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Wild and Welcoming Panama

A short trip in Panama can be long on adventure.

The week before Christmas, I took a brief but unforgettable trip to the tropical isthmus nation with Cruises and Tours Worldwide. Though I joined the tour a full day late due to a missed flight connection in Atlanta, I was still able to experience a significant portion of the itinerary thanks to the consideration and flexibility of the tour organizers.

In retrospect, it is amazing to realize that I only spent two full days in the country considering how much ground we covered in that short time, which just goes to show how much there is to do and experience in the region.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Once I arrived, Cruises and Tours Worldwide sent a driver to pick me up from the airport, and I joined the rest of our group at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, just outside Panama City.

Nestled in the heart of Soberania National Park, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a breathtaking jungle retreat right on the banks of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal. It provides a good home base for travelers, who can take advantage of on-site amenities like riverfront dining, aerial tram rides, ecotours and night safaris, as well as visit nearby attractions in Panama City.

As soon as I entered my room, I was struck by the colorful, nature-themed decor: bright-green walls, a blue-tiled bathroom and elegant wicker furniture. The room featured a private balcony and a hammock, from which I could survey the jungle flora and listen to the sounds of tropical birds.

The following morning, I was able to catch up on some of the activities I missed the previous day while other members of the group relaxed at the resort. Our local guide and interpreter, Teo Jolly of Gamboa Tours, escorted me down to the Chagres River for a Monkey Island boat tour up to Gatun Lake, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. As we cruised around remote waterways and jungle islands, Jolly spoke at length about Panama’s fascinating history as well as the diverse wildlife of the region, which is home to over 950 species of birds.

Very often, Jolly would catch a glimpse of movement in the trees and direct my attention to monkeys and iguanas lounging on branches or fallen tree trunks. Though I expected to see some of these animals during the excursion, I was amazed by how close they came to the boat, sometimes staring down at us from just a few feet away.

I was also impressed by the variety of species we encountered, from the kitten-size tamarin monkey to the large black spider monkey, which uses its muscular tail like an extra arm to swing through the trees. We also spotted a few of the aptly named howler monkeys, which emit a terrifying roar despite their innocuous appearance. Jolly commented on what early explorers must have thought as they camped in the jungle and heard those shrieks resounding through the trees.