Darién National Park

The Darién National Park is Panama’s largest and wildest park. Set upon the eastern edge of the isthmus along the border with Colombia, this park protects Panama’s most rugged outdoor areas. The forest is virgin and home to an incredible array of plant and animal species. The two best places to visit the park are Santa Cruz de Cana and Pirre Station. It should be noted, however, that this park is extremely remote and sometimes deemed dangerous (due to guerillas) by the Panamanian government.

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Santa Cruz de Cana, known commonly as Cana, is set in the middle of the park along the eastern slope of Cerro Pirre (elevation 5,300 ft.)—an area that is one of the most remote in all of Panama. There are no roads here and the wilderness seems endless.

Surprisingly, Cana has played a major role in Panama’s history. The Spanish found gold here in the 1665 and created massive mines. At the time, the gold mines were some of the richest in the Americas and helped the town of Cana to grow to nearly 20,000 people. The Spanish, however closed the mines in 1727 after repeated attacks by pirates and bouts of disease. The mines were reopened in the 19th century by an Anglo-French company and continued to produce a prodigious amount of gold until the early 20th century.

These days Cana is one of Panama’s most incredible outdoor areas. The wildlife and bird watching is better than nearly anywhere else in the country; it’s even been called one of the world’s 10-greatest bird-watching spots. Near the station, visitors can see red-and-green, blue-and-yellow, great green, and chestnut-fronted macaws. You might spot several types of tanagers, manakins, eagles, and hummingbirds, as well as keel-billed toucans. Aside from the birds, visitors to Cana may spot howler and spider monkeys, white-lipped peccaries, and Baird’s tapirs.

Cana is set in a low valley and the surrounding forest is mostly premontane. There are five trails that wind through the surrounding wilderness. Some, like the Boca de Cupe Trail, are long and arduous. Other trails stay close to the station and offer a wonderful glimpse of the forest and old mining operations. The Pirre Mountain Trail is a difficult, 5.5-mile (9-km) ascent up Cerro Pirre. There is a camp at the top of the mountain that has a kitchen and basic sleeping facilities.

The easiest way to get to Cana is by air on a small chartered plane. This is more expensive but significantly more comfortable than the other option, which involves a 2-3 day hiking trek from Boca de Cupe.

Pirre Station is an ANAM ranger station on the opposite side of Cerro Pirre. This area, known as Rancho Frío, has lush primary forests and abundant wildlife. Most of the bird species are the same as Cana; some of the best are the white-fronted nunbirds, crimson-bellied woodpeckers, and lemon-spectacled tanager. Mammals include spider and howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, Geoffroy’s tamarins, and sloths.

Several trails extend from the park station. One trail leads to a series of gorgeous waterfalls. The pools are deep and great for photography or swimming. You can hike above the first waterfall to get to the other falls, but be very careful, as the rocks are slippery. Another trail leads to the top of Cerro Pirre. The hike is steep and strenuous, but offers awesome views of the surrounding wilderness.

Pirre Station is basic. It has a dormitory (with bunk beds), outhouse, and field kitchen. There is no electricity. Visitors must bring their own food, towel, sheets, flashlight, and water purifier. The gateway to Pirre Station is the town of El Real. From here you can either take a boat up the Río Pirre or hike into the station on foot, which takes around 3 hours.

Hiking anywhere in the Darién National Park is serious and should not be attempted without a knowledgeable guide.