Darién National Park

Central America’s largest tropical rain forest wilderness is found in this outstanding national park, U.N. World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.

This wild, narrow stretch between North and South American continents is refuge for jaguars,ocelots, anteaters, sloths, and wilderness-loving wildlife from both continents.

White-tailed deer, which prefer open patches, share the park with smaller, forest-loving brocket deer. Capybaras up to 100 pounds (45 kg)—world’s largest rodents—swim, looking like small hairy hippopotami. Live oaks and magnolia trees from southern North America compete for sunlight with chiriqui and Darién oaks. American crocodiles share rivers with southern caiman cousins.

For many it is a demarcation line. Coyotes which reach central Panama are replaced in the Darién by smaller bush dogs which range from Panama south through Brazil. Black spider monkeys of Colombia and Venezuela begin to replace red spider monkeys of Mexico in central Panama, and golden-headed quetzals of the Andes—beautiful but lacking the spectacular plumes of resplendent quetzals of Central American cordilleras—begin to appear.

Along with spotted jaguars and ocelots are three other species of felines, among them pumas or mountain lions. Primates include booming howlers and small brown-headed spider monkeys. They are preyed on by monkey-eating harpy eagles, one of the world’s most powerful raptors and Panama’s national bird. Ponderous 500-pound (225-kg) Baird’s tapirs shoulder their way through wet, wooded interior places.

Darién is the only Central American forest with four colorful macaws—red-and-green, blueand- yellow, great green, and chestnut-fronted.

It is still possible to follow the path of the Spaniards, who, led by Balboa, climbed to get their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in 1513—but anyone who has done so recently admires their pluck. Darién Gap is a daunting passage, holding the possibility of impressive wildlife but in sometimes all-but-impenetrable jungle. Trees tower to 125 feet (40 m) and higher with six-footdiameter (2-m) trunks. Humidity on the forest floor can be 100 percent—30 percent higher than the airy canopy—a dampness which, with continued exposure, induces jungle rot. Painful stinging insects abound, along with swamp parasites and poisonous snakes.

A British Army expeditionary force equipped with Land Rovers, U.S. Army helicopters, and 27 horses took three months to make the 250-mile trek in 1972. Darién is the only break in the Pan-American Highway stretching from Fairbanks, Alaska to Puerto Montt, Chile, an inaccessibility that, as with other intact wilderness, has been its greatest protection.

Mountainous, steep cloud forests are less difficult to negotiate, and still higher are elfin forests stunted by chill and constant winds. This varied forest network has been called by scientists the most diverse ecosystem of Central America, sheltering myriad varieties of colorful songbirds and butterflies fluttering around bright epiphytes and flowering vines.

Fortunately, impressive parts of this 2,345-square-mile (6,070-km2) national park, World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve can be experienced without braving hardships. Several birding tour companies offer trips to Cana, which has a remote airstrip deep in the heart of the park.