Panama: The Best of Tropical America

Panama sits in an interesting location, with influences from North America, Central America, and even South America too, which leads to its extraordinary bird list of over 1000 species (yes, more than Costa Rica!). This tour is designed on two levels; to dip into the varied regions of the country, from Central Panama, where both the legendary Pipeline Road and Panama Canal are located, but also includes trips into Western Panama and the endemic-rich Chiriquí highlands, where Resplendent Quetzal lurks in the cloud forest, and also east of Panama City, where some species more typical of the Darien also occur.

With recent taxonomic changes, this tour is also of particular interest to family listers, as there are now FIVE significant bird families on offer: Thrush-tanagers, represented by Rosy Thrush-tanager, possible right in Panama City, Wrenthrush, a highland species only found in Western Panama, which shares the same habitat with the Prong-billed Barbet, part of the two-species Toucan Barbet family; Dusky-faced Tanager, within the family of Mitrospingid Tanagers, possible at several sites on the tour; and last, but by no means least, the Sapayoa, an odd, inconspicuous, and local bird of lowland forest. While not all of these families can be guaranteed, this is the only country that offers a chance of all of these bird families on one single tour.


While searching for the key families, we will pick up a stream of birds, with classic tropical groups, like trogons, hummingbirds, puffbirds, toucans, antbirds, manakins, tityras, becards, and true tanagers (not closely related to the tanagers, which are part of the cardinal family, in North America). Some of the mouthwatering birds on offer among these include, Keel-billed Toucan, Rufous-crested Coquette, Whooping and Tody Motmots, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker (double figures from this family available), Jet and White-bellied Antbirds, Black-chested Jay, Shining Honeycreeper, Black-and-yellow Tanager, as well as a heady selection of other Neotropical wildlife like Geoffrroy’s Tamarin, Mantled Howler monkeys, two and three-toed sloths, and poison dart frogs. Thus, this tour appeals to both the first timer to the Tropics, but also “older hands” looking to add some specialties Panama offers the best chance at, and birders looking for key bird families best found here.

Geoffroy's Tamarin even occurs within Panama City
Geoffroy's Tamarin even occurs within Panama City (Sam Woods)

The tour opens in Central Panama, where the country’s most famous feature is situated, the Panama Canal, as well one of the most revered birding destinations in the American tropics, the Pipeline Road. From there the trip heads into the highland cloudforests of western Panama, where the amazing Resplendent Quetzal is found. Lastly, the tour ventures into eastern Panama, where specialties of that part of the country will be the focus. Panama, like its neighbor Costa Rica, is a birding country that people frequently visit more than once. However, if you can only ever do one single trip to Panama this represents the very best the country has to offer; alongside classic tropical families like trogons, toucans, tanagers, motmots, and antbirds, will be lots of wintering boreal migrant birds like warblers, tanagers, and orioles.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is regularly encountered in Panama
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is regularly encountered in Panama (Sam Woods)

The order in which sites are visited is sometimes adjusted based on flight schedules and lodge availability, but all sites will still be visited and these changes will not affect the birding.

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City; optional afternoon birding in Chepo. After arrival in the hub of Central America, Panama City in the morning, you will be transferred to a business hotel to freshen up before some optional afternoon birding nearby. Chepo is an area of wet fields and open country birding that should provide some easy birding to ease us into the tour. Birds like Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Pearl Kite, Striped Cuckoo, Pied Water-Tyrant (best chance is here), and Plain-breasted Ground-Dove could all feature here, along with more regular fare like Red-lored Parrot (Amazon), Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. A three-night will be spent at a business hotel near Panama City airport, within easy, comfortable reach of several key birding sites.

Panama is one of the best places in the World for Rosy Thrush-Tanager, a monotypic bird family
Panama is one of the best places in the World for Rosy Thrush-Tanager, a monotypic bird family (Andres Vasquez)

Day 2: Metropolitan Park (Panama City) and the coast.In the morning we shall start our birding of Panama in earnest at one of the country’s best birding sites, right within Panama City, the Metropolitan Park or Parque Natural Metropolitano. This park is alive with birds in the mornings, and the list of possibilities is daunting, including three species of trogon, the striking Keel-billed Toucan, Lance-tailed and Golden-collared Manakins, Lineated, Crimson-crested and Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Whooping Motmot, as assortment of parrots, like Red-lored Parrot and Orange-chinned Parakeet, and a variety of hummingbirds, like Violet-bellied and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and White-vented Plumeleteer. However, our principal targets will be the Rosy Thrush-Tanager, a key monotypic family, and the less flashy Yellow-green Tyrannulet, a Panamanian endemic. After lunch in the city, we will explore the coast for throngs of shorebirds lining the beaches (Panama is a major wintering haunt for many North American species), as well as other coastal birds like egrets, frigatebirds and ibis. In the nearby the mangroves we may find Straight-billed Woodcreeper, the mangrove form of Yellow Warbler, in addition to glowing wintering Prothonotary Warblers. At the end of the day we will spend a second night in our comfortable modern hotel in Panama City.

