Occasionally, I get a free day in Panama City and I get a little bored because, if we are going to be honest with ourselves here, the capital doesn’t have a lot to offer the casual tourist.
Once you’ve wandered around Casco Viejo for a couple hours, gawked at the canal, had some ceviche at the seafood market, and lost a little money at the blackjack tables, you’ve pretty much exhausted your options. Yes, there are malls. Yes, there is the Biodiversity Museum at US$18 a head. But it’s telling that, of the top 10 things to do in Panama City listed on TripAdvisor, the metro ranks number four.
When friends and relatives come to visit, I generally tell them Panama City is worth a day at most. If that. Best to hit the highway and head for the islands or the beaches or the mountains. Panama’s a much prettier country once you get out of the city.
If they are stuck near the city and looking for something to do, I tell them one of the better options is to rent a car and head for Gamboa. It’s only about 45 minutes away and makes for a fascinating ride back in time to the days when the Canal Zone was still U.S. territory and even further to the time when the area was all still just rain forest. Plus, if you shun the zip lines and observation towers, it’s pretty cheap. Five dollars gains you entrance to Soberanía National Park. And that’s if you insist on paying. It’s easy to accidentally drive past the park headquarters without stopping.
The village of Gamboa sits on a bend in the Chagres River at the point where it feeds into Lake Gatún. Accessible only by a somewhat intimidating single-lane bridge (paved with what appear to be loose railroad ties), the village dates to the early part of the last century, when it was established as a colony for people working on the construction of the canal. It rose to prominence in the 1930s when the Canal Company moved its dredging division there, but it has been in decline ever since. The dredging division remains, but many of the wooden canal-era homes appear uninhabited or in disuse.
Just after the bridge on the right is the entrance to Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a five-star hotel on the banks of the Río Chagres. Visitors and locals alike use the resort as a base for exploring the surrounding area in more depth. The facility offers guided kayak tours of the surrounding waters, night safaris in the rain forest, aerial tram tours, and all manner of other touristy junkets. The grounds are spectacular and all the rooms have balconies overlooking the river with wide hammocks for lazing away an afternoon or two.
The main attraction for day-tripping nature enthusiasts, however, is further down the road past the dredging docks and up a gravel road leading into the forest. Pass the abandoned guardhouse on the right (don’t be tempted to stop and park here) and, about a mile in, is the parking area of the Rainforest Discovery Center. If you have US$30 to spare and prefer a guided experience (visiting hours are from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.), you can stop and park here. If, like me, you prefer to go it alone, continue on the right fork past the Discovery Center about 100 meters to the trailhead of what’s known as el Camino del Oleoducto, or Pipeline Road.
Pipeline Road is famous as one of the premier birdwatching destinations in the Americas, if not the world. At the crossroads of two continents, Panama—despite its diminutive size—boasts more bird species than all of North America and Pipeline Road is one of the country’s epicenters of bird-watching. It holds an Audubon Society record for the most bird species recorded during a 24-hour period, in fact. Among the many species are motmots, trogons, toucans, antbirds, colorful tanagers, flycatchers, and even raptors such as the elusive Harpy Eagle, the most powerful bird of prey on the planet with a two-meter wingspan and a taste for monkeys and sloths.
Pipeline Road runs 17 kilometers into the forest, but I only made it about 3 kilometers in during a recent late Sunday-morning visit. Most surprising about my jaunt was the lack of people. During a three-hour in-and-back trek down Pipeline Road on a weekend day I came across no more than about a dozen people in three groups. Most of the time I had the forest to myself. Except for the birds and other critters.
Most common were the white-faced capuchin monkeys. Other denizens of the forest tend to be skittish and silent. Not the monkeys. They roam the canopy in clans of 20 or so, leaping loudly between branches and hurling things down to the forest floor with abandon. They stayed their distance and kept a wary eye on me but seemed largely disinterested.
The howler monkeys are even harder to miss. You hear them coming for miles, in fact. They are larger than their capuchin cousins, jet black, and about as stealthy as a freight train as they cross from tree to tree in search of fruit, nuts, and leaves. The Guinness Book of World Records lists them as the loudest land animal on the planet and after an encounter with them it’s easy to understand why.
To see any of the other residents of the rain forest, it helps to listen more than to look. You are far more likely to hear something rustling in the brush before you see it so walk quietly and keep a keen ear out. It also helps to know where to look. Watering holes, especially in the dry season, tend to draw animals even during the daylight hours. I spotted a mother caiman and her three babies in one watering hole just off the road. Other things I saw on a short outing—a white-nosed coati, leaf-cutter ants marching along a veritable mini-highway, dozens of lizards, butterflies of all sorts (including a blue morpho), and more birds than I could identify.
The walk along the road is a relatively flat and easy one so no one should be deterred from it. It was dry season, so not muddy at all (things are different, I expect, during the rainy season) and definitely hot and humid, so wear appropriate clothing (lightweight long pants, decent shoes, and loose-fitting long-sleeve shirts). Insect repellant is a must, as is plenty of water. But as an escape from the hubbub and chaos of the city it’s hard to beat. Especially at the price.