A small black and yellow bird perches on a branch with nest-making materials in its beak.

A Common Tody-Flycatcher spotted in Parque Nacional Soberanía. Photo © Geoff Gallice, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of the Panama Canal and Central Isthmus

The Panama Canal and Central Isthmus

Panama’s Parque Nacional Soberanía is a true tropical forest, and it’s one of the most accessible in the world. Its 22,000 hectares extend along the east bank of the Panama Canal, ending at Lago Gatún near the town of Limón. The wildlife is amazing, especially considering how close the park is to population centers. Among its inhabitants are 525 species of birds, 105 species of mammals, 55 species of amphibians, and 79 species of reptiles.

All its well-maintained trails are a short drive from Panama City on the Gaillard Highway, making it quite feasible to go for a morning hike during which there’s a chance of encountering such tourist-pleasing critters as sloths, coatimundis, toucans, and kinkajous, and then be back in the heart of the city in time for lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant.

A section of the famous Camino de Cruces (Las Cruces Trail), which has a history dating to the 16th century, runs through the park. To reach it by car, continue straight when the Gaillard Highway forks just past the railroad overpass with “1929” carved in it. The road, now Madden Road (don’t expect a street sign), will pass through a forest, which, sadly, is often strewn with litter. There’s a parking area and picnic tables on the left after 6.3 kilometers. The trailhead is well marked. It’s possible to hike this trail for about five or six hours to the Chagres and even camp along it. For just a glimpse of this storied trail, walk at least five minutes along it and you’ll come to a section where the ancient paving stones that once lined the trail have been restored. In the dry season, you may have to brush aside dead leaves to find them. (Use your boot to do this, not your hand, as there are still some poisonous snakes in the forest.)

All the other trails are on the road to Gamboa. Back near the 1929 overpass, turn off the Galliard Highway toward Gamboa. The first major trail will be the wide, flat Plantation Road. It’s a right turn off the highway; follow the Canopy Tower signs. The entrance to the trail is on the left at the base of the road leading to the Canopy Tower.

Farther along the main road is Sendero El Charco (literally, pond trail), also on the right. This is a very short (844 meters) trail with a little waterfall near the entrance. A barbecue area on the premises attracts hordes of families on the weekends.

The best trail for viewing birdlife is the famous Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto). To get there, cross over the one-lane bridge leading into Gamboa. Continue straight. After about three kilometers the road will fork; take the left fork onto the gravel road. The swampy area to the right, just before Pipeline Road, is worth checking out on the way back from an early-morning birding trip. At around 8–9 a.m., as the forest warms up, there’s an excellent chance of spotting capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, on the far side of the clearing. A couple of kilometers past this area there’s a Parque Nacional Soberanía sign indicating you’ve reached Camino del Oleoducto. Make a right here and park.

For the first six kilometers or so, the forest is mostly secondary growth. You’ll see dozens of species of birds if you arrive early. There’s a slight chance of finding anteaters, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, Geoffroy’s tamarin, green iguanas, agoutis, coatimundis, or two- and three-toed sloths. Serious birders will want to continue past this area into old-growth forest, where there’s a possibility of seeing such rare specimens as yellow-eared toucanets, crimson-bellied woodpeckers, sirystes, and other gorgeous birds that will impress even those who don’t know a russet antshrike from a slaty-winged foliage-gleaner. The unbelievably lucky may see an endangered harpy eagle, but don’t count on it. Pipeline Road continues for many kilometers, but the bridges over streams are not well-maintained these days. Bridge collapses can curtail a long hike. Get here by dawn to see this famous birding road in all its feathered glory.

About 1.6 kilometers in from the entrance to Pipeline Road is the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center (tel. 264-6266 in Panama City, tel. 314-9386 or 314-9388 in Gamboa, 6 a.m.–4 p.m. daily), a new interpretive center and observation tower in the middle of the forest. The tower is a modern steel structure 30 meters high, with rest platforms on the way up and a top platform that’s just above the canopy. There is a kilometer of developed trails in the immediate area. The visitors center has restrooms and a gift shop that sells drinks and snacks. Admission to the complex is a whopping US$30 for adults and US$4 for kids younger than 12 during the premium time of 6–10 a.m., when one is most likely to see wildlife. The price drops to US$20 for adults and US$2 for kids after 10 a.m. But to have the best chance of seeing interesting wildlife, particularly birds, visitors should try to be on-site as soon as the tower opens. The center is open daily except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Recently it has been offering late afternoon hikes (4–6 p.m.), when the forest starts to come back to life.

Other than the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, the rest of the Pipeline Road area, and the national park generally, is open to the public at a much more modest fee. Hiking and camping permits are available at the ANAM office at the edge of the park, inconveniently located well before any of the trails. It’s on Gaillard Highway at the fork just past the narrow overpass; you can’t miss the huge Parque Nacional Soberanía sign. The office is officially open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays, but the staff live in the little house behind the office so there should always be someone there to take your money. Entrance fee is US$5, which gives visitors access to all the trails for the day. The camping fee is another US$5.

Bear in mind there are no developed camping sites in the park (though there are some facilities at Sendero El Charco) and this is a tropical forest. Those planning an early-morning hike can probably pay on the way back without a problem. But otherwise ask about the conditions of the trails, especially Pipeline Road, before venturing out. The Camino de Cruces is quite a hike from the other trails; Gamboa-bound buses take passengers only as far as the fork to Gamboa, after which you’ll have to hoof it for six kilometers unless you can flag down a ride. It’s much more convenient to take a taxi from Panama City or go with a tour group.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Panama.