When cruising Panama, visitors can expect to find tropical forests, pristine islands off the coasts, highland cloud jungles, and coral reefs: in short, a vibrant lesson in biodiversity. Panama has over ten thousand species of plant; within these are 1200 orchid species, 675 fern species and 1500 tree species. However, this pristine natural beauty is unfortunately in jeopardy. Development and deforestation are the principle threats to Panama’s natural ecosystems as the country seeks a balance between sustainable practices and financial gain. Degradation of land and soil erosion also threatens siltation of the Panama Canal, and water pollution from agricultural runoff (chemical fertilizers and pesticides that get into the water) threatens fisheries, as well as the Panamanians who make there living operating them.
Panama’s coast has large areas of lowlands, characterized by large banana plantations. Near the Panama Canal, tropical rainforests and humid climates abound. This is the typical climate and vegetation along the Caribbean coast and for most of eastern Panama. Vegetation on the Pacific coast includes dry tropical rainforest and grasslands. Both coasts and the islands near them are home to mangrove forests. Higher altitudes in the mountainous regions host cloud forests and alpine vegetation.
Panama has created close to 40 national parks and officially protected areas, and approximately 25% of Panama’s total land area is designated as protected for conservation. Of these, the Darien National Park is considered the crown jewel, with its 576,000 hectares containing a rich abundance of wildlife and rainforest flora. The park is another Unesco Heritage site, and Cana, a former mining valley within it, is now the premier bird-watching location in Panama. Another interesting piece of trivia about Darien is related to its dense, seemingly impenetrable forest. The Darien Gap, covering 54 miles and crossing the border between Panama and Colombia, is the missing link in the Pan-American Highway. This highway stretches from the southern tip of South America to northern Alaska, with the exception of a 54 mile gap, the Darien Gap. On the Panama side the Gap is mostly mountainous rainforest terrain, and is swampland in Colombia. The United Nations report suggesting that building a road through this area would cause extreme environmental damage, along with the extreme terrain itself, has prevented the gap from closing for over forty years. It remains a wild place, not only ecologically but politically, as several militant guerilla groups from Colombia maintain a presence in remote areas of the Gap.
Currently, a contested area of Panama is Isla de Coiba. The 493 square mile island is a Unesco World Heritage site and is in the middle of one of the largest marine parks in the world. For many years, a prison located on the island has ironically ensured its preservation; however, now that the penal colony is gone, developers are eyeing the island, creating a fierce debate between foreigners buying up real estate and non-governmental organizations fighting to preserve the ecological gem.