Relaxed Panama (Safety Tours)

This is a relaxed birding tour, but also suitable for those who wish to be on a Birding With A Camera tour. It fits both needs, the birding is not fast-paced, and there are some opportunities to take photos on this itinerary. This tour has been designed, specifically, to be as safe as possible in this Covid-19 era, by staying at one hotel, using larger vehicles, and only eating from one place throughout, with contact with others minimised throughout in doing so. There are also no domestic flights involved.

If you are looking for a faster-paced birding tour, where the goal is to see as many species as possible, then you may want to consider our Panama: The Best of Tropical America Tour, which is a traditional, faster-paced, longer birding tour, and covers more sites to maximise the bird list. While many birds will be seen on this tour, the goal is to have a relaxed-pace tour, covering fewer sites, while staying at one place for entire tour. It still covers one of the most revered birding areas in Central America, the Gamboa section of Central Panama, which includes the Pipeline Road and myriad other closeby sites..


This is designed as a Safety Tour, (for the post-Covid era) which means:

HOTEL and FOOD: HOTEL USED WILL BE RELATIVELY SMALL, AND ONLY THE ONE WILL BE USED FOR ALL NIGHTS OF THE TOUR. ALL MEALS WILL BE TAKEN AT THE HOTEL RESTAURANT, OR INVOLVE A BOXED LUNCH. (The selected lodging is within 25 minutes to 90 minutes from all of the sites on the itinerary, so there are no long drives)

• The lodging selected on this tour is relatively small. Not a large resort-style or business style establishment, as typically used on Panama tours. Using a more personal venue like this, is to ensure minimal contact with other people at the hotel site.

• The lodging used also has a restaurant on site; to ensure all meals can be taken there, and exclude the need for using external restaurants with greater crowds that would increase contact with other people.

• We have also opted to have boxed lunches, provided by the hotel, when needed, to avoid eating at external restaurants, and again minimize contact with other people.

• Only ONE hotel is used throughout, again to keep our contacts to as few people as we can. This also means that you only need to unpack once.

GROUP VEHICLE: We have chosen a larger vehicle than usual for the group size.

• A 25-seater bus will be used for a group of 8 participants, 1 Tropical Birding guide, and 1 driver throughout, as all of the sites are easily accessible. There will be a constant supply of hand sanitiser on the bus, and the bus will be cleaned regularly.

• There are no domestic flights on this tour, so no further air travel is required.

AIRPORT TRANSFERS: On day 1 at the start and day 8 at the end. These will be through a transport company (i.e. the same driver as we have had on the tour), and not public hotel shuttles. These will be in vans, and only be shared with another participant from the our group, if needed. They will not be shared with any other hotel guests.

In summary, the use of only one, small hotel, larger vehicle size, and only eating out of one restaurant (and using packed lunches when not possible), will ensure as little contact with people outside of the Tropical Birding group as possible.This offers the safest Panama tour possible under current conditions.

A glowing Shining Honeycreeper visits some feeders
A glowing Shining Honeycreeper visits some feeders (Sam Woods)

Panama is unlike many other tropical destinations, in that some of the best birding sites in the country are within easy reach of the capital, making it perfect for this Post-Covid tour, and an easy destination to travel in, for those wishing to avoid long drives on a birding trip, or unhappy with repeatedly unpacking and repacking. You will only need to unpack once, be very comfortable throughout the tour, and only need to undertake drives of up to 90 minutes. Then there are the birds; Panama City and its surrounds are home to some of the most famous birding areas in Central America, particularly the pipeline road in Soberania National Park. We will spend extended time there, seeking exciting and exotic tropical birds, like toucans, trogons, motmots, manakins, puffbirds, parrots, antbirds and hummingbirds, as well as keeping an eye out for monkeys, sloths and other cool tropical animals. This works as a tour for those desperate to get out after lockdown, sure, but also as a standalone tour for people seeking to sample the tropics for the first time. It is physically undemanding, with good trails, and easy to access birding sites, and we will run this at a relaxed pace. The dates mean that only 5 vacation days (week days) are needed to do this short tour.

*Note about the Panama Canal. Many people coming to Panama will wish to visit the Panama Canal Locks too. A visit there has NOT been included on this tour, as it can be a busy place, where social distancing may be more difficult. Therefore, if you wish to visit there, we suggest doing this on the final day of the tour, (i.e. after you have left the group), on day 8. It can easily be done self-guided, with a taxi from our Panama City hotel, which only takes around 20 minutes from there. Taxis to and from there can be arranged at the hotel reception.

