THE BLOG
01/20/2011 09:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Experience Endangered Animals and Local Culture in Panama

Panama is passion. Pristine beauty. Palatial architecture. Panama is the place to experience a world of curiosity, a world of adventure and a world of absolute, natural beauty. As home of the Western Hemisphere's largest rainforest outside of the Amazonian Basin, Panama is an undisturbed destination where true animal lovers and wildlife advocates can absorb endangered animals, breathtaking ecosystems and a salient culture -- all at the front door of the native people.

Upon landing at the Tocumen International Airport, where daily, direct flights from a number of international cities arrive each day, tourists are just a quick drive to Panama City where they can rest in the Intercontinental Hotel Group's downtown Miramar Panama. Spend your days in the cosmopolitan hotel (complete with full spa), located near major shopping and attractions, including the Pacific Ocean entryway of the Panama canal, only five miles away from the Miramar and visible from your window.

Typically I travel with my dog Lucky, but this year she chose to stay home for New York's largest blizzard in recent history rather than enjoy the biodiversity Panama had to offer. I think she's afraid of the jungle. If you simply cannot leave your own dog at home -- there is a way to get him or her down to Panama with just a little forethought. Visit your vet for a health certification and shot history which you will present to the Panamanian consulate for notarization.  Once you have this documentation, you will arrive in Panama and be asked to pay a vet fee and quarantine fee at the airport and your dog is free to roam Panama for a 40 days. All this work must be done at least 30 days before your Panamanian trip, so if you're planning on bringing your dog, plan ahead!

And what sites you and your dog can enjoy! Downtown Panama City comes alive with rich architecture. Stroll along the Pacific waterfront promenade, Las Bóvedas, or visit The National Institute of Culture Building, The Cathedral on Plaza de la Catedral, the Interoceanic Canal Museum, the presidential palace and areas around the historic, Old Panama (Panama Viejo), where Spanish inhabitants first settled in 1519. Remark in the charm and slender of the surviving buildings and narrow roads, overgrown in grass and dazzling to the eye.

The Amador Causeway is also a new budding tourist destination north of the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal, developed from displaced rocks left over from the canal's construction, where visitors will soon be able to visit The Bridge of Life Museum, a new Frank Gehry-designed museum dedicated to celebrating Panama's rich biodiversity, promising to be a "window into Panama's rich natural life." Similarly, visitors can marvel at The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which is devoted to promoting awareness of tropical environments.

But once outside the city, Panama offers an untapped world of tropical curiosities. Just one visit to Gamboa Rainforest Resort will open your eyes to unsurpassed beauty and natural splendor of Panama. Gamboa offers superb rainforest lodging and a number of free and pay tours such as the Pipeline Road Tour (a favorite of birdwatchers), Butterfly and Snake Reserves, Rainforest Discovery Center, the Night Boat Ride or a tram ride to Monkey Island. Gamboa is located on Panama's 55,000 acre Soberania National Park, where views of toucans, flycatchers, yellow-eared toucanets, crimson-bellied woodpeckers, hummingbirds and crested eagles are just part of the scenery.  If birds are not for you, Gamboa offers other sites of Panama's ecosystem and endangered animals including the jaguar, three-toed sloths, anteaters, green iguanas, white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys and the endangered Geoffroy's tamarin. A trip to Panama without staying at Gamboa Rainforest Resort would be a major tourist snafu.

Due to its unique geographical location, nestled between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Panama is home to unprecedented beaches on top of its world-famous canal. Intercontental's Playa Bonita sits on a private white sand Pacific Ocean beach. Panama also offers a number of boutique hotel offerings on private island beaches where visitors can snorkel, fish and take in the natural ecosystem. Try Punta Galeon Resport on Contadora Island; Isla Paridita, part of Panama's National Marine Parks; or Yandup Lodge on the Kuna Yala Reserve -- all rich with coral reefs, crystal waters and ubiquitous white ocean sands. A local favorite is also The Hotel Villa Marina, a sprawling nine bedroom retreat on 160 acres of private land. Located in the Pedasi village on the Azueros Peninsula, the Spanish-style villa offers vast ecological sites and activities: private gardens, diverse plant life, exotic animals as well as on-site surfing and hiking.

Take in the true culture of Panama with an Embera Village Tour. Live, celebrate, shop, eat, trek through the jungle and down the Chagres river with the Embera Tribe, one of seven Panamanian Amerindian populations. Tour leader Anne Gordon de Barrigon truly understands the instinctual connection between native people, animals and the land. Anne's experience hails from zoo keeping and twenty-five years of wild animal training for television and films. She's worked with everyone in Hollywood from Brad Pitt to Nicole Kidman while animal handling on films like Legends of the Fall, Practical Magic, My Own Private Idaho, and A River Runs Through It. While working on set of The End of the Spear, she met her husband, a native Embera, and thus began her relationship with the Embera people. She now lives in the village amongst her extended family, a distinctly peaceful people adorned in colorful garments, living in thatched huts and cultivating the land for harmonious, sustainable living. Experiencing life at Embera is an unreal reminder of how futile our everyday "luxuries" and modern distractions are. It is a reminder to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have and who is around you.

Children of the Embara tribe enjoy spending time with Princessa, who wears a Zany Zak collar!

As for the children of Embera Village, they love dogs! Designers from Zany Zak Pet Boutique came to the village in 2008 and were so impressed by the way of life and the children, they designed a special dog collar inspired by the people using native beading styles in the construction. Fifty percent of proceeds from the Zany Zak collar goes towards supporting the Embera Village children's education fund, because public education is not supported fiscally by the local government.

From the cosmopolitan canal-living to the rural rainforests and jungles, Panama is a spectacular vacation destination with or without pet. True animal enthusiasts will have an unforgettable time exploring everything Panama has to offer.  Fortunately there's enough wildlife to enjoy for a number of return visits. After all, Panama has been voted as one of the greatest places to retire. Will you?

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