Discovering the Darien National Park in Panama
One of the most ecologically diverse land-based national parks in Central America, the Darien National Park is one of Panama's best kept treasures. The spectacular rainforest remains almost as it did one million years ago and the park is one of the largest and most valuable protected areas in Central America. Many native tribes, including the Darien, Embera, Wounaan, and Kuna people still thrive there, living in self-sufficient, isolated villages and working to keep the rainforest pristine.
If you are looking for something truly wild, then Darien National Park is the place to go. Made up of lowlands, palm forest, wetlands, coastlines, rocky shores, and mountains, the diverse landscape is never short of an adventure.
The History of the Darien National Park
Located along the eastern edge of the Isthmus, along the border with Colombia, the Darien National Park is the largest and wildest park in Panama. Home to an array of plant and animal species, some of the park's highlights include Santa Cruz de Cana and Pirre Station.
The Darien National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, since the site experienced major deforestation, timber extraction and destruction. The park is the road between two continents, and as a result, it has been the subject of much dispute. Today there are still many security problems, the border through Los Katios National Park with Colombia having been a hot topic of debate for decades.
The park was first discovered by Europeans in 1501, and even Christopher Columbus witnessed its beauty on his last voyage. A settlement was established in 1510 called Santa Maria, but a number of colonists eventually left the village and moved to Panama City, leaving Santa Maria entirely abandoned.
One of the most famous areas of the 575,000 hectare park is Santa Cruz de Cana, best known to most visitors and locals as simply Cana. A forest area that is set in the middle of Cerro Pirre, a 5,300 foot-high slope and one of the most remote areas in Panama. The area is so remote that it has no roads and is almost entirely made up of wilderness, the closest village is a 3-day hike away.
Cana is also integral to the history of the park, as this is the area where the Spanish found gold back in 1665, and set up huge and destructive mines in the region. The mines became some of the richest in America, and Cana soon became a popular and large town.
However, by 1727 all of the mines had shut down after a number of diseases infected most of the workers. There were also many pirate attacks, that left them injured and pillaged. The mines re-opened in the 19th century by an Anglo-French company but did not stay open for too long.
Today, Cana is one of the most diverse regions in Panama, and bird watching here is some of the best in the country and even the world, being called one of the ten best bird-watching spots in the world.
Throughout the late 1990s the park saw an increase in human destruction, with Colombian guerrillas, narco traffickers and paramilitary forces using the border to smuggle their goods across and through the national park. It also resulted in a number of refugees seeking safety in Panama after fleeing Colombia's civil war. The thick rainforest and often inaccessible terrain made the region difficult to protect, and this can still be an issue to this day.
Wildlife to Spot in Darien National Park
There are hundreds of vertebrates and thousands of invertebrates in the forest, along with the 169 mammals and 530 bird species, including the endangered brown-headed Spider Monkey, Central American Tapir and the Giant Anteater. Here are some other important animals you will most-likely see in the Darien National Park and Rainforest:
- Keel-billed toucans
- Spider monkeys
- Baird's tapirs
Hiking Darien National Park
There are about five trails that you can take in the park, two main trails and three other shorter trails that lead you past the area's old mining operations. The Boca de Cupe is a long and difficult hike through the forest, while the Pirre Mountain Trail is a 5.5-mile ascent up Cerro Pirre to Pirre Station, which has a campsite with toilet and kitchen facilities at the top for an overnight stop, allowing you to head back down the next morning. Other trails take you to incredible waterfalls, which have pools that are perfect for swimming, but you really require a local or experienced guide to get there as they involve hiking above one of the waterfalls and the trail can get very slippery.
This region is one of least visited areas on the planet so it is vital that you respect the native populations there and the precious natural resources of the region that keeps it alive when you visit. You will see that most of the area is untamed, unexplored and often overgrown.
There are some safety concerns when visiting the rainforest, as the region is sometimes deemed dangerous by the Panamanian government. However, as long as you travel with a professional and experienced guide, it is still possible to visit and experience everything the jungle has to offer. That being said, the Panama military police called the Senafront, who specialise in monitoring and securing the border, require that you obtain permission from them before entering Darien, so it's best to check with your guide before you enter to avoid any misunderstandings later.
The Discovery Panama cruise offers an itinerary that includes the Darien National Park. During the day, visitors will explore the fauna and flora of the forest, and have the chance to meet two indigenous tribes, the Embera and Kuna Indians who have inhabited the area since before Spanish colonization.
Contact us for more information about travelling to Panama and the Darien National Park.