Panama boasts one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, its territory incorporating ancient rainforests, virgin beaches, islands, rugged peaks shrouded in cloud forests, and an underwater world replete with coral reefs and marine life. To protect all this wealth, the Panamanian government has designated 30% of the country as national parks, reserves, or wildlife refuges -- about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) all told. The Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente (ANAM) administers Panama's parks and reserves, charging $3 to $10 (£1.50-£5) for entrance fees (less for Panamanian residents). If camping is permitted, the fee is $5 (£2.50). ANAM is under-funded, however, and although park entrances have a token ranger station and maybe even a few bunks for rent, they do not provide visitors with a lot of information, nor do they give out trail maps.
What's interesting is how accessible some of Panama's parks and reserves are -- there are five national parks located between 30 minutes and 2 hours of Panama City. And yet some parks are virtually inaccessible, such as the Darién, with its impenetrable jungle, or the north-facing rainforest of La Amistad International Park. Many wildlife refuges are off-limits to protect a breeding ground for birds or animals.
The following is a selective guide to Panama's national parks and reserves -- the best in terms of accessibility or interest, or because of a particular sport (scuba diving in Coiba, for example).
The Canal Basin
Soberania National Park -- Spanning 19,425 hectares (48,000 acres) of undulating, pristine tropical rainforest, this is one of the most accessible, species-rich parks in the Americas -- and it's just 40 minutes from Panama City. Wildlife from both continents converges here to create a hyper-diverse region that's home to an estimated 525 bird species and 105 mammal species. Expect to see coatimundi, three-toed sloths, howler monkeys, and Geoffrey's tamarins, which are tiny primates. Soberanía is home to Pipeline Road, the world-famous bird-watching trail, as well as to hiking trails such as the historic Camino de Cruces used by the Spanish to transport gold from the Pacific in the 16th century. Location: 25km (15 miles) north of Panama City, on the eastern shore of the canal.
Altos de Campana National Park -- In 1966, this became Panama's first national park, covering an area of 4,925 hectares (12,170 acres) of igneous landscape created by the extinct El Valle de Antón volcano. Altos de Campana is characterized by rugged peaks that are almost completely deforested on the Pacific side, and sloping rainforest on the Atlantic side, and there are high cliffs here that provide lookout points with dramatic views of the Canal Basin and Chame Bay. For bird-watching, the park is home to exotic species that can be difficult to view elsewhere, such as violet hummingbirds, white-tipped sicklebills, and orange-bellied trogons. Location: 90km (56 miles) west of Panama City.
Oceans & Islands
Coiba National Park -- Panama's largest national park is a gem that covers an astounding 270,128 hectares (667,500 acres) of mostly marine park, as well as Coiba Island. The park owes its pristine state to a notorious penal colony that was located here until 2005, which kept visitors away and the region virtually untouched by development. Coiba has been called the Galápagos of Central America, providing world-class diving and snorkeling around its coral reef and white-sand beaches. In addition to saltwater crocodiles, turtles, humpback whales, and howler monkeys, this is one of the few places where it is still possible to see a scarlet macaw in the wild. Location: Gulf of Chirquí, 1 1/2 hours by boat from Santa Catalina.
Golfo de Chiriqui National Marine Park -- This park incorporates two dozen hilly islands and outcrops, but mostly it protects the surrounding ocean area and its rich marine life and coral reefs. Few people visit here, which is surprising given its beauty and proximity to Boquete. A couple of upstart operations offer diving and snorkeling, as well as visits to uninhabited and perfect white-sand beaches; there are two fishing lodges based here, too. Location: Just off the southern shore of Boca Chica, in the Gulf of Chiriquí.
Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park -- This national park is the reason to come to Bocas del Toro, for its virgin rainforest, turquoise sea replete with preserved hard and soft corals, and the idyllic Cayos Zapatillas, two castaway-type islands with white sand and outstanding snorkeling opportunities. The park also protects the largest area of Caribbean mangrove swamp in the country as well as important turtle-nesting sites. About 90% of the park is marine area and home to lots of colorful tropical fish, and there is decent bird-watching on the island, with 68 species. Location: Southeast of Isla Colón, 45 minutes by boat from Bocas Town or Bocas airport.
Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge -- Only 55 hectares (136 acres), this refuge is surrounded with coral reef and clear blue sea ideal for snorkeling. As the name implies, it's also home to many green iguanas. From June to November, humpback whales breed in the area and are commonly seen by boat. The white-sand beach here is the best in the Azuero area, but unfortunately this region gets hit by currents that carry trash thrown overboard by boats all over the Pacific. Location: 3km (2 miles) from the shore near Pedasí, in the Pacific Ocean.
Barro Colorado National Monument -- A former hilltop, this island was created by the flooding of Lake Gatún during the construction of the Panama Canal. It is now home to one of the most important -- and oldest -- biological research stations in the world, administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). The monument actually comprises more than 55 hectares (136 acres) of land, including five surrounding mainland peninsulas, but the spotlight is on Barro Colorado Island for its "captive" biodiversity that provides an opportunity for scientists to conduct studies without being encroached upon by outside forces. The island can be visited as a day tour. Location: Lake Gatún, in the Canal Zone.
La Amistad International Park -- Popularly known as PILA, this is one of the more unique parks in Panama because it is shared with neighboring Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the park is not as easily accessed on the Panamanian side, but there are a couple of trails at the administration area near Cerro Punta, in the Chiriquí Highlands, that put you deep in primeval rainforest. The UNESCO Heritage Site comprises 207,000 hectares (511,508 acres) of land spread across the Cordillera Central mountain range, with dramatic peaks, cliffs, and valleys. It's one of the wettest regions in the country, so bring your waterproof gear. Location: The park straddles the Costa Rica-Panama border, in the Chiriquí Highlands.
Volcan Baru National Park -- This mountainous park is 87,451 hectares (35,390 acres) spread around the Barú Volcano, and it is home to the best short-haul day hike in Panama. The volcano's altitude and fertile soil provide for a bioclimatic "island" that is home to many endemic plants not seen anywhere else around Panama. From the top of the Barú Volcano, you can see the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but a cloud forest usually blocks the view. More than 250 bird species have been recorded here, making this prime bird-watching territory, especially for the resplendent quetzal and the endemic black-cheeked warbler. Location: Barú Volcano in the Chiriquí Highlands, accessible from Boquete or Cerro Punta.
Darien National Park -- The Darién is mostly impenetrable wilderness that runs the length of the border with Colombia, in eastern Panama. It is the largest, and wildest, national park in Central America, and designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, but it's the least-visited park because of travel logistics and lack of accessibility. The most popular (and really only) destination here is Cana, which draws nature lovers of all kinds, but the Darién is revered mostly by bird-watchers who come to view the outstanding array of 450-plus bird species, including showcase birds such as blue macaws, toucans, and harpy eagles. Location: Eastern end of the Darién Province, along the Panama-Colombia border.
Punta Patiño Nature Reserve -- This reserve is managed by the conservation group ANCON, and because it is on the Gulf of San Miguel and surrounded by dense jungle, the only way to get here is by boat. Birders like Punta Patiño because it offers the best chance to spot harpy eagles, and visits here usually center around Emberá Indian villages and Punta Alegre, home to descendants of West African slaves. There are also hikes and canoe rides. Location: Darién Province, on the Gulf of San Miguel.
Sarigua National Park -- It's the only "desert" in Panama, but it's not here as a result of natural forces. This park features a lunar landscape of eroded land, fissures, and fossil-like stumps, but more than anything the park provides a vivid example of the ecological ruin that occurs with heavy deforestation caused by man. Along the shore are mangrove swamps and pockets of the dry forest that once covered the nearly 8,094 hectares (20,000 acres) that make up the park. Also, archaeologists have recently been discovering artifacts here left by the oldest known indigenous group in Panama. Location: In the Herrera Province on Azuero Peninsula's Parita Bay.