Climatic Regions & Land Formations
Panama is tropical country, and as such, has distinct dry and wet seasons. Generally speaking, December to mid-April are the driest months, while October and November are the wettest. However, cooler mountainous regions such as the Chiriqui Highlands and the Valle de Anton see rain throughout the year, though it's usually limited to a light mist or barenje during the dry season. The Caribbean Coast also tends to be wetter than the Pacific, particularly Bocas del Toro, where it can rain anytime of the year. The Darien can be difficult at best in the rainy season, and you'll be hard pressed to find a company willing to go in the rainiest months, though there are so many bugs during this time that it's unlikely you'd want to go anyway. The Azuero Peninsula is a bit drier than the rest of the country, and has been subject to much deforestation. The Kuna Yala Islands represent an interesting topography. Unlike most Panamanian islands, which are heavily forested, the more than 365 Kuna Islands are made up of sand and palm trees, and temperatures are often more comfortable here than other beach destination, with nights even getting a bit cool.
Once covered almost entirely in dense rainforest, Panama has seen irreversible damage from deforestation and development. Natural habitats along the Pacific Coast, for example, are being rapidly replaced by high-rise condominiums and golf courses. The Azuero peninsula continues to be harvested and deforested at an alarming pace, meaning that this region is now much drier than the rest of the country, with its natural landscape permanently altered. Over the last decade or so, however, Panama has taken great strides toward protecting its rich biodiversity, and a government focus on eco-minded tourism means Panama is taking measures to conserve its natural resources. About 22% of the country is protected within 14 national parks.
Panama’s lowland rainforests are true tropical jungles with sweltering, humid climates and up to 180 inches of rainfall per year. The most impressive lowland rainforests stretch from the vast Darién along the coastal Kuna Yala Comarca to the immediate Panama City surroundings to the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
The Darién, covering nearly 17,000 square miles, is Panama’s largest province, and one of its least traveled. Bordering Colombia, it has an exaggerated reputation as a dangerous destination, and it is perhaps this reputation that has allowed the Darién to thrive as one of the last bastions of pristine rainforest in the Americas, save for a few towns and a couple dozen Emberá settlements deep in the forest. Here you’ll find primary forests, chemically pure rivers, and intricate ecosystems that have thrived thanks to little to no human contact. Thanks also to the Gatun Lake, the fourth-largest manmade lake in the world, the rainforest surrounding Gatun has remained protected from the onset of development, and jungle river cruises are the perfect way to see monkeys, sloths, caymans, birds, and much more if you’re sticking around Panama City. Panama’s rainforests remain relatively dry between December and mid-April (Oct and Nov are the rainiest months).
In the Chiriquí Highlands and the Valle de Anton, cloud forests are a major attraction, with frequent rain, cloudy days, and cooler temperatures. Because cloud forests are found in generally steep, mountainous terrain, the canopy here is lower and less uniform than in lowland rainforests, providing better chances for viewing elusive fauna. Panama’s most impressive mountain park and cloud forest is the Amistad International Park, spread between the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro and actually sharing a border with Costa Rica. Volcán Barú National Park is another well-known destination for wildlife and bird-watching, home to Volcán Barú, Panama’s only active volcano.
Along the coasts, primarily along the Pacific Coast where river mouths meet the ocean, you will find extensive mangrove forests and swamps. Mangrove swamps are often havens for water birds: cormorants, frigate birds, pelicans, and herons. The larger birds tend to nest up high in the canopy, while the smaller ones nestle in the underbrush. In the province of Cocle, the mangroves are well known as crustacean and salt factories, and are also believed to have medicinal and therapeutic properties. Around the seemingly monotonous tangles of mangrove roots lining the shores of the Bocas del Toro islands, you’ll find one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the country. All sorts of fish and crustaceans live in the brackish tidal waters. Caimans and crocodiles cruise the maze of rivers and unmarked canals, and hundreds of herons, ibises, egrets, and other marsh birds nest and feed along the silted banks.
Isla de Coiba on the Pacific side has drawn comparisons to the Galápagos Islands because of its fascinating ecosystems—in fact, the entire island has been declared a national park.
Flora & Fauna
Panama’s incredible geographical diversity and hundreds of ecosystems make this tiny sliver of a country a haven for thousands of species of flora and fauna. Panama is the land bridge that connects Central and South America, and as such is home to flora and fauna native to both continents. In fact, the tiny country of Panama has more bird species than that of the U.S. and Canada combined, and more species of plants in the Canal Basin than in all of Europe! Bird-watchers have spotted up to 367 bird species on trails such as Pipeline Road and the Achiote Road, and there have even been sightings of the elusive harpy eagle.
Panama is home to more than 225 species of mammals. Although it is very unlikely that you will spot a puma, you have good odds of catching a glimpse of a monkey, coatimundi, agouti, or sloth. Panama has more than 940 identified species of resident and migrant birds. Panama’s reptile species range from the frightening and justly feared fer-de-lance pit viper and the massive American crocodile to a wide variety of turtles and lizards. With 2,490km (1,547 miles) of shoreline on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the country’s diverse sea life includes whale sharks, leatherback sea turtles, manatees, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales.
Tip: Remember that ecosystems are delicate and it is a privilege to visit wildlife in their native habitat. Do not poke, prod, scare, or antagonize wildlife just to have a better look. It may sound obvious, but I’ve been on enough wildlife excursions to know there are always people who don’t seem to remember that you’re in the animals’ home, not your own—so show respect. Good advice: Travel with a knowledgeable guide for the best chances of seeing a broad selection of Panama’s impressive flora and fauna.
Seasoned bird-watchers and wildlife lovers know that the animal world is most active at sunrise and, to a lesser extent, at sunset. Birds are easier to spot in open areas and secondary forests than in primary forests. I recommend that you hire a guide if you're planning on trekking through the rainforest. A guide's local knowledge, and his or her ability not only to identify flora and fauna but to actually point it out, is invaluable.
Here are a few helpful hints on spotting wildlife:
- Stay quiet. Noise scares off animals and birds, so keep chatting to a minimum.
- Listen. Guides spot birds by listening to their call, and animals by listening to the sound of rustling leaves or anything else that indicates an animal is in the vicinity.
- Bring binoculars. Choose a quality pair with a long range, and learn how to use them before you get on the trail.
- Be patient and don't try too hard. Once you relax and soften your focus, you'll see animals and birds more readily.
- Dress appropriately. Wear comfortable clothing and good shoes or boots -- neutral tones are recommended for blending in with your environment. The better camouflaged you are, the better your chances for spotting wildlife. Also, wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, and repellent.
For such a tiny country, Panama is incredibly rich in biodiversity -- some scientists call the country "hyperdiverse" given that flora and fauna from both North and South America meet here on this land bridge. Panama is home to a greater number of bird species than found in the U.S. and Canada combined, and there are more species of plants in the Canal Basin than found in all of Europe. Whether you come to Panama to check 100 or so species off your birding list, or just to check out of the rat race for a week or so, you'll be surrounded by a rich and varied collection of flora and fauna.
In many instances, the prime viewing recommendations should be taken with a firm dose of reality. Most casual visitors and even many dedicated naturalists will never see a jaguar or kinkajou. However, anyone traveling with a sharp, knowledgeable guide should be able to see a broad selection of Panama's impressive flora and fauna.
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.