finally, a chance to post something new!
I knew about Panama’s biodiversity before I set foot in the country – or at least left the airport for the first time. I had been through the airport a few times already and they do a great job of promoting the Panamanian jungle. Sticking up some photos on a wall is a little easier than building infrastructure though so I discovered getting into the jungle was going to be more difficult than I had expected.
The key problem is that tourism is still pretty underdeveloped and mostly aimed at people hanging out at beach resorts or spending a day before they start their cruise through the Panama Canal. If you come with a decent sized group, it is not too hard as there are some tour operators for hire but established group tours you can join as a single traveller are not really part of the landscape.
I did a lot of research and settled on Jerin at Panama Day Trips as he was responsive and willing to include me with a couple of other guests so the cost for the day would be $105 USD. Not a cheap day out but very fair compared to the other options. I did the Wild Side of Panama Canal Tour and would highly recommend it.
You start early at 7am but get picked up at your hotel. The tour follows the Panama Canal north to the town of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the canal. There we changed our mode of transport to a boat and rode the waters of the Panama Canal along with the gigantic ships transiting the canal. This was certainly part of the experience but we were heading for Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake is a gigantic artificial body of water created as part of the
construction of the Panama Canal. As part of this process, the Monkey Islands were created. Several species of monkey roamed wild in Panama in the habitat that would now be part of the canal. In order to protect the monkeys from the encroachment upon their habitat, they were relocated to Monkey Island, a land mass that was high enough to survive the flooding.
The various species did not play nicely with each other, however, so
you will visit various small islands showcasing different types of monkeys. – mantled howler, white-faced capuchin and Geoffroy’s tamarin. The guide will try to tempt the monkeys with food so they will come on the boat for great photos. Since their habitat was messed up by the Panama Canal, it’s OK to feed the monkeys. They could not survive in the wild.
Several tour companies visit the Monkey Islands so the monkeys were full and we didn’t have any jump on board but still got a close view of the action and some great photos.
After the cruising on the canal, we headed to the Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. It is a premier birding spot and definitely worth checking out but – as a safari veteran – I knew mid-day was likely to be disappointing. We did see a sloth and a few birds but it was underwhelming after all the biodiversity I was expecting from the Biomuseo.
I DO believe all those species exist in Panama. If seeing wildlife and
especially birds is your main objective, the better option is to stay at an eco-resort near the park so that you can come early or late in the day to see nature when it is not sleeping or hiding in the shade 🙂 It’s still a pleasant walk and you get to have a nice lunch on a terrace. While I didn’t see the 385 species apparently seen by the Audubon Society in a 24 hour period, it was still good value.
The guide, John, was a business school graduate from Venezuela who decided he preferred being outside. He was smart, funny and very knowledgeable about both Panama and the wildlife. He also had a not surprisingly sardonic view of life in Latin America where things are definitely improving but infrastructure, regulation and corruption could still use a lot of work.
The social dynamics were very interesting as we had a Venezuelan immigrant, a socially liberal Canadian, a loud American guy from the southwest who started sentences “I’m not racist but…” and his meek charming wife who tried to make sure his comments didn’t cause too much trouble. I was quite sure all of his opinions about everything in life had been set in stone long ago so there was no point in presenting logical arguments 😉
It was great to actually BE on the canal and to get out of the city, see some wildlife and breath in the fresh air from the rainforest so make sure to sign up for Panama Day Trips! They have other tour options if this doesn’t sound perfect to you.