A few articles ago, we spoke at length about the world-changing Panama Canal. However, a mere three million years earlier, Panama played host to an event that changed the world even more: it was born.

From volcanos beneath the seas, land rose up, first as islands, and then as an isthmus, joining what would come to be known as North and South America, and enabling one of the largest migrations of animal and plant life which, along with the Bering land bridge, ultimately led to humans populating the Americas. The result? A country that hosts one of the most biodiverse land areas in the world, a meeting place of plants and animals from both continents, boasting more than 10,000 plant species, nearly 1,000 bird species, and countless other living things in a country slightly smaller than South Carolina.

While a hike or camping trip through the rain forest is the best way to observe this incredible place – and the adorable monkeys, sloths, and other creatures who live here – Panama enables exploration of its biodiversity in a gorgeous, colorful structure sitting on a causeway jutting into Panama Bay. This is the Biomuseo, renowned architect Frank Gehry’s first Latin American building – testament to the economic boom Panama has experienced since taking control of the Canal in 1999 – and truly a must-visit for travelers to Panama City.

The Biomuseo is quite obviously a Gehry building!

The exhibits here are interactive, speaking to the diversity of Panama, as well as its geological history, pre-Colonial and Colonial times, and modern-era issues especially as they pertain to biological protections. The visit begins with an immersive video experience. The walls, ceiling, and even floor of a small standing theatre light up, flashing scenes of just a few of Panama’s bio regions and denizens. I am transfixed, especially by the local schoolchildren excitedly naming every creature they recognize. “Mariposa!” they cry in unison. Butterfly!

The video room was amazing!

Touchscreens, audio/video displays, and a trove of visually stimulating exhibits greet visitors, appealing to children and adults on different levels. One room features lifesized sculptures of many of the amazing animals that call – or have called – Panama home, while another has oversized replicas of rainforest blooms that make visitors feel as though they were insects among the vines and flowers. While some of the information is dispensed at an elementary level, much is significantly more thought-provoking, and the facts distilled are truly incredible.

Feeling like an insect in this exhibit

For instance, did you know that 45% of Panama remains forested, with 32% of the overall land area of the country under federal protection? That’s an impressive number! (The US is at 14%, for comparison, although even Panamá is far from the top, with nearly 50% of Bhutan protected.) Speaking to the human diversity, I read that roughly 70% of Panamanians are of mixed ancestry, results of the unions of indigenous tribes and Spanish settlers, freed slaves, and those who have sought out this area for its economic possibilities. More important than the numbers themselves is the braggadocious manner in which these statistics are released; this diversity is a source of immense pride here, something that sets a small nation of only four million apart.

Sculpture of some of Panama’s diversity, past and present

The isthmus of Panama, by its mere existence, has allowed for the migration of plants and animals – humans included – between continents, a biological crossroads if you will. However, plant and animal species seem to have utilized this land bridge significantly more than humans who, after using it to reach South America roughly 12,000 years ago seem to have had little contact between civilizations on either side. Jared Diamond, in his spectacular work “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” discusses Panama in distinction from other migratory paths. He says that the relative impassibility of the Darien Gap (the thick rainforest on the border of what is now Panama and Colombia) was successful at preventing significant communication, trade, or even discovery between civilizations on either side. For instance, this may have been the reason that the Maya of Central America developed a written language while the Inca of Peru did not. In Eurasian societies those advances would have been traded with ease given the much less hostile terrain.

Check out this view!

Biomuseo also features sculpted gardens, and these are nice to walk through after my thorough exploration of the museum (including the temporary exhibit on the evolution of chili peppers from four ancient varietals). The street on one side holds a phenomenal view of Panama City’s impressive skyline, while the pedestrian walk on the other looks on the Bridge of the Americas, the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. I sit for a few moments in the shade of a flowering vine, thinking of the immense importance of this area. Had Panamá not existed, what would our world be like? It’s a fascinating question with no real answer.

Flowers in Biomuseo’s gardens

Panama is one of the most diverse places on the planet, a diversity that is celebrated here at Biomuseo. If you are lucky enough to journey here to the isthmus, make sure to stop in here, to pay homage to the history – and future – of this incredible area!

Note: thank you to the wonderful staff at Biomuseo for sponsoring my visit here. As always, my opinions do not take that into account, and are entirely my own.

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