Panama City’s Biomuseo

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Opened in late-2014, the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo focuses on Panama’s biodiversity and how the isthmus of Panama has changed the world.

Biomuseo Theater
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The first thing you notice about Panama City’s Biomuseo is the building. There’s nothing subtle about it–it’s an explosion of color. It was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry and is the first of his buildings in Latin America.

It stands by itself on the Amador Causeway, a sliver of low-lying land linking a few small islands protecting the entrance of the Panama Canal. The only building nearby is the old Army-Navy-Air Force club building, a single-story box that’s presumably a lot less busy now that Panama no longer has an Army and minimal naval and air forces.

The symbolism is laid on thick. The colors of the roof are a nod to the colors of the tropics. When you stand inside the main foyer and look up, it’s designed to bring to mind a Panamanian rainforest’s tree canopy. If you look out in one direction, you see the waters of the Pacific, while out the other you see the waters of the Panama Canal, with water on both sides of an isthmus that symbolizes the way Panama itself straddles two oceans.

The general theme of the museum is Panama’s biodiversity and Panama’s influence on global biodiversity and ecology. The museum’s tagline is: “Discover how Panama changed the world.” There’s more to that than nationalistic marketing spin. I really had no idea how important Panama was—frankly, I hadn’t given it any thought before—but the museum maps it out very well indeed.

Much of it comes down to the formation of Panama itself. Millions of years ago, the North and South American continents were separate, with a wide channel running between them linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But around 3 million years ago, thanks to a combination of volcanic activity in the areas of what is now Nicaragua and Guatemala as well as in the Caribbean, which in turn encouraged sedimentation deposits to build up, eventually a land bridge was formed and the channel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans closed off.

That had two profound effects. One was that animals that had been isolated in one or other of the continents could not disperse into the other. Some species survived that intermingling, but many didn’t. The museum does a superb job highlighting the ones that didn’t make it.

The other profound effect was that ocean currents were totally disrupted. That, in turn, affected weather patterns not just in North and South America but even as far away as Africa and Europe.

All in all, it seems Panama–or at least the isthmus that country of Panama now covers–really has influenced the world in incredibly profound ways.

Panamarama

After some introductory exhibits explaining what biodiversity is and why it matters, in a section called the Gallery of Biodiversity, you’re directed into a film room. Now, I’ve been shepherded into so many crappy and dated films in museums that I find myself rolling my eyes whenever there is one, and I’ll often skip it if I can. But this one isn’t crappy at all–in fact, it’s really cool.

It’s an immersive experience demonstrating all sorts of aspects of Panamanian wildlife, climate, and ecosystem. It’s only about 6 minutes long, but I wish it was longer. There are 8 large screens surrounding the room on 3 sides, overhead, and even underneath the glass floor. It puts you in the rainforest, underneath the oceans, and on the beaches of Panama. It is really well done and has a definite wow factor. So I recommend sticking around for it.

Building the Bridge

The next section focuses on the formation of the Panamanian isthmus beginning about 40 million years ago. And that means lots of rocks and fossils. So if you’re into geology, it’ll be right up your alley.

Even if rocks aren’t your cup of tea, stop at the end of the geology section to check out the small exhibit on earthquakes in the region. Computer graphics display the earthquake activity in Central America and the Caribbean in the previous two weeks, and it’s amazing how much there is. You can even jump on the spot—you’re encouraged to do so—to see if the effects are measured on the spectrometer.

Worlds Collide

The next exhibit focuses on the effects on the animal kingdom of the creation of the land bridge between North and South America. In this room they have life-sized models of those animals, from the giant ground sloth to saber-tooth cats to giant armadillos the tiniest frogs. Large touchscreen panels provide interactive guides to what’s what, and on one wall a large video panel displays an animation of what some of these animals would have looked like in person.

For now, the audio guide section ends, so once you’ve handed in your handsets you can head downstairs.

The Human Path

The exhibit downstairs focuses on the impact of human habitation in the region, from the earliest humans here through the Spanish invasion through the creation of the Panama Canal, covering a span of about 15,000 years.

It’s in an area directly under the main atrium and consists of a series of panels on colorful columns that guides you through chronologically.

