In central Panama, 50 kms west of the capital, at an abrupt crook in the Río Chagres where it slips into Lago Gatún, is the small town of Gamboa. Originally designed to house Canal Zone personnel and their families, today Gamboa is a quiet commercial town of natural beauty and understated charm. Although only a half-hour from Panama City, Gamboa has an atmosphere of remoteness and tranquility.
The Town And Its History
Gamboa was built on the site of the former village of Santa Cruz. In 1911, 700 workers, primarily from the West Indies, were the first new settlers. Their job was to build the canal. The town grew as skilled workers and a professional class, typically from America and Europe, moved in.
Since the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, in which the United States gradually handed the canal back to Panama, foreign workers have been leaving. The population decreased rapidly in 1999, when the American government pulled out completely. There had been over 3,000 people in town, with schools, a commissary, and other services provided by the U.S. Department of Defense. Today there are only 400 inhabitants, most of whom work for the canal or in the service industry. Gamboa is still the main office for the Dredging Division of the Panama Canal Authority.
There’s only one way to drive into town—over the Chagres, on a single-lane bridge of wood and iron. A lone traffic light keeps order. The bridge is an apt metaphor of Gamboa. Simple, unadorned, unobtrusive; it gets the job done without any fuss.
Greenery is the first thing you’ll notice. And wildlife. The number and diversity of plants and animals is both stunning and hard to digest all at once. Gamboa is a world-class bird-watching destination and a popular spot for hiking. Aerial trams and tour boats will take you—often, from the dredging docks—to see caymans, iguanas, crocodiles, turtles, parrots, toucans, blue morpho butterflies, capybaras and Holy Ghost orchids (the national flower).
Monkeys are hard not to see, particularly if you take a speedboat to Monkey Island. Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys, mantled howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, gray-bellied night monkeys… don’t be surprised if they jump right on your boat, or even on your shoulders, especially if you have food.
Gamboa has a number of hotels and bed and breakfasts. They tend to be simple, comfortable, and affordable. The people are hospitable and the service is generally good. The town doesn’t have many shops, so if you need anything special, bring it with you.
What To Do In The Area
Gamboa isn’t all about primates and dredging equipment. There’s a lot to do here. Parque Nacional Soberanía, adjacent to the town, is a bird-watchers’ paradise with 525 bird species and 50,000 acres of protected land. You can spot antbirds, tanagers, forest falcons, sirystes, trogons, motmots, toucanets, and, if you’re very lucky, the harpy eagle. The park also hosts over 100 mammal species—including sloths, coatis, anteaters, and agoutis—in addition to reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
There are a number of great hiking and mountain-biking routes in the area, including the Las Cruces trail, which cuts through the park. Built under the direction of the conquistador Balboa in the 16th century, this trail connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which made it easier for the Spanish to transport gold and other precious resources. Plantation Road and Pipeline Road, along the route of a never-used petroleum pipeline, are also popular with hikers.
Bordering the park is the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, a good base for take nature walks. Their 40-meter observation tower is a great place to see hummingbirds and look out over the rain forest canopy. Like other local sites, this one is the result of an ecotourism and education initiative. The center’s mission is the conservation of indigenous bird species and, more generally, fostering sustainable practices in the region.
Barro Colorado Island, in Lago Gatún, is another popular destination for travelers. The 4,000-acre island was created in 1913 when the Chagres was dammed to form Lago Gatún. To visit, schedule a tour through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), which regulates sightseers in order to preserve the rain forest, which is kept in pristine condition.
This is where the Audubon Society conducts its annual Christmas Bird Count. For over 100 years, professionals, amateurs, and even beginners have been compiling data on local bird species—anyone can join in. Barro Colorado is also a great place for nature walks, spotting rare insects and monkeys, and learning more about the rain forest.
The waters around Gamboa are a rich source of activity. Light ferries take passengers throughout the islands and waterways that dot the area. Fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking are all popular activities. You can explore the rain forest or take a tour through the canal from ocean to ocean.
About 30 to 40 minutes outside of Gamboa is the Biodiversity Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, his only project in Latin America. A combination art gallery, science museum, and education center, it’s situated on the Amador Causeway, where the canal lets out to the Pacific Ocean. The main purpose of the museum is to narrate the origin and history of the isthmus and its colossal effect on the global ecosystem. Its biodiversity park is a living embodiment of the museum’s ideas.
One of the premier destinations in the area is the Gamboa Rainforest Resort in Parque Nacional Soberanía. Spread across 340 acres of protected land, the buildings and layout feel more a part of the rain forest than a man-made intrusion on it. Every room and suite features a private balcony and hammock. The resort offers fishing, eco-tours, zip-lining, aerial trams, night safaris, and kayaking in the canal. Hotel guests also avail of swimming pools, bars, restaurants, and a spa.
The most unique aspect of the resort is a series of Emberá villages. The Emberá are one of the indigenous peoples of Panama, and the resort has sought to preserve their way of life. However, a visit to one of these villages, on the resort grounds, can be a disappointment. The Emberá live in thatched huts, raised on stilts, and they perform traditional dances. They’re painted, beaded, and dressed in loincloths and metal breastplates, but the sense of history and authenticity ends here.
The village life feels curated and choreographed, rather than real, and the Emberá sell tchotchkes and handicrafts that you could find in Southeast Asia or Central Europe. It’s like a living reality-TV show. An expensive, painstaking renovation has made the experience more authentic, but ultimately you can’t pay people a salary, put them on a stage, and expect them to act naturally.
Gamboa is a place of refuge nestled by the canal, the lake, and the rain forest. The old town is underused, with some buildings empty or in disrepair, but it’s not ramshackle or squalid. Instead, Gamboa has an unaffected charm. The town is quiet and unpretentious, not trendy, crowded, or overexposed. There’s an agreeable mix of Canal Zone-era estates, industrial machinery closer to the canal, and natural beauty.
Colón, Panama’s second city, is 80 kms to the northwest, and Panama City is a short drive away, but Gamboa should be more than a jump-off place. There’s a lot to explore in and around town.
My father lived in the Canal Zone in the 1930s, when his father was stationed here with the Army. I always doubted his stories about having a pet monkey and climbing palm trees in the backyard, but now I know they were true. I first visited Gamboa in the early 2000’s, and my own kids had the same experience as their grandfather. Wandering through the lush rain forest, surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals, Gamboa looks much as it did 85 years ago, and we can be thankful for that.