An August 2003 trip
to Panama by wanderluster
Quote: Panama. Other than the Panama Canal and Noriega, I knew nothing about this safe, beautiful country until my friend Donna and I visited. In two weeks, we explored rainforests, wildlife, tropical beaches, coral reefs, Indian villages, and mountains in central Panama. This journal describes our wildlife encounters in the rainforest.
Located along the eastern bank of the Panama Canal, the tropical rainforest of Soberania National Park is home to 525 birds, 105 mammals, 55 amphibians and 79 reptile species. That's a lot of wildlife! In fact, one of the world's most famous biological reserves is on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, where Smithsonian researchers have been studying regional wildlife, flora and fauna. The island alone contains more tree species(480) than found in all of Europe.
All this nature exists just a 30-minute drive from the bustling capitol of Panama City.
Two eco-lodges offer unique accommodations. Guests at Canopy Tower stay up in the treetops with numerous birds, sloths, and monkeys. Ten lofty bedrooms overlook the emergent level of the rainforest. Whereas Gamboa Rainforest Resort guests can swim at a waterfall pool, ride an aerial tram, join a nature tour, or watch ships pass through the canal. Both lodges offer numerous nature tours including world-famous birding on Pipeline Road.
Bring 800 speed film for photographing birds and other wildlife in the dark forest.
Make time to visit Summit Botanical Gardens. We intended to, but ran out of time. Located on Gaillard Highway near Canopy Tower, it is easy to access en route to either resort from Panama City. This is likely the only place you will see the world's most powerful bird of prey, the endangered harpy eagle. Standing 39" tall, their hooked bills, thick plumage and tough talons supposedly make them look fierce even in the cage. There are other animals in the small zoo representative of the area and pretty flowering plants. It looked peaceful and inviting.
If I could stay just one night, I would select the Canopy Tower over Gamboa Resort. But if you cannot stay overnight at all, I would arrange either a morning or night tour at the Canopy which includes a meal and viewing privileges from the rooftop observation deck. Then make arrangements to ride the tram and visit monkey island, as tours at Gamboa can be booked without being a guest.
But beyond getting here, you won't be doing much driving around here. So why bother with undue stress and expense? I advise booking transport from the lodges, or hiring a taxi from Panama City. Taxi, transport services and tour operators in Panama City all provide transport to the resorts for -25 one way. Buses do travel from Panama City to the little town of Gamboa (past Gamboa resort) for just 65¢, but you'll still need to take a taxi to the resort after a lengthy bus ride.
The location is ideal. Surrounded by lush neotropical rainforest on the banks of the Charges River, it is possible to see monkeys, iguanas, birds and sloths as you walk from your villa to the main building for a spa treatment or dinner. Or watch ships transiting the Canal from the marble hotel lobby or your riverside table at Los Lagartos Restaurant. You can even paddle out to the Canal on a guided kayak trip or ride on tour boats offered through the resort.
One hundred luxurious hotel rooms in the main building have an expansive view of the river, which can be enjoyed from a balcony hammock. But we chose to stay in the historic villas. The 48 townhouses lining the entrance to the resort once housed US canal workers and their families. Built in the 1930s, the pastel colored wooden structures exude a certain charm, and have appealing rates.
We reserved a one-bedroom, but at arrival were given a two-bedroom for the same rate. August was low season, and we might've been the only guests staying in the villas at that time. Although I couldn't imagine why. Our spacious villa was lovely with white rattan furniture and wooden floors in the sitting area, dining area and bedrooms. There was a microwave and mini-fridge in the kitchen, and windows looked out on the surrounding rainforest. The only minor flaw was the bathroom--a bit small and worn around the edges--but bathrooms weren't so grand 70 years ago.
We kept the air-conditioning off and slept with our windows open listening to the sounds of nature. The river and main building (restaurants, bars, spa) were just a short stroll away. It was a quiet, pleasant place to stay, and I didn't understand the appeal of the expensive hotel rooms over this bright airy place. I also appreciated the historical allure of the villa, as did Donna, whose parents once lived in the vicinity while her father worked on the Canal.
