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Panama is one of my favourite countries for nature and wildlife travel in the Americas. I think what I immediately noticed about Panama the first time I visited back in 2015 was the accessibility of great wild areas, particularly ones close to Panama City.
Within a one to two-and-a-half hour drive of the city, you can be in some very nice, well-preserved wild areas that are family-friendly, well equipped and give you the opportunity to see wonderful wildlife, including iconic neotropical birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians as well as some decent snorkelling.
Click here to skip ahead to the list.
Or read a bit more about what makes Panama so special.
Why Panama is such a Mecca for nature and wildlife lovers
Panama is the first or, depending on how you look at it, the last in the chain of countries making up the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor—a region that starts in Southern Mexico and extends throughout Central America before finally reaching the forests and mountains of the Darién—where Central transitions into South America. A transcontinental country, Panama contains more overlapping fauna than anywhere else in the region.
With incredibly diverse ecosystems, from humid tropical lowland forests to globally important freshwater wetlands and mangroves, Caribbean and Pacific coastal habitats and islands, coral reefs, cloud forests, and savannas, the country protects some 3.5 million hectares of its land and waters, or 38.66 percent of the national area.
An ecology and wildlife research hotspot, Panama, together with Costa Rica, produces more than five times the biodiversity research of any other Central American country.
As a nature and wildlife travel destination, Panama has long been famous as an international birding Mecca, with over 1,000 native and migratory species recorded in the country—107 of which are endemic, thanks to the country’s unique location—that’s 10 percent of the world’s known bird species.
Panama is also a niche, though world-class diving destination. The Noriega-era penal colony, Isla Coiba, 160 km off the country’s Pacific coast, is a renowned congregation point for the critically endangered Scalloped Hammerhead Shark—one of a few such places left on the planet. Fantastic mammal, reptile and amphibian-centred nature travel are also possible
in Panama’s reserves and protected areas.
With that knowledge in mind, below are 6 of things to do in and around Panama City for nature lovers.
Table of Contents
Cocobolo Nature Reserve (and the Marmoni Valley)
Cocobolo Nature Reserve (and field station) is a privately owned reserve and conservation research site in Central Panama’s Mamoní Valley. Right on the southern slope of the continental divide, it straddles a mountain ridge between the country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
It covers some 410 hectares of primary cloud forest and secondary lowland forest, constituting a vitally important part of the Mesoamerican Corridor.
Because it is located at the narrowest stretch of that corridor, it forms a crucial biogeographical transit area connecting Mexico to South America, home to Jaguars, Pumas, Ocelots, Margay Cats, critically endangered harlequin toads, Crested Curassows and thousands of species of invertebrates.
It is an extension of Chagres National Park and Narganá Wildlife Area, which, combined, constitute hundreds of thousands of hectares of intact forest.
Accommodations here are very basic. There are no beds, just covered platforms where you set up tents and inflatable mattresses. The station provides tents, but guests need to bring their own bedding. Cocobolo is entirely off-grid and runs on Solar.
If you’re interested in reading a more detailed breakdown of Cocobolo and what it has to offer, I wrote a much more complete guide to visiting and what to expect while there.
Want a list of 150 of the most unique nature and wildlife travel experiences around the world?
Gamboa Rainforest Reserve
Gamboa, a small town in Panama’s Canal Zone, serves as a gateway to the stunning Soberania National Park, which boasts an impressive array of wildlife and constitutes an important wildlife area within a stone’s throw of Panama City.
While the town itself is relatively small, it’s the lush rainforest and abundant fauna that draw nature enthusiasts and wildlife aficionados. Over 400 bird species, 79 reptile species, 55 amphibian species, and 125 mammal species call this region home.
Pipeline Road is a renowned destination for bird enthusiasts. Stretching for 10 miles, this dirt road originally built during World War II has become a beloved spot for birders worldwide.
Over 400 species have been observed here–a highly respectable species count even by the standards of a famously bird-rich country like Panama. To enjoy the best birdwatching, head out early in the morning.
Check out the eBird list for Pipeline Road. It’s super impressive.
Reptiles and Amphibians
As you wander through the rainforest, keep your eyes on the forest floor. You’ll encounter anoles, iguanas, amevias, frogs (including dart frogs) and snakes (always the most elusive forest creatures).
By the water, you might spot basilisk lizards, caimans, and crocodiles. These creatures add to the rich biodiversity around the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.
It’s quite remarkable that all of this is available so close to Panama City.
Agoutis are a common sight around Gamboa.
They forage for nuts, seeds, and leaves, but they are wild animals and highly skittish, so avoid getting too close. Howler monkeys, capuchins, and Geoffroy’s tamarins are also frequently seen.
Howlers are the largest and most vocal, producing groans that carry for miles. For a more intimate monkey encounter, although definitely a much less authentic one, consider a family-friendly boat tour on Lake Gatun.
Sloths, while more challenging to spot, are another common primate sight around Gamboa. The Gamboa Rainforest Reserve even has a sloth sanctuary for those eager for a closer look.
