The Pan-American Highway from Panama City is a relatively featureless road that is paved until Lago Bayano; from here it's a rocky ride to the endpoint at Yaviza. Given the poor condition of the road, it can take nearly a full day to drive this stretch -- and when you're done, the only thing to do is turn around and head back. The exception is the turnoff to Metetí, which leads to Puerto Quimbo and to boats to La Palma, near the Punta Patiño reserve.
The Chucanti Field Station (tel. 6676-2466; www.advantagepanama.com), in the western Darién, was opened recently by Advantage Tours. The biological research station for visiting scientists is also open to nature enthusiasts. Chucanti is a good spot for budget bird-watchers and hikers seeking to visit the Darién. The lodge provides access to the lower primary forests and cloud forests of the region, and visits are accompanied by a guide who provides information about flora and fauna, with additional input from whichever scientist is staying at the station that week. The station is just 135km (85 miles) from Panama City via the Pan-American Highway. At the turnoff near the Cerro Chucanti hill, guides load gear onto mules and guests travel to the station by horse or by walking trail for 3 hours. The station is a simple wood-and-zinc-roof structure surrounded by leafy green forest. There are four guest rooms with private bathrooms, and though they are comfortable, this is a research station with simple amenities. Meals are hearty and typically Panamanian. Prices are $350 (£175)for 3 nights/4 days, and include round-trip transportation from Panama City, bilingual guide, lodging, and meals.
Advantage Tours has also recently built a small lodge in the small Emberá village of La Marea. Accommodations are basic but comfortable, and all rooms have their own bathrooms (no electricity). Like most of Advantage's tours, the Marea program is primarily for bird-watchers, though the best part of this trip is the opportunity to stay among the Emberá Indians and learn about their customs and traditions. The village is close to a harpy eagle nesting site, and harpy sightings have been reported. La Marea, which means "tide" in Spanish, can only be reached easily when the river tide is high, so if you arrive during low tide, expect a long adventure getting there. Before Advantage set up their lodge in this tiny community, La Marea was an economically and culturally depressed village that had lost many of its traditions and customs and had little hope for the future. However, since the advent of tourism, the small village has begun to prosper and regain its cultural traditions, relearning Emberá arts such as Jagua carving and basket weaving. In a sense, Advantage Tours and the people of La Marea have shown that ecotourism can be a win-win situation for local communities, travelers, and tour companies alike. How "authentic" this newly discovered culture identity is remains to be seen, but it is an interesting idea.
Punta Patiño was the first private nature preserve to be established in Panama, and at 30,351 hectares (75,000 acres) it is the country's largest. The preserve is bordered by the Gulf of San Miguel and is characterized by a coastal web of mangrove swamps and the mighty Tiura River, which ribbons through undulating and endangered dry tropical forest. The preserve is also home to Emberá Indian communities and a concentration of harpy eagles, Panama's national bird. Owned and managed by the nonprofit Asociación Nacional Para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (ANCON), the preserve is tangible proof of the ability of nature to recover from human intervention, considering that a large swath of land here was once a cattle ranch and small farming community and now is a thriving forest. It's all here thanks to the hard work and perseverance of ANCON and Panama City mayor Juan Carlos Navarro, an environmentalist who was leading director when the preserve was created. Punta Patiño can be reached by road and boat, or by small plane and boat.
There are several reasons to visit the preserve. The region gives visitors a chance not only to explore dense primary and secondary forest that's home to peccaries, coatimundis, and capybaras that feed near the shore; it also provides for an adventurous ride aboard a piragua, or motorized dugout canoe, up the Tiura River. Along this river's shores three species of ancient mangroves thrive and provide refuge for bottlenose dolphins and marine birds such as kingfishers, herons, spoonbills, and ibises. For bird-watchers, the prize sighting here is the harpy eagle, one of the largest predators in the world. Harpy eagles like this region for its concentration of trees like the Quipo, whose chubby trunk and height make for ideal nesting conditions. Another reason to visit Punta Patiño is the Mogue Emberá Indian community, which gives travelers a cultural introduction to native peoples and their traditional arts like tagua carvings and basket-making. Through tourism, the Emberá tribes in this area have found a way to make a living that is based on protecting wildlife -- instead of killing it -- to draw more tourism dollars.
