Ecotourism is booming, as many people are seeking travel experiences that include wellness-boosting self-care, delectable regional dishes, and fun adventures that support the local culture and environment. One of the most exotic locations to experience natural pampering with a unique cultural twist is the southernmost Central American country of Panama. This breathtaking region links to South America via its border with Columbia and its singular sustainable customs showcase amazing eco-adventures, intriguing historical sites, and magnificent ocean backdrops.
Here indigenous and Latino communities welcome those seeking a one-of-a-kind scenic escape highlighted by superior wildlife conservation and stellar outdoor activities and accommodations. Take a look at why Panama is inspiring an increasing number of visitors to experience her awe-inspiring sights, sounds, and eco-friendly scenes that are spread across nearly 30% of the country.
Communing with Nature at Coiba Island National Park
The 38 islands off of Panama’s Pacific Coast play host to many of the country’s 10,000 native plants, 1,500 trees, and over a thousand bird species, garnering them the nickname ‘The New Galapagos.’ They are part the Gulf of Chiriquí’s Coiba National Park Marine Reserve, a 430,000-acre natural wonder where 700 marine species and numerous mammals thrive amidst a breathtaking background of white sand beaches and crystal clear aqua waters. UNESCO named Coiba Island a World Heritage site in 2005 because of its untouched biodiversity, and its central location makes it an off-the-beaten-path locale that’s still less than 200 miles from the bustling capital of Panama City.
Eco-Activities at and around Coiba Island
The diverse marine life at the islands makes scuba diving a favorite activity, and visitors have been known to encounter curious sea turtles, eels, white-tip reef sharks, and a wide array of colorful tropical fish. One of the favorite spots for both snorkeling and diving is Granito de Oro Island because of its unique volcanic formations that create a protected coral reef environment. On the east side of Coiba Island sits the enormous 350-acre Bahia Damas Reef, home to hammerhead sharks, manta rays, Pacific-spotted dolphins, and even humpback whales that have been known to interact with swimmers.
Wildlife also abounds in Coiba’s abundant rainforests, where coconut palms sway gently next to huge Espave trees. The park includes many miles of hiking trails that allow you to spot animals such as howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, white-tailed deer, and black iguanas. Coiba Island itself is a bird lover’s paradise and is home to several species found only in the region, such as the rust-colored spinetail and brown-backed dove. The island of Rancheria (aka Coibita) even houses a small research outpost of The Smithsonian Tropical Institute. The park’s numerous fun scuba diving, bird watching, hiking, and wildlife accredited eco-tours offer exciting day-trip and overnight adventures that will guide you through an impressive array of immersive ecological experiences.
The Nearby Eco-Retreats of Santa Catalina
The newest regional hotspot, Santa Catalina, is just an hour and a half boat ride from Coiba Island and is home to several restorative mind-body accommodations, including the community-centric Santa Catalina Retreats. Here, world-class yoga and surfing experiences await, as do connective adventures with the people in this relaxing, holistic fishing and farming village. Enjoy an oceanfront escape that combines modern, sustainably-built accommodations, adventurous wellness activities, fresh multicultural cuisine, and relaxed local rhythms. Santa Catalina is the primary jumping off point for the day and overnight trips to the beautiful landscapes of Coiba National Park.
Enjoying Biodiverse Adventures at the Panama Canal Watershed
The enormous Panama Canal Watershed was created when the mighty Chagres River was dammed near the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean in 1914 to create a canal passage that ran to the Pacific Ocean. It encompasses over 800,000 acres of pristine landscapes and provides drinking water and hydroelectric power to key parts of the nation. While the surrounding environment may have shifted course due to its creation, the canal mimics the natural opening that was present for millions of years.
Eco-Activities within the Canal Watershed
Today visitors can find numerous eco-adventures at and around the canal zone, including an amazing journey to Chagres National Park. Located just 30 miles from Panama City on the east side of the canal, this enormous nature preserve spans 300,000 acres and offers a diverse array of exciting outdoor experiences. The park’s namesake river showcases exciting Class II-III whitewater rafting experiences, and seasoned hikers can also experience historic guided tours along the legendary 16th century Camino Real (Royal Road) a Spanish route that takes you through rainforests and rugged mountain passes of the region. Here you’ll enjoy hands-on cultural and historical exploration as well as hospitality from the indigenous people who live along the trail.
Not to be outdone by its eastbound neighbor, the west side of the Panama Canal boasts its national park, known as Soberania. One of its major attractions is its diverse bird population, which is especially prominent along the famed Pipeline Road. The Audobon Society recorded a world-record 525 species at this location, including ground cuckoos, colorful trogons, brightly-marked toucans, crested eagles, and Broad-billed motmots. The 100-foot observation tower at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center allows for optimal viewing these avians as well as sightings of two-and-three toed sloths, tamarin monkeys, coatimundis (raccoons), and over 100 other mammals, such as the forest’s elusive wild jaguars.
