By Ruth Rieckehoff from Tanama Tales.
Quick. What comes to your mind when you hear about Panama City?
Tic, toc. Tic, toc.
While I do not possess mind reading abilities, I can almost assure you that thoughts of the Panama Canal inundated your mind. And I don’t blame you. This architectonic marvel dividing the S-shaped country in two pieces has become the must-see attraction in the nation.
However, Panama City offers an abundance of opportunities. I am here to let you know about a wild and daring adventure. I am not talking about exploring the ruins of Panama La Vieja, absorbing the colonial charm of the Casco Antiguo, pedaling through the Amador Causeway or shopping for bargains at the Albrook Mall.
I am talking about a possibility for nature/wildlife lovers, adventurers and those who want to get out of the mold. In summary, I want to present you a day trip where you can cruise the Panama Canal among huge ships, get in the jungle searching for wildlife, take a bath in the warm waters and hang out in a boathouse. Interesting, right?
The Panama Canal functions by using the water of the Chagres River to fill up a series of locks (in Spanish, esclusas). The water used is not recycled. Every time a ship passes through the Canal, the water used in the locks (to go up or down a level) is released to the ocean and cannot be used again for operating purposes (the new locks that are being built will be able to recycle up to 40% of the water).
Because of this fact, the Chagres River needs to provide the canal a continuous flow of water. To ensure the proper river levels, the government protects the rainforest surrounding the river bed. Nature needs to be kept in optimal condition in order to guarantee the millions of dollars in revenue provided by the Canal.
Those are great news for many. The rainforest surrounding the Canal is pristine and abounding with flora and fauna. Several companies offer day trips from Panama City. Of course, there are resorts where you can enjoy the area for an extended period of time. If you do not have a lot of time, a day trip is a fantastic opportunity to get in touch with nature. These day trips are usually called Canal Eco-Tours.
Boarding your transportation
You start the day by transferring to the Gamboa area. It is a 35 minute drive from Panama City. From one of the docks in the area (probably the public ramp area), you board a small boat captained by your tour guide.
You can arrange transportation to the area with the tour booking company (they pick you up at your hotel) or you can take a taxi.
The adventure starts
It sounds incredible, but in less than five minutes you are going to officially enter the Panama Canal. To be more specific, you are going to zoom through the Gaillard Cut (or Corte Culebra), the Canal’s narrower part. When you are there in a small boat, it feels huge. You need to see it from above to corroborate that this is a thin lane of water running through the mountains (I had the opportunity to see it from my plane arriving to Panama City).
The really exciting part is seeing all the massive vessels crossing the canal. It is an amazing sight. Imagine, your path is crossed with ships which have navigated the seven seas transporting people and goods. Another interesting thing is that you get close to the area where the works for the Canal expansion are taking place. You probably will have the opportunity to see the colossal machinery that is being used for this monumental task.
Getting in touch with the wild side
After having so much fun, the captain starts to move closer to the islands dotting the Canal. He gives a lot of interesting information about the flora seen from the boat. Now, this is also the prime time for wildlife viewing.
While the captain talks, he also searches the treetops for friendly, fluffy creatures. In my opinion, this is the main advantage of this tour. The captain knows where to find the animals and is able to easily spot them. He even calls some animals (with some weird noises). Don’t ask me how but I just know that they were showing up after his call. I was able to see howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas, toucans, crocodiles and others.
The coolest stop was at Monkey Island. This spot is full of capuchin monkeys. When they hear the boats’ engines, they come to shore and usually jump aboard. They are trying to see if you have some food for them. These curious animals jump all around and touch everything (you have to secure your belongings before this). When I went, there was even a female monkey carrying a baby on her back. Another monkey got interested in my earrings. They were so cute. After a few minutes, we left after saying goodbye to our new friends.
Hanging at a boat house
After three hours of sightseeing, you are transported to a boathouse. Yes, this is a house over the water in the middle of the jungle. Once in there you are provided with a delicious lunch. After that, you have some time to relax.
The captain and his helpers have some animals in the boathouse (injured animals they take care of and release later). You are invited to touch and feed them. I was able to get in touch with a toucan, an iguana and a baby crocodile. Additionally, the captain called a type of New World Monkey I have never seen before: Geoffrey Tamarinds (they inhabit an area close to the boathouse). They also have a boa but that is a big no-no for me. Last but not least, I was able to hold a night monkey!!!! It is the cutest creature ever.
There are a lot of options to spend the afternoon. You can kayak, fish or bathe in the surrounding waters. My group (6 of us) decided to take the boldest option: a canoe ride to a small cascade. This was my favorite part of the day (apart from holding the night monkey, of course). You get in this small canoe which moves through narrow water canals. Because in the canoe you are at the water level, you are really exposed to the elements.
All I can say is that I loved it. I was in direct contact with the tall grass, insects, water moss and heat saturated air. God helped us to get things more surreal by sending us rain. What else can you ask for? Getting soaked in a canoe in the middle of the jungle. What a feeling.
After some wandering, we parked our canoe safely and walked several feet to the cascade. We jumped under it. It was so refreshing and fulfilling. We left back to the boathouse after about half an hour at the cascade.
Getting back to reality
Once at the boathouse, we relaxed a little bit more. My husband jumped into the water with another member of the group. Seriously, I didn’t want to go back. The day was so beautiful. Every moment surpassed my expectations. I learned that the captain does night tours. I would definitely like to do one of those.
I will do this tour again in a heartbeat. It was that good. I highly recommend it. I booked my tour and transportation through www.panamatours.com. For me, it was difficult to get in touch with a reservation agent so you can use this e-mail address in case you run into problems: [email protected]. All the opinions exposed in here are based on my experience. I have not received any type of compensation from the tour company.
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BIO: Ruth Rieckehoff writes for outstanding people wanting to share the beauty of life one story at a time. You can find her life, love and travel stories at her blog Tanama Tales.