Sloth Hunt: Mission (Almost) Impossible

Our second day in Panama, we took our time getting out the door and wandered the neighborhood for a bit, in search of breakfast. Our hotel was in the city center – a nice, modern hotel in an area of transition. There were other funky, boutique hotels nearby, and several restaurants with inviting patios. And then there were the older, unsightly concrete behemoths from another era, with their peeling paint and their unwelcoming grates over doors and windows. The noise was a constant hum of traffic interspersed with car horns. There were sidewalks, thankfully, but they were broken and pot-holed so you had to step carefully. We always gripped Camille’s hand very tightly when it was time to cross a street, where drivers viewed stop signs and red lights as mere suggestions.

We found a bakery and carb-loaded for our day’s adventure: a rainforest hike in search of wild sloths. Like in other big cities, we stood at the curb and raised an arm to hail a taxi. Unlike other big cities, the taxis have no meters, so you negotiate the rate before you hop in. We found an $8 fare to the Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panamá and were on our way.

The park is the only wildlife refuge in Central America that lies inside a metropolitan area. The online travel forums talked of all the wildlife you might see, including sloths.

This family LOVES sloths. Like, we have a serious sloth crush. On our last visit to Costa Rica, we drove all the way across the country to visit a sloth sanctuary. We loved seeing these docile, sleepy-eyed creatures up close at the sanctuary, but never did see one in the wild. So I was determined that on this trip to Panama, we would finally see a wild sloth.

We paid our park entrance fee and headed up the well-maintained path.


We could still hear the car horns of city traffic, but soon were completely enveloped in a rainforest canopy. The shade was welcome, but the thick trees permitted no breeze, and the air was humid and stifling.


We spotted some turtles, and a really cool basilisk lizard, also known as the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because he runs on top of the water.  We delighted in the leaf cutter ants marching their treasures gallantly along an ant highway.



We moved along the path slowly, craning our necks until we felt dizzy from constantly searching the trees overhead. Sloths have great camouflage, and they don’t move much so they’re hard to find.

Eventually the path turned steeply upward and climbed and climbed and climbed. We saw a toucan, which was nice, but not a sloth.


We trudged on, sweat soaking our clothes and stinging our eyes, but knowing that we’d be rewarded at the top with panoramic views of the city – and maybe a sloth?


Our young explorer began to rapidly lose enthusiasm for our hunt.


We finally made it to the top, and while Lee and I enjoyed the views, Camille expressed her displeasure in the common way of 9-year-olds. Seated. Scowling.


“Come on!” I tried to rally her. “You’re hiking in a Panamanian rain forest! Isn’t that cool?”

The look I got in return said otherwise. The look said her parents were cruel.

Then I made her fake smile for a picture.



And I was about to become even crueler. As we headed back down the path, I began to lose hope that we would see a sloth in this park. But I was DETERMINED, and I can become rather stubborn when I set my mind to something. We’d been told of another park on the other side of town where you could also see sloths, so I cheerily informed our traveling party that if we didn’t see a sloth on this hike, we’d just hop a cab to the other park! Yay!?

Rather than a reward, it was received as punishment. Longing for the air conditioning of our hotel and its rooftop pool, Camille and Lee began searching for sloths even more desperately. Lee was being a good sport, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one wanting to keep up the sloth hunt past the park exit. Everyone else was toast, and they knew the only way to end the suffering was to appease me by finding a sloth.

Soon, we could see the park exit ahead, and I admit there was a part of me that wanted that hotel air conditioning too. But no – NO – we would carry on.

As we approached the park gate, a friendly park ranger came over and asked us how we enjoyed our hike.

“Muy bien! Muy bonito!” we assured him, trying to sound perky and not defeated.

“Did you see a sloth?” he asked. An odd question, I thought, considering that’s ALL WE WERE TRYING TO DO. As though he somehow knew – a psychic park ranger.

“No,” I answered, “we didn’t, but we were really hoping to see one.”

“Well, there’s one right over here!” he said happily, and walked over to a nearby tree. He pointed toward the top branches, and it took my eyes a few moments to find him. But there he was, a wild sloth, doing his sloth thing in a tree.

Can you see him?


A closer look.


We ooohed and aaaaahed. We took lots of pictures as it lay in the fork of the tree, unmoving, and then I began to wonder if it was dead and placed there just to appease sloth-seeking tourists like me. But then it ever-so-slightly moved its head to peer toward us. I was delighted.

But not nearly as delighted as Lee and Camille, who felt as though they’d been granted a last-minute pardon. We thanked the ranger profusely, and found a $6 cab back to our hotel. There, we enjoyed more panoramic city views, but this time from the comfort of our rooftop pool, and with the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.


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