Tourism, Education and Conservation in Panama: STRI

Panama has to be considered as one of the leading destinations for students interested in tropical biology and rainforest preservation. As a land bridge between the two continents, Panama is a meeting place of over 970 species of birds from North and South America. Its tremendous biodiversity and the accessibility of its tropical forests make Panama a paradise for nature and ecological studies. Panama itself is a flower garden with more than 1500 species of trees and more than 10,000 species of plants. With two oceans washing its shores, Panama is rich in marine life.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI) in Panama, is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States, is dedicated to understanding biological diversity.

What began in 1923 as small field station on Barro Colorado Island, in the Panama Canal Zone, has developed into one of the leading research institutions of the world. STRI’s facilities provide a unique opportunity for long-term ecological studies in the tropics, and are used extensively by some 900 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions in the United States and around the world every year. The work of our resident scientists has allowed us to better understand tropical habitats and has trained hundreds of tropical biologists.

STRI is the perfect partner for Academic and Educational Tours in the Tropics:

Panama’s remarkable biodiversity and the accessibility of its tropical forests make it a paradise for nature and ecological studies. Our trip will expose participants to the natural wonders of lowland tropical forest, cloud forest and coral reef ecosystems. Culturally, students will have the opportunity to interact with and learn about our local communities and to experience city life in the developing world.

Chiriqui River Rafting – Involving the indigenous community.

We at EcoCircuitos are always very concerned about offering products that do not only adhere to the best quality standards but that also benefit the local communities of Panama.  Our motto is a responsible tour operator is “enhancing the traveler’s experience through local talents”. Today I would like to introduce you to an example of this philosophy:

For our river rafting tours we are working together with the only rafting provider in Chiriqui that employs only indigenous rafting guides, and therefore provides the members of the Ngobe Bugle tribe with a great opportunity for employment and development.

The Ngobe Bugle are the most populous indigenous group in Panama, and their territory encompasses an area greater than the size of the province of Chiriqui. Employment opportunities within the Comarca are low, and many Ngobe-Bugle work in the farms and plantations of Chiriqui.

Working as guides for Chiriqui River Rafting is a great opportunity for them to find stable and respectable employment on their own land.

“We started exploring the rivers in the Ngobe Bugle territory a few years ago, and when we found they were great for rafting, it just seemed natural to train members of the community there as guides.” Says Ian Sanchez of the Rafting Company.

The guides learn a lot more than just rafting: English skills, driving a car, and the necessity of protecting their environment are just some of the other things they pick up during their training.

The economic benefits the rafting business on the rivers of the reserve have another positive side effect: They provide a strong argument against the building of dams, which is something the Ngobe Bugle have been opposing for years already.

Tourism brings their communities a viable option to improve their living situations through secure employment and already after three years the progress is remarkable.

Eusebio was one of the first indigenous guides to train with the rafting company. Today he also does other tours, kayaking and hiking, he is learning to drive a car, and he studies tourism at the university. He trains other members of the community as rafting guides, and he will certainly play a role in the further development of the community and its tourism offer.

Working as a guide, as someone who is trained in a form of tourism that brings real money, and as someone who knows about Ecotourism, and the whole industry, that brings tourism for the indigenous community to a different level. It helps the community move from being an attraction to becoming professionals, to find a sustainable form of supporting themselves through tourism.

And the rafters get the best part of the deal too: The rivers on the Ngobe Bugle Comarca are perfect for rafting, but remote enough that your group will be the only one around, and the guides who grew up around them know them like none other.

This way, our travelers can be sure to get the best rafting experience to be had in Panama, while at the same time supporting the indigenous people of Panama.

Learn more about our rafting tours at


by Meret Schueschke