Mixed flocks in the foothills can hold the striking Black-and-yellow Tanager
Mixed flocks in the foothills can hold the striking Black-and-yellow Tanager (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Cerro Azul. Today we will swap the steamy lowlands for the hills just to the northeast of Panama City, easily accessible by way of a day trip from our comfortable hotel (minimising the amount of time we need to change hotels too!). Some of the possibilities at Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe, two low hills east of the city, include the scarce Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, shockingly bright Black-and-yellow Tanager, as well a horde of other interesting foothill species, like White-ruffed Manakin, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Plain-colored, Speckled and Rufous-winged Tanagers.

One of the main hummingbird targets will be the spectacular Rufous-crested Coquette
One of the main hummingbird targets will be the spectacular Rufous-crested Coquette (Sam Woods)

We shall also visit some excellent private feeders in the area, which can attract a variety of hummingbirds, fruit-eating birds, and sometimes monkeys too. The potential species list there could include the much-wanted Rufous-crested Coquette, the scarce and local Violet-capped Hummingbird, as well as more widespread hummers, like White-vented and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin. The other birds that may be there during this visit, are Bay-headed Tanager, Shining Honeycreeper, and perhaps even Geoffroy’s Tamarin, a small monkey species. At the end of most of the day in this area, we shall make the drive back to Panama City for one final night there, before heading westwards the following day.

The Veraguan Mango is a specialty we shall search for near David
The Veraguan Mango is a specialty we shall search for near David (Andres Vasquez)

Day 4: Panama City to the Chiriqui Highlands. We will take a short morning flight to the city of David, in the westernmost province of Chiriqui, where the highlands of Panama are located, home to numerous endemic species only shared with neighboring Costa Rica. Birding around the airport itself can be good, and we will keep an eye out for birds like Pearl Kite, Veraguan Mango, Brown-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Black-hooded Antshrike, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Orange-collared Manakin, shortly after landing.

After some time there, we will drive up into the mountains, and the town of Volcan, which lies in full view of the dramatic 11,400ft-high (3475m) Volcan Baru. As we journey north, we will make stops in the foothills to search for birds like Speckled Tanager and Fiery-billed Aracari too. Three nights will be spent in the cool, highland town of Volcan.

We'll head into the Chiriqui Highlands for one of the World's most revered birds, the Resplendent Quetzzal
We'll head into the Chiriqui Highlands for one of the World's most revered birds, the Resplendent Quetzzal (Andres Vasquez)

Day 5: Volcan Baru. Montane birding in this area is superb, and will be the site, where we especially target some family birds for those with a family listing bent, like Prong-billed Barbet, and Wrenthrush. However, the supporting cast is no less impressive, with birds like Resplendent Quetzal (our first chance), Orange-bellied Trogon, Flame-throated Warbler, and Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher also all on offer, on what could be one of the flagship days of the tour. The birdlife in this region will be totally different from that experienced on most of the tour, and new birds will come thick and fast, many of them only shared with neighboring Costa Rica (i.e. local, regional endemics). We shall also make time to visit some local feeders, where species like the stunning Violet Sabrewing, along with an assortment of other highland hummingbirds can be found. Another night will be spent in Volcan.

Talamanca Hummingbird is confined to the Chiriqui highlands
Talamanca Hummingbird is confined to the Chiriqui highlands (Andres Vasquez)

Day 6: La Amistad National Park. A full day will be spent in this large park that is situated within the Talamanca Mountains that are shared with Costa Rica, and is administered by both countries. It is home to a massive diversity of birds, one of which is the incredible Resplendent Quetzal, if we are looking for further looks, or we failed to find it the day before. Other highland specialties will get further chances to find, are Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Dark Pewee, Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, and Yellow-thighed Finch. A last night will be spent in Volcan.

Collared Redstart is restricted to highland forests
Collared Redstart is restricted to highland forests (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Volcan Baru to David; fly to Panama City and transfer to Gamboa. After some final local birding in the highlands (wherever we feel is most needed), we shall drive back to the city of David, fly back to the capital, and then drive the short distance (90 minutes) to Gamboa, a great base for exploring the legendary Pipeline Road in the coming days…The first of three nights will be spent at a resort in Gamboa.

