Panama’s 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Panama's national parks span rainforests, cloud forests, urban jungles and tropical coral reefs © Kike Arnaiz / Addictive Creative

Flush with life and tropical color, the isthmus of Panama is a tangled hothouse of ecological wonders. An emerald cloak adorns the lowlands, filling coastal areas with rainforest wildlife. Ethereal cloud forests envelop the highlands, steeped in mist, moss and delicate orchids. And offshore, beyond a fringe of sandy beaches and languid wetlands, lie hundreds of vivid, verdant islands and luminous coral reefs.

Panama's impressive national parks preserve a remarkable variety of landscapes and some dazzling biodiversity – a result of Panama's vital status as a continental land bridge. The so-called Great American Interchange saw untold animal species migrate north and south across the isthmus around three million years ago. 

Similarly, the Great American Schism – the dividing of the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic (and the Caribbean Sea) – set the marine life of these vast bodies of water on separate evolutionary paths, adding to the biodiversity of this fascinating Central American country.

Today, visitors to Panama can dive into an immense wealth of natural history – literally, in the case of Panama's marine reserves – for stunning encounters with a rich, non-human world. Here’s a guide to our favorite national parks in Panama. 

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Volcán Barú is the highest peak in Panama © Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Volcán Barú

Best national park for hiking

Observing the everchanging moods of 3474m (11,398ft) Volcán Barú, the highest peak in Panama, is reason enough to journey to the Talamanca mountains in Chiriquí Province. At times, the iconic peak appears somber and sulking, its summit swathed in swirling clouds and shadow. At other times, sunshine soaks its slopes with gentle warmth and tranquillity.

And at other times, the so-called bajareque – an afternoon drizzle carried inland by air currents from the Caribbean – lends Barú a mystical air, dressing the peak with dazzling rainbows.

Nestled inside a 143 sq km (55 sq mile) national park, Volcán Barú has been dormant since around 1550 CE, and several excellent hiking trails climb to its seven craters.

The best way to experience its many charms is to hike all the way to the summit, where, on an exceptional day, it’s possible to glimpse both oceans and enjoy the most expansive, multicolored sunrise you have ever seen.

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Visiting Parque Nacional Volcán Barú

Admission to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú is US$7. The popular summit trail begins just outside Boquete and follows a 4×4 road that climbs steeply through varied vegetation zones. A guide is not strictly necessary, but you should pack adequate water, food and warm clothing and tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.

To catch the sunrise, when weather conditions are optimal, you will need to depart around midnight, walking by torchlight. Alternatively, there’s a designated campsite on the upper slopes where you can stop overnight and catch the sunset without the nighttime start.

For a longer walk, consider the Sendero Los Quetzales trail, linking Boquete and Cerro Punta.  There's a chance of spotting iridescent quetzals en route, but the route is less strenuous from west to east (ie from Cerro Punta to Boquete).

February to May are the best months for sightings. For both trails, it's best to arrange a vehicle to drop you at the park entrance, and then walk on from there.

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Classic cloud forest scenery dominates Parque Internacional La Amistad, split between Panama and Costa Rica © Alfredo Maiquez / Shutterstock

Parque Internacional La Amistad

Best park for trekking and biodiversity

Jointly administered by Costa Rica and Panama, Parque Internacional La Amistad (Friendship) guards one of the last, precious remnants of the virgin cloud forests that once covered most highland areas in  Central America. It is also the largest conservation zone in the region, covering 401,000 hectares (991,000 acres), spread across the two countries.

In Panama, the park incorporates diverse and complex landscapes in the Caribbean and Pacific watersheds. At its heart, the tierras frías (cold lands) of the Talamanca mountains play host to moist, cool cloud forests that have a special magic.

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At its fringes, rambling rainforests run out to bird-filled wetlands and mangrove swamps. Unsurprisingly, the reserve boasts high rates of endemism and biodiversity; some 285 species of birds inhabit the park, along with 84 species of mammals and more than 10,000 species of plants.

If you’re an experienced trekker, La Amistad offers many options for challenging multiday adventures, but you'll definitely need a guide for its wilder stretches. No one knows the terrain better than the indigenous peoples who live in the buffer zones, and guides are easy to arrange at the park.

In particular, the Naso, whose communities flank the Teribe River in Bocas del Toro Province, have unparalleled knowledge of the local ecology and landscape. Don’t miss the chance to experience their rich cultural and environmental heritage.

Visiting Parque Internacional La Amistad

The entry fee for La Amistad is US$7 but trails are poorly maintained and often overgrown – you will need to plan your trip carefully and hire an experienced guide to explore. The Panamanian section of the park has two main entrances.

On the Pacific side, you can access rugged mountain trails from Las Nubes near Cerro Punta in Chiriquí Province. On the Caribbean side, you can enter the rainforest through the recently ordained Naso Comarca, a semi-autonomous zone near the banana-growing town of Changuinola, Bocas del Toro.

