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Trip Report Panama trip report (canal zone and western highlands)

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In early February of this year we spent 9 nights in Panama (4 in Gamboa on the canal, 4 in the western (Chiriqui) highlands, and 1 last night on Ancon Hill in Panama city). I’ll break the first 4 and last 5 nights into separate posts. Since this was an extremely bird-oriented trip, I’ll put selected species accounts into a third post so that those who are not interested in birds don’t get bogged down in parrotlets and cotingas. And when I get around to selecting, processing, and posting the best photos (took over 1000) I'll post a link to those as well.

Overall impressions:
Weather was excellent, with only a spot of rain in the highlands. Temperatures in the canal/Panama City area ranged from a low of 70 to a high of around 88 every day, and in the highlands depending on elevation lows were 45-55 degrees and highs were 65-75 degrees. Our overall impression of Panam was that it’s easily the most modern and developed of the Central American countries we’ve visited—this being traceable to the canal itself as well as the infrastructure built over a century ago to house workers building the canal, including paved roads and water delivery systems that prevented the spread of disease. Panama has its own currency, but it’s based directly on the US dollar, so zero need for currency exchange there. Culturally, Panama is very cosmopolitan with everyone being friendly.

Canal zone:
Day 1 was pretty much about arriving in Panama City and getting to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Our flight on Copa airways went smoothly and our transfer from the Gamboa resort was waiting for us. We got a mini-tour of Panama City, including the waterfront and downtown, on the way since the resort is on the other side of the city from the international airport.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We chose this place because we wanted access to the wildlife/birds in the area and with high quality bird guides. For years and years, apparently, the nearby Canopy Tower has had a monopoly on this niche for travelers. But, within the past few years the Gamboa Resort has hired a very excellent bird guide, Jose Soto, and thus can offer very high quality tours. That, and the fact that the resort was MUCH cheaper (not cheap, but Canopy Tower is crazy overpriced) while offering far superior accomodations, made the choice rather easy. This place is a very curious blend of features. For a wildlife lover, especially a birder, there is all kinds of stuff to see here. It’s on the banks of the Chagres River right before it meets the Panama canal, and includes a very large plot of land that is a combination of open fields and rainforest adjacent to Soberania national park. But, the hotel itself is . . . very far from a rustic ecolodge. It’s BIG, there’s a very large pool complex on the side facing the river, there are 3 restaurants on site, and seemed to be mainly populated by big buses full of people on overnight stays from cruise ships. For those expecting the bells and whistles and full service of a traditional resort, or for those looking for immersion in nature far from civilization, there are obvious complaints that could be made. But, we took the “glass is 85% full” attitude towards it. After a 5 hours of hiking/birding, it was pretty nice to be able to come back to an air-conditioned room without any bugs in it and then hit the swimming pool to relax and cool off during the mid-day when all the wildlife is hiding from the heat. And, I thought there was something really neat about being able to get a drink at a swim-up bar and then walk 20 feet from the pool to gawk at 80-lb capybaras in the nearby field/marsh.

The room (and the overall hotel itself) was nicer than we imagined—we had heard about issues with rooms being musty and the place being in need of a major facelift—but it was perfectly fine for us. The room was spacious (especially the bathroom), with a king-bed, a seating area, and a balcony with hammock and table/chairs. There were buffet options for all three meals, which we chose for breakfast and dinner (at the main resort building) while we went with the ala carte menu for lunch at the riverside Lagartos restaurant (only open for lunch). Buffet food was, as expected, inoffensive, whereas the lunches was somewhat tastier. But, the location on the river was the major attraction—views of cayman, birds, and ships transiting the Panama canal from our table.

Activities: The resort runs a nightly night safari tour by bus around its grounds. We did this on the first and third nights, and saw some cool things each time. Very minimal effort, though we would have preferred to have a walking night tour available.

On our first full day, we began with a half-day birding excursion on the famous Pipeline Road (about a mile or so away) with Jose. It lived up to its reputation, offering up things we had never seen before. After getting back, we had lunch at the Lagartos riverside, then walked back to the main building (about ten minutes uphill) while doing some more wildlife spotting. We then relaxed in the pool to cool off and relax. From there, it was nap time, dinner time, and then bed time (as we had to be up VERY early the next morning).