The Pipeline Road is superb for trogons, with FIVE species on offer!
The Pipeline Road is superb for trogons, with FIVE species on offer! (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City. After you arrival in Panama City you will be met at the airport and taken by private transfer to our nearby hotel, a 30-minute drive from the airport. There is no birding on this day, so please take time to relax, and the group will meet with the guide for dinner at 6:30pm, for the first meal of the tour. This will b a welcome dinner within the hotel restaurant. Seven nights will be spent at the same, small hotel just outside of Panama City. The hotel is between 20-90 minutes drive of all the birding sites.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar occurs near Gamboa
Rufous-tailed Jacamar occurs near Gamboa (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Summit Ponds day trip. After a 40 minute drive, we will spend the morning just outside Soberania National Park at the Summit Ponds, where water-related species like Boat-billed Heron, Anhinga, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Wattled Jacana, Greater Ani, Ringed and Green, and Amazon Kingfishers, and Lesser Kiskadee can be found, alongside forest birds, on an easy nearby trail. Inside the forest birds like Black-crowned Antshrike, Golden-collared Manakin, Gartered Trogon, and Thick-billed Euphonia may join he bird list. After a boxed lunch, we will spend the first part of the afternoon birding a near section of Soberania National Park, before heading back to our hotel by late afternoon.

Sloths are often seen in Soberania NP
Sloths are often seen in Soberania NP (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Metropolitan Natural Park. One of the great appeals about Panama as a birding destination is how much of the best birding sites are within a stone’s throw of the capital. Indeed, on this day, we will bird the very capital itself, in the sprawling Metropolitan Natural Park, just a 15 minute drive from our hotel. This large park contains huge native trees and forest, is easy to walk around, and comes with a long, long list of birds. Some 400 species have been recorded there. It is a great place to get to grips with tropical birds like trogons, Slaty-tailed is particularly regular there, as is Violet-bellied Hummingbird, White-vented Pumeleteer, Squirrel Cuckoo, Keel-billed Toucan, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Whooping Motmot, Red-crowned and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Crimson-backed Tanager, Yellow-backed Oriole, the dashing Lance-tailed Manakin, and Magnificent Frigatebirds regularly pass overhead. Geoffrey’s Tamarin, a striking primate, also occurs in the park. Even with much of the morning in the park, we cannot cover the entirety of this huge park.

We will return to our hotel for lunch, and a post lunch break. After that, for those who wish to do so, we can visit a site checking for mangrove birds and other coastal birds during the cooler late afternoon period. Panama is one of the most important wintering sites for boreal shorebirds, which can be seen near the hotel too.

NOTE: We have opted to cover this park on a Monday, to avoid any possible weekend crowds of people, although the size of this forested park, rarely makes it feel crowded anyway. This is merely a precaution.

White-necked Jacobins are regular at the feeders we will visit
White-necked Jacobins are regular at the feeders we will visit (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe day trip. This private area, to the east of Panama City, lies within the cooler foothills, and holds a quite different set of birds from the other tour days. This is the longest drive of the tour, at around 75 minutes. On this day we bird by road, around a private residential estate, with a beautiful forest setting. It will also include a visit to some private feeders, which are incredible, and we will spend time there eating our boxed lunch and gorging on the birds at length that visit, like White-necked Jacobin, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph, Snowy-bellied Humingbird, and Shining and Green Honeycreepers, and Silver-throated Tanagers and Crimson-backed Tanagers. Away from the feeders, we will be on the lookout for Swallow-tailed Kite, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, White-ruffed Manakin, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Tawny-capped and Fulvous-vented Euphonias, and an exciting mix of tanagers, including Hepatic, Speckled, Golden-hooded, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, and Carmiol’s Tanagers, and Scarlet-thighed and Blue Dacnises. This will be the longest day of the tour, with us arriving back at the hotel in the early evening.