Phones in the room catered 24-hour room service and allowed us to make tour or spa reservations at whim. One night we decided to splurge on the Exotic Chagres treatment which included three hours of pampered massages, paraffin treatments, facials, exfoliation and thermal baths by candlelight. Unaccustomed to spa routines, neither of us thought to bring our swimsuit.
We stripped down in the locker room. Our masseuse looked at us strangely and began talking in Spanish. No comprendo! She disappeared and returned with white terry robes. It was a bit odd being the only naked guests in an open area where women shared saunas, whirlpools, and thermal baths. But at least it was dark!
All rates have practically halved since 2002. Villas once $220 are now $120.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 3, 2003
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Gamboa, Colon, Panama 7338
But toucans did. A chestnut mandibled toucan landed on a cercropia branch not far from me, his mate close behind. He grabbed a fruit off the tree, threw his head back and swallowed it whole. A keel-billed toucan flew in next. I stared at the strange zigzag on his rainbow-colored beak wondering if this was the Fruit-Loops guy.
My travel companion, Donna, nudged me. "Look, he''s moving," she whispered, diverting my attention to a sloth who''d been balled up in a tree since yesterday. His racoonish face emerged from his cuddled embrace. He stared at us as he slowly uncurled his arm and scratched his face. Slowly he began to move. The long curved nails of his toes were visible as he inched downward, clearly identifying him as the three-toed variety.
The forest was coming alive!
Sunlight broke through the clouds, lifting the misty fog over the Panama Canal in the distance. A massive cargo ship was drifting along the thin blue ribbon weaving through the trees, its name readable with binoculars.
I was staying at Canopy Tower, a magical, special place that lingers in your mind long after you''ve left. Rated as one of the Top 25 Eco-lodges in the World (Travel + Leisure July 2003) this former US Radar Tower just thirty minutes from Panama City offers an intimate experience for nature lovers.
Owner Raul Arias de Para has beautifully transformed this geotangent-domed tower into a cozy treehouse retreat. On the 3rd level six en-suite bedrooms decked with teak furnishings and picture windows blend into the natural environment. But the warm and inviting communal room on the 4th level was my favorite. Panoramic windows encircling a large open space filled with hammocks, couches, stocked bookshelves and scopes encourage relaxed socialization and birding both. It''s easy to watch birds right from the comfort of your hammock chair or dining room table where all-inclusive meals are served.
The gracious soft-spoken owner, Raul, joined us for coffee after a scrumptious lunch and accompanied us to the rooftop. He pointed out features of the Canal and informed us about the emergent level of the rainforest while we enjoyed 360-degree views of Soberania National Park. This is the place to be early morning for the best birding. If the howling doesn''t wake you, there''s always espresso.
The prettiest sighting of our trip was a brilliant blue cotinga. The bird landed near the observation deck moments before our departure, flitting flirtatiously as if tantalizing us to stay . . .
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 3, 2003
Semaphore Hill Road
Panama City, Panama 0832-2701
Restaurant | "Los Largatos"
Fans of the movie Tailor of Panama may recognize the setting as one of the scenes shot with Pierce Bronson. But movie or not, it was a great place to eat lunch.
We sat as close to the river that we could for uninterrupted views of the water and wildlife. A couple of young children amused us with their excited antics throwing bread over the wooden railing to crocodiles below. They squealed with delight when the crocs thrashed in the water to chomp their thrown rolls, and pointed at the beady eyes floating in the water–their heads barely visible in the murky darkness. Birds landed on tall blades of grass lining the shore and turtles lazed on logs.
Adjacent to the restaurant was the resort marina where small boats took guests across Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal to reach Monkey Island. Numerous bushy islands were visible from our table giving us a preview of our upcoming afternoon tour.