We left at 5:00 am on Day 2 for our birding tour with Jose of Cerro Azul, a community set in the hills about 90 minutes Northeast of Panama City. The views were stunning and we saw quite a few spectacular species of bird we’d never seen and probably would never see again, but it was very windy and dry there—beforehand we had been thinking it might be a good retirement/vacation home, but it’s very remote (40 minutes from groceries, about an hour from decent restaurants) and there’s not much to do but look at birds there. We then returned to the resort, and decided to do some exploring of the hotel grounds on our own. After a few hours walking around, we had dinner, watched the Super bowl for the first quarter, then went on our night safari.

Day 3 began with a boat tour with Jose of the Chagres river, Panama canal, and Lake Atun, seeing everything from massive cargo ships to tiny tamarin monkeys and even tinier hummingbirds. That, of course, and the river/canal which itself was very cool--except for the part where a ship's wake caused those of us in the front of the pontoon to get douses with canal water. After lunch at the riverside restaurant, we went back for an hour in the pool, then went on a guided hike with Jose on a trail on the lodge ground. Big sighting there wasn’t a bird—it was a pair of night monkeys hiding in a tree hole, looking right at us. Then it was time for dinner, packing, and early to bed.

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    Our transfer to Albrook airport (the one for internal flights) the next morning got us there at time, but only because we were conservative and budgeted a whole hour for a drive that takes about 25 minutes if traffic isn’t a problem. The Air Panama flight was late anyways, but the flight to David is short and within no time we were in our car headed up to the Los Quetzales Ecolodge in Guadalupe/Cerro Punta in the highlands/mountains—at the base of Volcan Baru, Panama’s only volcano and highest point.

    Our lodging here was quite a contrast to the Gamboa resort. Our first two nights were up even further in one of the cabins. And I mean UP. Apparently the cabins are about 2-3km from the main lodge on the road. But, you go up another 600-800m in the process. On a ‘road’ or ‘path’ that can be best described as a long, thin, steep pile of rubble. And, after the vehicle parked, we had to lug bags another 250m or so (bring backpacks instead of rolling suitcases).

    But, it was totally worth it to be up there. To provide a bit of context for the cabins—the owner of Los Quetzales bought the land the cabins were on before the establishment of national parks in the area. After he bought the land, on one side Volcan Baru national park was established and on the other the massive La Amistad international park (shared with Costa Rica) was established. The lower cabins are in what is considered Baru, whereas the upper ones (including ours) are in La Amistad. And while the main lodge building was set on a road in a largely agricultural area, the cabins are in pristine, gorgeous, otherworldly cloud forest, with giant trees covered by bromeliads and other epiphytes (plants that get all their water from the air so that they don’t need roots). Think Rivendell from Lord of the Rings.

    We stayed in Cabana 8, which is the most popular cabin they have due to it offering great wildlife viewing without leaving your cabin. It sleeps 6 comfortably with additional futons for up to 10, and includes a second-story deck that wraps around almost the entire cabin and multiple skylights, along with a wood-burning stove for warmth and solar powered lights (and hot water from gas I believe). But, it’s very basic—camp stove, no refrigerator. You can cook up there, but of course everything needs to be brought up via vehicle (to keep things cool they provide a cooler in which you put a bag of ice). There’s a limited shop at the main lodge in town, had we to do it over we probably would have gone to a grocery store beforehand so we could cook dinners. Instead, we just had them deliver pizza to us both nights (they offer to deliver meals) while keeping some very basic food items like apples and fig newtons for breakfast.

    Cabana 8 did offer great wildlife—a raccoon-like animal called cacomistle (ring-tailed cat) made appearances at night as did hummingbirds all day. But the big prize landed while I was waiting outside for our bird guide (for the next three days) Chaly the first mornin. The vehicle to bring him up to the cabins ran a bit late, and a good thing too, because before Chaly got there a male resplendent quetzal landed on the tree closest to our bedroom window (yes I got pictures, will post them later). Had the vehicle been on time I probably would have missed it. We hiked on a ridge that morning to a waterfall, then came back for lunch, then went back up on the other side of the hill to a now closed B&B called Ecotreat. It was a bit rainy, but we were prepared. No matter the conditions, the cloud forest is some kind of beautiful.

