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ABC News.com: Discovering Panama

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Panama's spectacular coast is fringed by jungle. (Joe Rubin for ABCNEWS.com)

Dense Jungles, Pristine Beaches, Exotic Wildlife
Discovering Panama

By Joe Rubin
Special to ABCNEWS.com

Already, Panama´s forests and coastal areas are a dream destination for the more adventurous ecotourists. Among the highlighs:

In and Around Panama City

The Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side of the canal are a fascinating place to watch giant ships traverse the canal with only a few inches to spare on either side. The awe-inspiring locks were at one time the largest manmade structure in the world.
It's easy to forget that you are only 20 miles from Panama City when you're hiking through Soberania National Park serenaded by howler monkeys and birds. You'll see more rare birds than tourists-the world record bird count for a 24-hour period was established on the park's "Pipeline Road" in 1985.

Barro Colorado IslandAt the Smithsonian's tropical research center on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), about a hundred scientists study everything from leafcutter ants to five species of monkeys. The flora and fauna on BCI is so numerous and diverse, it's been dubbed the "Tropical Galapagos." Despite the fact that BCI is the kind of place you'd normally only see in a National Geographic documentary, travelers can visit the island.

The Smithsonian just finished construction of a beautiful visitors center and offers day trips. But you need to plan well ahead if you want to take the tour; there is a yearlong waiting list. If you don't have that kind of time before you want to go to Panama, Ecotours tour company has its own tour of the island that takes last-minute reservations.

UPDATE October 2001Reservations for BCI tours can now be made directly through STRI’s Visitor Services Office, or one of the numerous tour operators (not just Ecotours!) in Panama that work with the Institute. Reservations can be made any day prior to the visit, and are given on a space-available basis, but these days
waiting lists are nearly gone.

For reservations made through the Visitor Services Office, the number is +(507) 212-8026 or
fax +(507) 212-8148. The Visitor Services Office is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.]

Darien Gap

The Pan American Highway manages to wind its way all the way from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to Alaska, but the Darien Gap is one 80-mile stretch of intense jungle where the road just stops. The Darien's pristine jungle is a fascinating place for both naturalists and anthropologists. The population is mostly indigenous, with three major tribes living in the area: the Kuna, Embera and Wounan.
Getting around the Darien requires resources, skilled guides and some means. Right-wing paramilitary groups, left-wing guerillas from neighboring Colombia, and drug smugglers have all taken to hiding in the jungles. There are only a few risky areas, however, and guided trips will help steer you away.

San Blas Islands

If you're of the opinion that there is no place left in the Caribbean to discover, you might want to check out the San Blas Islands, about 350 islands off of the southern Atlantic coast of Panama. These islands offer paradise-like surroundings and cheap, rustic accommodations in a truly unique setting.
You'll be a guest of the Kuna Indian nation, which has achieved a rare balance of maintaining its cultural traditions while welcoming tourists. You can get there on a $40, one-hour flight from Panama City.

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a region in northern Panama with a Caribbean influence, unspoiled beaches, rugged 10,000-foot-high mountains and some of the best coral reefs in the Western Hemisphere. While there are a few small hotels, for the moment Bocas del Toro, like the rest of Panama, is pretty much undiscovered.

There are actually only about 10 miles of roads and 75 vehicles in Bocas-most of them collective taxis that will take you anywhere you need to go for 50 cents. Of course most places of interest are only accessible by boat, but there is no shortage of boats for hire, as well as guides to take you to deserted islands and coral reefs.

Bocas is also a great place to sample a wonderful variety of seafood and homegrown calypso music. A one-hour flight from Panama City will run you $50.

You can take a trip to Barro Colorado Island, where scientists are studying everything from ants to monkeys. Or you can sample tropical Bocas del Toro

Rare birds found in Panama include the Resplendant Quetzal, Bay-headed Tanager, Coiba Spinetail, Broad-billed Sapayos and White-tipped Sicklebill.

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