Adventure Tours & where to Stay -- Visits to the Punta Patiño preserve must be planned as part of an expedition. Two companies currently offer trips to Punta Patiño, which can be as short as 2 nights, that are part of a longer itinerary covering other destinations in the Darién.
Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com), once the for-profit wing of ANCON but now an independent company, is the Darién's foremost tour operator, offering three options for travelers. The company also owns Punta Patiño Lodge; it sits high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is a simple, two-story building with air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms. Ancon uses this lodge as a base for all three of their expeditions to Punta Patiño. The quick, in-and-out tour is the 2-night/3-day "Coastal Darién Explorer" (from $695/£348), which includes light hiking through forest and a day visit by canoe to an Emberá village. Their "Realm of the Harpy Eagle" (from $695/£348) is 1 day longer, and involves 1 night of tent camping in the Emberá village, with a visit to a harpy eagle nest.
Worth highlighting is Ancon's "Darién Explorer Trek" (from $2,450/£1,225) the company's signature Darién expedition. This 13-night/14-day adventure begins with an overnight in their Punta Patiño Lodge, followed by a night in an Emberá village. But rather than return to Punta Patiño, the trip continues upstream until reaching El Real, the jumping-off point for the Darién National Park and the trail head to the Pirre ranger station. There is a 2-day hike through virgin rainforest until you reach Cana , eventually returning to Panama City via small plane. This is an adventure for travelers really seeking to experience remote wilderness far off the beaten track from most tours. Ancon's Punta Patiño tours begin with a flight aboard a small plane that touches down on a dirt landing strip at La Palma.
Ecocircuitos (tel. 314-1586; www.ecocircuitos.com) is another excellent tour operator offering a Punta Patiño expedition. The major difference between this tour and Ancon's is that Punta Patiño is reached by road along the Pan-American Highway to Puerto Quimba, where travelers board a dugout canoe to go to the Mogue Emberá Indian community. Base camp is set up in the community, with lodging in tents, giving visitors more exposure to the Emberá (the reason why they've dubbed their tour the "Darién Ethnic Expedition"). The trip lasts 2 days/3 nights or 3 nights/4 days, and includes transportation, guided excursions, meals, and lodging. Prices for a 3 night/4 day trip are (approximately) $795 (£398) per person, based on two travelers; and $655 (£328) per person, based on four travelers. They also offer a "Rural Community Development in the Darien" volunteer experience, where participants can help the local community market soap and organic teas, as well as assist in local development. This program is based in the village of Santa Fe, a conservative Embera community.
Darién National Park & Cana Field Station
The .6-million-hectare (1.5-million-acre) Darién National Park is not only the largest park in Panama, it is the largest in Central America. The park extends along 90% of the entire length of the border with Colombia, incorporating a dazzling rainforest rich in biodiversity, coastal lagoons and mangrove swamps, serrated peaks, and toffee-colored rivers that snake down to the Pacific Ocean. The vast size and pristine state of the park mean that populations of endemic and endangered species -- jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, and pumas -- are allowed to flourish. But what visitors see most, and with surprising frequency, are spider, howler, and white-faced capuchin monkeys, as well as sloths. The Darién is considered one of the last pristine wildernesses in the Americas, and it therefore has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Site. It is an extraordinary, Jurassic Park-like wilderness, ideal for adventurous travelers who seek absolutely primeval surroundings and the sense of being far from civilization and the modern world.
What visitors also come to see here are birds, and indeed the Darién forest has been rated as one of the top 10 bird-watching sites in the world. Even non-birders can't help getting caught up in the excitement of so many colorful "showcase" species like macaws and toucans fluttering about. Dozens of tanager species in a kaleidoscopic range of colors are here, too, not to mention rare and endemic species such as red-throated caracaras, peregrine falcons, golden-headed quetzals, and the Pirre warbler. There are so many birds and in such abundance that sighting them doesn't take much effort -- while swinging in a hammock, for example, you can eye parrots and macaws zipping through the air.
But as vast as the Darién National Park is, the majority of it is largely inaccessible. The only two access points are the ANAM park ranger's Pirre Station on the north side of the Cerro Pirre peak, and Ancon Expedition's Cana Field Station on the southeast side of the peak (reached by small plane). Cana is owned and operated by Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415; www.anconexpeditions), and trips here must be booked as a tour through that company, unless you are traveling with a tour operator such as Field Guides, Wildland Adventures, or Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, which subcontract the lodge. Check out Ancon's "Darién Explorer Trek" for a 14-day tour that arrives at Cana via Punta Patiño and the Pirre Station.
