More than 35% of Panamanian territory is protected as a National Park or Natural Reserve. These ecologically valuable areas are habitat to 800 species of birds, 220 mammals, 240 reptiles and more than 10,000 species of vascular plants. The most note-worthy fauna are iguanas, sloths, butterflies, jaguars, tapirs, red frogs, hawksbill turtles, green sea turtles and toucans.
Panama's national parks are open to visitors and can be safely explored on guided tours.
In addition, outdoor sports and nature activities are allowed, including canoeing, hiking, river rafting, fishing, diving and bird or wildlife watching. Luxury hotels, small inns and even agritourism farms can be found nearby to extend the visit into an overnight stay.
La Amistad National Park, an adventure amidst dense forests
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983 for its ecological importance, La Amistad park, also known as PILA (Parque Internacional La Amistad), borders Costa Rica along the shared mountain range Talamanca. On the Panama side, the 207,000 hectares of rainforest and cloud forest are spread out mainly in the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. This richly biodiverse area offers an opportunity for adventure in its whitewater rivers and mountains of thick jungle.
In Bocas del Toro Province, visitors can go bird watching, canoeing and fishing on the Teribe River, named after the indigenous group Teribe, one of several communities living in the region. In Chiriquí Province, short hiking paths such as La Cascada and El Retoño wind up over 2,000 meters high to great sites to spot the resplendent quetzal, a mythological bird of extraordinary beauty identifiable by its red and green plumage, as well as other fauna and flora.
Darién National Park, an orchid paradise
Straddling the border with Colombia, Darién is the largest National Park in Panama and the most extensive protected area in Central America and the Caribbean, covering 579,000 hectares of wetlands and tropical forests. The Darién is considered the starting point of the Amazon rainforest.
The area's ecological richness and biodiversity were recognized as a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1981. Cohabiting with more than 40 endemic species of orchids and nearly 450 bird species, five of them endemic to the area, are three indigenous groups, the Emberá, Wounaan and Guna Yala, who maintain their ancestral traditions today.
As such, visitors to Darién National Park can combine adventures through mangroves, forests and wetlands with the experience of observing native community dances.
This place can be accessed by navigating the Tuira and Chucunaque Rivers or going on nature walks to identify birds, mammals and vegetation. The sandy beaches and rocky shorelines also provide access to the ocean for aquatic sports.
Coiba Island National Park, a seaside show of turtles, whales and dolphins
Southwest of the Azuero Peninsula is Coiba, encompassing one of the largest coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean and situated on the migratory path of different whale species. The waters around the island are home to dolphins, marlin fish and other endemic animals and plants.
The chance to witness a sea turtle laying her eggs on the beach or to spot one of the several species of monkeys dwelling on the seashore are major attractions that this natural area offers to visitors. Sport fishing, diving and bird watching are some of the permitted activities.
Measuring more than 270,000 hectares, the National Park includes not only Coiba Island but also 38 jungle-covered islands and islets and the marine area.
Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005, this unique place is a natural laboratory for scientific research and provides refuge for endangered species.