There were no mosquitoes, but there were some annoying bees that hovered over our plates throughout our meal. Service appeared to be prompt for us and the other five tables. The menu selections featured fish, naturally. Options of peacock bass or snook filet served on a banana leaf, octopus and shrimp ceviche or calamari on angel hair pasta ranged from $11-16. French onion soup, Caesar salad and American desserts rounded out the menu.
I had the banana fish peacock bass, served with French fries and fried plantains. It was artfully presented and tasty, but secretly envied Donna's snook filet which was delicious!
Since we were here in low season, business was slow and reservations were not needed. But I imagine this place gets crowded in the busy season. One thing to keep in mind is that it is only open for lunch and early dinner year round, so make plans to have lunch. Hours are from 11am-6pm Tuesday through Sunday.
If for some reason you aren't satisfied with the food, there are plenty of creatures down below who'd absolutely chomp at the chance for your leftovers.
Los Largatos Restaurant
On the Chagres River at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Attraction | "Canopy Tower Nature Tour"
My friend, Donna, and I had booked reservations at Canopy Tower a unique retreat amid treetops bursting with wildlife and birds. Arriving at noon, we were ushered up the stairs to the 4th floor communal room for lunch. Three guys joined our table. Traveling independently, they were here for a week recording sounds and bird sightings, and checking off their lifetime lists. They were serious about their birds. And assumed we were too.
I like birds. I do. But am admittedly not a birder. I don''t know the difference between a Olivaceous Flatbill or White-whiskered Puffbird both common here. But I do appreciate brilliantly colored feathers, unique calls, and all things in nature. I was easy to please. Thrilled in fact to spot a toucan perched outside the dining room window! The guys thought it funny that the so-called common birds excited me more than the rare but plain brown Buffy Foliage Gleaner which they considered such a treat to see.
They shared their sightings through computer images captured throughout the week (which accumulated to 236 species by their departure). They were pleasant company, but slowly withdrew their invitation for us to join them on an afternoon trip to a pond where they planned to stand still in one spot--quietly--for hours. We agreed that we were better suited for the nature hike where we could keep moving and talking.
Our guide was Carmen, a 60ish woman from nearby Gamboa. Joining us were a couple from NY and their son, Aaron. We rode the Birdmobile down windy Semaphore Hill and hiked Plantation Road through a mature forest in Soberania National Park.
Thick jungly foliage kept birds hidden from us during our 2.5 hour hike, confirming the perks of staying in Canopy''s tree house where sightings occur outside your bedroom window!
What we did see on our nature walk were tiny frogs and thousands of leaf cutter ants carrying torn leaves, bobbing over branches, into depressions, up hills in long zigzag lines headed for the Queen. It was hard not to step on them.
The highlight of the hike was a tiered waterfall cascading into a creek bordered by giant ferns. It was here that it began to rain. And far in the distance the familiar whooping of the howler monkeys thundered in response.
Two tours are included with the price of your stay. Our evening tour was canceled because guide Carlos was in the hospital recovering from a rare fer-de-lance snake bite. So, at 10pm after everyone had gone to bed, I took my own tour. I snuck up to the darkened communal room, climbed into a hammock, and swayed in the breeze--listening to heavy raindrops fall on thick palms while thumps, chirps, whines and chatters entertained in the most delightful way.
Canopy Tower Ecology and Nature Observatory
Apartado 0832-2701 WTC
Panama City, Panama
After a thirty minute boat ride we arrived at Monkey Island, a thick jungly island without a dock or clearings. We mistakenly thought we were going on a hike. Chalk it up to a language barrier. The hotel tour desk clerk shook his head at my sandals and–I thought–had gestured that we would be hiking. So I had worn my boots, and securely packed away my camera, two lens, tripod and video recorder. But apparently we were here, although he kept the motor idling. He pointed to some leaves where several white-faced capuchins were in close proximity.
Scurrying to get out my gear, I caught the form of a monkey jumping into our boat, running past me to the driver and back to the trees. The little boat vibrated and jerked while we watched little white faces pop out of the trees, staring at us with curiosity. A black cap of fur on their heads gave them a comical appearance. A mama with a baby on her back emerged from the leaves eyeing us suspiciously as she approached. In a sudden flurry she jumped from one branch to another until she landed on front of the boat. The driver handed me a banana chunk, and I held it out to the mama watching the baby on her back. She hesitated, and cocked her head scrutinizing me. Then she lurched forward, wrapped her long fingers around the banana and bounded away, almost falling into the water as her flimsy branch dipped dangerously low from the unexpected weight. But the baby clung to its mother and both returned safely.
We watched their playful antics for 15 minutes before the driver took us back across Gatun Lake. Dark clouds loomed overhead, and halfway across an abrupt rain fell, it's raindrops pelting us like hail. The driver handed us yellow raincoats. We threw them over our lifejackets and covered our faces with our hands to reduce the painful stinging. Peeking at each other through our fingers, we discovered that Donna had put her jacket on upside down in the blinding rain. The hood was wrapped around her feet. But she couldn't turn it around without exposing her face to the pelting rain every time she tried to take her hand away, which for some silly reason triggered uncontrollable giggles from both of us all the way back to the marina.
Tours cost $21 and run hourly from 9-4pm. Tip: have camera ready in your lap inside a plastic bag and use 800-speed film to compensate for the jerking movements of the boat.
Gatun Lake near Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Attraction | "Aerial Tram & Ecological Exhibits Tour"
A group of us were met by a jungle-decorated van at the hotel lobby. Donna and I were the only English-speaking guests, so we were assigned our own guide, Carlos, who accompanied us for the three hour tour.
We settled into one of the eighteen gondolas (ample room for six), and moved through the shadowy forest to the upper level of the canopy. The tram felt secure and smooth the entire ride, which lasted 72 minutes round trip. As we ascended, Carlos identified trees species that we passed such as cashew, trumpet and balsa trees and pointed out differences among various palms. A few flowers were in bloom, like hot lips and several types of bird-of-paradise. The only birds we spotted were toucans although Carlos identified the calls of trogons, parrots and motmots. We were on the 10:30am tour–the second best time to see wildlife–but no monkeys, sloths coatimundi, or capybaras came out of hiding.
Mid-way through the tour we stepped off the tram and followed a short scenic path through the palms to reach the wooden observation tower. The square tower was three stories high and had both stairs and a ramp leading to the top. Standing 82 feet above ground, we had great views of the Panama canal, Chagres River, and Gamboa's sprawling resort in the surrounding rainforest. We watched ships transiting the canal and better understood what we were seeing after studying a tower map which identified the inlets, lakes and canal. Then it was back to the tram for the return ride along the same route.
Next up were the ecological exhibits. Carlos took us through the Serpentarium where we saw poisonous snakes including a patterned fer-de-lance, the same type of snake that bit and hospitalized a guide at the Canopy Tower earlier this week. All snakes were in little caves behind glass, and it was a good opportunity to see up close which ones were the bad guys for subsequent hikes.
Other exhibits included the Orchid Gardens (not in bloom), a small Aquarium & Reptile House, a model Embera Village and my favorite, the Butterfly House. Inside what looked like an imaginatively painted children's playhouse, vivid butterflies in brilliant colors of blue, red and orange flitted around plants, and a tiny lab held cocoons for the next batch of up to 15 species. I would've passed on the mock village since I'd stayed overnight in a real Embera village, but went for Donna's sake. The couple of thatched huts that were erected primarily seemed to be a place to sell crafts, which were significantly overpriced.
The tram operates Tuesday–Sunday at 8:45, 10:30, 1:30 and 3pm. Tip: schedule the 8:45am tram for the best chance of seeing birds and wildlife. They won't volunteer this, but you can skip the exhibits and just ride the tram for $17.
Gamboa Aerial Tram
Gamboa Rainforest Resort