I spent weeks in the forests of Central America searching for one thing: a sloth.
Floating down a La Fortuna river in pure darkness, sneaking through forest trails in Monteverde in the dark heart of night, exploring Hanging Bridges throughout Costa Rica, and hiking the coasts of Panama (all promised as prime sloth-spotting opportunities) proved entirely fruitless in my search.
I did manage to see several families of koatis, beautiful birds like toucans, several different species of monkeys, and more tarantulas and other creepy crawlies than I’d like to remember: all amazing in their own right, and majestically free in their natural habitat.
I’d given up on seeing a wild sloth. I was spending my last week in Panama City – known for its foodie scene, commercial pursuits (mall after mall after mall), and historic old town. Cool for the culture vulture but definitely not ideal sloth habitats.
Just three days before leaving Panama, I heard mention of Parque Metropolitano, a cool forest retreat just a short taxi from the city center. With no plans after Spanish lessons, I decided to check it out.
What I found totally shocked me.
Upon entering the park and paying my little fee, the ranger informed me that the local sloths were hanging out right outside the registration and ranger station, totally casual like she wasn’t relaying the COOLEST information ever!
I tried my best to contain my excitement (but couldn’t help jumping up and down a little) as I followed the ranger out to a stand of trees.
“Up there,” she pointed at a dark blob meters above my head, barely discernible amongst the shadowy branches and thick leaves.
“Oh,” I responded, barely able to conceal my disappointment. I couldn’t even tell what I was looking at.
Obviously sensing my disappointment, the ranger encouraged, “There’s other sloths all over the park. You’ll probably see another.”
I thanked her and tried not to look too devastated as I set off away from the invisible sloth and towards the innards of the forest.
I spent a few hours wandering the clearly marked trails (a total godsend for the directionally-challenged like myself), relishing the cool air and deep sense of calm that comes only with being alone in nature.
I kept my eyes peeled, but saw just a few turtles, some birds, and a couple butterflies – all more than I was expecting in Panama City. More than animal-searching, I simply enjoyed being surrounded by trees and the quiet sounds of the forest.
I was surprised to find a set of two awesome viewpoints, offering amazing perspectives of the not-too-far-off skyscrapers of central Panama City. How is it possible to be so close to the boisterous city and yet feel worlds apart?
As I finished up my tour of the several trails that Parque Metropolitano offers, I passed by the guard’s station and was offered a taxi from a waiting driver sitting there. I almost accepted, and then changed my mind and decided I’d rather re-walk the last section and catch a cab back at the main ranger station.
It was one of the BEST decisions of my trip.
sweaty but smiling
As I wandered down the last little section of path, soaking in the sights and sounds of the green forest, I saw something in a tree.
Right next to the path, just above eye level, there sat a SLOTH.
I jumped up and down inside (playing it cool outwardly to avoid scaring the sloth) and shivered with excitement.
Maintaining a respectful distance, I took about 50 shots of this one sloth while kicking myself for not bringing my close-up lens (I only had my wide-angle).
I spent about twenty minutes just watching the slow creature, taking a few photographs but mostly just reveling in the awesome experience. I had goosebumps the entire time, and my hands were shaking with adrenaline, excitement, and admittedly a bit of animal-nerdiness.
Seeing an amazing animal in its natural habitat reminds me of the connection to nature that is innate within me, as a human animal. I feel more spiritually connected in nature than I ever have in any church.
cheesy sloth selfie 🙂
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Parque Metropolitano Necessary Details
The Parque Natural Metropolitano has almost 300 species of trees, almost 50 species of mammals, and over 250 species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Upon arrival, be sure to check in at the Ranger Station at the entrance. You will need to sign in with your name and country, and pay the fee before setting off on your hike. The friendly rangers (some speak English) will inform you of any closures, advisories, and also where the animals have recently been spotted.
Location: Avenida Juan Pable II, between the streets Avenida Ascanio Villalaz and Calle Amsted (every taxi driver should know)
How to Arrive: The easiest way to reach the Park is with a taxi. It should be under $10 from most places in the center.
What to Wear: It gets HOT, so a quick dry tank top and shorts are total musts. Some kind of hiking or athletic shoe (I always prefer Vibrams: email me for a code for a 40% off coupon and free shipping) is important in case you wander across a snake or biting/stinging bug.
There are 5 trails throughout the property, ranging from .7km to just over 1km and between 20 minutes to just under an hour.
Los Momotides Trail – Known for the “Blue-Crowned Momot” and many other birds that appear frequently along the trail. Very flat and easy.
Caobos Trail – Known for the scenic observation point, offering beautiful views of Panama City and the bay. This trail is a bit steeper than the others.
Roble Trail – This trail leads to the starting point of the Cienaguita Trail, and is named for the giant Roble tree in the park.
Mono Titi Trail – Known for the small monkeys that are frequently seen along the path, it is the widest trail in the park. This trail has two lookout points.
Cienaguita Trail – Known for the marshy area that forms at the entrance, many animals can be seen in the canopy of the trees along the trail.