The monkeys spotted us first. They were seven in all, white-faced capuchins with tails curled round and eyes peeled tight on the approaching boat. And they were already at attention by the time we glided softly to a stop near the tangled green shores of Monkey Island.
Scar-faced and slightly stooped, the alpha male bounded onto the boat's canopy for a closer look, then skittered back to the trees a moment later, his tacit approval granted. For the next few moments, we studied each other in silent curiosity.
Was I was surprised by such a genuine encounter with nature smack dab in the middle of the Panama Canal? Absolutely. But perhaps I shouldn't have been. I was fresh off a two-hour kayaking expedition among the canal's inlets and coves that revealed a pristine aquatic jungle more reminiscent of the Florida Everglades than the shipping crossroads of the world. Secret waterfalls, scarlet tangles of wild poinsettias, lazy toucans lounging on branches overhead: This isn't what I expected to find at the Panama Canal.
In many ways, though, my experience speaks volumes about today's Panama. Like its world-famous waterway, the country itself is full of surprises.
Land of surprises
Panamanians often compare their country to neighboring Costa Rica, which catapulted to the front of the adventure and eco-travel scene over the last two decades. The similarities are quickly apparent: The two countries share a border and are both blanketed by protected rainforests, home to unparalleled ecological diversity, and rife with opportunities for adventure in their jungles, mountains, and waters. But while Costa Rica has catered to travelers for years, Panama is just now getting into the game. You might say Panama is Costa Rica without the tourists—for now, anyway.
Many Americans still think of Panama as the land of Noriega, the military dictator who controlled the country from 1983 to 1989 and used his power to run drugs and guns across Central America. That country is no more, however. When Panama took control of the Canal from the U.S. on December 31, 1999, the infusion of money that came with it helped transform the nation. Perhaps the best example is Panama City itself, where today dozens of glass skyscrapers leap from the waterfront and tower over the crumbling colonial quarter, testifying to Panama's emerging identity as one of the most modern nations in Central America.
Like the country's economic fortunes, its burgeoning tourism infrastructure can also trace its roots to the transfer of the Canal. New hotels, lodges, and resorts—many eco-focused, some catering to luxury seekers—are popping all over the country. I stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Panama Canal, which in effect caters to both audiences. With rooms starting at $135 a night in the rainy season (April to December), the Gamboa isn't cheap, but is surprisingly affordable for a five-star resort and spa. High season rooms start at $150.
Completed less than a year after the transfer of the Canal to Panamanian authority, this sprawling 340-acre resort inside the Soberanía National Park abounds with opportunities for interactions with wildlife. In addition to the kayaking and Monkey Island tours, the centerpiece of the eco-experience at the Gamboa is its aerial tram, which lofts through the rainforest treetops and provides a bird's eye view of the wilderness. I saw a giant tree lizard, as well as a family of howler monkeys jumping from branch to branch. I wouldn't have noticed either if I'd been on foot—though hiking tours are available from the resort, too. Remarkably, the tram was built almost entirely without heavy machinery in order to preserve the natural habitat it's meant to showcase.
You can get the most for your money at the Gamboa with one of its packages, which combine accommodations with tours or spa treatments. At $505 per person, the three-night "Adventure Experience" is my favorite because it includes both the kayaking trip and a hike along the famous Las Cruces Trail with an experienced naturalist guide.
"This is what I live for," my own guide would later tell me. "Wildlife, discovery, losing yourself in nature. This is what it's all about."
Nearly everything in Panama is a bargain for U.S. travelers. While the official currency is the Balboa, it is configured to match the U.S. dollar penny for penny, and U.S. money is accepted everywhere in the country. Money also goes a lot further in Panama than in the U.S., where a five-star hotel room would be unthinkable at $135 a night. English is widely spoken as well, particularly in Panama City.
All flights from the U.S. arrive at Tocumen International Airport, 17 miles from Panama City and 31 miles from the Gamboa Resort. I priced out flights from New York during the low season and found fares under $400 round-trip from American, United, and Delta. A taxi to the hotel costs about $35.
Although Panama is a very modern country, American travelers are still advised to get a Hepatitis A vaccination before arriving. This is a reality of traveling to anywhere in Central or South America.
Two invaluable online resources for planning your trip are PanamaInfo.com and VisitPanama.com. Another site, Panama-maps.com, is useful for up-to-date weather information. In print, I found Frommer's Panama guidebook (1st edition, 2007) the best of a somewhat anemic bunch, which in itself is an indication that the tourism world hasn't yet caught on to Panama's potential as the "next" Costa Rica.
Regular readers of this column might be surprised that I stayed at a resort while in Panama. Aren't I, after all, the guy who regularly espouses the merits of hostels and mountain huts? Don't I usually write about grueling cross-country treks? Fair enough. But even an adventure traveler needs to put up his boots every now and then. You can do that at the Gamboa Resort, where eco-adventure and good old-fashioned relaxation live side by side.