Eight days in Panama; City, Beach, and Jungle

Old Aug 23rd, 2010, 08:37 PM
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July 16

Panama City to Canopy Tower

We wake to more rain and low clouds and we're really hoping the weather gives us a break later in the day. Breakfast was in the club lounge and included a large selection of items from omelettes made to order, to fruit and cereals, to french toast. There's also decent coffee served with a pitcher of steamed milk at the table (loved that!). The service here is excellent.

We remembered we still had the phone number of Pedro, the taxi driver we'd used to go to the locks and decided to call him to see what he'd charge to take us out to the Canopy Tower. He didn't know where it was, but once David explained, we settled on $40 round trip and he agreed to take us out there at 10:30am today and pick us up tomorrow at 9am (checkout time at the Canopy Tower) and return us to the Sheraton.

The drive out to the Canopy Tower was easy and took about 30 minutes and it finally stopped raining about half way there. When we got to the road leading up to the tower, we were a little confused because the gate was shut. Fortunately, it wasn't locked, so we opened it, drove through and shut it behind us. Note; the Tower's website says if you want to take public transportation out here, there is a bus which will drop you off on the main road leading up to the Lodge. I would not recommend this. It's a long drive uphill and I cannot imagine hiking up it carrying a backpack or dragging luggage.
We arrived at another gate at the compound at the top of the hill. I wish I had a photo of the tower, but you can see it on their website.
Canopy Tower is a converted Air Force tower which now has 5 double rooms with bath, 5 singles (with shared bath) and 2 suites. Prices per night are per person and include 3 meals and one guided bird walk. When I tried to book, I was told there was a 3 night minimum stay, but at almost $300 a night for the two of us (in low season nonetheless) this was out of our budget. Fortunately, they were able to accommodate us for only 1 night, and while I would have liked to have stayed longer this just wasn't possible. Extra tours range from $65-$95 per person per tour. It's possible to go out on your own and see things, but having a guide is highly recommended and beneficial as they are trained to spot wildlife and know every species out there.

The rooms have metal walls and sound travels. The bathrooms are decent sized with a large walk in shower and a window overlooking the canopy. Our twin beds were pushed together. There were no mosquito nets visible as shown on their website. No locks on the doors from the outside, but everyone here has tons of gear and it's pretty isolated. We didn't worry about theft.

The top level is the communal area and dining area. We had arrived shortly before lunch was to be served, buffet style, so we just decided to hang out and check out what everyone else was doing.
There were people on the computers, updating their birdwatching "life lists" (make no mistake, most of the guests here are serious birders), people researching in books and others checking out the local wildlife in the tree tops through a digiscope and binoculars. The star of the moment was a sloth, doing what most sloths do, just "hanging around" literally.

The other guests consisted of a family from Georgia (mom, dad, and teenage son and daughter). All were avid bird watchers, and had come specifically for a week long digiscope tour put on by Leica. I do think the son was more interested in talking to his girlfriend back home via skype than birdwatching.

There were a few other people we never spoke to and there was a family from Colorado; two teachers Jamie and Peggy, here visiting their daughter Laurel who had been working on a sailboat going between Panama and Columbia. They were also here for just one night and we ended up sharing a table at lunch with them. We enjoyed our conversation and even got the Tower to give us a bottle of wine for the table which we later learned was not common at lunch.
While they enjoyed birdwatching, they weren't in the "serious" group and thus, we were paired with them when it came time to go out on our included bird walk in the afternoon. The others went out either with the guy from Leica with the digiscopes or another guide who took out most of the people wearing the binoculars on a chest harness, boot gators, and carrying 3 foot long lenses.
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Old Aug 24th, 2010, 05:51 AM
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Our guide, Alex, drove us down the road from the Tower to our starting point on the Old Gamboa Road. The Tower has a couple open backed trucks with bench seats facing out good for game viewing. Along the way, we stopped to check out a sad faced howler monkey alone in the trees. Our walk on Old Gamboa Road was flat and easy and lasted about 2 hours.

