Natural Treasures of the Western Highlands
The western highlands of Panama start at the Costa Rican border and head east for hundreds of kilometers along the Cordillera de Talamanca and the Cordillera Central.
Much of Parque Internacional La Amistad and all of Parque Nacional Volcán Barú are in the highlands. The highlands also extend north into Bocas del Toro province, where they descend toward the Caribbean.
The western highlands harbor more virgin forest than any other region of Panama. The area’s huge national parks are home to a bewildering array of plant- and animal life, much of it endemic and some of it endangered.
The mountain forests are threatened by encroaching farmland, which in turn is threatened by erosion. But there’s a growing sense among highland dwellers that they’re surrounded by something special that needs to be carefully preserved.
Spend any time up here and you’ll soon know how cloud forests got their name. At the highest elevations you are literally in the clouds, and it’s quite a dramatic sight to see puffy white billows blowing through the moss-draped trees in the afternoons.
Some parts of the woods may remind you of a temperate forest, but don’t be fooled; you are still in the tropics. The forest has many of the same dangers and attractions as the lowland jungles, including venomous snakes.
This is one of the best places in the Americas to see the resplendent quetzal, an absolutely stunning bird. In the dry season, visitors often see several on a single outing. You’re likely to see several species of jewel-toned hummingbirds among the hundreds of other bird species that make their home here.
Though you’d be very lucky to spot one, the forests are home to all five species of endangered felines found in Panama, including the jaguar. They are also home to one of the last stands of the endangered Baird’s tapir, the largest land mammal in Central America.
Boquete is famous for its coffee and oranges, and the streams on the west side of Barú are filled with human-introduced trout. Flowers, strawberries, race horses, and dairy cows are also raised in the highlands.
It’s refreshingly cool in the highlands, with temperatures that dip down to 7°C and sometimes lower. And it’s wet: Rainfall can exceed five meters. Even in the dry season, the mountains and valleys are often shrouded in what’s affectionately known as bajareque, a foggy drizzle that can create photogenic rainbows. No matter when you come, bring rain gear.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition