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Day trips from Panama City

There are about a dozen day-trip options for exploring the canal and surrounding rain forest, which you can visit on your own or with a guide on a bird-watching or hiking tour. The canal is best experienced on a transit tour, which takes you through the series of locks, but you can also get onto the water on one of several nature tours on Gatún Lake. One of the best nature tours on Gatún Lake is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's day tour to the island of Barro Colorado, one of the world's oldest nature reserves. A 30- to 40-minute drive, taxi ride, or bus trip northwest from Panama City will bring you to trails that wind into the forests of Parque Nacional Soberanía, a vast rain-forest reserve that is home to more than 400 bird species and an array of mammals that ranges from timid tapirs to tiny tamarins. At Gamboa, which lies between the park and the canal, it's easy to spot wildlife on the grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which has a rain-forest tram and an excellent restaurant, Los Lagartos, on the Chagres River.

For a fascinating day trip, ride the Panama Canal Railway through the forests and lakes that line the canal to the Caribbean port of Colón and spend the day exploring either the rain forests around the colonial fort of San Lorenzo or the colonial fortresses, beaches, and forest of Portobelo, a trip that can be done independently or on a tour. There are several options for exploring nearby Parque Nacional Chagres, which include hiking in Cerro Azul, white-water rafting on the Chagres River, or a trip to one of several Emberá Indian communities within the park.

The beaches of the Central Pacific Coast can be visited on day trips, but note that most of them require two to three hours of driving, which is why many Panamanians head to the nearby island of Isla Taboga on weekends For a real treat, consider taking the ferry out to Isla Contadora, one of the Pearl Islands, which has nicer beaches than Taboga.

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