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ABC News.com: Going Wild in Panama

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Spider monkeys are among the many species that populate Panama's jungles and forests. (Joe Rubin for ABCNEWS.com)

Monkeys and Jaguars and Birds: Going Wild in Panama

Although Panama has some of the most diverse wildlife in the Western Hemisphere, the country is largely undiscovered as an ecotourist destination.

By Joe Rubin
Special to ABCNEWS.com

P A N A M A C I T Y, Panama -While its neighbor to the north, Costa Rica, is the ecotourism superpower, Panama is considered by many experts to be the most biodiverse country in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, when most people think of Panama, they don't think of rare wildlife and miles of deserted jungle-lined beaches. They think of the U.S. military zone along the Panama Canal and ousted dictator Manuel Noriega. Panama's reputation as a vacation spot is so poor, in fact, that few of the thousands of tourists who pass through the Panama Canal every year on cruise ships even bother to disembark. But all that may be changing.

Now, after a decade of relative stability and on the eve of the handover of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government, there is considerable effort under way to turn this Central American nation into the next ecotourism hot spot.

 

Although Panama has some of the most diverse wildlife in the Western Hemisphere, the country is largely undiscovered as an ecotourist destination.

 

Unexplored Wilds

As a land bridge between North and South America, Panama nurtures plant and animal life from both continents. Its jungles house more species of birds than all of North America and Europe, along with jaguars and howler, spider, white-face and night monkeys. Hundreds of miles of undeveloped coastline are lined with unexplored coral reefs.

There are even rain forests right inside Panama City. Metropolitan Park has hiking trails, monkeys and pristine dry tropical forests. National parks, great beaches and the Smithsonian's Barro Colorado Island are all within an hour of the city.

If you decide you want to explore Panama's jungles, coastlines and cities, you'll be hard-pressed to find a guidebook to show you the way. (Lonely Planet, however, is slated to publish its first book on Panama in January).

And you're not likely to bump into many fellow tourists, either. After my plane dropped dozens of backpackers in San Jose, Costa Rica, everyone who remained on board besides me was either Panamanian or on business (Panama is a major trade and banking center).

Strolling the Canal

When I landed in balmy Panama City around midnight, sans guidebook, I snagged a few fliers for hotels and ended up at the Hotel Montreal. Even at $14 a night, it was so shabby and noisy it was no bargain.

But the next day, I did a bit of investigating and found the Hotel California, where I could live it up in a spacious clean room with a view of the ocean for 20 bucks a night.

I also met up with Anna Corina Smith, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Anna, who was going to help me with translation on a news story, also agreed to show me around her city for a day.

We ended up on a wonderful grassy causeway at the beginning of thePanama Canal, where we sat in a cheap, open-air restaurant where ordinaryPanamanians come to drink rum, listen to Latin pop and watch the ships come in. The bullet marks in some of the buildings from the U.S. invasion a decade ago are the only signs that this spot was at one time less than tranquil.

 

More than 12 percent of Panama is protected wildlife lands, including acres of coastal coral reef and mangrove swamps.

 

Military Installation to Tourist Destination

In just over a year-Dec. 31, 1999-the canal and the lush 80,000 acres that surround it return to Panamanian control. The rain forest, jungle and national parks that line both sides of the canal hint at the country's promise as ecotourist's dream.

Enterprising Panamanians are poised to catch the wave. The swank Miramar Intercontinental, (an amazing place to stay with spectacular views if you can afford $235-$1,000 per night) recently broke ground on a multimillion-dollar $400-a-night hotel and-you guessed it-rain forest theme park.
Meanwhile, Raul Arias, one of Panama's leading intellectuals (once a key opposition leader against Noriega) is spending his days transforming a giant U.S. military radar tower into a bird-watching hotel in

Soberania National Park. He plans to start taking guests Dec. 15.
From the outside, with its daunting chain link fence and sign warning "U.S. Military Personnel Only" the tower still looks like a military installation. But the inside has been completely transformed. A spiral staircase winds around the tower through four large levels. Each floor has giant windows revealing another fascinating level of the rain forest.

The top two floors feature a dining room and open air rooftop observation deck where you can easily spot rare bird life and monkeys. From the roof, you look out over the national park, and in the distance, there are all manner of ships traversing the Panama Canal. Arias has hired a former poacher (who knows the rain forest better?) as a guide. He's determined to prove to Panamanians and tourists alike that ecotourism is a sustainable way to preserve his country's forests.

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