Beautiful and interesting wildlife from both North and South America—especially birds—wind up either permanently or in transit on this narrow mountainous Central American land bridge between the two continents.
Powerful jaguars—New World version of the leopard—are here, along with glittering, emerald, resplendent quetzals, monkey-eating harpy eagles, and endemic golden frogs. Birds of 940 species include scarlet macaws a yard (1 m) long, among largest parrots in the world. Bird counts set world records—more than 350 species in a single day in and around newly created SAN LORENZO NATIONAL PARK at Achiote in the province of Colón; similar numbers in a day on the Pipeline Road at SOBERANIA NATIONAL PARK in Gamboa. Brilliant quetzals are abundant in the highland forests of Chiriquí Province in western Panama, at VOLCAN BARU and LA AMISTAD NATIONAL PARKS.
More than 1,200 kinds of orchids, including Panama’s national flower, the ivory holy ghost, cling to towering trees, some with trunks six feet (2 m) across. Hundreds of butterfly species in every conceivable color and pattern cluster around bright nectar-filled blooms.
White and black sand beaches are nest sites for endangered green, leatherback, hawksbill, and ridley sea turtles. “Panama” means “place of many fish” and world fishing records have been set for many species along the 477 miles (763 km) of Caribbean and 767 miles (1,227 km) of Pacific coastline. Colorful tropical fish of more than 200 species inhabit offshore coral reefs.
Habitats range from some of the largest mangrove estuaries in the Americas and seasonally dry forests along much of the Pacific coast to rain and cloud forest above 5,000 feet (1,500 m) to stunted and twisted dwarf elfin woodland on the highest peaks. Treeless paramo vegetation is found atop Cerro Echandi in La Amistad National Park and 11,000 foot (3,475 m) Baru Volcano in the rugged Talamanca mountain range of western Panama.
Panama has some of the wildest, diverse, least explored land north of the Amazon. Dense forests, swamps, and mountains of DARIÉN GAP can be crossed only by the most adventurous. Spaniards managed it in 1513 to catch first glimpse of the Pacific by any European and one can understand why, as the poet Keats said, they stood at that moment “silent, [as] on a peak in Darién.” While not certain, it is likely that they were not alone—some historians say there may have been as many as a half-million persons living in the Darién then, compared to fewer than 25,000 now.
There are about 500 rivers and 1,600 offshore islands, including Coiba, on the Pacific, now a national park and largest island in the seven-nation Central American isthmus.
National parks and reserves cover more than 29 percent of this country, about the size of West Virginia.