Smithsonian Student Travel | Student Journey | Panama
Meet with staff at three Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute facilities
Explore Gatun Lake to glimpse sloths, howler monkeys, and caimans
Collaborate on a reforestation project in Chagres National Park
Snorkel and tidepool to explore the diversity of tropical marine life
This itinerary represents our best projection of the group’s schedule. However, we may implement changes designed to improve the quality of the program.
Departure • Travel Day • Meet your student travel group and one of your trip leaders in Miami, Florida, and fly together to Panama City, Panama.
Panama City • 2 days • Begin your program in Panama City and get to know your group and leaders in this bustling city surrounded by incredibly biodiverse tropical forest and marine ecosystems. Consider the engineering feat of the Panama Canal—watch ships pass through the locks as you learn about the history of its construction and the conservation of lands surrounding it. Explore nature trails, experience marine and amphibian exhibits, and learn about important scientific discoveries on a visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Punta Culebra Nature Center, located at the entrance of the canal.
Chagres National Park • 4 days • Next, travel deep into Chagres National Park to an ecovillage working on sustainability projects. Collaborate on a reforestation project and learn how local communities are adapting to and mitigating the effects of a changing climate. Dive into topics of sustainability, rainforest ecology, agroforestry, outdoor recreation, and engineering as you learn alongside ecologists, builders, artisans, and designers. Take day trips to several nearby nature preserves to trek and observe wildlife such as howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths, tropical birds, and harlequin frogs.
Barro Colorado Island & Gatun Lake • 1 day • Travel by boat to Gatun Lake, formed when the Panama Canal was constructed, to spend a day on Barro Colorado Nature Monument. Barro Colorado Island, located in the lake, is a biological reserve under the custodianship of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and home to one of the oldest tropical research stations in the world. On a specially arranged visit, spot toucans, monkeys, and agoutis as you hike forest trails where research has been conducted for more than 100 years. Spend the night at a jungle lodge surrounded by dense rainforest canopy. Kayak the surrounding watershed and take a nocturnal boat ride to spot wildlife.
Bocas del Toro • 5 days • Cap your trip at an off-the-grid, secluded island paradise on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Spend part of the day at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution’s Bocas del Toro Research Station and learn about the past, present, and future of the island’s delicate marine ecosystem. Back at the ecolodge, interview the owners to learn about the lodge’s gray water collection system and solar array. Study the resilience of coral species as you reflect on how these ecosystems are changing over time. Snorkel or kayak along white-sand beaches, hike to a coffee farm, and learn how chocolate is made, from cacao bean to bar. In the evenings, wander to the dock to experience bioluminescence from microscopic marine life. Enjoy delicious, homegrown food and on your final night, enjoy a celebratory meal and reminisce about your shared journey. Finally, discuss ways you can bring your knowledge home to protect and preserve the ecosystems in your own backyard.
Return • Travel Day • Fly from Panama City to Miami with your group and a trip leader, then continue on to your final destination.
Smithsonian Student Travel Expert
The expert highlighted below will join the group for a portion of the itinerary to add their expertise and insight to the program theme.
Dr. Matthew C. Larsen, Director Emeritus
Matthew C. Larsen is the Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama City, Panama. His 90+ publications are in the fields of natural hazards, water resources, climate change, and marine geology. Dr. Larsen has led research projects in the United States, Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was STRI director from 2014 to 2020. Prior to joining STRI, he served for a decade as Chair of the US National Committee for UNESCO International Hydrological Programme. Dr. Larsen looks forward to welcoming students to STRI and sharing Smithsonian research on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
What to Expect
Physical Activity • This is a physically active summer travel program. You will be walking in cities, hiking in the jungle, working on hands-on projects, swimming, and kayaking. You do not need to be at peak fitness to participate, but it is important that you have a desire to be physically active, and that you are excited about trying all activities.
Accommodations • We stay in various types of accommodations throughout this program, including family-run inns, bungalows, and rustic ecolodges. Students have access to common and outside space at our accommodations for community meetings, working on projects, and socializing. Leaders stay together with students throughout the program.
Climate • Panama is a warm tropical country with two seasons: wet and dry. Summer is the wet season. It rains often in brief, heavy showers rather than all-day storms. Daytime temperatures range from 75-85°F, while nighttime temperatures drop to 70-75°F.
Meals • We begin each day with a traditional breakfast at our residence. At most of our residences, meals are included and served at the accommodations. Other times we eat lunches and dinner in restaurants. Occasionally we also purchase supplies for healthy and delicious picnic lunches.
Cuisine • The cuisine in Panama is hearty and includes many dishes cooked with rice, beans, plantains, meats, and a delicious array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Corn-based dishes are also very common and specialties are ceviche, tamales, and sancocho, Panamanian chicken stew.
Language • Spanish is Panama’s official language and is widely spoken, but there are several indigenous languages that are also spoken throughout the country. English is spoken widely in some areas, especially in Panama City.
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