Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Birding in Panama, Information and Logistics

Panama is a birder's paradise! Surprisingly, birding is not being promoted here as a tourist attraction in the same manner as their neighboring country, Costa Rica. Whereas in Costa Rica most, if not all, of the parks and tourist hotels provide feeders to attract birds, Panama, on the other hand, doesn't. It was only at the Rainforest Discovery Center that a few hummingbird feeders were put up. There are a couple of places of places where there were some feeders set up - Canopy Lodge and Canopy Tower - but they are a bit more expensive than our budget would allow. That said, Panama is still a prime destination when it comes to bird-watching. Here are a few pointers to help you plan your travel to this Central American country.

The official language in Panama is Spanish. We observed that only a few can speak English (not even hotel employees). Their currency is also the US Dollar which means that the exchange rate is 1:1 making it a bit more expensive there than in Costa Rica.

Getting there:
We booked a flight from Los Angeles to Panama City via COPA, the national airline of Panama. Our fare was US$590 per person, roundtrip. That, of course, depends on several factors, such as time of year, time of booking, etc. The advantage of COPA wass that it has a direct flight from LAX (about 5 hours flight) whereas the other US based airlines usually have stopovers either in Houston or Miami. The inflight service was also good.

We made arrangements (via Facebook) with Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel (about 40 minutes away). The cost was $45. We also used them to take us from our hotel in Gamboa district to the hotel near the airport on our last day in Panama.

Going from our hotel to the Metropolitan Park and back, we used the shuttle provided by the hotel (free but they have strict schedules). Let me clarify that: the hotel provides the free shuttle to Albrook Mall which is about 2-3 blocks away from the Metropolitan Park. We pay an additional $5 for the shuttle to take us to the park. To return to the mall (where the shuttle picks up hotel guests) we take a taxi for a fixed fare of $5.

We stayed at the Radisson Summit Hotel at the Gamboa district for 5 days/4 nights at $75 per day. This hotel is highly recommended for birders. Behind the hotel are some forest trails that are rife with wild birds. The area near the golf practice range also had quite a number of birds including the Southern Lapwing. Breakfast was free (and was really good). The room we stayed in overlooked the golf practice range/parking area (the front of the hotel). Had we known earlier, we would have the chosen the one that faced the swimming pool and the mini forest (the back of the hotel). A birding couple that we met there told us that they saw the Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris just outside their window. Service was also good and the staff were very helpful.

Since we would be taking a 7 am flight back to Los Angeles, which meant we had to be at the terminal by 4 am, we decided to stay at the Riande Aeropuerto Hotel because it was just 3 minutes away from the airport. Although the hotel also provides a free shuttle to the airport, our overall experience was a little less than satisfactory especially considering that their rate is $104 per day.

Bird Guides:
We don't normally avail of bird guides when we visit a foreign country, but while we were researching about birding in Panama, we learned that to be able to go to the "hotspots", a guide is a necessity. Further research made us decide to contact Whitehawk Birding Tours. Our guides Angel and Jose were at hotel at the appointed time and took us on an 8-hour exciting and thrilling tour of the Pipeline Road. Both were excellent bird spotters and about 45 more lifers were added to our list. They charged us  $160 per person for a day-tour (that includes transport and snacks). If you plan to go birding in Panama, we highly recommend Whitehawk. By the way, there is an entrance fee of $20 per person at the Rainforest Discovery Center.

Although most of our time was spent birding, we were also able to spend some time at the Albrook Mall. It is the same as any mall in the U.S. (or in the Philippines) with plenty of stores and restaurants. We had lunch at the foodcourt where practically all the fast food restaurants in the U.S. were well represented - McDonalds, Wendys, KFC, - but surprisingly, no Starbucks. Prices were a bit higher than their American counterparts though. It was also at this mall that I was able to get a replacement for my flash card reader which died on the our very first day in Panama. Again, the price was almost twice than that in the U.S.

The Metropolitan Park, as it's name implies, is in an urban setting and is only a few blocks away from the above mentioned mall. Nevertheless, birding is outstanding here, thanks to the forest that they were to able to maintain in an almost pristine condition. There is also a $4 entrance fee - and very well worth it. The park has several trails varying in length and degrees of difficulty.

Overall, Panama gave us the most number of lifers in the short span of time that we spent here. And that is taking into consideration that we availed of a bird guide for only one day.

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