Sometimes when I travel I want to get lost in a new city. Other times, I want to escape the concrete and surround myself with nature. The great thing about Panama City is you can do both.
The Central American metropolis is a growing financial center, often coined as “Little Miami,” though it resembled more like a Latin Singapore or Hong Kong to me. With high rises in the downtown area, colonial style buildings in the old town, and poverty-stricken buildings in-between, the city offers a mix of urban landscapes.
But Panama is known just as much for its unique biodiversity and nature reserves as its city life. Just a short 10 minute ride outside of the downtown area lies a 265 hectare rainforest open for public visits at Metropolitan National Park. A more popular rainforest sits in Gamboa, a neighboring town an hour outside Panama City. But I chose to visit the much closer Metropolitan National Park instead.
Early one morning, I ordered an Uber and headed for the park. The visitor center lies towards the southern base of the reserve. Staff were friendly and helpful in explaining the various trails. There are five trails in total, four of which complete a four-kilometer loop. Based on the recommendations of the staff, I walked three of the trails.
Trail: Sendero El Roble
The first trail starts behind the visitor center and features a butterfly park, plant nursery and small lagoon. I skipped the butterfly park and headed north on the trail. Sendero El Roble runs half a kilometer against a highway. Though I was surrounded by nature, the noise of the traffic was a little jarring.
Metropolitan National Park features over 284 species of trees, 45 species of mammals, and 254 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. I was determined to spot at least some of these animals.
However, on Sendero El Roble, there were no creatures present, perhaps due to the proximity to the road and the visitor center. But there are a few large, military scraps of metal throughout the trail. The park was once the site for a major battle with the United States during their invasion in Panama to oust Manuel Noriega during the late 1980’s. It was also grounds to test and assemble military planes in World War II.
Trail: Sendero La Clenaguita
After a short walk up Sendero El Roble, the trail turns inwards, onto Sendero La Cienaguita. As I turned onto the new trail, I passed a few morning joggers descending down. (It’s never a good sign when you are the only person trekking uphill!)
While Sendero El Roble was flat and an easy walk, the new trail was all an upward climb. The sound of traffic soon disappeared and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a dense and remote rainforest. After a few hills, I suddenly heard cackling from the trees above. At the top of the trees were a handful of titi monkeys, jumping from branch to branch. The monkeys were too fast to capture on my camera but I managed to snap at least one of them.
Trail: Camino del Mono Titi
After a hefty kilometer climb, the end of Sendero La Clenaguita converges with the next trail, Camino del Mono Titi and a key attraction: Mirador Lookout Point. The view from this point is breathtaking – a cityscape framed by the plantation of the rainforest.
The walk down Camino del Mono Titi starts with a surprise visit by a young deer, who jolts when he spots me. On a tree near where he was standing, I notice a brightly red-colored bird. The crimson crested woodpecker is too busy knocking on the tree to notice me staring.
By the time I reach the bottom of the trail, I’m greeted by a smiling security guard who points to the trees above. High on one of the branches slept a sloth. I couldn’t catch his face, but manage to photograph his plushy bottom. Just below the sleeping sloth, a small lizard proudly displayed his green and brown patterned back.
I thanked the security guard and continued back to the visitors center to end the day. The two hour trek up and down the nature reserve was more than worth it. Not only did I spot many native creatures, I got my fix to escape the city and get lost in Panama's wilderness.