We saw numerous birds including a speckled owl and her white feathered baby. At one point the large owl flew directly over us, from behind, and it was completely silent. There’s something in the way owl’s feathers and wings are created that allow them to fly silently and aid in the hunt. We also saw turtles, birds of all sorts, sizes, shapes and colors, leaf cutter ants dismantling a tree, and a giant lizard.

On the way back we met up with the larger group of “professional” birders. They were all so silently serious and we joked amongst ourselves about rushing up, and being loud and boisterous (“Hi!! How are you? See any <i>birds?</i>”), just to annoy them. Don’t worry, we didn’t. Even better was Laurel telling the guy with the 3 foot lens about seeing some very rare bird at the other Canopy Tower Lodge like it was an every day occurrence. You’d think she told him she ate baby eagles for breakfast. He was just peeved because he’d missed it and then spent the next 3 days looking for it, only never to see it. It was as if she wasn’t worthy.

When we returned to the Tower, they were setting up for an al fresco BBQ dinner out on a raised deck set off the parking area. Drinks were already out so we had some cocktails and then dinner with our new friends. The food was basic but tasty (though not particularly memorable, sorry). We stayed up late, drinking wine and talking in a familiar way that only seems to happen when meeting new people while traveling.

Photos (lots!) are now online at http://www.wired2theworld.com/2010/0...-canopy-tower/
There's also a video of the sloth and scenes from Old Gamboa Road.
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Old Sep 7th, 2010, 10:54 AM
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July 17
Canopy Tower to Panama City

Mornings come early at the Canopy Tower. What’s that saying? The early bird gets the worm. Here, the early riser gets the bird.

We rose by 6 am to have breakfast along with everyone else because those who were not leaving today would be going out on early morning walks. In addition we were told the early morning bird watching was good from the top of the tower from which there is a 360 degree view all the way to Panama City and of the canal and surrounding jungle area. Check out time here is 9am, though if you want to stay to do a morning (paid) tour, they gladly extend the check out time.

After breakfast, we spent some time taking photos up on the roof and I spent about half an hour down by the hummingbird feeders trying to capture these wee kamikaze birdies. I have to say, they are one of my favorite birds and I took over 100 photos just to get 4 decent ones. At home we only have Rufus and Anna’s hummingbirds. Here, there are at least half a dozen different kinds including a long tailed fellow who was really hard to capture with my camera.

Promptly at 9am, Pedro the driver showed up. Our new friend Laurel needed to get back to her boat, so we agreed to give her a ride and drop her at a market near the Albrook airport since it was literally right on our way. The drive back to the Sheraton was quick and we were there well before by about 9:30. Fortunately, they had a room ready for us, this time with a water view, and another upgrade to include the club lounge. From our room, we could not only see the water, but the convention center directly across from the entrance to the hotel.

When we had been here on Thursday, we’d noticed huge lines of people waiting to get into the convention center. When we asked about it, we were told they were all trying to get their immigration papers to live legally in Panama. People waited in line overnight, and any time someone would exit the building, documentation in hand, a cheer would go up from the crowd. If it looked like anyone was trying to jump the line, the crowd would roar and one of the gun toting policia there to keep order would step in to see what was going on. There was a general carnival like atmosphere, and people were sitting under umbrellas on folding chairs though the scalding sun, the rain, and overnight. Today, the lines were still there.

I noticed a couple of booths selling food so we went down to check it out. I was hoping for something good, some version of Panamanian street food, but no such luck. What we found were grilled hamburgers and chicken sandwiches for $5 each and honestly, they did not look that good at all. At this point, we weren’t sure what we wanted to do with our last day in Panama. But it was lunch time and there was one thing left I wanted to see; the central fish market.

