Chagres National Park is one of the most well-preserved national parks in Panama due to its importance in protecting the water sources of the Panama Canal and Panama City. Spanning across 500 square miles and both the provinces of Panama and Colón, this breathtaking park is full of scenic waterfalls, untamed rivers cutting deep into […]
Chagres National Park is one of the most well-preserved national parks in Panama due to its importance in protecting the water sources of the Panama Canal and Panama City.
Spanning across 500 square miles and both the provinces of Panama and Colón, this breathtaking park is full of scenic waterfalls, untamed rivers cutting deep into the jungle, and steep mountains rising up to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) above sea level.
Natural attractions include the Chagres River, Lake Alajuela, and a considerable diversity of wildlife and vegetation. The area is a haven for fans of water sports such as rafting, kayaking, and fishing. It’s also perfect for nature lovers interested in exploring the park’s bustling tropical forests.
Chagres National Park is famous for its Embera tribes as well. In addition to enjoying the natural beauty of the park, you can also visit an indigenous village to experience the unique culture and customs of the Embera people.
We recommend visiting during Panama’s dry season, from January to April. Chagres National Park makes for a great day trip from Panama City, but can easily extend to a multi-day trip if you camp within the park. Read on to find out more about this incredible park, how to get there, and what to do.
With a Tour Operator
The best way to get to Chagres National Park is with a tour operator. The park has no infrastructure beyond the outskirts at Lake Alajuela and Cerro Azul. If you really want to experience the wild natural beauty of the park’s interior, you’ll need to go with a tour operator that knows the area and has water transportation.
Only two areas of the park are easily accessible by car: Lake Alajuela and Cerro Azul. To get to Lake Alajuela from Panama City or Colón, take the Trans-isthmian Highway, (Route 3 / Carretera Transístmica). Then, depending on your destination, you can take Madden Avenue to the Madden Dam or follow the Calzada Larga road to Alajuela Lake.
If you want to reach Cerro Azul, take the Pan-American Highway (Route 1 / Carretera Panamericana) to Tocumen Airport, then follow José Augustin Arango Avenue. After a few kilometers, when you arrive to the garden center (Vivero Tierra Adentro), turn left and follow the main road. In Altos de Cerro Azul, there is a park administrative office and ranger station.
The overall trip from Panama City to Parque Nacional Chagres, depending on traffic and your destination, ranges between 1-1.5 hours for approximately 24.8-31 miles (40-50 kilometers).
Water Sports: Whitewater Rafting, Kayaking, and Fishing
The gigantic Lake Alajuela and the wild rivers of Chagres, Pequeni, and Boquerón provide the perfect environment for water sports. You can enjoy a full-day rafting adventure in the jungle or opt for a more relaxing time fishing in the Chagres River. There are up to 59 different freshwater fish species in the area.
Hiking and Camping on El Camino Real Panama
In the 1500s, the Spanish constructed a path, El Camino Real, to transport gold from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast, passing through the area now known as Chagres National Park to the towns of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios. Today, you can hike this challenging trail on a multi-day trip.
Camping is allowed all over the park. Spending a night listening to the sounds of the pristine rainforest makes for an unparalleled memory.
Cerro Azul and Cascada El Vigia
If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, make your way to the mountain villages near Cerro Azul Panama to appreciate views over the park. The lush rainforest of the park and nearby waterfall El Vigia offer a refuge for countless species, creating an atmosphere that is both lively and tranquil, perfect for birdwatching and wildlife observation.
Visit an Embera Village
Deep within Chagres National Park, many of the Embera people continue the traditions and lifestyle of their ancestors, living in riverside houses raised on stilts and using dugout canoes for transportation.
On a day tour to an Embera Village, you can meet the village’s inhabitants, learn about their culture, and see their remarkable handicrafts. For more information about the Embera and visiting an authentic indigenous village, see our earlier blog post.
The park is bursting with life. Its 900 types of plants and humid environment create an idyllic sanctuary for a myriad of species.
Passionate bird lovers will have a delectable time watching the 396 species of birds, including shining and red-legged honeycreepers and indigenous stripe-cheeked woodpeckers around Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe.
Likewise, you could also spot a majestic harpy eagle dwelling around the peaks of the park, as well as iconic toucans and threatened blue-and-gold tanagers residing in the canopy.
If our avian friends aren’t your cup of tea, don’t be disappointed yet, as the jungle is teeming with ground and tree-dwelling animals. You could observe captivating jaguars, pumas, and three other wildcats.
Various species of monkeys inhabit the canopy, including the black-handed spider monkey, the western night monkey, and the endemic Geoffroy’s tamarin. Furthermore, the giant anteater, Baird’s tapir, and the white-tailed deer are part of the 114 different mammals that can be spotted in this rainforest.
Amphibians and Reptiles
The humid air and abundance of rivers create a perfect biome for reptiles and amphibians to thrive. Up to 96 species of reptiles reside in the park, counting the American crocodile, the Panamanian coral snake, and the tranquil green iguana.
Although small, the endangered limosa harlequin frog or the evasive two-lined climbing salamander enliven Chagres National Park with their colors as well as the 77 other types of amphibians.
Whether you visit an Embera village, go white-water rafting, or simply enjoy observing fascinating wildlife, visiting Chagres National Park is an adventure you’ll never forget!