Getting familiar: Our educators’ experience with Smithsonian University Travel Programs

Our Capstone university travel team is just back from a very special tour of the incredible Isthmus of Panama through the eyes of the iconic Smithsonian Institution. It was, in a word, “increíble!” (Be sure to say it in your mind with the appropriate Spanish accent!) Here are just a few highlights:

Who: 13 faculty and administrators from around the U.S., 5 staff members from WorldStrides and Smithsonian, and 4 Central American guides/advisors

When: 5 jam-packed November days

Why: To allow university educators to experience Panama, and to understand the 7 newly available travel programs developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian

Day 1

Welcome to Panama! But not just to Panama—to Panama through the eyes of Smithsonian! Our introduction reception and dinner in the colonial city (Casco Viejo) was hosted by Dr. Matt Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Day 2

Smithsonian Panama Trip

We got an extra early start to catch the staff ferry over to Barro Colorado Nature Monument. This island, which sits in Gatun Lake in the middle of the Panama Canal, is a treasure trove of flora and fauna. With three amazing naturalist guides, we trekked through the Panamanian rainforest, spotting agoutis, listening to the howler monkeys and learning about the hundreds of bird and plant species surrounding us.

When the rain started, it could have been a bummer, but there was sort of something special about rain in the rainforest. Then, we spent the afternoon at the Smithsonian Gamboa Research Facility where we got a firsthand look at the active scientific research going on in Panama right now. Finally, a delicious dinner in yet another beautiful spot in Casco Viejo!

Day 3

Smithsonian Panama Trip

Sunshine! We arrived at Punta Culebra Nature Center, where this Smithsonian exhibition and education center sits on one of the most gorgeous points I’ve ever seen at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The eloquent staff there shared details about their mission to educate the community before turning us over to a staff scientist who told us all about his research on how coastal ecosystems are responding to human activity on the intertidal.

After the presentation, he was so generous with his time and took the most interested members of our group out onto the beach to view the area where he is conducting his experiments.

Smithsonian Panama Trip

We spent the afternoon at the STRI headquarters, an incredible campus where we learned more about Panama’s ecosystem from Dr. Larsen, visited the biblioteca (there was a lot of geeking out by our group over the amazing resources), and then stayed on to listen to a weekly talk by a scientist. These talks are often part of student trips, and are well attended by the research community of STRI.

Our evening—dinner and a traditional Panamanian dance show.  Some in our group even got pulled up on stage to show off their moves!

Day 4

Smithsonian Panama Trip

We rode over the continental divide to Punta Galeta where Smithsonian has a marine research facility on the Caribbean coast. The welcome by Director Stanley Heckadon was inspiring in every way. Their work educating the children of Panama about the biodiversity that surrounds them is the kind of life-changing work that we are so proud to support. We spent the afternoon in Casco Viejo, exploring the Panama Canal museum and shopping for souvenirs for friends and family at home. Dinner at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal was a truly special experience. Our group could barely stay seated at the table for the delicious meal because we were so fascinated by watching the ships passing through the locks.

Day 5

Smithsonian Panama Trip

Our group hosted the team from ELTI (Environmental Leadership Training Institute), a partnership between STRI and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies that is putting some of STRI’s research into practice in the local community. They told us about their mission and a case study of their work improving cattle ranching ecosystems. It was work that really helped bring all of what we’ve seen into focus. Finally, our last stop—the BioMuseo—with exhibition design led by the Smithsonian and the University of Panama. It’s crazy, colorful architecture (designed by Frank Gehry) sets the tone for a museum visit that’s like nothing you’ve ever done before and, boy, did it deliver! From the surround sound and video movie, Panamarama, to the giant reconstructions of prehistoric animals, it was pretty impossible not to get swept up in the biodiversity of this one-of-a-kind place. In the end, we only tore ourselves away because of the afternoon flight home.  Adios Panama! We’ll definitely be back.

Learn more about our Smithsonian University Travel Programs.

Article written by Beth Campbell

Beth Campbell
Beth leads WorldStrides' storytelling team, identifying amazing tales across our family of brands. A former news reporter and anchor, she loves spreading the news of education and travel. When she's not digging through her email inbox, she's picking up messes from her two amazing sons and dreaming of future travels.