Tips on Etiquette & Safety in the Wilderness
Adventure travel is inherently riskier than travel by cruise ship or on a tour bus, and, in addition to preparing yourself physically, you should also double-check your medical coverage and insurance policies.
It's hot in Panama day and night. However, higher up in the Chiriquí Highlands it gets chilly in the evening, especially if you're in the rainforest and have gotten wet. Even during the summer, the cloud forest here (as well as the Caribbean Coast in general) is damp throughout the year, so bring rain gear and a couple of extra layers of dry clothing if you plan to be outdoors all day.
On the other hand, the equatorial sun is very strong and you can burn fast, so liberally apply a high-factor sunscreen. Bug bites are so common that I recommend you buy a pleasant-smelling but powerful repellent and apply it every day if you are visiting any area outside of Panama City. The beaches in Panama are lovely, but lurking in the sand are chitras, or no-see-ums, that leave an irritating welt. Deep in the jungle, chiggers burrow into your skin and leave an itching welt that lasts for 2 weeks. Bring along cortisone or Benadryl cream to soothe itching, and try not to scratch your bites, which can lead to sores and infections; also, the welt goes away faster if you leave it alone.
Panama is home to some of the most frightening snakes on the planet, such as boa constrictors and fer-de-lances, though on the whole, snake bites are rare. Still, don't go poking under rocks or fallen branches, and always scan the trail in front of you for any slithering menace. If you encounter a snake, don't panic or make any sudden movements, and don't try to handle the snake. Also, avoid swimming in rivers unless you know it is safe or are with a guide who can vouch for the river's safety. Caimans and crocodiles hide along shorelines, especially in mangrove swamps and river mouths.
Responsible travel tips: Always tread lightly and pack everything out with you when in the wilderness -- this means everything, including toilet paper. Do not uproot plants or take flowers, especially wild orchids. Do not buy anything that is made of animal skin or shells, and do not eat seafood such as lobster during mating season from March to July. Be wary of hotels or outfits that call themselves "eco-anything," as the term here has yet to be properly defined or regulated. I've seen hotels that call themselves "eco" for no other reason than that they are located in the forest. Some small-scale hotels in Panama are blazing the trail for sustainable tourism and have been quite successful at it, but unfortunately, others cling to damaging practices.
No trip to Panama would be complete without at least one monkey sighting. Home to five distinct species of primates, Panama offers the opportunity for one of the world's most gratifying wildlife-viewing experiences. Just listen for the deep guttural call of a howler or the rustling of leaves overhead -- telltale signs that monkeys are in your vicinity.
A commonly spotted monkey is the white-faced capuchin, which you might recognize as the infamous culprit from the film Outbreak. Contrary to that film's plot, however, these monkeys are native to the New World tropics and do not exist in Africa. Capuchins are agile, medium-size monkeys that make good use of their long, prehensile tails. They live in a diverse collection of habitats, ranging from high-altitude cloud forests to tropical rainforest at sea level. It's almost impossible not to spot a capuchin at Monkey Island in Lake Gatún, in the Canal Zone, which you can view from a jungle cruise boat ride. Capuchins are also on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, and throughout the forest of the Darién.
Howler monkeys are named for their guttural, eerie call. Large and mostly black, these monkeys sometimes seem ferocious because of their physical appearance and deep, resonant howls that can carry for more than a mile, even in dense rainforest. Biologists believe that male howlers mark their territory with these deep, guttural sounds. In the presence of humans, however, howlers are actually a little timid and tend to stay higher up in the canopy than their white-faced cousins. Again, howlers are guaranteed to be seen at Monkey Island, and are fairly common in the Darién and in Soberanía National Park.
More elusive are spider monkeys and night monkeys. Spider monkeys have long, slender bodies that range from dark brown to black, and they prefer the high canopies of primary rainforests. Spiders are very adept with their prehensile tails but actually travel through the canopy with a hand-over-hand motion frequently imitated by their less graceful human cousins on playground monkey bars around the world. Spider monkeys are commonly sighted in the Darién and in forest along the Caribbean coast. Apropos of their name, night monkeys are the only true nocturnal monkey, meaning your chances of seeing one are slim, unless you happen to be with a guide who is adept at spotting this elusive creature.
The pint-size Geoffrey's tamarin lives in groups of 10 to 15 and spends most of its time on high branches looking for fruits and flowers to eat. It's a hyperactive little primate that likes to bounce from branch to branch and jerk its head around in what seems to be panic. The first response to seeing a Geoffrey's tamarin is usually, "How cute!" because of their size -- a trait that makes them hard to spot in the first place.
For a guaranteed sighting of the monkeys mentioned above (except the night monkey), visit Monkey Island by boat on a jungle cruise, or the Summit Gardens Park & Zoo. The Darién area is home to many primates that can be seen fairly easily, as are the Soberanía National Park and Isla Bastimentos. The alert traveler can usually see Geoffrey's tamarins in Panama City's Metropolitan Park as well. Remember: Monkeys have specific diets and should never be fed human victuals, especially junk food, no matter how fun it may seem to do so. Boycott any tour that attracts monkeys with food, and let your fellow travelers and tour guide know that this is not acceptable practice if you see someone feeding a monkey.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.