    My wife and I spent the next morning together just relaxing (though I did go for a quick walk up the hill and back). Around 11:15 the vehicle to take us back arrived and we were on our way back down for our next two nights in a suite at at the main lodge building. The first thing we noticed was how much warmer it was even 600m lower. Our suite had a wood burning fireplace, two balconies, and a separate seating area/kitchenette. Very comfortable. We spent that afternoon exploring the famous Quetzal trail (a lot of loud, obnoxious people even in the afternoon) so we headed to the feeders at Cielito Sur, a local B&B, for some very low impact birding before returning back to Los Quetzales.

    The next day was a long one—we left around 6:00 in the morning to tour Finca Hartmann, a coffee farm very close to the Costa Rica border known for its birds (the coffee is shade-grown), and then after lunch in the town of Volcan Chaly took us to the Lagunas Volcan, three lakes near the town of Volcan’s old airstrip and the highest lakes in Panama. Both sites were very pretty, even if you didn’t care about birds, but after a lot of walking we were very ready to turn in for the night.

    The next morning was uneventful and a car took us back to David and the flight back to Panama City. Once we arrived there we caught a cab for a 5 minute ride to our destination for the final night, La Estancia, on Ancon Hill, a former US military installation and now home to very nice homes occupied by Panama Canal employees. We spent the afternoon relaxing along with a quick walk up to the top of Ancon Hill, which yielded a surprising amount of wildlife along with the expected but still stunning views of the canal, port, and city. La Estancia’s service is good and the location is great, but it also was the only place we encountered the infamously hard mattresses for which Panama is apparently known.

    Our final morning was spent on a tour of the Miraflores locks on the canal, including an interesting museum on site as well as watching ships pass through the locks and watching the locks empty and fill as necessary. This was followed by a driving tour of Casco Viejo (the colonial neighborhood of Panama that’s being revitalized) and the ruins of Old Panama (the first incarnation of the city that was sacked and burned by the pirate Henry Morgan, never to be rebuilt and is now a park). After that, we went to the airport and began discussing what our next trip to Panama might entail.

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    Sounds like a fantastic trip. I'm looking forward to seeing your pictures! I'd love to visit Panama, and enjoyed reading about the places you stayed. There haven't been too many reports, so it's great to hear about your details.

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    Thanks, Shell. It was our first time--it's easily the most similar to the US of any Central American country, but for some reason it just hasn't drawn the same volume of tourists. It wasn't the easiest trip to plan, maybe because we didn't hit the most popular places for gringos outside the city--Boquete and Bocas del Toro.

    Ironically, I think Panama City would make an ideal place for people getting their feet wet in terms of central America and wildlife--you can see so much while spending the night in a modern hotel--but it usually turns out to be a place people visit after Belize and Costa Rica.

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    RAC - it does seem to be that way, Costa Rica, Belize then move on to Panama! I have a friend who went to Panama last year and really enjoyed it too. It's definitely on my radar for a future trip, so I love reading what I can about it! Thanks for sharing!

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    A perfect report, RAC! Thank you so much. I grew up in Panama and lived in one of those houses just below La Estancia in what was called Quarry Heights. I am returning one month from today and your report was just the right thing to put me in the mood.
    Did you fly COPA from DCA?

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    Ah, here I am in India where there are lots of great birds, (I'm reporting as we go on the Asia board)' but you've made me feel nostalgic for Panama. We loved those cabins at Los Quetzales. How cool that you saw a quetzal nearby! and what interesting news re bird guide at Gamboa. We have stayed at all those places you mentioned and really love Panama. Isn't it beautiful up at Finca Hartmam? Look forward to you bird list and pics. Thanks for posting!

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    For the wildlife lovers, here’s a rundown on some of the highlights of what we saw, and where and when we saw it. (Note: we saw agouti just about every day multiple times except in the highlands, so much so that it wasn’t even worth noticing when we did).



    Overall: we saw 15 species of non-bat mammals, 262 species of bird (over 90 of which we had never seen before) including 24 species of hummingbirds and 23 species of tanagers, and several reptiles including crocodile, cayman, and turtles.



    Day 1: on the night safari, we saw paca, sloth, and a turtle. No particularly interesting birds



    Day 2: on the pipeline road, we saw two species of toucan, 3 species of trogon (white-tailed, violaceous/gartered, and slaty-tailed), broad-billed and rufous motmots within 15 yards of each other—never experienced that before, a flock of purple-throated fruitcrows, and a bunch of antbirds, including checker-throated antwren, spotted antbird, and the big prize of the day, the ocellated antbird with its dazzling blue face. We also saw a tamandua (anteater) destroying a termite nest as well another sloth. At lunch, we saw a whole bunch of common moorhens and wattled jacanas at very close range—bring your camera. Back at the lodge, we saw capybaras fairly close, as well as the fork-tailed flycatchers (who like to fly over the pool) and our first sighting of the beautiful but also very common crimson-backed tanager.