First, we decided to walk around the neighbood near the hotel to see if we could find someplace good to go for dinner. This was a bad idea. It was extremely hot outside, we really didn’t know where we were going, and we ending up walking in circles for about half an hour, getting overheated. Finally we decided to hail a taxi to take us to the fish market but then could not find a taxi. After more walking and more sweating, right when we were about to chuck it in and go back to the hotel, a taxi stopped, dropping someone off. For $3, the driver agreed to take us down to the market.
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Old Sep 7th, 2010, 05:14 PM
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The fish market was smaller than I expected it to be. I’d seen it in photos and on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, but this market, built by the Japanese as a “gift” to the people of Panama, was only about 1/2 a block square. Still, the fish were beautiful and cheap. Spiny lobsters which looked to be about 3 lbs each could be had for $6. There were shrimp of every size and shape and fish and shellfish already prepped for ceviche, vendors loudly hawking their wares and very cool fish themed blue wrought iron doors.

We did a quick walk through of the market and then went upstairs to the Restaurante Mercado de Mariscos which overlooks the floor below. They serve primarily fresh seafood of course, and we ordered a mixed ceviche and a corvina al ajillio. With a couple of beers and a tip, the total was $19.

After watching Anthony Bourdain’s Panama episode of No Reservations, and his visit to this market, I knew we had to try the ceviche lady so on our way out, we stopped at stall #2 and got a couple of cups of the Ceviche de Pulpo for $2 each. They were excellent and a great value compared to what we’d just had in the restaurant.

Outside the market, we grabbed a taxi which turned out to already have a customer in the front passenger seat. I’d read that taxis in Panama are often “share taxis” so off we went. We had to stop once because the window did not roll down and the driver had to get out, go around, open the door and manually push down the window. No a/c, cracked front window is de rigueur. The other guy was dropped off along the way, and we made it back to our hotel after chatting with the driver about his time in the Panamanian military in the 1970’s. He told us the airport was located where there is now a large mall among the skyscrapers.

For dinner, we were happy to be walking some place close by. Outside the hotel, the traffic was in gridlock due to a huge wedding in the hotel and the crush of people across the street at the convention center. Someone had abandoned a car in the driveway of the hotel. The guests in their fancy clothes were getting out of their cars and walking in from blocks away.

Our dinner at Jimmy’s, two blocks from the hotel on the other side of the convention center, was one of the best ones we had in Panama. Sancocho al Pollo ($3.50), a wonderful chicken broth based soup with a piece of chicken and chunk of yucca in it. This is the unofficial national soup of Panama and I find myself wondering I haven’t been eating this all along. David ordered the “‘Angeleo” style steak ($14.50) which was a very think cut (maybe a culotte?) stuffed with slices of garlic and served sizzling on a hot cast iron platter. It was cooked a perfect medium rare and came with a salad and fries. We even got to try yet another local beer, the Soberana, and it was fine, but reverted back to Panama beer. The wine list looked decent and had some Spanish wines on it, not just the typical Chilean and Argentinean wines one normally sees here. The restaurant is large and busy with a mural of Greece on the wall (the owner is Greek). As far as we could tell, the other patrons seemed to be mostly families of locals.

Sunday July 18th, 2010

Our flight the next day was around noon and we took a hotel taxi which cost $28 and included the toll road cost ($2.50 each way). A regular taxi would have cost the same as it seems the fare too and from the airport are fixed and even though the Sheraton is much closer than downtown, that did not seem to matter. The ride was only about 15 minutes with no traffic on a Sunday, but expect half an hour during the week.

Because we had carry on only, our bags were tagged and we were told to go through security and immigration. This was quick and they didn’t even stamp our passports. We had some time before boarding so we found the free wifi area (near gate 33, the signal is too low elsewhere) and David watched a little streaming golf of the Master’s Championship.

When it was time to board they did a secondary screening of every one’s carry-on luggage, opening every single piece. It took forever. While waiting, we discovered we had to check in again at the gate because we’d not checked in properly out front (wish they had mentioned this when they tagged our bags). The flight was easy and fast and we were home in time for dinner.

Photos for the last day can be seen here:

And that's it! If anyone has questions don't hestitate to ask.
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Old Sep 8th, 2010, 05:55 AM
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Always fun to read your reports! Thanks for posting...great pictures too!
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