Streak-chested Antpitta is found in the Gamboa area
Streak-chested Antpitta is found in the Gamboa area (Andres Vasquez)

Days 8 – 9: Gamboa and Pipeline Road area (Soberania National Park). This is one of the most revered areas in all Tropical American birding, as diversity hits the roof, and there are numerous close sites centered around Gamboa and the Pipeline Road, in which to bird. On one of these days, we will climb the 100ft/32m-high Canopy Observation Tower (at the Rainforest Discovery Center), to get a birds-eye view of the treetops, and to watch for canopy species like Blue Cotinga, Black-chested Jay, multiple toucan species, Scaled Pigeon, Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, Cinnamon and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Masked Tityra, Golden-hooded Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. At other times, we will bird at ground level, at a number of famous local birding sites, like the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Ponds, and Summit Ponds.

Sloths are regularly seen on this tour
Sloths are regularly seen on this tour (Andres Vasquez)

Trogons, trogons, and more trogons; Panama is rich in this family
Trogons, trogons, and more trogons; Panama is rich in this family (Andres Vasquez)

Where exactly we shall visit will depend on local news and how our bird list is growing. For sure, we will visit the Pipeline Road at least twice though. Birds on offer when we are down on the forest floor will included Ocellated, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds (if we manage to locate an anstwarm); Great Tinamou, Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Black-tailed Trogons, Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Black-faced Antthrush and Streak-chested Antpitta, Royal Flycatcher (with luck), Golden-collared and Red-capped Manakins, Black-bellied and Song Wrens, Yellow-tailed and Yellow-backed Orioles, and Chestnut-headed Oropendola. These nights will be spent at a comfortable resort in Gamboa, close to the varied birding sites available.

A spectacular regular species on this tour: Keel-billed Toucan
A spectacular regular species on this tour: Keel-billed Toucan (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Gamboa to Panama City/Nusagandi. Even after two full days already spent in the Gamboa area, there will still be plenty to look for in this area of mega diversity. Therefore, most of the day will be spent at several of the local Gamboa sites, before we depart for our next destination. This is not a travel day in the main part, but mostly a birding day with upto a few hours travel at the end of the day only.

On this night, we will either stay at a small, simple lodge in Nusagandi (if the group is small, as the lodge only has 4 rooms in total), or with larger groups we will spend another night in Panama City, as there are very few suitable lodging options in the Nusagandi itself. If we are staying this night in Nusagandi, we shall likely have a short time there in the afternoon; if staying in Panama City, we shall spend longer in the Gamboa area before departing for our hotel on the outskirts of the city. The same amount of time will be spent at Nusagandi the following day, but staying in Panama City will necessitate an earlier start time to arrive on site early.

Panama is arguably the best country to find the erratic Ocellated Antbird
Panama is arguably the best country to find the erratic Ocellated Antbird (Nick Athanas)

Day 11: Nusagandi to Torti. A morning will be spent at this important forest site in the foothills, where two particular species of interest occur, Sapayoa, a monotypic family, and the rare and local Speckled Antshrike, for which this represents the best site in the country (but where it still remains an extremely difficult bird). Other birds that might be found while searching for these include Black-eared Wood-Quail, Black-crowned Antpitta, Black-throated and White-tailed Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Pied Puffbird, Brown-hooded Parrot, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Black-striped Woodcreeper, one of the World’s smallest birds in Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous Mourner, Tawny-crested and Black-and-yellow Tanagers, Dusky-faced Tanager (now in a newly created family, named Mitrospingid Tanagers), and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. In the afternoon, we shall continue our journey east, to the town of Torti, just a short distance from the fabled Darien region of Panama.

The enigmatic Sapayoa, a monotypic bird family
The enigmatic Sapayoa, a monotypic bird family (Nick Athanas)

Day 12: El Salto and Torti.We will start the day by heading out early and driving further east, reaching to the edge of the Darien region at El Salto, so that we can find some species restricted to the eastern side of Panama. We will leave early in the morning with a packed breakfast to head out to the easternmost point of the tour at the famous Camino El Salto, where a rich list of birds is on offer, including Gray-cheeked Nunlet, White-tailed Trogon, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Pale-bellied and Rufous-breasted Hermits, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Black Antshrike, Bare-crowned Antbird, Choco Sirystes, Blue Cotinga and Black Oropendola, not to mention a heady selection of raptors including Crane Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Black Hawk-Eagle and Red-throated Caracara. Usually, by mid-late morning, it becomes very hot and the birding activity dies down considerably, so that we shall head back west to Torti for a late lunch, and a break before heading out in the late afternoon to bird nearby sites around Torti, which is an excellent birding area in its own right, with species like Little Cuckoo, Gray-lined Hawk, Pearl Kite, Pacific Antwren, Pied and Barred Puffbirds, Olivaceous Piculet, Red-billed Scythebill, Buff-breasted Wren, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and White-eared Conebill all on the cards. A second night will be spent in a comfortable hotel in Torti.

