Panama – It’s More Than the Canal

A highlight of visiting Panama is a tour of the Panama Canal. This modern wonder of the world, completed in 1914, is a must see for anyone visiting this amazing country. Most vacations to Panama include a visit to the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center offers a great view of the Miraflores Locks and the entrance to the Culebra Cut, which travels through the mountains of Panama to Gatun Lake. There is a movie on the construction of the original canal as well as the new locks and it has a nice gift shop. You can actually see in the distance the new locks that are now open. In addition, many people choose to book a partial transit of the canal for a close up view of the operation of the canal locks and the precise work involved in moving ships through this engineering marvel. Today however, I’m writing about the nature you can see while here.

Panama is one of the most biodiverse destinations in the world. With over 950 species of birds known to exist in the rainforests, Panama is a must for bird watchers. Your birding book will be filled with brilliantly plumaged rainforest birds and you will have amazing pictures to share when you return home. Birds are found all times of the year in Panama, and while the months of January, February and March are Dry Season in Panama, it can rain anytime, and Panama is warm all year round so weather isn’t usually a factor in scheduling your trip.

Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island in Gatun lake formed when the Chagres River was dammed to create the Panama Canal, is a special destination close to Panama City. This island, isolated from human influences, is home to a Smithsonian Institution research facility. Hundreds of scientists conduct research projects on Barro Colorado Island every year. You can visit this nearly pristine rainforest environment after only a short drive and boat trip from your hotel, and experience unspoiled natural habitats. You will be doing a lot of walking on this excursion, so bring good hiking shoes or boots. To visit BCI, you must make a reservation in advance, or you will not likely be able to go, as they limit the number of guests, and it sells out. Tours generally include transportation to and from the island (often by boat from Gamboa), a two to three hour guided hike, lunch, and a visit to the museum. Hikes through the island offer the opportunity to spot many creatures, including monkeys, anteaters, birds, and insects.

The Jungle Boat Tour is one of our most popular excursions. This boat tour of Gatun Lake is a great way to have an up-close encounter with native animal species. You will see monkeys, and they will usually come on the boat for a snack. You may also see crocodiles, sloths and many birds. You will arrive at the floating lodge hidden in one of the finger lakes for a nice “comida tipica” (typical lunch.) This is a morning tour, so your afternoon is free for other adventures. The Jungle Boat Tour originates from Gamboa, a town where Gatun Lake meets the Panama Canal, cut through the Continental Divide.

Another tour offered near Gatun is the Aerial Tram Tour, where you will experience the rainforest from a different perspective. Glide through the canopy of the forest, from the shadowy rainforest floor through the understory, and into the sun drenched canopy. You will be accompanied by a guide on this mile-long trip, who will describe the flora and fauna that you will see. The tram ascends 280 feet over half a mile and ends at a spectacular viewpoint atop a hill. You may visit the Observation Tower where you will have a panoramic view of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.

If fishing is your thing, Panama offers some of the best Bass fishing in the world. The Peacock Bass was introduced to Panama in the 1950’s and flourished in the warm waters of Gatun Lake. This fish is a fighter, renowned for its strength and endurance. Panama also has great salt water fishing opportunities. The waters here are the yearlong home to Black Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna, Roosterfish, Cubera Snapper, their famous Corvina, known in the United States as Sea Bass, and more than twenty other prized gamefish.

The indigenous tribes of Panama have been somewhat successful in resisting cultural influences from the modern world. The many tribes of indigenous people are spread throughout Panama and many are very remote. The Embera people, however, reside close to Panama City and you can visit one of their villages to observe a native village in action. You travel by land to Madden Lake, where you join up with the Indians in their dugout piragua boats and head up the upper part of the Chagres River above Madden Dam. This tour also gives you the opportunity to share a lunch cooked over an open fire of fish and plantain. The more adventurous folks can take the piragua to a tributary river and hike to a water fall for a swim.

You can spend a week in Panama and the surrounding rainforest with so many different choices, then head to the beach area to relax for a few days. The Pacific coast beaches are the most popular in Panama and are as close as 30 minutes and as far as eight hours from the city, so you decide how secluded you want to be. The closer to the city you are, the bigger the hotels will be; further away from the city, you can enjoy the small boutique type properties. Don’t miss out on all that Panama has to offer by doing a one day cruise in and out. Plan to spend seven to ten days exploring this beautiful country. Condor Tours and Travel offers many packages to expose you to this emerging country.