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Hawksbill turtles are regular visitors to Parque Nacional Coiba © Andaman / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Coiba

Best national park for snorkeling and diving

Fringed by white-sand beaches and verdant jungles, Parque Nacional Coiba has all the makings of a world-class island resort. However, it has so far escaped intensive development, thanks in part to its dark past as a penal colony.

Located around 20km (12 miles) from the mainland, the largest island in Panama housed some of the nation's worst criminals (and political prisoners) for the best part of a century. 

The prison was closed in 2004, but not before Coiba’s exceptional conservation value had been recognized. Today, the island is a Unesco World Heritage Site and it forms part of an acclaimed national park that includes the surrounding waters and coral reefs.

Blissfully free of human habitation, Coiba plays host to the country’s last remaining populations of scarlet macaws and crested eagles, but for truly exceptional animal encounters, head beneath the surface of the ocean, where a vast, mesmerizing underwater world awaits. 

Populated by shimmering shoals of polychrome fish, graceful sea turtles, formidable sharks, endangered whales and lively dolphins, to name just a few inhabitants, Coiba National Park is one of the finest marine parks in Central America, and a true feather in Panama's cap.

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Visiting Parque Nacional Coiba

If you’re determined to save a few dollars, it’s possible to visit the park independently, though this is a less convenient option. You’ll need to hire a boat and driver and acquire the necessary permit from the environment agency, Mi Ambiente. 

Unless you are absolutely set on doing things under your own steam, it's much easier to arrange a trip through a tour operator or dive shop. The nearest staging post to Coiba is the surf town of Santa Catalina, which has numerous companies offering Coiba trips. As there are no amenities on the island, be sure to bring adequate food, water and sunscreen.

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

The skyscrapers of Panama City feel close enough to touch from Parque Natural Metropolitano © Rosie Bell / iStockphoto / Getty Images

Parque Natural Metropolitano

Best park for families

Covering 232 hectares (573 acres), Parque Natural Metropolitano (Metropolitan Natural Park) offers a welcome respite from the frenetic hustle of Panama City. Although located within the city limits – indeed, the park has been dubbed “the lungs of Panama City” – it also forms part of a substantial biological corridor that integrates several protected areas, stretching from the Pacific to the Caribbean. 

Even a casual visit to Parque Natural Metropolitano can yield memorable encounters with tropical wildlife. Several gentle trails snake through the undergrowth from the visitors’ center, passing turtle-filled ponds and forested miradors hopping with toucans, monkeys and squirrel cuckoos. 

Birds are particularly prolific in Parque Natural Metropolitano, with 283 resident and migratory species. Vegetation is diverse, too, with 616 recorded species of plants and trees. The park’s highest point, 72m (236ft) Mirador Los Caobos, offers expansive views of the city skyline and the Panama Canal; there are picnic tables where you can enjoy lunch with a view.

Visiting Parque Natural Metropolitano

The park is open from 7am to 4pm; entry is US$4. To get there, take a taxi from downtown Panama City; you can save a few dollars by first taking the metro or bus to Albrook station.  

Panama's 5 best national parks are home to rainforest beasts and tropical reefs

Toucans are easily spotted in Parque Nacional Soberanía © Ondrej Prosicky / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Soberanía

Best national park for birdwatching

The Pipeline Trail through Parque Nacional Soberanía will take you through a hotspot for avian biodiversity – no fewer than 385 species were spotted here during a single 24-hour period in 1985. Trogons, toucans, tanagers, motmots, parakeets, flycatchers, woodpeckers, hawks and cuckoos are all very common and easily spotted on this 17km (11-mile) hiking trail.  Try to hit the trail at dawn, when a strident chorus of birdsong wakes up the jungle and shakes the trees.

Located just 25km (15.5 miles) from Panama City, the national park protects 223 sq km (86 sq miles) of steamy lowland rainforest on the eastern flank of the Panama Canal.

Accessible via the Pipeline Trail, the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center is an ecological education center with several easy walking trails and a 32m (105ft) observation tower, offering commanding views over the forest canopy.

On the peaceful 13km (8-mile) Plantation Trail, you can explore the secondary forest with remnants of coffee and rubber plantations. For the truly adventurous, the 21.6km (13.4-mile) Camino de Cruces Trail is a 16th-century mule trail, built to transport the plundered wealth of the Spanish Empire across the isthmus as a precursor to the Panama Canal. The path ends at the ruined town of La Venta de Cruces on the banks of Gatún Lake.

Visiting Parque Nacional Soberanía

Access to the Pipeline Trail is from the old canal zone township of Gamboa; a taxi from Panama City will cost US$20 to US$30. There are also cheap, infrequent buses. The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center is a few kilometers from the trailhead and the entry fee is US$30. 

The Plantation Trail is accessed from a lonely jungle highway called Av Omar Torrijos Herrera. There is no public transport, so pre-arrange a pickup truck to drop you off and pick you up on your return. Similarly, the Camino de Cruces Trail begins on secluded Av Madden, connecting with the Plantation Trail halfway along.

A special time to visit Soberanía is during the annual raptor migration. More than two million birds of prey cross the isthmus from late August to November, transforming the skies into a dark, otherworldly storm of soaring predators. 

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