The gorgeous Keel-billed Toucan is a regular favorite on this tour
The gorgeous Keel-billed Toucan is a regular favorite on this tour (Sam Woods)

Days 5-7: Soberania National Park (Gamboa and Pipeline Road area) day trips. Just 45 minutes from our hotel, lies the massive Soberania National Park. It protects a vast area of lowland tropical forest, with the park spanning 55,000 acres. There are many sites within the park and its surrounds, and this will be one of several days we will spend there. With over 500 bird species and over 100 mammal species it is hard to predict what can be seen from one day to the next, but we will have our first shots there at sloths, monkeys, and start to chip away at the massive bird list. There are a number of sites which could be visited in these days, such as Chagres River, Plantation Road, Gamboa, Pipeline Road, and more. This area demands plenty of time, with so many birding sites, and an extensive bird list, and so we will take our time dipping into the various ones, searching for other animals, like sloths, monkeys, coatis, and agoutis, as we do so. On the 5th and 7th day we will take boxed lunches in the field, and spend the whole day out, but on the middle day we will return for lunch to our hotel, and afford ourselves a break, with some optional afternoon birding in Panama City Environs on this day. The list of birds on offer over these days is enormous, and here are just some of the more frequently seen species…Great Tinamou, Long-billed Hermit, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Double-toothed Kite, Black-tailed, White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons (this is a very rich area for trogons), Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Yellow-throated Toucan, Lineated and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, Brown-hooded, Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots, Checker-throated, Dot-winged and White-flanked Antwrens, Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbirds, Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Masked Tityra, Southern Bentbill, Long-billed Gnatwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and White-shouldered and Gray-headed Tanagers.

On this last night of the tour, we will review the tour over a farewell dinner, after a truly exciting time in one of the best tropical destinations on Earth.

Excellent roadside birding is a prominent feature of birding in Panama
Excellent roadside birding is a prominent feature of birding in Panama (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Departure from Panama City. There is no birding on this day, so flight departures at any time are possible (or even late in the night before if preferable). Breakfast is the last meal of the tour on this day, if you do not leave before the hotel serves that. If you wish to visit the Panama Canal locks, on your own, then we suggest taking a taxi from the hotel on this day for the visit. This could still be done and leave by air in the late afternoon evening Half a day only or less is required to visit the site.

Crimson-backed Tanager is a regularly seen species
Crimson-backed Tanager is a regularly seen species (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy. Early starts are required on most days with breakfast around 5:30am, followed by a 6:00am departure. On two of the six birding days, there will be time to take a break in the middle of the day. On these days too, the afternoon activity is optional, so more time can be taken off if you feel you need to. There are no night birding excursions on this tour. All of the drives are on good, mostly-paved, roads, and the longest drive will be up to 90 minutes (direct) on day 4. The drives on most days are around 45 minutes.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks.

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: We will be using one small inn for the entire trip. This minimizes contact with other people, and also has the bonus that you only need to unpack once on the tour. The meals will be taken at the hotel restaurant (for breakfasts and dinners and some lunches), but there will be boxed lunches taken in the field on 4 of the 6 birding days. The boxed lunches will be taken to avoid using external restaurants, and keep contact with other people to a minimum, where we can control to do so. The hotel we are using is on the outskirts of Panama City, and within 15-90 minutes of all birding sites. It has full time electricity, wifi Internet, en-suite bathrooms and an on site restaurant from where all the meals will be taken. The accommodation is a 30-minute drive from the airport.

VEHICLE: A 25-seater bus will be used for this group of 8 participants, plus 1 Tropical Birding guide, and 1 driver. This is a larger vehicle than usual, to help with social distancing on board.
AIRPORT TRANSFERS WILL BE PRIVATE (i.e. not public shuttles), and only shared with other participants, if required.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, which can also be considered suitable for a Birding With A Camera tour, as the bird photography in these areas is generally good. Most of this photography is on the fly, with just two feeder sites to be visited. The tour is not centered around getting incredible photos all the time, but rather on birding, at a relaxed pace, which allows plenty of time for casual bird photography too. However, unlike a Photo Tour, there will not be hours spent at feeders to get perfect shots of individual species. The primary goal of the trip is to make sure as many people get to see the birds that show up, and secondarily to pick up some nice shots (for those with cameras) along the way too. Some of the species that regularly turn up at the feeders are hummingbirds and tanagers.

WHEN TO GO: Panama offers good year-round birding, and therefore birders often visit in all months of the year. December to April represent the driest months of the year, and is why we have selected this time of year for the scheduled tour. It also means that regular boreal migrants wintering there will be present, like warblers, orioles, and grosbeaks.

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 7; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 8 (if you do not leave earlier than it is ready); spare drinking water in the vehicle when required (the tap water is safe to drink in Panama, and so bringing your own bottle(s) to refill is the best advice, and to avoid contact with as few other bottles as possible); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a bus from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7; 1 airport transfer on day 1 for each person and on day 8 (these transfers will not be by shuttle, but will be private, and only shared with others in this group, if needed); tips to driver (1), and lodge/restaurant staff; 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 porters used (we advise against this if you want to limit contact with others); 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.