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.
Flora and Fauna
Panama is the land bridge that connects Central and South America, and as such, it is home to an amazing array of flora and fauna native to both continents. In fact, the tiny country of Panama has more than 10,000 species of plants, more than 225 species of mammals and over 940 identified species of birds. That's more bird species than that of the United States and Canada combined! Although Costa Rica, its neighbor to the north, is better known in terms of eco-tourism, nature-lovers will feel quite at home in Panama. Birdwatchers have reportedly 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.
It is Panama's incredible geographical diversity that makes this tiny sliver of a country a haven for thousands of species of flora and fauna. From tropical rainforests to rivers, lakes, beaches, mountainous cloud forests, and swampy mangroves, Panama is home to hundreds of ecosystems that make it a fascinating country to visit.
Wildlife of the Bocas del Toro -- Around the seemingly monotonous tangles of roots of the mangroves lining the shores of the islands of the Bocas del Toro you'll find one of the most diverse and rich 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. 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. The mangroves in the province of Cocle are also believed to have medicinal and therapeutic properties.
Once covered almost entirely in dense rainforest, many of Panama's ecosystems have been irreversibly damaged by the onset of deforestation and development. However, recent government initiatives to protect natural habitats and ecosystems has slowed this irresponsible practice, and a new government focus on eco-minded tourism means Panama is taking measures to protect its natural resources.
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 Darien along the coastal Kuna Yala Comarca to the immediate Panama City surroundings to the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
The Darien, 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 Darien to thrive as one of the last bastions of pristine rainforest in the Americas, save for a few towns and a couple dozen Embera settlements deep in the forest. Here you'll find pristine primary forests, chemically pure rivers, and intricate ecosystems that have been able to thrive due to little to no human contact. Thanks to the man-made Gatun Lake, the fourth largest man-made lake in the world, the rainforest surrounding Gatun has also 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, with October and November being the rainiest months.
In the Chiriqui 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 parks and cloud forest is the Amistad International Park spread between the provinces of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro, and actually sharing a border with Costa Rica. Volcan Baru National Park is another well-known destination for wildlife and bird-watching home to Volcan Baru, 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. The mangroves of the Cocle province are well known as crustacean and salt factories, and there are also impressive mangroves along the islands of Bocas del Toro.
Isla de Coiba on the Pacific side has drawn comparisons to the Galapagos Islands because of its fascinating ecosystems, and in fact, the entire island has been declared a National Park.
Over the last decade or so, Panama has taken great strides toward protecting its rich biodiversity. About 22% of the country is protected within 14 national parks. However, natural habitats along the Pacific Coast 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.
In any one spot in Panama, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. However, as seen above, they vary dramatically according to altitude, from hot and humid in the tropical lowlands to cool in the highlands.
Tips for Seeing Wildlife
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.