    Day 3: During the day, we saw several prized birds, including not only up-close views of the beautiful green, red-legged, and shining honeycreepers, but also national endemic stripe-cheeked woodpecker, many different hummingbirds (including violet-capped and rufous-crested coquette), and a very rare sighting of a nesting pair of blue-fronted parrotlets—one of the very hardest birds to see in Panama due to its restricted range and low population. When we returned to lodge, we walked around the lodge grounds and saw a lot of birds, including some trogons (slaty-tailed and gartered/violaceous) who posed very nicely for photos. This was one of two days we saw four different species of toucan on the same day. The night safari yielded two separate families of capybara, cayman, crocodile, and coati. We also saw a fishing bat dive for a meal on the river.



    Day 4: birding by boat in the morning yielded nesting yellow-rumped caciques, several wading birds, lots of snail kites up close and personal, as well as an unexpected (but distant) sighting of a blue cotinga. Additional sightings included both howler monkeys and Geoffrey’s tamarins (smallest monkeys in the western hemisphere). Our afternoon guided hike yielded some more quality birds including the fasciated antshrike. The best moment came towards the end, when we ran into a couple who had been on some of our birding tours with us, where they had mentioned that they had seen night monkeys on this trail. Bbut we hadn’t been able to find them. Well, they happened to be on the trail, and though they couldn’t exactly remember where, they helped us enough that we were able to find the cute little monkeys in a tree hole staring out right at us. And, then on the way back we helped them spot a little tinamou on the ground (a very difficult bird to see—easy to hear but shy) which happened to be a ‘lifer’ for them. So, karma! Further on the way back, we even managed to see a Rothschild’s porcupine thanks to Jose’s eagle eye.



    Day 5: when we arrived at Cabana 8 in La Amistad, boom boom boom we saw flame-throated warbler, flame-colored tanager, collared redstart, and rose-breasted grosbeak in addition to many dazzling hummingbirds, including the white-throated mountain gem, violet saberwing, especially the Magnificent Hummingbird, which would hover directly in front of our faces and flash their bright teal throats and purples heads at us to show they were the boss. That night, the guy from the lodge cut up some bananas to put on the railing for the cacomistles, which would eat them without much care that we were inside watching them. I know the issues involved with feeding animals, but this is probably the only place in the entire national park where this kind of thing was happening. Shrug.



    Day 6: more birds parading on the terrace right in front of our door, including lovely chestnut-capped brush finch, yellow-thighed finch, and the hummers. And, of course, the dumb luck of having the male resplendent quetzal land literally 2-3 m outside our bedroom window. While hiking that day, we saw the female quetzal on the trail, several woodcreepers including the wonderfully named Buffy Tuftedcheek, as well as rufous-browed peppershrike and black-faced solitaire. But the real highlight was on the way back down from the waterfall at the top of the ridge, in the middle of the trail we saw a wrenthrush (Zeledonia coronata). This doesn’t sound like a big deal—I mean, wrens are boring, thrushes are even more boring, so who cares, right? But it is a big deal to bird nerds. The wrenthrush is a very, very unique little bird—so much so that they haven’t been able to even place it in a taxonomic family with other birds and has no established genetic links with other species or families of birds—including wrens and thrushes. Add to that that the only place it exists on the planet are the highlands of Western Costa Rica and Eastern Panama, and even there it’s so reclusive and committed to staying on the ground under and behind thick brush and vegetation that there’s maybe a 2% chance of seeing it on any given hike in prime habitat, and yeah that’s a good bird. Better to be lucky than good, and better to be really lucky twice in one day. The evening concluded with our friend the cacomistle.



    Day 7: Saw some good birds in the morning, with new additions including the spangle-cheeked tanager and the black-and-yellow silky flycatcher. Then we went down to the lodge and saw long-tailed silky flycatcher (which is pretty much a guaranteed sighting on the lodge grounds if you stay more than one night (the call is three cricket-like sounds in short succession—unmistakeable) and we also saw this bird on the Quetzal trail. On the lodge grounds, at the Quetzal trai, and at the feeders at Cielito Sur , we saw the slaty flowerpiercer with its unusual bill as well as the scintillant and volcano hummingbirds and the green-violet ear . Other birds included silver-throated tanager and buff-throated saltator.