A dozen woodpeckers could be recorded on this tour!
A dozen woodpeckers could be recorded on this tour! (Sam Woods)

Day 13: San Francisco Reserve to Panama City. Most of the day will be spent to the east of Torti in this wonderful reserve set up by local monks, which has some Darien species represented in the area. Many of these are rare and low density, so picking what will be seen on any two visits is tricky, but the list of birds that occur in and around the reserve include the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Barred Puffbird, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Golden-headed Manakin, Speckled Mourner, and Yellow-backed and Orange-crowned Orioles. After most of the day in this area, we shall head back for another night in Panama City in mid-afternoon. The last night of the tour will be spent at our now familiar hotel in Panama City.

Day 14: Departure from Panama City. An airport transfer will be provided for international flights out.

The gorgeous Golden-collared Manakin heads up a stellar list of manakins possible on the tour
The gorgeous Golden-collared Manakin heads up a stellar list of manakins possible on the tour (Andres Vasquez)

A photogenic pair of Whooping Motmots from a recent tour
A photogenic pair of Whooping Motmots from a recent tour (Andres Vasquez)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically start between 5:00 and 5:30am. On a few days there will be some downtime either after lunch, or after arriving back to the lodge after the day’s birding excursion. The drives on this tour are almost all on paved roads, and none of the drives should exceed three hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. At Nusagandi and Torti there are some more difficult hikes on trails that can be slippery with some steep sections (a walking stick helps a lot). You can expect to walk around 3 miles (4.8 km) per day.

CLIMATE: Panama is tropical and so temperatures remain fairly constant year-round; in the lowlands, it will be hot and humid, with temperatures ranging between 70-90 Fahrenheit (21-31 Celsius), and humidity generally at around 80%. In the foothills and mountains temperatures will be considerably cooler, at around 50-66 Fahrenheit (10-19 Celsius). February is one of the driest times of year.

ACCOMMODATION: Generally good on all nights, all have full-time electricity, wi-fi, hot water and en-suite facilities everywhere, and lowland hotels have AC. The only exception to this will be on the night of day 10, where for SMALLER GROUPS ONLY (due to the limited capacity of the accommodation), we may stay in Nusagandi for the convenience and to reduce traveling time the next morning. If this single night is spent in Nusagandi, the only accommodation available is quite rustic, with no hot water supply. This will only be for a single night, and only planned when the group is small enough to allow it (currently, there are no better or larger hotel options in Nusgandi than the place we have selected).

PHOTOGRAPHY:The primary purpose of this tour is to have all the clients see as many birds as possible, and seeing the birds will always take priority over getting photos. We do welcome photography, but the tour leader will not allow photographers to move in front of the group for a photo until everyone has had a good look at the bird. All of our guides are also amateur photographers, so they are happy to help you out within the limitations given here. On this tour, the photographic opportunities are quite good at the many feeding stations that we visit for hummingbirds, tanagers, and others. Away from the feeders it is more challenging, and there may be little time to spend photographing if there are other birds around to see. If you are interested in a tour with a stronger focus on photography, you may wish to check out our Panama: Birding with a Camera tour.

WHEN TO GO:Panama offers good year-round birding, and therefore birders often visit in all months of the year. The highest bird lists are gathered in September to April, when the resident tropical birds are joined by considerable numbers of migrant boreal species too, so this is typically when most birders visit. December to April represent the driest months of the year, and are therefore popular.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Panama. It must be valid for at least six months past the time of your scheduled return. A visa is NOT currently required for citizens of the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and most Western European countries. For other nationalities, please contact your nearest Panamanian embassy or consulate for entry requirements. There are two further requirements for entering Panama: (1) that you can show you have sufficient funds for entering the country; usually considered to be $500 US Dollars or more. This can be proven by either carrying cash in excess of this amount, or carrying a recent bank statement, showing funds in excess of this amount are available to you. In reality, this is rarely asked of tourists entering Panama, but everyone on the tour should be prepared for this, in the case of the rare circumstance they may request proof of funds. (2) Proof of onward travel; please bring a print out of your return flight ticket home, (or onward to somewhere else), showing that you have an outbound flight from Panama at the end of your stay in the country.Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 13; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 14; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 13 (if only doing the main tour; one airport transfer per person, on the designated arrival and departure days; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 13; tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; internal flights; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.