Parque Nacional Darién
Forming a bridge between North and South America, the 597,000 hectare Parque Nacional Darién, the largest protected area in Panama, stretches nearly the full length of the Panama-Colombia border and contains a remarkable variety of habitats and wildlife.
Most visitors who venture this far into the Darién base themselves from either Santa Cruz de Cana, a barely converted gold mining camp building from the 1960s, or at Pirre Station, the ANAM ranger station.
Those who can possibly spare the time and money should make a trip to Santa Cruz de Cana, in the heart of Parque Nacional Darién. More commonly known simply as Cana, it’s the most remote spot in all of Panama: The nearest human settlement, Boca de Cupe, is 2–3 days away by foot, and there are no roads. Cana is a truly amazing place that offers genuine wilderness amid relative comfort, a rare combination. It’s my favorite spot in the Darién.
The area around Pirre Station offers an experience similar to Cana at a fraction of the cost. While Pirre is in the lowlands and Cana is in the foothills, they are on opposite sides of Cerro Pirre and share many of the same birds and other wildlife. Both have good trails (Cana trails and Pirre trails), including ones that lead up onto Cerro Pirre.
Flora and Fauna
The wildlife in Parque Nacional Darién is breathtaking. As usual, the only things you’re guaranteed to see are some of the most gorgeous birds in the world. But there’s a better chance here of coming across impressive land animals than in most parts of Panama.
Spider monkeys are likely, and it’s a near certainty you’ll be surrounded by the uncanny bark of howler monkeys. It’s not uncommon to come across fresh jaguar prints. Jaguars have been known to take a leisurely stroll down Cana’s landing strip, but you’d be extremely lucky to spot one during a brief visit.
Herds of literally hundreds of white-lipped peccaries sometimes descend on the station and tear up the turf, rooting for food. When this happens, everyone locks themselves in the lodge. Peccaries, the only creature I’ve seen Darién guides get nervous about, can be aggressive; they have sharp teeth, and they run faster than you do. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re just cute little pigs.
The very lucky few might also come across a Baird’s tapir, the largest land mammal in Central America. At the cloud-forest camp above Cana, a tapir once sat on a guide’s tent while the guide was sleeping in it, much to the surprise of both of them.
Santa Cruz de Cana has been called one of the 10 greatest bird-watching spots on the planet. Even those with only the slightest interest in feathered creatures will likely be bowled over. Blue-and-yellow, red-and-green, great green, and chestnut-fronted macaws streak across the valley all day long. Keel-billed toucans, looking as if they just flew off a Froot Loops box, peer down at visitors from the trees.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition