Green gems near Central America’s most vibrant city

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Panama City is without a doubt the most vibrant city in Central America. What many visitors to our country do not realize is that Panama is also a country blessed with natural beauty and the ideal destination for ecotourism. Many of these “green gems” are located lessthan an hour from the city’s limits.

Options include bird watching, kayaking, jungle treks and discovering beautiful rivers and impressive waterfalls. Here is an overview of the options. It is recommended that tourists explore with the help of a guide.

Cable car to eco-heaven

Gamboa Rainforest

The aerial tram at Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

The aerial tram at Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

This green enclave in the Soberanía National Park is equidistant from Panama City on the Pacific coast and from the Colon on the Caribbean coast. It is about 30 minutes from either. The area is surrounded by the Chagres River and Gatun Lake, which was created during the construction of the Panama Canal.

The park covers 55,000 acres (220 km2) and is especially popular with birdwatchers due to the abundance of bird species in the park, including motmots, toucans, trogons, and hawks. Among the rare bird species in the park are yellow-eared toucanets, crimson-bellied woodpeckers, sirystes, and rarely-seen harpy eagles.

Mammals in the park include white-faced capuchin monkeys, mantled howler monkeys and sloths. Green iguanas are also found abundantly in the park.

At Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a cable car travels through the treetops, offering a uniqueview of the forest.

The Smithsonian on the Canal

Barro Colorado Island

A satellite view of Barro Colorado Island.

A satellite view of Barro Colorado Island.

When the Chagres River was dammed during the construction of the Canal (from 1910 to 1914) its waters rose to form Gatun Lake, a small mountain of 476 feet was isolated from the mainland and formed Barro Colorado Island. The island is today host to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

It is an ecologist’s dreamland. STRI researchers speculate that thousands of insect species live here, as well as 120 mammal species. Among ants alone, there are 225 species. Visits here must be pre-arranged and a tour company can be most helpful in the matter.

A park in the city

Metropolitan National Park

Metropolitan National Park

Metropolitan National Park

Panama City’s Metropolitan Natural Park is the only protected area in Central America that exists within the borders of a metropolitan city. With quick access from downtown, the park serves as an easy option to escape from Panama City. The park covers 265 hectares, of which 192 hectares are virgin dry lowland Pacific forest, of the nearly-extinct micro-climate variety.

The park has four trails and a road that leads through the rich vegetation of vines, bindweed, shrubs, orchids, and trees up to 50 meters tall. It is home to a variety of species of mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds.

The park is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Entrance costs $2 per person and a map is provided. For more information visit www.parquemetropolitano.org. A tour guide is not necessary.

The Chagres National Park

Taking a walk through Chagres National Park.

Taking a walk through Chagres National Park.

Located on the eastern side of the Panama Canal, the Chagres National Park has a surface area of 129,000 hectares (300,000 acres). It was created to protect the tropical rainforest surrounding the rivers which feed the Panama Canal.

The Chagres River and Lake Alajuela are the first places that you should to visit when you get to the park. The Chagres River is a popular destination for rafting. The Alajuela Lake is great for fishing and water sports activities like water-skiing, jetski, sailing and swimming.

You can camp almost anywhere in this park and enjoy bird watching or, just spend a night in a tropical forest. These activities can be combined with visits to authentic indigenous villages of the Embera-Wounan tribe living nearby in the park.

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