- Central + South America,
- Gulf of Panama Islands,
- Soberania National Park
This Trip Plan includes some of the places I visited in late December 2008 / early January 2009.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort, Panama
Soberania National Park, Panama
Tel: 507 314 9000, Tel: 877 800 1690
Set right on the Panama Canal, this expansive 107-room resort has amenities galore—which will appeal to those wanting their creature comforts along with their adventure. As well as tennis courts, a massive pool with a swim-up bar, and a full-service spa offering citrus baths and hot stone massages, there are seven restaurants, a subterranean disco built inside a man-made cave, and golfing at the nearby championship Summit course. The resort even has its own aerial tram, which zips guests up to a mountaintop lookout for spectacular views of the surrounding Gamboa rainforest. For those inclined to venture off the property, the hotel staff organizes fishing trips, kayaking, and wildlife-viewing tours around nearby Gatun Lake. An expansion of the property—including the creation of 58 new rooms and suites—will be completed by early 2008.
Canopy Tower Ecolodge, Panama
Soberania National Park, Panama
Tel: 507 264 5720, Tel: 800 854 2597
Bird-watchers, or those who want to get their eco-fix without venturing too far into the jungle, will feel right at home at this small inn, set at treetop level on a mountain in the middle of Parque Nacional Soberanía (a 30-minute drive from Panama City). Occupying a five-story former radio tower, it has 12 breezy guest rooms with basic furnishings, ceiling fans, netting-draped beds, and big windows that look out at the surrounding rainforest. The top floor has panoramic views and is used as the main dining room; the roof deck above is the perfect place to perch with binoculars and spy Blue Cotingas, Green Shrike-Vireos, and Great Tinamous. The property offers tours with bilingual bird guides, maps of the best birding spots in the area, and an extensive library of bird books.
Didn't get here, but I heard great things about this. Highly recommend.
See + Do
Locals like to call it the "Eighth Wonder of the World," and the Panama Canal, completed in 1914 at the cost of $375 million and 5,609 human lives, really is an engineering marvel. Just south of Panama City in the town of Balboa, you can drive across the graceful Bridge of the Americas spanning the canal's mouth, and look down on the massive container ships moving in and out of the bay. But for a closer look at the locks that raise and lower to let the ships through, go to the Miraflores Visitor Center, about 20 minutes' drive north of Panama City, at the eastern edge of the Miraflores Locks (507-276-8325; www.pancanal.com/eng/anuncios/cvm/index.html).
If you want to navigate the canal itself, you can take a boat tour with Canal and Bay Tours. But be warned: Much of the canal is nothing more than an oversized ditch. A better option is to take one of the company's bay cruises, which take in some beautiful scenery as well as the entrance to the canal (507-209-2009; www.canalandbaytours.com).
The Barro Colorado Nature Monument, a world-renowned biological preserve, sits on Isla Barro Colorado, in Lake Gatun—the reservoir that feeds into the canal. Here you'll find about 100 species of mammal, including five types of monkey native to the country. Tourist access to the island is limited, so you'll need to arrange a visit in advance by contacting Panama's Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (507-212-8900; www.stri.org/english/visit_us/barro_colorado).
Visited Miraflores Lock. Amazing. Also went to Barro Colorado -- Definitely a must visit!
See + Do
Gulf of Panama Islands
There are no beaches around Panama City, so resident sun- and sand-lovers head to the islands in the Gulf of Panama. Beautiful and historically rich Isla Taboga is the most easily accessible, just 12 miles offshore from the city. Its best beach is the slightly pebbly but calm-watered stretch right near the town dock. It's an easy stroll (past whitewashed churches and bougainvillea-covered houses) from the spot where daily El Calypso ferries arrive. These carry passengers between the island and the Panama City Causeway; the trip is less than an hour each way (507-314-1730; www.taboga.panamanow.com/ferry/boats.html).
Farther out in the Gulf of Panama, the Archipiélago de las Perlas has more than 30 idyllic islands, with white sandy beaches and turquoise sea for snorkeling and deep-sea fishing (several of the islands were featured in the reality TV show Survivor). You can easily get here by plane: Both Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) and Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com ) run daily flights to the islands from Panama City, and the one-way trip takes just 15 minutes. Flights land on Isla Contadora, or "Accountant Island"—legend has it this is where Spanish conquistadors used to count their booty. There are a number of palm-fringed beaches, a few hotels, and a handful of B&Bs—but not enough to make it feel crowded.
Didn't make it here. Arrived late for the ferry. Be sure to get there 1/2 hour early. They seem to operate on their own sense of "schedule."
See + Do
Chiriquí Province, in the southwestern corner of Panama, is muy fresco, thanks to the cool mountain air. It's the same air that makes the hills outside the main town of Boquete (where the region's hotels are all based) perfect for cultivating coffee. If you're interested in learning about coffee-growing—and sampling some flavors—a visit to Café Ruiz, a coffee shop that organizes tours of neighboring plantations, is a must; the café is right in downtown Boquete (507-720-1292; www.caferuiz.com).
Chiriquí's towering wooded volcanoes evoke the famed cloud forests of Monteverde in Costa Rica—a country you can actually see from some of the tallest peaks here. Hikers and wildlife-spotters head for Volcán Barú National Park, a 35,390-acre preserve crisscrossed with trails that includes Panama's highest volcano, the inactive 11,400-foot Barú. More than 250 bird species make their home here, along with pumas and many varieties of bat (seen mostly at dusk). There are several local guides based in Boquete who can take you on a day or overnight trek through the park; contact Boquete's tourism office to arrange this (507-720-4060).
Chiriquí is a major destination for whitewater fans. The region's Rio Chiriquí and Rio Chiriquí Viejo, both near the border of Costa Rica and about two and a half hours from Boquete, have rapids that range from slightly hairy Class III to roiling, adrenaline-raising Class V. Chiriquí River Rafting runs two- to five-hour trips on both these rivers, along with several lesser-known tributaries; the trips include all gear, lunch, and transport to and from your hotel (507-720-1505; www.panama-rafting.com).