Isla Barro Colorado
For an even more incredible experience, take a guided tour to Isla Barro Colorado, a small island reserve in the Chagres River watershed. It’s home to an astonishing 381 bird species and 120 mammal species, making it a true biodiversity hotspot within easy reach of Panama City.
Whatever your primary nature and wildlife interests, Gamboa is undoubtedly one of the best-known and most beloved nature and wildlife excursions close to Panama City.
Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or just a nature enthusiast, Gamboa’s rainforest and freshwater ecosystems are easily accessible from Panama, impressive enough to delight serious nature and wildlife travellers, while also being set up for more casual/family outings.
Guided tour options
If seeing as many animals (particularly birds) is the objective, the tour that looks best set up for this is the Panama City: Soberania National Park Hiking Tour.
Check out the tour
El Valle de Anton
El Valle de Antón, situated in Panama’s western foothills, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise.
Nestled in the caldera of an ancient volcano, this town offers a unique and breathtaking landscape, showcasing the remnants of a volcanic eruption over 200,000 years ago.
El Valle de Antón is known for its picturesque setting within the volcanic caldera and the town itself is perched at an elevation of about 600 meters, which provides a refreshing change from the warmer lowlands of Panama.
Approximately 6 kilometres wide, the area features in-tact montane forests rich in biodiversity. The forests around the town are home to some beautiful protected areas that are favourites among international birdwatchers and reptile and amphibian enthusiasts (especially those looking for nature and wildlife on the doorstep of Panama City).
Several natural attractions make El Valle an excellent destination for nature lovers. You can explore the stunning Chorro El Macho waterfall, the serene Las Mozas waterfall, and the unique “square” trees near Hotel Campestre.
Additionally, there are small, multi-coloured thermal pools with mineralized water.
One of the Best Wildlife Observation Opportunities Close to Panama City
El Valle de Antón is renowned for being one of the last habitats of the critically endangered Panamanian golden frog.
The region is also home to around 500 species of birds–one of few sites worldwide that can claim “500” status–making it a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Many species of tanagers, hummingbirds, toucans, flycatchers, motmots, raptors and more inhabit these forests, and the varied habitats, including lush montane forests, forest edges, open fields, and streams, offer plenty of opportunities to add dozens of species to your list in a single day.
Several speciality species, such as the Black-crowned Antpitta, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Collared Trogon, can be found in this area.
Mammals like Brown-throated Three-toed and Hoffmann’s Two-toed sloths, Rothschild’s Porcupine, Greater Grison, and various squirrel and monkey species inhabit the forests around El Valle, as do iconic Atlantic Slope forest reptiles and amphibians like Eyelash Pit-Vipers and Red-eyed Tree Frogs.
How to Get There
El Valle de Antón is located approximately 25 kilometres off the Interamerican Highway in Panama. You can reach the town by a two-lane road that is generally in good condition, with periodic maintenance for potholes.
If you’re travelling from Panama City, which is about a 2.5-hour drive away, you’ll find frequent mini-buses that provide convenient transportation.
What to Expect
When you visit El Valle de Antón, you can expect to immerse yourself in a lush, montane forest environment with a wide variety of wildlife.
Birdwatching is a major attraction, and you can discover rare and elusive species alongside more common birds. Mixed feeding flocks offer the chance to observe tanagers, euphonias, honeycreepers, and a multitude of other species all foraging together.
El Valle is also known for its hummingbirds, with approximately 28 species recorded in the area.
You’ll likely encounter foothills species like the Rufous-crested Coquette, Snowcap, and White-tipped Sicklebill. The montane forests are home to other unique species, including the Northern Emerald-Toucanet.
El Valle de Antón, with its breathtaking natural beauty and abundant wildlife, provides an unforgettable experience close enough to Panama City to make it a day or weekend trip. Whether you’re interested in hiking, birdwatching, night excursions, or simply taking in the ambience, El Valle represents a unique, easily accessible adventure in Panama’s western foothills.
Guided tour options
There are a few nature/adventure package tour options for the Valle de Anton if you’re staying in Panama City.
Check out one of the tours
Where to stay
If you’d rather do your own thing in the Valle de Anton, you can either rent a car in Panama City and drive their yourself or, if you’re planning on staying overnight (or a couple of nights) you can stay at a local hotel.
Gatun Lake isn’t your typical freshwater lake. Artificially created in 1913 when the Gatun Dam was sealed, it is now home to a diverse array of lowland wildlife and is a unique nature and wildlife destination near the Panama Canal.
It’s also very family-friendly and only an hour from Panama City.
What to expect
Gatun is impressively biodiverse, but most people come to see the habituated monkeys that approach boats looking for peanuts.
These include white-faced monkeys, Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkeys, and howler monkeys. Again, these are wild monkeys that are regularly fed, so not really an “authentic” nature and wildlife observation experience but the the surroundings are beautiful and kids will definitely get a kick out of it.
Guided tour options
Visitors to Gatun Lake in Panama can expect a wide range of guided tours, each offering unique experiences and insights into the stunning natural surroundings.
