Quetzal // (c) 2011 Los Quetzales Ecolodge
Sitting in the Canopy Tower observation deck, just outside Panama City, it’s as peaceful a place as I’ve ever experienced, except for the howler monkeys, buzzing cicadas and rustle of the leaves in the lush rainforest densely packed around us. A 45-minute drive away are the sleek skyscrapers of international banks, sophisticated shopping malls and teeming urban neighborhoods, but here in the Panama Canal Rainforest, inside Soberania National Park, all is paradise indeed.
Panama is home to one of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, with national parks covering 5 million acres, more than 25 percent of its land mass. The tiny nation (29,762 square miles,) a land bridge between the continents of North and South America, is home to 954 bird species, more than the U.S. and Canada combined.
Here, birders can discover incredibly dense foliage, dappled with sunshine on the soft floor below. They can hear the loud calls of monkeys and see multicolored butterflies surrounding the fronds and ferns around them. They can also see keel-billed chestnut-mandibled toucans, harpy eagles, macaws, parrots, bellbirds, collared aracaris, kites, blue cotingas, turkey vultures, scarlet and summer tanagers and maybe even quetzals (especially near the Costa Rican border in the cloud forests of Chiriqui.) In short, Panama is an ornithologist’s heaven and, fortunately, there are numerous properties eager to host them and make birdwatching easy.
The best time of the year for birdwatching in Panama is from October to March, for seeing both resident and migratory birds but, at any time of the year, clients can observe more than 800 species. (To learn more about Panama’s birdwatching, recommend clients read “The Birds of Panama,” by George R. Angehr and Robert Dean.)
With year-round birding opportunities, here are a few top spots to tell clients about.
Just a 20-minute drive from Panama City, Soberania National Park is one of the most visited rain forests in Central America. Soberania is part of the Panama Canal Watershed and is home to the famed Pipeline Road. Stay at the Canopy Tower, named one of the 50 top eco-lodges in the world by National Geographic Magazine. Five comfortable rooms are housed in a former U.S. radar tower with a spectacular view and setting in Soberania. Canopy Tower also has a sister property in the area of El Valle and offers several birdwatching packages, as well as nightly rates and day visits. www.canopytower.com
Volcan Baru National Park, in Chiriqui Province, is full of biological diversity. It borders La Amistad National Park, which was named the first Binational Biosphere Reserve in the world and is recognized as a UNESCO World Natural Site. Both of these lush rainforest parks house some 250 bird species, including the highly endangered quetzal. El Valle de Anton is located on the Cordillera Central mountain range, separating the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Stay at Los Quetzales Ecolodge in Guadalupe, a seven-hour drive from Panama City, and a similar distance from San Jose, Costa Rica. Set in the cloud forest, Los Quetzales offers romantic cabins or Euro-styled hotel rooms, all located next to a rushing river. www.losquetzales.com
More than 200 species of birds have been sighted in the tropical forest of Achiote Road in the province of Colon, set in a forest inside the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This area is called the finest birding spot in Eastern Panama by Moon Travel Guides. Here agents can suggest La Sierra Llorona, a cozy ecolodge specializing in birders. www.sierrallorona.com
Chagres National Park, just 30 minutes from Panama City, offers the Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe, areas so wildly rich in birdlife that a recent Audubon group found 38 species on one tree. The large Gamboa Rainforest Resort offers the typical amenities of a luxury hotel, but is in the middle of the park and employs naturalist guides who take guests on aerial tram rides and on boat trips to a small island with resident monkeys. www.gamboaresort.com
If agents are looking for expert advice on booking ornithologist trips to Panama, Birding Panama is a tour company run by birders that specializes in birdwatching and utilizes properties and guides all over the country to design its tours, both custom and planned. www.birdingpanama.com