Kayakers can enjoy day trips along the 165 square miles of beautiful Lake Gatun, a waterway that was created when the Chagres River was dammed over 100 years ago. A boat trip from the park across the lake takes you to Barro Colorado Island, one of the oldest tropical research centers in the world. Visitors can also visit two other amazing research preserves: Punta Galeta sits along the Caribbean coastline at the northern tip of the canal minutes from Panama’s sixth largest city of Colon, and Punta Culebra Nature Center is located at the Pacific entrance to the canal in Panama City.
Eco-Friendly Watershed Lodging
Inside Soberania National Park sits the rich cultural, spiritual, and ecological warmth of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Here, you’ll find an open environment where the local Embera and Wuanaan people provide educational and artistic exhibits highlighting their holistic interactions with the environment. The resort also showcases an innovative wellness spa, an aerial tram, Lake Gatun boat expeditions, and Panamanian eco-guides with expert knowledge of the area. These innovative accommodations are just half an hour from Panama City and within minutes of the Canopy Tower Eco-Lodge, where wildlife watchers can get a ‘bird’s eye view’ from their treetop level bedrooms. Voted by the Ancient Forests Foundations as Best Ecolodge, the Canopy Tower offers a healthy mix of local and American family-style dining and a culturally rich, environmentally-integrative approach to tourism.
For those interested in staying closer to Chagres National Park, Los Altos de Cerro Azul overlooks the park and provides many unique bed and breakfasts, lodges, and hotels that blend seamlessly into the surrounding natural landscapes. Fan favorites include the Mandalas Lodge and La Semilla Ecolodge, where trekkers receive a refreshing welcome and a relaxing experience that includes an enchanting bird observatory, a rejuvenating Turkish bath, miles of local trails, and day trips to nearby Lake Bayano.
Hiking The America’s Largest Inhabited Volcano at El Valle
A short trip west along the Inter-American Highway from Panama City will take you to the lush mountain panoramas of the Anton Valley. Here you’ll find the majestic village of El Valle, which is located within the crater of the second largest inactive and inhabited volcano in the world. The valley is teeming with enchanting cloud-encased mountain peaks that reach up to 3,800 feet, and pre-Columbian stone petroglyphs which have yet to be deciphered. Multifaceted experiences await you in and around this timeless and vibrant Panamanian village.
Eco-Activities of El Valle
El Valle provides an eye-opening view of Panama’s unique ability to combine serious sustainability with even more serious fun. One of the visitors’ most talked-about experiences is the canopy zip lining tour that winds through the valley’s forests and over the amazing 115-foot Chorro El Macho Waterfall. Here you can catch sight of the native blue Morpho butterflies swooping over the pool below the falls, as you swing through the region’s unique ‘cloud forests’ which form when the fog lifts off the fauna and flora that’s spread across the jungle floor. Mountain climbers can try their stamina on the valley’s highest peak, Cerro Gaital which stands at approximately 3800 feet, a height at which you can get a stunning view of the village’s volcanic crater.
Besides world-class mountain hiking and breathtaking waterfalls, El Valle is also home to a thermal hot springs, an orchid center that features environmental presentations, fun horseback riding, and biking adventures, and even a one-of-a-kind sojourn into ‘The Valley of the Square Trees‘, where right angles replace circumferences, and researchers trying to solve the puzzle of a phenomenon seen nowhere else in the world. With her numerous jaw-dropping treasures, El Valle holds a little something for every eco-lover on your list.
Eco-Friendly Mountain Accommodations
The year-round spring-like temperatures make El Valle an ideal place to stay in Panama, and one of the most celebrated accommodations in the region is The Canopy Lodge. Built into the hills of the vibrant valley, this nature lover’s retreat allows you to experience the region’s mysterious cloud forests right outside your bedroom window, and take an extraordinary multi-day bird watching tour to the area’s most famous sites. The lodge also features its library, family-style dining, and environmentally-integrated swimming pool, and is just steps from Chorro El Macho waterfall. Many other ecologically-conscious accommodations also dot the landscape of this magnificent mountain town.
If you’re ready to bring more light, laughter, and community-engaging natural adventures into your world, there’s an abundance of eco-friendly adventures that await you in Panama. The country’s breathtaking mountains, rain forest, oceans, and islands offer you unparalleled cultural and outdoor experiences amidst a landscape of unbridled natural beauty and awe-inspiring ecological delights.