THE MOST AWESOME NATIONAL PARKS IN PANAMA TO VISIT
In a nation famed across the globe for its untouched backcountry, magma-belching volcanos and pristine coastline (on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea), it's hardly surprising that such a mouthwatering, wanderlust-inducing medley of national parks awaits. Here's just a taster of some of LBW's favourites…
Volcan Baru National Park
It should hardly come as a surprise that the ecotourist destination extraordinaire that is Boquete sits just outside the boundaries of the smoke-spluttering Volcan Baru National Park. Covered in lush jungle, waxy groves of palm trees and rare orchid plants, this is one of the most primeval corners of the country. It's packed with roaring rivers of white water (get ready for some rafting), mud-caked hiking trails weave this way and that, coffee grows wild on the hills and the craggy top of Volcán Barú itself can be made out on the horizon - expect to meet the likes of feral cats and hawk eagles as you walk to the summit!
Portobelo National Park
There was a time when Spanish galleons and man-o-wars would have bobbed on the waters around the Portobelo National Park, their holds packed with gold and gems and the treasures plucked from the would-be colonial lands of the New World. Today, there are ageing fortifications and cannon-topped bulwarks still standing here as a testimony to that glorious age, while the jungles and coastal wilds of Panama have taken over all around – think coral reefs, mangrove forests and more.
Altos De Campana National Park
A true off-the-beaten-path gem on Panama's line-up of awesome national parks, the Altos De Campana can be reached on a lengthy day trip from the capital at Panama City. However, those who opt to linger a couple of days will get to explore a gorgeous land of secondary growth forests, carved mountain bluffs and winding lagoons, all delineated by the salt-frothing waters of the Pacific Ocean. There are a couple of rustic homestays to bed down in, plenty of untrodden beachfronts to see (not another footprint in sight!) and loads of mountain trails to hike.
Bastimentos National Park
A patchwork of shimmering cays, white-sand beaches, swaying coconut palms, bobbing catamarans and multi-coloured underwater reefs, the Bastimentos National Park is the marine hotspot of the Panamanian Carib coast. It's packed with crocs, caimans, sloths and moneys, who all lurk in the bayous and the mangrove swamps. You don't have to go in search of those biters though. You could always just make do with long, lazy days on the powdery beaches of Playa Primera or Playa Larga – so long as you can suffer the company of a couple of uber-cute sea turtles, of course.
Coiba Island National Park
The Coiba Island National Park is the veritable jewel of the Veraguas coast. Poking their palm-topped heads up from the swells of the Pacific Ocean, the 38 individual islands that form the reserve are a medley of shimmering coral reefs (some of the largest of their kind in the whole American Pacific) and rugged geological features (formed less than 20,000 years ago, when they were ripped from the mainland of Panama). Coiba Island itself is the best place to go and explore, with opportunities to see humpback whales, sharks, and even the uber-rare scarlet macaw in the wild.
Gaital National Park
Soaring high over the Anton Valley just to the west of Panama City, the clutch of arched peaks that forms the heart of the Gaital National Park is perfect for hikers and outdoorsy types in search of the country's unbeaten path. Lush rainforests cover the cerros (ridges), which shoulder their way to over 1,200 meters above sea level, offering sweeping views of the Pacific and – sometimes – even the Caribbean Sea to boot. Vistas of green treetops dominate on all sides, while creeping lizards and monkeys inhabit the forests.
Soberania National Park
Cascading down from the misty highlands of the country to the edge of the Panama Canal, this 220-square-kilometer national park is most famed for its kaleidoscope of tropical bird species. Many are endemic, and are rarely spotted anywhere else on the planet: the white-whiskered puffbird; the blue-chested hummingbird; woodnymphs; fruitcrows; cuckoos. The reserve is also home to the haunting Las Cruces Trail, which was once trodden by Spanish conquistadores and used to transport gold shipments across the Americas to the ports and back to Europe!
Darien National Park
Way down in the wild and untrodden southern reaches of Panama, the seemingly endless expanse that is the Darien National Park has become synonymous with some of the most primeval hinterland left on the planet. It covers the rugged mountains and impenetrable rainforests of the so-called Darien Gap; bridging the way between Central and South America with its feral landscapes where only canoes or walking boots can venture. Look up and you'll see colorful macaws and rare monkeys. Look to the trails and jaguar tracks mix with ocelot pawprints. Yep, this one's only for the real adventurers a la Bear Grylls!
El Cope National Park
Home to the rare cloud forest habitats of Central America and occupying an enviable location up in the verdant Central Cordillera, the El Cope National Park is home to all of Panama's endangered cat species (think margays, jaguars, pumas et al), and oodles more besides. It's got hiking paths aplenty, the rustic ecotourist hotspot of El Cope village, and – on clear days – sweeping views across the heart of the country to both the Pacific and Caribbean shores.
Cerro Hoya National Park
Babbling riverways cut through chiselled gorges of ancient stone, lanky forests sway in the ocean breezes and spiny cedar thickets bar the way. Welcome to the Cerro Hoya National Park: one of the most inaccessible of all in Panama. Come here for long hikes through the primeval woods. Come to glimpse the rugged coves of the southern coast that few others have glimpsed before you. Come to camp in the company of painted parakeets and macaws. Come to stalk jaguars and tapirs in their natural habitat.
Are you a veteran explorer of the Panamanian wilds? Can you think of any more awesome national parks that should be on this list? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below! Or, if your wanderlust's been piqued by this selection of palm-peppered beachfronts and misty jungles, be sure to check out LBW's offering of trips to Panama – they are sure to break the bucket list in two!