The best hiking trails in Parque Internacional La Amistad are not for the faint-of-heart… or the short-of-breath. PILA presents adventure travelers with a veritable obstacle course of waterfalls, rivers, sheer rock faces, steep hills, and nearly un-navigable valleys. If you can hack it, you’ll emerge from the jungle with an intimate understanding of the wilderness that few achieve in their lifetime.
Your surroundings? Virgin forests, the fragile ecosystems of Panama’s rugged Cordillera de Talamanca and the lowland buffer zones and cloud forests, richly layered in cedar, cypress, oak, and palm trees. And the fecundity of plant life is just the tip of the iceberg. The proliferation of rarely-seen rainforest species in PILA makes wildlife-spotting an effortless offshoot of your hiking adventure.
Over one hundred mammals, including all 6 species of Central American jungle cat (jaguar, ocelot, puma, margay, oncilla, and jaguarundi), the largest population of endangered tapirs, plus howler monkeys and giant anteaters inhabit PILA, in addition to more than 400 bird species. It’s a mind-boggling cache of biodiversity that you have to experience to believe. So let’s get you there! Here’s your guide to hiking PILA, whether you seek the ultimate extreme hiking experience or a more leisurely excursion.
Getting there & getting in
The Panamanian side of Parque Internacional La Amistad is located in a remote area of the province of Chiriqui, difficult to access by car, bus, plane or train. You’ll need to drive around the loop to the intersection near Entre Ríos on the northern end of the valley and follow the road all the way to the park, veering left after you drive through the gate. The last stretch is fit for 4WD vehicles only; a Cerro Punta taxi will drop you there for $10. The park itself only charges $5 as an entrance fee. Hours are daily from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Preparing for the hike
Since many miles of PILA remain unexplored, no maps or guidebooks exist to direct you through the park. Hiring a professional guide is a very good idea, as is staying on the beaten path (not something Amble usually recommends, but the jungle is a dangerous place). This is one of the wettest regions in Panama, so prepare for damp conditions with waterproof clothing and shoes. If you’re embarking on a rigorous multi-day hike, remember to bring these essential items:
- Sleeping bag
- Cooking pot and cooking utensils
- Food, especially dried food
- Water bottle and plenty of water (or a water purifier)
- Insect repellent
- Swiss Army knife
The ultimate extreme hiking experience: Sendero Cerro Picacho
For the best of the single-day options, hit the Cerro Picacho trail for a 3 ½ hour trek over difficult terrain to a height of 9,635 feet (2,937 meters) for a view encompassing both the Pacific and the Caribbean. You can camp at the peak or descend the same day.
If you’re serious about a hard but rewarding trek, talk to the forest rangers – they’ll clue you in on a couple of the best hikes, such as a new offshoot trail from the Sendero Cerro Picacho, the Vereda La Montaña (4 kilometers uphill), or an unmarked eight-hour hike through dense forest to reach hot springs.
Don’t worry if you’re not looking for the ultimate extreme hiking experience: PILA offers numerous trails at various levels of difficulty. Your 3 best bets for a less arduous jungle jaunt:
- Sendero Panama (sometimes called Puma) Verde. An easy 15-minute foray into the forest.
- Sendero El Retoño (1.3 miles / 2.1 kilometers). Mostly level terrain with rich scenery (a bamboo tunnel!), excellent birdwatching opportunities, and laughing jungle streams.
- Sendero La Cascada (2 miles / 3.4 kilometers). Checkpoints on your moderately-strenuous uphill climb include views of the surrounding mountains, valleys, even the Caribbean on a clear day, plus a spectacular waterfall. This trail is well-maintained, but watch for slippery steps on the wooden staircase as you approach the waterfall.