Panama: Outstanding Eco-Tourism

By: Alex J Smith

There are few places in the world where the eco-tourist can view the ecological wonders that result from the melding of two large continents and the molding of the land by the world's two biggest oceans. There's only one such place - Panama. It is no surprise that the respected Forbes Magazine cited Panama as the best eco-tourism destination for 2007.

Panama is the narrow isthmus that connects the Americas. That is easy enough to remember, but people tend to forget that Panama is also that fragile strip of land that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean (by way of the Caribbean Sea).

Nature and Wildlife

Off the waters of Panama, you can watch whales cavorting along the Golfo de Chiriqui, or snorkel among the colorful coral reefs on either ocean. Small as it is, there are over 1,500 islands in Panama, each with its own stretch of white-sand beaches. You have the chance to watch four species of sea turtle nesting on the country's beaches and wetlands. Panama's marine and aquatic life is so rich that they have evoked comparisons with the Galapagos Islands further south.

There are many national parks that you can visit for every ecological habitat you'd like to see. The mountains along the spine of Panama have their beguiling charms. You can hike through cloud-covered forests or swim in chilly mountain streams. If you feel adventurous enough, you can trek up Volcan Baru, the highest peak in Panama, and get a really unique experience: seeing, at the same time, the two largest oceans and the two largest continents at your feet.

Its jungles are among the least explored areas in the world. They offer a visual treat for the eco-tourist. In the country's 500 rivers and 22,000 square kilometers of rain forest, there are 940 bird species and 125 animal species unique to Panama. If you're lucky, you may get to see some of them.

What Else to Do

Panama offers you the colonial ruins and fortifications that once defended old Panama, Spain's capital in the New World. You can check out the many fortresses along the Caribbean coast. Find time to attend the colorful festivals in the towns, where the Spanish legacy continues.

Dinner and a night on the town will make a good beginning or ending to your trip in the wilds. There are fine restaurants in Panama City to tickle every palate, quiet cafes overlooking the bay and the city, and nightclubs to while the night away.

Best Time to Go

It really depends on your plans. The peak tourist season corresponds with the dry season on the Pacific side, which is between mid-December and mid-April. The weather is mostly sunny in Panama City and places south of the Continental Divide during these months. On the Caribbean side to the north, the rains come all year-round. There is relatively less rain February to March and September to October.

If you want some serious hiking, trekking in the national parks, or taking in the beaches, the dry season between December and January may be the best time. But remember, that hotel prices and airfares will be higher during this period.

Planning Your Trip

Because of the ecological diversity in Panama, one gets tempted to spontaneous adventures. But it is good to make plans before you go to maximize your eco-tourism thrills. Some destinations are very popular and you will need reservations. Bocas de Toros is the country's top destination. You need to reserve flights early if you wish to go to the islands of Comarca de Kuna Yala. There is only one carrier that flies to the archipelago.

A visit to remote Parque Nacional Darien would give you the best views of Nature in the tropics, but you will also need to book lodgings way in advance. The same arrangements are necessary for a visit to the Smithsonian Institution's Tropical Research Institute on the Isla Barro Colorado.

Panama is an eclectic city that can accommodate any budget. There are many budget accommodations and inexpensive eating places. There are also five-star lodges with seascape views and charming B&B hideaways.

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