Panama City is a huge, densely urban, cosmopolitan city. For the city-going tourist, there’s plenty to do and see, the canal, high end restaurants and shopping and an active nightlife. However, if you find yourself in Panama City craving a bit of nature, the Parque Natural Metropolitan comes highly recommended.
The Parque Natural Metropolitan, or the Metropolitan Natural Park, is a nature preserve in the heart of the city. It is fastidiously maintained and provides a beautiful capsule view of Panama’s natural environment: rainforest.
Although only about a 10 minute drive from our hostel in the city, the change in environment is remarkable. Dense forest and foliage insulate the area from the sounds of hustle and bustle. The park itself feels both tranquil and teeming with life.
After pounding pavement for 4 days, and being constantly surrounded by people, it felt great to get a literal breather and escape the exhaust-laden air of the city. Being the backpacking and nature-loving nerds we are, getting to hike through a real rainforest was a special treat and a trip highlight.
Seeing the Park
There are a number of trails you can take around the park. By themselves, they’re all pretty short, so just plan on walking them all to get the full experience. Except for a few steep sections, it’s easy going.
A map of the park with trails can be found here. The legend provides approximate times for each trail, but they seem painfully slow. We did them all in less than 2 hours. Even if you’re not in great shape, you should be able to do them all in around 2 and a half.
The Mono Titi trail is a highlight of the park. It features two great lookout points, and goes deeper into the park than any other trail, so you’ll get exposure to most of what the park has to offer. Take the El Roble trail out of the visitor center to get to the Mono Titi trail.
With sweeping views of the city and Pacific ocean, the lookout points are stunning, and definitely make the trip worthwhile, with or without a camera.
The other trails in the park lack notable landmarks. Still, walking them is a chance to get some exercise and fresh air. We did them all to increase our chances of seeing some of the park’s natural inhabitants.
The locals didn’t particularly recommend the park, especially as being a place to see wildlife, but we found things to be otherwise. Though we didn’t see any of the park’s monkey troupes (probably the highest on our wishlist), we did see:
Quite a few of these little guys were out foraging that afternoon. They’re a rainforest-dwelling rodent, inhabiting much of Central and South America. They’re very shy, so keep your distance if you want a good look, otherwise they’ll scamper off to go be cute where you can’t see them.
Insects- A Rainforest Specialty
Mosquitoes aside, insects thrive in a rainforest habitat. We didn’t see any creepy crawly ones, but instead beautiful and intriguing ones, like:
I don’t know about you- but I’ve only seen these bad boys on wildlife specials (and the opening scenes of The Lion King). There are plenty of hard working leafcutter ants in the park, criss-crossing the trail at your feet. Good opportunity to use that macro lens!
Large, rainforest-dwelling butterflies with a striking pattern on their wings resembling the eyes of an owl or bird of prey. Several species of these were on display in the Canal Museum, but it’s quite another thing to see them fluttering about in real life. We saw a number of these, so they appear to be pretty common.
On our way out of the park, we watched a pair of toucans engage in some kind of courtship dance, complete with bizarre, guttural sounds. Although I’m bummed we didn’t get good footage to share (they were very high in trees and too silhouetted to film), they were rowdy and definitely didn’t disappoint us in our quest to see some good wildlife.
I don’t know if these count as wildlife per se, but on the El Roble trail, you’ll pass “Laguna Pond” which is full of very tame and eager box turtles. They have obviously been fed by visitors and will mob you looking for handouts.
- Apply insect repellant liberally, or wear long sleeves and long pants. Insect repellant didn’t even cross our minds, and on the trail we saw a Panamanian couple wearing sweats but remained blissfully confused as to why until we glanced down at the swarms of mosquitoes on our bare legs. Mosquitoes are rampant in the park, and it’s a rainforest-like environment, so bugs abound. Protect yourself!
- Bring a camera, especially if you have a telescoping lens for wildlife, or a macro lens for up-close shots of plant life.
- Bring a water bottle. It’s hot and humid so you’ll sweat.
- I’ve heard the best time to see wildlife is in the morning or evening, as most take cover during the hottest part of the day. I can’t speak to that, but I do know it’s likely to be cooler during the morning and evening. If you choose to go in the afternoon, make sure you have enough time to see the park before it closes at 5.
All in all, visiting Metropolitan Natural Park was highly rewarding, and has whet my appetite for more natural rainforest experiences. If you’ve got a few hours to kill in the city, I definitely suggest paying a visit!