    Day 8: morning at Finca Hartmann produced a lot of really bright and colorful birds, including four species of toucan (fiery-billed and collared aracaris, keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled toucans) and dazzling tanagers like the golden-hooded, bay-headed, and speckled tanagers as well as the scarlet-thighed and blue dacnis and 4 species of euphonia. The afternoon was spent walking to and from the Lagunas, with the way out consisting mostly of warblers (which can get tedious and annoying after a while) but things picked up on the way back with a slaty spinetail, tropical parula, smoky brown and golden oliver woodpeckers, and a fleeting glimpse at the elegant euphonia.



    Day 9: Morning started with a few good photo ops with the slaty flowerpiercer and long-tailed silky flycatcher, and in the afternoon on Ancon Hill we saw about a dozen agouti, a Geoffrey’s tamarin on the very top of the hill, and even a nine-banded armadillo, as well as a yellow-crowned parrot.



    Day 10: A barred antshrike posed nicely for us at breakfast, but that was the last new face we encountered on the trip.

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    Sounds like a great trip. Thanks for posting the details. I'm not a birder (prefer mammal sightings), but it sounds like it would be hard not to become one in the places you stayed. Looking forward to seeing your pictures!

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    What a great report!

    Can you help with a question? We will have a 2 full day stopover in Panama City on our way to Rio in March. We have never been birders, but it sounds so interesting. Gambia Rainforest Resort sounds nice. But, I am unfortunately having a small problem with my foot that limits my walking to 1 to 2 miles at a time. What would you recommend for us, based on what you did/observed on your trip?

    I am thinking one day at the canal and a second somehow birding or observing wildlife.

    Thanks so much!

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    Given your foot condition, what I would recommend would be to something similar to what we did our last full day-- a birding by boat tour in the morning where they take you around looking for wildlife, especially birds, on the Chagres River, Panama Canal, and Lake Gatun. Monkeys, crocs, lots of birds including snail kites which are very striking. Even bats. Then lunch (though with your foot maybe best to eat back at the main building--from the riverside restaurant to the main resort building is about 10 minutes uphill--though you could check out the capybaras on the way). Maybe relax in the pool (if lucky you can watch the fork-tailed flycatchers flying above the pool) and then do a slow stroll down the access road that leads from the main resort entrance to the aerial tram and Chunga trail entrances (it's a healthy walk)--you can turn around any time you want, and it's paved etc. We did that route twice and saw all kinds of birds.

    There are ALWAYS birds around there, especially in high season. And you should have no problem seeing agouti (rodents the size of a house cat). They also have a night safari you can go on so long as you sign up at the tour desk during the day. They drive you around, and you may see sloths, cayman, who knows.

    The standard canal activity is the Miraflores locks center--very much worthwhile to see the locks in action. But I don't think it's a full-day thing. More like a 2-4 hours if you really take your time. Nice thing about staying at a place like the resort is that you always have the option of hanging out in the pool or dozing off in the hammock of your room's balcony.

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    Thanks so much for this great trip report. We are going in about a month and staying just one night (almost two full days, though) at Gamboa, mainly because of its awesome location. We will check into having Jose guide us.
    Travelgirl, when you do your booking, don't pay full price. There are many packages that will throw in breakfast and discount on tours. We did it through Orbitz with a 20% coupon and got the extras. Booking.com can probably do the same.

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    the website for their birding tours is:

    http://birdingpanamagamboa.com/

    I would use the email there plus the resort's guest services email (in the past, there's been issues with email accounts not working, so best to make double sure your message gets through).

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    Did you birdwatch around the chunga trail on your own or with the guide? (How easy is it to spot on your own?) Also, were you able to get breakfast before your 4 hour birding tour in the a.m.?

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    Both. Though it was more birding along the access road than the chunga trail. We obviously spotted more with the guide, but we saw a lot on our own. We had trogons hanging out on telephone/electric wires both afternoons we went out--it was really, really birdy.

    Breakfast opened up at I believe 6:30, so you could grab it before leaving at 7:00 am. For our Cerro Azul day tour, they packed a breakfast and lunch for us.

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