Eco-Cruises on Gatun Lake
These cruises typically make stops at Monkey Island, where you can observe the aforementioned monkey species. The surrounding forest and islands provide an immersive experience with nature, and you might even witness large ships transiting the Panama Canal, creating an exciting blend of natural beauty and industrial engineering.
Aerial Tram Tours
For a unique perspective on the Panamanian rainforest, aerial tram tours are available. Visitors move through treetops in a tram while being guided by naturalists.
This tour provides opportunities to learn about the fascinating facts and secrets of the jungle while surrounded by the colorful plumage of birds.
Jungle Hikes and Rainforest Explorations
These hikes typically include a boat ride, followed by a rainforest exploration.
Expert guides lead you through Soberania National Park, home to rare orchids, wonderful bird diversity and elusive mammals. The hike culminates at a 280-foot peak with breathtaking views of the Chagres River, the Embera indigenous community, and Soberania National Park.
Eco-Adventures and Birdwatching
For those who love adventure, eco-adventure tours offer a chance to explore the diverse ecosystem of the region. Look out for birds, monkeys, butterflies, frogs, and other species while receiving insightful commentary from knowledgeable guides. Recommended trails like The Plantation or Pipeline Road offer varying terrains suitable for nearly all levels of hikers and birdwatchers.
Sloth Sanctuary Visits
Animal enthusiasts can get up close to the sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary, which doubles as a rehabilitation and training program for injured, sick, and orphaned sloths. Explore this unique sanctuary and learn about these fascinating creatures.
Check out some of the tours
Metropolitan Natural Park
Panama City’s Metropolitan Natural Park is a hidden gem within the city limits. Nestled right in the heart of the bustling metropolis, this park offers a remarkable escape into nature and is one of the easiest things to do in Panama City for nature lovers.
The trails offer varying levels of elevation, including one that leads to an observation area providing breathtaking views of Panama City.
Your $4 entrance fee is a small price to pay for an opportunity to enjoy an easy hike while observing wildlife and exploring lush foliage.
Expect to spot avian species like puffbirds, woodpeckers, motmots, and colorful tanagers as well as monkeys and sloths–especially if you’re patient and visit early in the morning when wildlife is most active.
If you’re seeking a break from urban Panama City, the Metropolitan Natural Park is an excellent, affordable and accessible choice.
Snorkeling/Diving and Kayaking in Portobelo Bay
Portobelo Bay in Panama is a captivating destination just a few hours from Panama City, offering visitors a rich mix of history and natural beauty.
Located on the north coast, this historic port town was founded in 1597, playing a pivotal role in the Spanish trans-Atlantic trade. Today, it’s a fishing village surrounded by jungle, nice beaches and some decent Caribbean snorkelling and diving.
The bay offers an array of exciting activities, making it a fantastic destination for nature enthusiasts. For those who prefer to stay above the water, kayaking around the bay is nice.
For those seeking a more adventurous experience, Portobelo offers good diving opportunities. Don’t expect Bonaire or Belize, however.
All in all, Portobelo Bay is a unique blend. It’s an easily accessible escape from Panama City, offering a delightful mix of natural beauty, history, and Caribbean charm.
Check out the tours
Despite being a well-developed urban area, complete with skyscrapers, heavy traffic, and the light and noise pollution you’d expect from a big metropolis, there are a surprising number of things to delight nature and wildlife lovers in and around Panama City.
The Panamanian government, to varying though very often admirable degrees, recognizes both the inherent and the economic value of its natural capital and has preserved a significant amount of it.
Easily accessible nature and wildlife experiences close to the city make Panama one of the most unique cities in the Americas and one from which it is very easy and affordable to experience wonderful nature.
I’ve given a few people Panama City recommendations in the past and, naturally, a lot of visitors to the city who are interested in seeing nature and wildlife have questions about the quality, quantity and accessibility of places like the ones covered in my above list.
What is the nature like in Panama City
Panama is the only urban capital in Latin America with a significant stretch of well-preserved tropical dry forest within its city limits–Metropolitan Natural Park.
What’s more, places like Gamboa and Pipeline Road provide a large and important refuge for thousands of species of reptiles and amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and freshwater fish.
It is safe to say that the nature and wildlife travel opportunities and things to do in Panama City are likely well beyond what you will get anywhere else in the world. Within a few hours, you can fully immerse yourself in really nice lowland rainforest, montane forest and wetlands.
What animals are found in Panama City?
Panama City’s Metropolitan Natural Park protects 232 hectares of tropical dry forest, one of the last vestiges along the Central American Pacific Coast. It is home to 45 species of mammals, including the Central American Agouti, White-nosed Coati, Hoffmann’s Two-toed and Brown-throated Three-toed sloths, and Mantled Howler, White-faced Capuchin, and Geoffroy’s Tamarin Monkeys in the canopy.
There are also more than 254 species of birds, 284 species of trees, and a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians found in places like Panama City’s Metropolitan Natural Park. The exceptional biodiversity, so close to the city, underscores the park’s significance as a sanctuary for both the wildlife that inhabits it and the people who seek to connect with the natural world.