After studying the Bird-Finding Guide extensively, and considering the time it would take to either drive or fly between destinations, we settled on a relatively compact, yet very busy, schedule. Upon arrival in Panama City we decided to get our bearings by doing something light, so first on the agenda was Metropolitan Park in the morning, followed by a visit to the Miraflores visitor centre. From my first trip, Metropolitan Park had proved to be a very productive place to go birding, and new species were seen on each of the five trips.
The next several days were were going to be very busy. First on the list was Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the premier birding destinations in the world, and to not visit would be sacrilege to the world of birding. In addition to Pipeline Road, we also planned to visit the Ammo Dump Ponds and Gamboa Park.
The first new birding destination that we selected was Achiote Road, so-named for the little village of Achiote that occurs midway along the only road in the area. Achiote Road is on the Caribbean side of Panama, at the opposite end of the Panama Canal. It is about 88 kms from Panama City to Achiote, which takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to drive, depending on traffic and the length of time you have to wait for the swing bridge to open at Gatun Locks. We initially considered staying in Colon, a major trade city located on the Caribbean coast near Gatun Locks. However, upon reading several websites and the Moon and Frommer's guides, it was generally recommended that we avoid the area owing to high crime and mugging rates.
In the same general region as Achiote, several other birding destinations are recommended. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit them all in the same day, and so we planned for two trips, one near the beginning of our trip, and one near the end. The first trip would be entirely on Achiote Road as there were plenty of things to do, including the El Trogon trail and three "birding bridges". The bridges are essentially good vantage points from which birds can be viewed, and because they are associated with streams they are particularly attractive to birds. For our second trip to Achiote our plan was to spend a half-day on the road, and the other half at Fort San Lorenzo National Historic Site and Fort Sherman, a former US Army Base.
Another much-touted birding destination near Panama City is Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, comprised of a private low-density residential neighbourhood (Cerro Azul) and an adjacent park (Cerro Jeffe). Together, these sites are probably the closest access points to tropical cloud forest habitat from Panama City, and thus have the potential of offering a great variety of species not seen in any of the lowland birding sites in the Canal Area. The unfortunate part about visiting is that you need permission to get through the gate - I'll have more on that later, as it happened.
Our itinerary was now starting to look pretty good, but what we really wanted to do was get out of the Canal Area and see something truly different. From Panama City there really are only two choices - east or west. To the east, towards Columbia, are the remote jungles of the Darien province. Home to numerous bird species, including several Panama endemics, the area is largely inaccessible and requires a specially-equipped 4x4 vehicle with a winch, a good guide, and a personal ability to cope with living in remote tropical camps. Given these requirements, we looked to the west!
The Chiriqui highlands in Chiriqui province caught our interest almost immediately. Bordering Costa Rica, the Chiriqui highlands are best known in the birding world as the home to the Resplendent Quetzal, a highly sought-after species, particularly the male, because of its spectacularly colourful plumage and excessively long tail. The area is also well-known for its famous landmark, Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama at 3,474 m (11,398 ft). Much of the Chiriqui highlands are comprised of cloud forest, which also support a good number of species not found in the Darien province or the Canal Area. It is also home to two Panama specialities, the Volcano Junco and the Volcano Hummingbird. We decided for this part of our trip we would seek solitude, so from Panama City we flew to David (the capital of Chiriqui province) and then drive to Boquette, about 2 hours to the north. Our plan was to stay just two nights, which gave us about a day-and-a-half for birding.
When we initially began planning the trip we thought we would do the entire thing on our own, as I was quite confident that I would remember most species from my first trip, and I was considerably more comfortable with getting around and birding in Panama. Additionally, Joanna is a sharp birder and the two of us should prove to be quite a team. But, with that said, there is no denying the skills of a local guide who knows just where to go, where to find certain species, and is certainly more knowledgeable of habitats and sounds than I am from a single 10-day visit. Thus, just to see how well we were doing, we booked a guided tour to Old Gamboa Road and Plantation Road for our last full day of birding in Panama.
Our complete itinerary is provided below. In the next post I will discuss the final stages of planning, and a BIG surprise that Joanna (and I) had to adjust to.
14 February: travel from Victoria to Vancouver
15 February: travel from Vancouver to Miami via Los Angeles
16 February: travel from Miami to Panama City
17 February: Metropolitan Park and Miraflores Visitor Center
18 February: Ammo Dump ponds, Pipeline Road, Gamboa Park
19 February: Achiote Road (plus travel from Panama City to Colon)
20 February: Metropolitan Park, then travel to Boquette via David
21 February: Boquette, Culebra Trail and Los Quetzales Trail
22 February: Boquette, Pipeline Trail (plus travel back to Panama City)
23 February: Old Gamoboa Road and Summit Gardens
24 February: Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe
25 February: Ammo Dump ponds and Pipeline Road
26 February: Achiote Road, Fort Sherman, Fort San Lorenzo
27 February: Guided Tour to Old Gamboa Road and Plantation Road
28 February: Metropolitan Park (morning); travel from Panama City to Dallas
29 February: Dallas to Victoria