A Work in Progress

The Biomuseo has been open to visitors since October 2014, but it’s still a work in progress with more exhibits to be built.

The southern wing currently houses a temporary exhibit on giant sharks, but that area will eventually have two large aquariums, one representing the marine life of the Pacific and the other the marine life of the Atlantic. A number of other enhancements are also planned, and you can see scale models of the planned expansions in one of the exhibit spaces upstairs in the southern wing.

The Biomuseo is new, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does. Personally, I think it’s added a new highlight to a visit to Panama City and is well worth the short cab ride out to visit.

Photos of Panama City’s Biomuseo

Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

More About Biomuseo Panama City

  • The Biomuseo is the first Latin American project by renowned architect Frank Gehry. His design for the building is inspired by the idea of Panama as a natural bridge between two continents.
  • The museum’s construction started in 2004 and was completed in 2014.
  • The museum building is 4,000 square meters, with 2,500 square meters dedicated to exhibition halls.
  • The building’s design is a departure from the conventional, featuring bold colors and a deconstructed form that mirrors the complex story of Panama’s biodiversity.
  • The Biomuseo is located on the Amador Causeway, a location chosen due to its historical significance and panoramic views of the Panama Canal and Panama City’s skyline.
  • The Biomuseo houses eight permanent exhibition galleries designed by Bruce Mau Design. The exhibits depict the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its massive impact on the planet’s biodiversity.
  • The Biomuseo’s location was once a U.S. military base, Fort Amador, which was handed over to Panama in 1999 following the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

The Biomuseo is an iconic representation of Panama’s ecological and geological history. Located in Panama City, it was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose innovative and unconventional approach to architecture is evident in the building’s design. The Biomuseo’s vibrant colors and deconstructed form make it a striking sight on the Amador Causeway, a key location at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

The museum was established in 2014, following a decade-long construction period that began in 2004. The project was inspired by Gehry’s wife, Berta, a native Panamanian, and the museum is Gehry’s first work in Latin America.

The Biomuseo consists of eight permanent exhibition galleries designed by Bruce Mau Design, each narrating the country’s rich biodiversity from different perspectives—geology, ecology, human history, and Panama’s significant role as a biological corridor. The museum also includes an atrium, a shop, a café, and outdoor spaces offering stunning views of the Panama Canal and Panama City’s skyline.

The museum is located on the site of what was once Fort Amador, a U.S. military base handed back to Panama in 1999 following the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. The location emphasizes Panama’s unique geographical position, symbolizing the country’s role as a natural bridge between two continents.

What’s Nearby to Biomuseo Panama City

  • Amador Causeway: A scenic road offering panoramic views of Panama City, the Panama Canal, and the Bridge of the Americas.
  • Panama Canal: A major global shipping route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  • Punta Culebra Nature Center: A small open-air museum focused on marine science and education, managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
  • Casco Viejo: The historic district of Panama City, known for its well-preserved colonial architecture and UNESCO World Heritage status.
  • Ancon Hill: The highest point in Panama City offering panoramic views of the city.

How to Get to Biomuseo Panama City

The Biomuseo is located in Panama City, the capital and largest city of Panama. The nearest major airport is Tocumen International Airport (PTY), about 21 miles from the city center. The city’s public transportation system includes metro lines, buses, and taxis, but there is no direct public transport to the Biomuseo. The best way to reach the museum is by taxi or private vehicle. The museum provides parking for visitors.

What To Know Before You Go

  • It’s a quick cab ride from Casco Viejo and shouldn’t cost you more than $3-$5 one-way (it’s always worth agreeing on a price before you get in, because Panamanian taxis don’t use meters). There seem to be enough taxis dropping people off that it’s not hard to get a return cab whenever you need one. If there are none around, the staff seem unusually helpful and will no doubt call you one.
  • There’s a cafe on site. If you’re after something a bit more substantial, there are a bunch of restaurants a little further down to the Causeway towards Isla Flamenco (or Flamenco Port).
  • The entry ticket isn’t cheap–$22 for an adult–but it does include an audio tour. And at least it’s going to a good cause of sustaining the museum.
  • You can find opening hours and information about special events on the Biomuseo’s official website.
David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »