National parks highlight eco offerings

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NEW YORK -- There's a lot more to Panama than a canal.

The geography of this country -- a land bridge between two continents -- makes Panama home to an amazing diversity of ecosystems. Those ecosystems spring to life in the numerous and surprisingly accessible national parks of Panama.

The following is a roundup of five national parks that nature-loving clients shouldn't miss:

• Soberiana National Park is a day excursion from Panama City and offers travelers an impressive rain forest rich in wildlife, including more than 100 species of mammals, more than 500 species of birds and dozens of amphibians and reptiles.

Attractions here include hiking along a section of the old Las Cruces Trail, used by the Spaniards to transport gold across the isthmus. Another favorite site is the Summit Botanical Gardens. The Canopy Tower Ecolodge and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort are accommodations located within the park.

• Barro Colorado Island, created when Gatun Lake was formed by damming the Chagres River, is another popular excursion close to Panama City.

This protected area offers a combination of hiking along many trails through different types of forests as well as a cruise by small launch through the canal to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

• Taboga Island, an hour's boat ride from the capital, is known for its array of flowers, but it also shelters the largest breeding colony of brown pelicans in the world.

Together with neighboring Uraba Island, the colony has about 100,000 birds in residence from January to June, with May the height of the nesting season.

• Darien National Park's partially explored tropical rain forest has been declared a World Heritage Biosphere. Its vast habitats shelter some of the rarest species in Panama, including jaguar, ocelot, Baird's tapir and white-lipped peccaries.

A one- or two-night adventure in the park might include a motorized canoe trip to an Indian village and a jungle lodge stay, while a two-week expedition can take the most fit of clients over a rugged route retracing the path Balboa followed on his trek to the Pacific Ocean.

Wildlife aficionados look to the valley of Cana (accessible by light aircraft and fitted with rustic accommodations) as the top bird-watching site in Central America.

• La Amistad International Park in the province of Bocas del Torro is the second-largest wildlife area after Darien; a World Heritage Site, it shares its territory and administration with Costa Rica and is super-rich in flora and fauna.

The access points to La Amistad are Cerro Rica in the Chiriqui Province and Changuinola in Bocas del Toro.

For information, contact the Panama Tourism Institute (IPAT) at (800) 231-0568 or at www.visitpanama.com.

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