The Unexpected Trip Animal Lovers Need to Add to Their Lists
A white blur appeared and disappeared within the leafy green canopy. A few yards away, the sight of bouncing branches was followed by a rustle high overhead. Our guide cut the boat’s motor and silence ensued as we drifted closer to the shoreline, eyes following the finger that pointed to the spot where the movement had been a moment earlier. Just then the rustling grew stronger and the pale faces of three capuchin monkeys peeked out from an opening in the lush foliage. Other members of the troop were close behind, leaping across limbs and dropping down through the dense snare of vegetation to get a closer look. As I raised my camera to snap a photo of the curious simian friars the guide warned, “Be careful. They can be clever thieves.”
Tucked into the crossroads between two continents and two oceans, the city-meets-sea-meets-rainforest tangle of Panama’s capital serves up a diverse menu of outdoor adventures. Three million years ago when the isthmus rose from the sea, the resulting land bridge created a link between North and South America, prompting a remarkable exchange of species. Subsequently, Panama remains one of the most biologically rich places on the planet—an explosion of nature and wildlife easily accessed in the myriad protected habitats within and just beyond Panama City’s urban jungle.
On a recent trip to Panama, I explored several verdant pockets of metropolitan rainforest. Each time, I found myself astounded by the fact that I could escape the sultry city streets for what felt like remote wilderness just a short Uber away.
You can hire a driver to take you to the summit of Ancón Hill, Panama City’s highest point, but it’s more rewarding to make the short trek. Along the way, search the forest for soaring toucans or sleepy sloths. It takes about 40 minutes to reach the top, where a basketball court sized Panamanian flag flies in honor of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, which promised to give control of the canal to Panamanians by December 31, 1999. From the summit of Ancón Hill, which is part of the former Canal Zone, drink in some of the best views of the city including the impressive skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, and historic Casco Viejo.
The Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life
Known simply as the BioMuseo, this Frank Gehry-designed museum on the Bay of Panama celebrates the origins of the prehistoric Panamanian isthmus and its effects on global biodiversity. Huge, colorful roof panels allow the remarkable structure to be seen up and down the Amador Causeway and mimic the region’s all-important rainforest. Inside, discover eight information-packed galleries that trace the emergence and impact of the Central American land bridge from prehistoric days to the present. Be sure to pick up the informative audio-guide, which narrates your tour.
Punta Culebra Nature Center
Part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), this open-air exhibition supplies an opportunity to learn about Panama’s diverse flora and fauna. Hike along trails through tropical dry forest for glimpses of jungle denizens like iguanas, armadillos, birds of all kinds, and this darling sloth. An aquarium explains the characteristics and evolution of Panama’s two coastal ecosystems, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, while an indoor exhibit, Fabulous Frogs of Panama, illustrates the essential role of amphibians in rainforest ecology and the threats these important critters face. Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Pacific, Punta Culebra has a rich history. Most fascinating are the remains of seaside quarantine dwellings that housed canal workers suffering from malaria.
Calzada de Amador
Built in 1913 using rocks excavated during the Canal’s construction, the Amador Causeway, a three-mile promenade that hugs the Bay of Panama near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is the perfect place for a bike ride. After lunch at Mi Ranchito, a local fave with delicious ceviche that overlooks the ocean, rent bikes from Tony’s next door to pedal the newly renovated recreational pathway. Historically speaking, the purpose of the causeway was to link four small islands — Naos, Culebra, Perico, and Flamenco — in order to protect and oversee access to the Panama Canal. Now, however, the narrow, palm-lined boulevard is home to parks, restaurants, and the acclaimed BioMuseo.
Parque Natural Metropolitano
The first of three protected areas that create a biological corridor from the Pacific to the Caribbean, Parque Natural Metropolitano — or Metro Park — is a 670-acre tropical refuge in the center of Panama’s chaotic bustle. Considered the “lungs of Panama City,” a cool-ish morning hike on the park’s short Camino del Mono Tití, named for the proliferation of tiny Geoffroy’s tamarin that can be seen in the park, may introduce you to these and other indigenous park inhabitants. At the top of the trail, the Cerro Cedro overlook grants panoramic views of Panama City, the Panama Canal, and miles of surrounding parkland. For an added thrill, although the STRI folks operate a canopy crane here primarily for research purposes, with a couple of day’s notice you may be able to arrange a ride high above the rainforest with a guide.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
If you’re ready to venture a bit outside of the city, a 45-minute drive will take you to Gamboa, an eco-resort nestled within the rainforest of Soberanía National Park. Of the many excursions you can book through the resort’s adventure desk, a voyage along the Chagres River into the Gatún Lake section of the Panama Canal promises captivating interactions with native mammals — howler, capuchin, Mono tití, and spider monkeys call the area home as well as coatimundi, agouti, crocodiles, capybara, armadillo, and many, many birds.
Parque Recretivo Omar
“Look! They’re doing Zumba!” I said to my daughter as we stepped out of our Uber and into Parque Recreativo Omar, Panama City’s answer to Central Park. And they were — beneath a covered pavilion shaped like a giant Quonset hut, a lively throng of merengue-marching dancers salsaed in the sultry morning heat. Not so much a place for wildlife viewing as a lush metropolitan oasis, Parque Omar, in Panama City’s San Francisco neighborhood, is home to a three and a half kilometer paved fitness path that winds past grassy meadows, playgrounds, vibrant murals, a sculpture garden, and Panama’s national library. Stroll the length of the loop to get a full tour of the park, which is often packed with parents pushing strollers, soccer players on their way to a game, and families picnicking on the lawns.
The Panama Canal
A visit to Panama City would be incomplete without venturing onto its namesake canal. One of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal and its history are deeply woven into the fabric of Panamanian society and culture. It takes about 10 hours to travel the entire length of the canal, an amazing experience I had as part of a sail along Panama’s Pacific Coast with UnCruise Adventures, but partial transits — that often include passing through at least one set of locks — are the way to go for a brief taste of the famed waterway.