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Panama’s Jungle Community

Gamboa—Real Rain Forest Escape Just Outside Panama City

A friend and I hopped in the car a few Saturdays ago and hit the road. We were Gamboa-bound.

Saturdays are madness in Panama City. Traffic is madness every day in this city, but Saturdays are especially chaotic. Something new is always under construction. That clever detour I’d been taking to circumvent the unbearable traffic on my regular route is now also blocked, thanks to drilling…

Four lanes are always turning into one in Panama City, and Panamanians’ second language, what the rest of us refer to as honking, is like a chorus all around you all the time.

Panama City is lively, and it can be exciting. I enjoy having my pick of restaurants, night spots, shopping, and markets, but there’s a downside to all this opportunity. The downside is chaos. The antidote to this chaos for the Panama City dweller is to bug out of Panama City at every opportunity.

“We are never going to get out of here,” I heard myself saying aloud to my friend as we were trying to do just that a few weekends ago. The one-way street we were on heading out of the city was in bona-fide gridlock. An aerial view of us might have given the observer the idea that the entire city was being evacuated. Nah. Nothing that interesting. Just another Saturday morning in the Panamanian capital.

Finally, we made it through Clayton…past the City of Knowledge…and we were able to pick up speed. We rolled down the windows and turned up the music.

The streets changed from building-lined to tree-lined to tree-enclosed. The sun just barely peaked through the dense foliage all around, its rays only speckling the pavement. The air grew fresher, and we began to breathe more deeply.

The city was behind us. We relaxed.

This is Gamboa. Unadulterated rain forest less than an hour outside Panama City. I asked my friend, who was driving, to slow down so I could see as much of the passing jungle-scape as possible.

The colors, the rolling, verdant hills, the richness of it all…it makes for an environment that words can’t fully describe. With that in mind, I decided to pack this month’s issue of the Panama Letter with HD pictures and videos, so you can see for yourself how beautiful this place really is.

Gamboa is a town and an area. Gamboa town was built in 1911 as a place to house Canal workers, specifically “silver-rolls,” as the mostly Afro-Antilleans were called. The initial population was about 700 people. When construction of the Canal was concluded, the population dwindled to 170, and the few structures, including a police station, a church, and box-cars that were used as homes for many workers, were abandoned.

In the 1930s Gamboa underwent a re-birth when the Panama Canal Company decided to move its dredging division here. By 1938 Gamboa’s population had grown to 3,800 inhabitants. The community thrived until the 1980s, when the Panama Canal Zone government began to turn the Canal’s operations over to Panama. Again, Gamboa was abandoned. The gas station, movie theater, commissary, post office, churches, school…all of it was boarded up.

Today, little Gamboa town is undergoing something of a renaissance.

But it’s not Gamboa town that most people come this direction to see. Here, too, is Soberania National Park, which is more than 55,000 acres, making it the world’s largest protected parkland in an urban province. Hundreds of species of mammals inhabit the jungle here, including sloths, white-nosed coatis, jaguars, howler monkeys, woolly oppossums, olingos, kinkajous, Central American agoutis, white-faced capuchins, and capybaras…just to name a few.

They all roam among you as you explore the area. Hiking in Soberania National Park and on a jungle tour in the indigenous Embera Indian village, we came closer than I imagined we would to large mammals of the jungle. As we descended the trail in Soberania, we heard a loud roaring in the nearby brush. “What do you think that was?” I asked my friend. “Keep moving,” he replied…

Brenna LaBine

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