The Darién is one of the few places in Panama where it is recommended that you do not travel independently and without a guide. The reasons are plentiful: Hardly a soul here speaks English, there exists a considerable risk of becoming lost on any trail, and you're exposing yourself to a variety of potential pitfalls such as a twisted ankle or snakebites -- the nearest medical clinic is hundreds of miles away. Also, with such a diversity of flora and fauna, it pays to have a guide to enhance your experience with interpretive information, cultural information about the Emberá and Wounaan communities, and history of the area.
The ranger station at Pirre (tel. 299-6965) offers basic shelter with bunk-style beds, a kitchen, and shared bathrooms. There is no electricity, and you must bring all supplies with you like food, water (or a water purifier), flashlights, towels, and so forth. The cost to spend the night is $10 (£5), with a park entrance fee of $3 (£1.50). There are several trails from easy to difficult that lead from the ranger station, but as stated earlier, it is unwise to walk these trails without a guide.
The Pirre Station is about a 3-hour walk during the dry season from the village of El Real; or you can get there in 2 hours in a dugout canoe from El Real, followed by a 1-hour hike to the station. Call Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) to ask about flights between Panama City and El Real.
Cana Field Station -- Most travelers to Darién National Park are bird-watchers who visit the Cana Field Station on Ancon's 4-night, 5-day "Ultimate Darién Experience" expedition. Of course, you don't need to be a bird-watcher to visit, but it certainly helps, considering that the only other activities are hiking nature trails and just soaking up the fabulous jungle ambience. The lodge is located a short walk from the old Cana mines, one of the most productive gold mines in the history of the Americas, founded in the early 17th century by the Spaniards. In the late 1600s, the mines drew nearly 20,000 people here, an incredible figure given how empty and remote the area now is. The mine closed in the 18th century, but reopened in the late 1800s complete with train service to Boca de Cupe to ship gold, people, and equipment from Cana. Antique mining machinery and remnants of the train remain, and part of the fascination is seeing how thoroughly they've been swallowed up by jungle.
With the Cana Field Station, it's all about location, location, location -- this is surely one of the most stunning sites in Panama, framed by verdant jungle whose trees drip with vines and sprout spiky bromeliads, and are interspersed with a riot of flowering trees. Because the lodge faces an open expanse, it provides a spectacular amphitheater for bird-watching, allowing guests to spy many species from a reclining chair or hammock on the front porch. The lodge is research-station rustic, but with comfortable beds with a sheet, shared bathrooms with hot water, a separate dining hall, and a roofed area strung with hammocks for hanging out. It's the kind of place where easygoing nature lovers will be happiest, those who do not mind queuing up for a shower, getting dressed by flashlight, or sharing simply prepared communal meals. Days begin at the crack of dawn, usually around 6:30am, to take advantage of early birding activity. Expeditions are led by Ancon's bilingual guides, who are some of the best in their field, and the staff are a convivial group of local Dariénites. From the lodge, there are several short trails around the property, and a longer, half-day hike up through thick, species-rich jungle to the top of Cerro Pierre peak, where guests sleep overnight at Ancon's tent-camping site. From here there is a sweeping view of the Darién National Park, and the option to walk higher into the cloud forest in search of the elusive golden-headed quetzal.
Trips to Cana include guides, excursions, meals, and a round-trip charter flight. Itineraries are for set dates but have some flexibility, or can be undertaken with a minimum of four travelers. Price per person for the 4-night trip, based on at least four travelers, starts at $1,450 (£725).
Bahía Piñas & the Tropic Star Lodge
Visitors to Bahía Piñas come for the legendary sport fishing. Beyond the Tropic Star Lodge, there are two villages near Bahía Piñas, but both hold little interest to travelers. If the cost of the Tropic Star is too rich for your blood, you'd be better off setting up a fishing trip elsewhere along the Pacific Coast rather than eking out a local tour in Jacqué. Call Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) or Air Panama (tel. 315-0439; www.flyairpanama.com) for information about flights between Panama City and Bahía Piñas.