Panama's Great Outdoors

The country shows its adventurous side

By: Judy Koutsky

Resource Box

Gamboa Rainforest Resort at the Panama Canal

Commission: 10 percent on rooms and activities/tours booked in advance

Panama Tourism Bureau


A canopy tour is a great way to experience Panama. As an active-adventure enthusiast, Latin America has always drawn my attention, but I wasn’t sure what to expect in Panama. After spending a week at the eco-friendly Gamboa Rainforest Resort, however, I was surprised at just how much there was to see and do on the adventure front.

The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is the first resort of its kind in Panama. Sitting on 340 acres in the heart of Soberania National Park about 20 minutes from Panama City, it was created in 2000 to showcase the natural flora and fauna of the Panamanian rainforest. In addition to its location on the banks of the Chagres River, the resort also draws visitors with the many eco-activities it offers.

One of the most popular is the on-property aerial tram tour, which takes guests high above the rainforest to get a look at the many tropical trees, plants and animals that live below. The observation tower at the end of the tram tour affords amazing views of the Panama Canal. After the tram ride, guests can visit various exhibit houses including a reptile, orchard and butterfly displays. The tram ride is a great way to see a variety of wildlife that inhabit the rainforest and is especially suited to families traveling with kids.

A favorite excursion was kayaking on the Panama Canal to Monkey Island. A licensed guide accompanied the trip, and we were able to see a variety of howler monkeys, sloths and local fauna. We paddled our way through the inlets of the canal, draped in dense forestland on either side. The trees were alive with a wide range of sounds and colors as birds, including toucans and macaws, made their way through the foliage. It’s also possible to see the blue morpho butterfly and the spectacled caiman.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort at the Panama CanalA visit to Embera Indian village was another highlight. A full-day excursion, this tour included a canoe ride along the Chagres River in a traditional Indian canoe. The first stop was a short hike to a waterfall where guests swam and relaxed by the clear stream. Then we went on to the Indian village where we interacted with the Embera Indians, one of the few Indian tribes in Panama that still preserve most of their native lifestyle and traditions. There, we ate a local meal consisting of plantains, local fish and freshly grown fruit. The chief then spoke to the guests, explaining their way of life and answering questions. This was followed by a local dance and interaction with individual members of the tribe. (The women showcase how they make pottery and other wares). It was a great way to understand the social side of Panama’s past.

For the adrenaline junkie, the zipline canopy tour is a great way to experience life at the top of the forest. This excursion takes a good part of the day since the drive to the canopy tour, which is in Portobelo, is about two hours from the hotel. Located on Panama’s Caribbean Coast, Portobelo is a small bayside town known for several well-preserved ruins of colonial forts. The drive is also a great way of showcasing the difference between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Panama.

Once at the canopy tour, the safety briefing and harness fitting was followed by a walk up to the observation area to begin. There were nine different lines that we “zipped” across. Attached by cables, each individual controls his/her own speed, so the ride can be as fast or slow as one’s comfort permits. Everyone from the 5-year-old to the 75-year-old in our group loved this activity and ranked it high on the list of best travel adventures.

Even though there are plenty more adventures to be had in Panama, advise clients to leave time to explore the resort. Located near the Panama Canal, it offers both amazing nature opportunities and the chance to see the many barges and vessels that make the canal crossing throughout the day (between 30 to 40 ships make the crossing each day).

There are hiking and walking trails along the property and many people take their binoculars and spend a few hours walking around. There are over 950 species of birds in Panama and more than 300 species have been identified at the resort itself, including the endangered Harpy Eagle, Panama’s national bird. The resort also offers day and nighttime wildlife observation tours of the Panama Canal and the Chagres River.