Panama is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, hosting over 10,000 different plant species, over 250 types of mammals, and almost 1000 different species of indigenous birds.
Whether you’re traipsing through Boquete, relaxing in Bocas del Toro, or city slicking in Panama City, it’s basically impossible to miss at least a few examples of the stunning ecological diversity in Panama. The county’s location separating the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Sea creates a thin “biological corridor” by narrowly connecting North America and Central America. Any animal that wants to move between the regions must pass through Panama, making it a true biodiversity hotspot.
And while it might seem like big, sophisticated, and stylish Panama City would be the least likely place to witness wildlife, that assumption is completely mistaken. In fact, Panama City is home to several institutions dedicating to celebrating the nation’s varied ecology while educating the public on its importance – the Biomuseo and the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra Nature Center. The educational component is extremely important, as the main problems facing the Panamanian ecosystem are human-caused, including increased land use for agriculture, deforestation, and soil and water contamination.
Designed in 1999 by Frank Gehry, the Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life (aka the Biomuseo) opened in October 2014. The renowned architect has a particular love for and interest in Panama, as his wife is Panamanian. He even donated the design to the people of Panama, making it the first Gehry design for Latin America.
The Biomuseo is located on the Amador Causeway, with construction beginning in late 2004 and scheduled to end in 2011. Unfortunately, setbacks pushed back the opening date repeatedly, until the museum finally opened in 2014 (though as of January 2016, it is still not completed though visitors are welcomed).
The exhibits range in form. Traditional mounted photos and descriptions are present, in addition to more innovative designs like a 360 degree immersive movie and life-size representations of ancient animals that once moved through the isthmus.
ancient animals roaming through the isthmus
Closed on Mondays, the Biomuseo is open Tuesday through Friday from 10am to 4pm, and on weekends from 10am to 5pm, and costs a steep $22 to visit. Unless money is no object, I’d actually I’d recommend holding off on your visit until the exhibits are complete, as I felt a bit ripped off to pay such a harsh price for a half-finished museum. The Smithsonian (discussed below) is a fraction of the price and probably just as interesting.
the view from the Biomuseo
view from the Smithsonian across the bay
The Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra Nature Center is less polished than the Biomuseo but no less interesting. Mostly outdoors, the exhibits focus on marine and land animals. There is a touching pool with starfish, sting rays, sea urchins, and a very interesting native aquarium exhibit that showcases the diversity of Panama’s waters, especially coral reef life from the Caribbean and Pacific. Outdoor pools exhibit sea turtles and sharks among other fish.
The nature center offers two trails for walking through a tropical dry forest, a type of ecosystem that is slowly going extinct but is home to raccoons, iguanas, birds, and armadillos. Hanging out in the trees on most days visitors can spot a few resident wild sloths (ask one of the center’s naturalists where they’re at on the day you visit).
can you see the sloth? neither could I til the naturalist pointed him out (brown blob in the upper left hand side)
Like the Biomuseo, the Smithsonian is also closed on Mondays. From Tuesday to Friday it is open from 1pm to 5pm, and on the weekend it is open from 10am to 6pm. It costs just $3 to enter.
these vultures were randomly hanging around outside the aquarium – hoping for a snack?
I would recommend taking a cab to Biomuseo, and from there walking along the beautiful Amador Causeway to the Smithsonian (about 15 minute walk). It’s a gorgeous, peaceful (and sometimes a bit sweaty) stroll bordered by the sea and punctuated by palm trees and benches.
Pin it for later