The Canal and Central Panama Sights

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Parque Nacional Chagres (Chagres National Park)

Parque Nacional Chagres (Chagres National Park) Review

The mountains to the northeast of the canal form a vast watershed that feeds the Chagres River, which was one of the country's principal waterways until it was damned to create the canal, and is now the source of nearly half of the water used in the locks. To protect the forests that help water percolate into the ground and keep the river running through the dry season, the Panamanian government declared the entire watershed a national park in 1985. It is one of the country's largest parks, covering more than 320,000 acres, and it holds an array of ecosystems and expanses of inaccessible wilderness that is home to spider monkeys, harpy eagles, toucans, tapirs, and other endangered species. The park's northern border, defined by Sierra Llorona, and its southern extreme, in Cerro Azul, are the easiest areas to visit, thanks to paved roads. Most people visit the national park on day tours from Panama City to one of several Emberá villages, but you can see more of its forests on a white-water rafting trip down the Chagres River or by hiking on the trails of Cerro Azul.

All the major tour operators in Panama City offer day trips to Emberá villages in the park. Visiting the villages—relocated here from Alto Bayano three decades ago, when their land was flooded by a hydroelectric project—is an interesting cultural experience, but most itineraries aren't great for seeing wildlife. The Emberá's traditional territory stretches from eastern Panama to northwest Colombia, but the relocated communities live much as their relatives to the east do, in thatched huts with elevated floors. They wear their traditional dress for tour groups—men wear loincloths and women wrap themselves in bright-color cloth skirts, with no tops, sometimes covering their breasts with large necklaces. Men and women paint their upper bodies with a dye made from mixing the sap of the jagua fruit with ashes. The tours are a bit of a show, but they provide an interesting introduction to Emberá culture. Tours usually include demonstrations of how the Emberá live, a traditional dance, handicraft sales, and optional painting of visitors' arms with jagua. (Note the jagua tattoos take more than a week to wash off.) Communities that receive visitors include Parara Puru and San Juan de Pequiní, but the best trip for nature lovers or adventurers is to Emberá Drua, since it entails a boat trip deep into the park and a tough hike.

Updated: 08-14-2012

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