Explore Panama’s Rainforest
By Candyce H. Stapen
Say “Panama” and people think of the canal or the city, not the nation’s verdant rainforests. The canal, a 50-mile, man-made waterway linking the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, is an engineering feat. The modern capital blooms with high-rise office buildings and condominiums. In the evening the Amador Causeway pulses with nightlife.
But Panama, a narrow stretch of a country connecting Costa Rica to Colombia, also draws nature lovers who want to hike, bird-watch and search for monkeys in the easily accessible Soberania National Park.
The 55,000-acre tropical rainforest sprawls on the outskirts of Panama City, just a 20-30 minute drive from downtown. The dense growth and towering trees remind visitors of what the waterway’s builders conquered as well as the biodiversity that still remains.
More than 525 species of birds and 125 kinds of mammals inhabit the park. Parts of Gatun Lake and the Chagres River cut through Soberania. As you hike, the rustle of the wind in the bamboo sounds like distant rain and you often hear the guttural cries of howler monkeys. Look carefully and you might even catch them leaping from branch to branch.
The best place to spot birds is along Pipeline Road, a nearly 11-mile, flat path, constructed during W. W. II as an access way for an oil pipeline built at the canal. On an early morning walk along this nature trail, you’re likely to spot flocks of wild parakeets flying like ribbons of green as they head toward the branches of the mango trees. You might also see toucans with rainbow-colored bills, lineated woodpeckers and scores of other birds.
You can hire nature guides at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a modern hotel situated along the river and within the park. The resort offers a range of eco-adventures. Go birding and hiking, try fishing and kayaking and sign-up for a nocturnal boat safari to search for caiman, capybaras and two-toed sloths.
A highlight is a ride on the resort’s aerial tram which lifts you 77-feet into the rainforest canopy. From the upper landing a short walk leads to a 90-foot lookout tower. Ramps and benches make the climb easy. The view of the canal’s Gaillard Cut and the big ships passing through is worth the work.
The resort also takes guests to an Embera village, one of the region’s indigenous tribes. At the site you learn about the tribe’s culture and you can purchase the tightly woven baskets they create and sell.