Panama: how to plan a nature trip to the land of coffee and chocolate
On the isthmus (a narrow strip of land) connecting Central and South America, lies Panama, a diverse country with unique flora and fauna. Home to hundreds of tropical birds, rare ecosystems and, of course, the famous Panama Canal that crosses the continent.
With so much nature to protect, Panama is keen to attract ecotourists who seek to immerse themselves in the landscape and engage with the natural world. In addition to the mainland, Panama also has 1,400 islands to its credit, with landmasses in both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
What is the best time of year to visit Panama?
Panama is effectively split in two by the Tabasará Mountains, which form a central spine in its middle. This makes its Caribbean and Pacific ecosystems quite different from each other, with higher rainfall levels throughout the year on the Caribbean side.
Tourists looking for sunnier days should visit between mid-December and March, while April to early December is a great time of year to explore Panama’s lush landscape and see migrating birds and wildlife.
With all of these natural wonders to see and so many options for eco-tourists, we’ve selected our favorite places to explore Panama’s unique and diverse landscapes.
What are the travel restrictions for Panama?
Travelers from any country are no longer required to take a COVID-19 test or quarantine upon arrival as long as they have digitally checked in through the Panama Electronic Affidavit and can physically present a vaccination record.
This card should show that you received both doses, the second dose being 14 days later.
If you are traveling from what Panama considers a low risk countries, and you have not been fully vaccinated, you must present a negative PCR or antigen test performed 72 hours before your arrival.
If you come from a country classified as high risk – which currently includes the UK – and you are not fully vaccinated, you will need to show a negative PCR test and quarantine for 72 hours at an approved hotel. You will then need to take another PCR test to prove your negative status.
The other countries on Panama’s high risk list are: South Africa, India and countries in South America.
Full details of Panama’s travel rules are here.
How to explore the Panama Canal
One of the most famous maritime trade routes in the world, the Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The man-made canal opened in 1914 and has since been a vital waterway for global shipping.
What you might not know, however, is that the Panama Canal is also a great place for water sports and bird watching. With kayak, canoe and boat tours, you can explore this famous waterway and the surrounding tropical rainforests.
Keen kayakers are likely to see capuchins, howler monkeys and spider monkeys, as well as sloths and kingfishers, to name a few. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been based in the Panama Canal for almost a century, making the region’s unique ecosystems one of the most studied in the world.
What to see in Panama City?
Panama City sits on the Pacific side of the country when the canal opens and is full of huge skyscrapers, but these are balanced by many palm trees.
If hip neighborhoods are your thing, head to Casco Viejo. This small neighborhood is protected by UNESCO and is full of lovely shops, bars and, of course, Panama – cafes. This is where you can sip Panama’s most expensive beer, Geisha Cafe. Native to Ethiopia, Geisha coffee beans grow very well in the climate of Panama and, due to their exceptional taste, can sell for up to $ 1,000 a pound.
Trek the highlands of Chiriqui
Nicknamed “the land of eternal spring,” the Chiriqui highlands are just a 40-minute drive from Panama’s northernmost town, David, and close to the border with Costa Rica. Home to the country’s only volcano, Baru, this stunning landscape is full of meandering rivers, mountains and lush vegetation.
A perfect spot for bird watchers and horse riders, the Highlands are also significantly cooler than the rest of Panama, so if you’re not a fan of the heat, this is the place for you.
Nature lovers might spot the strikingly colored resplendent (and named) quetzals, ocher pewees, and black-thighed grosbeaks, to name a few.
For caffeine lovers, there are also plenty of coffee plantations in the area, which is also well known for its citrus groves.
Explore the unique ecosystems of Bocas Del Toro
If that’s not enough for you, the lush nature of Bocas Del Toro should be next on your list. One of the country’s largest islands on its Caribbean coast, Bocas Del Toros is Panama’s first Mission Blue Hope Spot. An ecological program led by Dr. Sylvia Earl, “Hope Points” are protected areas located in ecologically sensitive parts of the world’s oceans, which Mission Blue is helping to rehabilitate and protect for future generations.
The archipelago has developed unique species, flora and fauna due to its isolation from the mainland over the past 10,000 years. “Today it is home to 200 species of tropical fish, more than 400 species of birds, 28 different amphibians, 4 kinds of sea turtles and 3 kinds of monkeys,” explains Magda Cecilia Moreno of the Panama Tourism Board.
A must-see for nature lovers, there are also two caves to explore and the most diverse reef ecosystem in the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, the island is home to one of The largest dive centers in Panama, so visitors can dress up and see all of these reefs up close. And if you’re lucky, maybe a bottlenose dolphin or two.
See golden frogs at El Valle de Anton
Sitting, somewhat dramatically, in the crater of an extinct volcano Anton Valley is surrounded by green mountains and a cool 600 meters above sea level.
An ideal location for hikers, the area is full of trails to explore, including Cerro Gaital, considered one of Panama’s most difficult hikes.
The area is also home to the impressive Chorro El Macho waterfall and is home to over 500 species of tropical birds. The golden frog for which the region is most famous is sadly considered extinct in the wild, but you can see some in the small Nispero Zoo, where they seek to breed and preserve the species. For orchid lovers there is also a Orchid Conservation Center, where you can see over 100 different species of these striking flowers.
What are the best places to stay in Panama for eco-tourists?
Panama offers visitors a myriad of ways to connect with the natural world through its tropical rainforests, mountains and waterfalls. For a truly natural experience, you can stay at some of the country’s nature-based lodges and farms.
Nestled in Bocas del Toro, the Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge helps clients experience the beautiful surroundings of the rainforest, whether it’s bird watching from their canopy viewing tower, paddle boarding and snorkeling in the bay, or hike local trails.
Also in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, La Loma Lodge and the Chocolate Factory is only accessible by boat. Surrounded by tropical rainforests and mangroves, the Lodge has its own permaculture garden where tropical fruits and of course cocoa trees grow.
When you’re not watching the white-faced capuchins and western nocturnal monkeys feasting on cocoa pods, you can also learn how chocolate is processed and produced on the farm.