Picture a deluxe eco-resort in Gamboa, Panama where kids are welcomed into the heart of nature in the midst of one of South America’s richest rain forests.
Before traveling to Panama on a media visit, I knew very little about the country beyond the fact that it is home to the Panama Canal. I had never heard of anyone vacationing there and, aside from a quick read of the resort’s online brochure, I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Panama is a nation whose blinding economic growth is led by tourism and banking.
My 9-year-old son Devin and I traveled in the middle of Panama’s mid-December to late-March summer season, when the daytime temperatures range between a humid 90°-100°F year-round (70°F at night). The only difference between summer and the rest of the year is the amount of rainfall (the rainy season takes place between October and November) and the fact that we were not bothered by mosquitos and other insects.
A Luxury Resort in the Heart of the Rainforest
Devin and I stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort in the heart of Soberania National Park. Gamboa is about an hour’s drive from the Panama City airport and, much to our delight, the nearer you get to the resort, the denser the surrounding forest. The resort itself sits on 340 acres of protected woodlands on the Chagres River which feeds the manmade lakes of the Panama Canal, and it is comprised of a stunning main building which houses 150 guest accommodations, including 43 apartment-style villas originally built in the 1920’s to house canal workers.
In the main building, the resort’s immense, multi-storied lobby is a soaring, open-spaced atrium with views of the river. From here, guests can see the surrounding landscape, terraced grounds, and oversized pool with swim-up bar and cascading, stone water falls. There is a 7,000-square-foot Clarins spa, and public facilities including the fitness center, library, arcade, business center with computers for Internet access, three restaurants and a marina.
Throughout the building and its grounds you’ll find marvelous ironwork plant and animal sculptures as well as a number of soothing waterfalls and small, beautifully planted reflecting pools. The thoughtfully designed resort harmoniously reflects the lush, green forests and flowing river, and does not overwhelm or interrupt its natural setting.
Our room was a beautiful, two-story junior suite ($450 per night in the high season) with a balcony overlooking the Chagres River and the rolling rain forest beyond. The hammock on the balcony was Devin’s favorite perch from which to scan the tropical surroundings. A spiral staircase leads to the second floor loft for the kids. With two twin beds and a bathroom, the loft overlooks the first floor seating area below and enjoys the same stunning views. The first floor is also where you’ll find a wonderful, air-conditioned master bedroom with a king-sized bed, sofa, writing desk, TV, roomy closets, an electronic safe, direct dial telephone, coffee maker, WiFi and ceiling fans, and it is decorated with simple, tropical charm.
Wildlife Excursions in Soberania National Park
The eco-tourism resort is all about the rainforest and a number of guided excursions are available. Our first rainforest encounter was a boat trip up the Chagres River to Monkey Island. Along the way we passed two crocodiles and some iguanas as well as a number of exotic birds. When we arrived at the island, we were immediately greeted by a group of eagerly waiting, white-faced Capuchin monkeys. These friendly little primates that call this island home know that tourists mean food; we were given bits of apple with which to feed them while we remained in the boat. The monkeys then climbed out onto the nearest branch or the boat’s canopy and greedily, but lovingly, plucked the apples from our hands — a giddy thrill for the kids on board (the adults, too). Farther on, we were fortunate enough to see two of the more elusive Howler monkeys and a family of capibarra (the world’s largest rodents).
These boat trips are also available at night. As you motor upriver, the guide scans the water with a spotlight. An orange spot of reflected light means a cayman (a smaller version of the crocodile) is about. The boats are able to pull right up alongside the reptiles and you can observe them as they float lazily atop the dense water plants. Small bats skim the water catching fish who jump out of the river to grab the millions of bugs that swarm the surface. Although malaria killed 25,000 people when the French attempted to build the Canal in the early 1800’s, you need not worry. Malaria was eradicated by the Americans before they took over the building of the Canal in 1850 and, as noted, the insects are much less bothersome in the summer season. (Always check with the CDC for recommended vaccinations and illness prevention tips before traveling to any tropical country.)
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort built and maintains the only aerial tram in Panama, and a ride from the rainforest floor up through the canopy to a 90-foot-tall lookout is truly an unforgettable experience. As you ascend, you need to keep a keen eye peeled for wildlife. Devin was the hero of our five-person gondola when he spotted an almost perfectly camouflaged tree iguana.
A guide rides along in each car and can answer most questions about the surrounding foliage and animal life. All of the guides we encountered were Panamanian residents who spoke fluent English and had a near encyclopedic knowledge of Panama and its flora and fauna. The resort offers other nature encounters including a serpentarium, butterfly house, orchid and botanical gardens, freshwater and reptile exhibits, full and half-day freshwater fishing excursions, hiking, birdwatching, and a model Embera Indian Village.
Touring Panama City and the Famous Panama Canal
From there, we took day tours of the old and new Panama City and, of course, the Panama Canal. The old Panama City dates back to the Spanish conquest of the 1500’s, while the new, modern and bustling city of skyscrapers and oceanfront condos is a virtual overnight sensation. The majority of buildings comprising Panama City’s glittering skyline have been constructed within the last 12 years, and the towering, skeletal steel frames of new high-rise buildings are indisputable evidence of a still frenzied construction boom.
As you travel through Panama City and the surrounding areas, you cannot escape the influence of the Panama Canal (handed over to the people of Panama by the US in 1999). Many of the buildings constructed to house military personnel and canal builders still exist and have been transformed into private homes, hotels, resorts and offices. One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the Canal is an awe-inspiring feat of engineering and a must-see for any visitor. Organized tours range from $25 per person for the boat to Monkey Island, to $250 per person for sport fishing on Gatun Lake at the Panama Canal.
The building of the Canal also had a direct effect on the population. Seventy percent of the total population of 3 million people are mestizo (people of mixed Indian and European ancestry) while the native Indians comprise only 6%. Spanish is the dominant language and, according to our guides from the resort, only about 18% of Panamanians speak English fluently, but most of the people we met spoke enough English to understand basic questions.
The resort literature states that, “Gamboa caters to families who want to experience the jungle without sacrificing the comforts of home” and it’s true. The resort offers top-notch childcare. When you’re done touring, those seeking a bit of luxury in the jungle can take advantage of one or more of the resort’s special wellness treatments which include thermal baths, Swedish massage, facial masks, and body exfoliation. The staff are among the friendliest I’ve encountered, and the food and service are excellent. The pool and the grounds are impeccably maintained, and the rooms are clean, comfortable, and spacious. And most importantly, no matter what you do here, you’re always within view of the magnificent Panamanian rainforest.
Trip Planning Details for a Gamboa Rainforest Resort Visit
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort (877/800-1690, 507/314-9000) is in Soberania National Park, Panama. Seasonal rates start at $385 per night for a room in this spectacular setting with family packages that include all excursions, guides and even meals that are priced even lower on multi-night stays (and we recommend four nights). The hotel staff and amenities are all first rate. It’s a great place for eco-tourist families with loads of rain forest-related activities. While room rates alone may ,seem a little high (a bottled water is a mere 50¢; dinner with drinks at a popular downtown restaurant is US$18), it is first class, the staff is excellent and experiencing those rainforest views is priceless.
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