Views of Panama

Back to Gamboa

Whether you are looking for high doses of adrenaline or the chance to contemplate a landscape that looks like a watercolor, this town —just one hour from Panama City— is the place for adventure.

By Margarita de los Ríos

Photos: Javier A. Pinzón

Gamboa is a hidden paradise in the middle of the forest. It’s like a forgotten town that has unintentionally become a museum. Its wooden and concrete homes, long avenues lined by royal palms, and majestic trees —mahogany, African tulip, corotu, and nance— witnessed an era of splendor that one day simply came to an end. Tucked away between the Chagres River and Gatun Lake, just forty-five minutes from Panama City, Gamboa brings together everything that Panama has to offer: lush forests that flourish with a minimum of human intervention, though they are crossed daily by huge ships passing through the Panama Canal and trains loaded with dozens of containers. In Gamboa, history means transit: the human need –since prehistoric times– to link one ocean with the other, which led to the construction of the Panama Canal.  

History here also means occupation: One hundred years of occupation by the United States, which not only imposed its authority and culture, but also a system of segregation that is still evident in the city’s architecture. It means science: more scientific research is carried out here every year than anywhere else in the tropics and new secrets about frogs, bats, butterflies, ants, and countless other species of fauna and flora are discovered every day. Finally, history in Gamoba means adventure and ecotourism, with offerings that are newer, better organized, and more attractive than ever. Alcibíades, a boatman for more than forty years, is our first guide. His boat is tethered to Gamboa’s public dock and we meet him there early, since the forest animals are most active in the morning. The mist slowly rises from the water and makes subtle brushstrokes over the verdant landscape. The lake is still, clearly reflecting the crests of corotu, guayacan, and amarillo trees, and palms of various species.  

As the boat sails along, we come upon the huge ocean vessels that traverse the Panama Canal. Only here do they narrow the horizon and penetrate the green of the forest. Suddenly, our captain spots something from afar that he thinks we will find interesting. Beneath the shadow of a lush tree, an enormous lizard, almost seven feet long, rests placidly. Alcibíades knows by heart the twists and turns where herons, ducks, and jacana birds hide. The somewhat murky water in the main channel —a few days ago the doors of the Madden Dam were opened to ensure the water level of Gatun— quickly becomes transparent and the noise of the forest can be heard more clearly. An osprey passes overhead and Alcibíades invites us to see where it has peeled the shells off snails, creating a type of pantry in the trunk of an old tree.  

We pass an island where, years ago, some domesticated monkeys were sent to be reintroduced to the forest. Instead, they retained their connection with humans, so they wait every morning for the tourist boats to arrive filled with people carrying food. The domesticated monkeys are marmosets and white-faced capuchins, although the much wilder howler monkeys can be heard screaming from the treetops. Alcibíades takes us to visit Hugo, a surly white-faced monkey that has chosen to live in solitude. Hugo has bitten more than one tourist, so now boats don’t approach him. We observe him respectfully from afar and throw him a piece of a banana. He waits patiently for us to move away, then picks it up, washes it, washes his hands, dries them with a leaf from a tree, and sits down to eat in peace. We pause again in the middle of a swamp, where the water shines like a mirror. On the shore, a pair of baby jacana birds eat seeds while their parents watch protectively, since an eagle lurks.  

Ahead are palm trees, beset by thick climbing vines that fall freely from the tallest trees. Oaks, willows, and corotu trees fight for light from the green curtain that seals off the horizon. We try to remain quiet and, as Alcibíades turns off the motor, we discover that the show is not only visual. The forest sings and screams, creating a cacophony, and then sings again. Two hours later, when we step onto the dock, we feel as if we have come from another planet, but we are just an hour from cosmopolitan Panama City. If you’re looking for a “photographic adventure” make sure you contact Andrew at 9o North Panama Photo Safari. He has put together an excellent photo tour of the best scenery with a great guide to make sure you get the best possible shots. And, if you wish, he can help you edit your pictures. Our second day in Gamboa dawns at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. At daybreak, five hundred species of birds fill the forest with color, making this one of the best places in the world for bird watching. We start on a very large balcony that is visited by several species of hummingbirds; it is the perfect welcome to Soberanía National Park. Nearly 220 yards along a well-kept path is a tower that rises to the forest canopy. The path ascends 105 feet, with breaks every twenty-six feet to observe the layers of forest and its inhabitants.

Next comes a trip through town. Our guide for this tour is the book Gamboa: A Guide to Its Natural and Cultural Heritage, which was written by the biologist Jorge Ventocilla and the architect Kurt Dillon. We begin our tour in the lower part of town, around the Dredging Division of the Panama Canal. This is where Gamboa originated in 1933, when the United States Congress authorized the transfer of this division from Paraíso to the other side of the Culebra Cut, and provided a budget of 2.7 million dollars to build the town. The book tells us that the architects of Gamboa paid special attention to the technical, environmental, and aesthetic aspects of the town. The founders constructed large boulevards and comfortable recreational areas. Clarence Ridley, governor of the Panama Canal Zone and director of the Canal between 1936 and 1940, had been part of the team that built the Washington Monument complex, so he was well versed in creating welcoming public spaces. He also belonged to the National Commission of Fine Arts and was a member of the District of Columbia zoning commission when it built Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.  

Thanks to a cooperative agreement between the Hotel Gamboa and the Pan-American Conservation Association, the famous Sloth Sanctuary operates within the hotel’s facilities. There is also an orchid pavilion and a butterfly garden, as well as hiking trails and kayaking. El Gamboa Resort is preparing to reopen its outdoor tours (aerial tramway, zipline, mountain bike experience, outing to Lake Gatún, sloth sanctuary, eco-exhibits) on October 16. It’s an ideal date to return to Gamboa and enjoy all the wonders and biodiversity, and all of it close at hand.  


Useful INFO

Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Panama Discovery Center

9o North Panama

Guide Book Gamboa, A Guide to Its Natural and Cultural Heritage, by Jorge Ventocilla and Kurt Dillon.  

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