaxing on the beach. Mid-morning we take the boat back to Puerto Quimba, and then drive back to Panama City. This afternoon we transfer to Canopy Tower to begin the main tour.