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Wildlife in Gamboa
Gamboa is a small town in the heart of Panama’s Canal Zone. It has one store, one restaurant, and one sizable hotel. But visitors don’t go there for fine dining or shopping—they go to enjoy nature and see wildlife in Gamboa. Gamboa is the gateway to Soberania National Park, home to an impressive number of species: over 400 bird, 79 reptile, 55 amphibian, and 125 mammal. You won’t see them all, but these tips will get you close to plenty of incredible wildlife in Gamboa.
How to Get to Gamboa
Gamboa is only 22 miles north of Panama City. A bus from the Albrook Terminal costs less than a dollar and a taxi will run you around $25. If you rent a car, make sure it has adequate suspension—the road is badly in need of repaving. Better yet, rent a truck.
Where to Stay in Gamboa
The Gamboa Rainforest Reserve is located just outside of town along the Chagres River. The hotel is a bit run-down, but there’s a nice pool, a variety of dining and drinking options, miles of hiking trails, and numerous wildlife-related activities including a frog habitat, butterfly garden, sloth sanctuary, aerial tramway, and guided boat and fishing tours. You don’t need to be a guest at the hotel to book these activities.
Cheaper accommodations include a handful of small B&Bs and apartment rentals. I recommend Gamboa Apartment Toucan y Studio Neque. These apartments are located in a historic house built in the 1930s for canal engineers. The friendly owner, Elena, who lives upstairs, has surrounded her home with a lush tropical garden that teems with wildlife. From my patio, I had regular interactions with iguanas, agoutis, tamarin monkeys, butterflies, and all kinds of birds.
Birdwatching in Gamboa
If sighting exotic birds is your primary objective, you’ll want to spend some time hiking the Pipeline Road. This 10-mile-long dirt track was constructed to service an oil pipeline during World War 2 and has become a favorite destination for birders from all over the world. 400 species have been spotted here including the colorful trogon and wondrously weird collared aracari. Hiking permits can be purchased for $5 at the Soberania National Park administration building. Go early in the morning for the best birdwatching.
Having grown up on Froot Loops cereal, I really only had one must-see: a toucan. I managed to spot two, both of the keel-billed variety. Toucans have a repetitive croaking call that goes on and on, allowing you to home in on their position from up to a half-mile away.
There’s a 105-foot-high observation tower at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center that will get you closer to canopy-dwelling birds, but the entrance fee for foreigners is as high as the tower ($30, more than double what Panamanians pay). You get access to hiking areas, too, but with all the trails (many of which are free to explore) around Gamboa, the price seems exorbitant. I spotted lots of wildlife on the easily accessible Laguna Trail. It’s within walking distance of Gamboa town and has no fees.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The water required to operate the Panama Canal comes from the Chagres River watershed. To ensure that this watershed remains healthy, the rainforests of the Canal Zone are protected. That means acre upon acre of pristine jungle for wildlife to thrive in.
As you walk through the woods pay close attention to the ground. Lizards, from tiny anoles the size of your pinky to leg-length iguanas are common sights, as are frogs, some quite beautiful.
Snakes are more difficult to spot. Listen for them slithering through dry leaves. One night, I heard a rustling off a quiet street in Gamboa town and shined a light toward it. A nocturnal, brightly striped, and highly venomous, Central American coral snake was making its way up a bank.
Around water you’ll see Basilisk (aka Jesus) lizards, caimans, and crocodiles. Jesus lizards earn their nickname by walking on water—they sprint across the surface on their hind legs chasing bugs. Caimans don’t get as large as crocodiles but even the juveniles have teeth that can mess you up. Look for them on the banks of the canal or Chagres River. I’ve seen an unusually large caiman (they can reach 8 feet in length) lounging in the shade of the lone tree between Gamboa’s railroad and auto bridges.
For the safest wildlife in Gamboa viewing, stop in the Gamboa Rainforest Resort’s Don Caiman restaurant. There’s a deck overhanging the river and turtles and caimans hang out in the vegetation below.
Throughout the forest, you’ll find fast-moving streams of leafcutter ants that seem to go on forever. These industrious insects spend their lives cutting pieces of fresh tree leaves and carrying them back to their nests. They use them to fertilize their favorite food crop: fungus. Yum.
As you drive into Gamboa, you’ll see a strange animal graffitied on the building below the lighthouse. It’s an agouti, and once you spend some time looking for wildlife in Gamboa you’ll see why it’s the town mascot. These big, adorable rodents are everywhere, foraging for nuts, seeds, and leaves. Though they seem docile, don’t try to pet them. They’re wild animals with sharp teeth and strong jaws—so strong, in fact, that they’re the only creature capable of breaking open a Brazil nut.
Three types of monkeys are common around Gamboa: howlers, capuchins, and Geoffroy’s tamarins. Howlers are the largest and least friendly. The spine-chilling groan they produce (audible from 3 miles away) has to be heard to be believed. Being surrounded by a troupe of these territorial primates deep in the rainforest is an eerie experience. They can get aggressive, too. I’ve had them drop bark and branches on my head, and narrowly avoided a golden shower.
Capuchins and tamarins are more sociable. If you want to get up close and personal with these monkeys book a boat tour from the Gamboa docks or Gamboa Rainforest Reserve. You’ll go up the Panama Canal—whizzing by massive super freighters—to Lake Gatun. Your guide will know where to find monkeys that are willing to jump on the boat and eat bananas out of your hand.
Sloths are popular too, but not nearly as exciting to interact with. They spend around 20 hours a day hanging in trees, fast asleep. If you look up and see a motionless ball of fur, that’s a sloth.
To get a better look at these gentle slackers, check out the sloth sanctuary at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.
Isla Barro Colorado
Guided tours to this island reserve leave by boat from Gamboa and cost $100 for non-Panamanians. You’ll hike for 3 hours over 37 miles of trails under the supervision of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The biodiversity on this small island is astounding, with 381 bird species and 120 different kinds of mammals. Book well in advance.
After Gamboa: Transit the Panama Canal
After your stay in Gamboa, why not hop on a cruise ship for a transit of the Panama Canal. It’s a travel experience you’ll never forget!