Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
Flanked by 60-storey glass towers in Panama City you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Miami, Singapore or the year 2020. But just 45 minutes gets you to other Panamas: dense jungle, beaches and islands, and the forts of a Spanish colonial past that lurk intact nearby. Here are six of the best 45-minute trips by foot, air, dugout and ferry into the wild and tropical bits along Central America’s undiscovered bottom. . .
By car and kayak: Gamboa Rainforest Resort, Panama Canal Watershed
Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a handy access point for this 50,000 acre still and steamy forest and the wetter elements of the Panama Canal Zone – Gatun Lake, the Chagres river and the canal itself. Various boat trips are available at the marina, but kayaking is the ideal way to stealthily observe monkeys, coatimundis, sloths and toucans in the trees and foliage while gliding silently along the banks. Obviously you’re not the only object gliding silently along, (although I’d gone some distance on something akin to a flattened jerry can with paddles before Fabio the guide mentioned the crocodiles and caimans, both big and plentiful), so it’s worth also keeping an eye on bubbles and logs to avoid any unnecessary collisions. I think croco-phobes should opt for something more substantial with sides and a canopy roof. An electrical storm complete with black sky and wall of rain from nowhere makes for a refreshing reminder of the undiminished power of nature even here in the virtual suburbs. Eco-purists may prefer to sit out storms in a tent or under a poor man’s umbrella, but despite being large with business centre and all-you-can-eat buffet bar and refrigerated souvenir shops, Gamboa’s private balcony hammocks and terrace bar tables provide very comfortable ringside seats for the real, wild deal.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort: Tel (507) 314 9000, gamboaresort.com
By dugout: Emberá Drua, Rio Chagres
45-minutes in (and during dry season occasionally out of and pushing) a motorised dugout up the Rio Chagres takes you to a sandbank and the singing welcoming committee of the brightly – if sparingly – dressed members of a gen-u-ine rainforest-dwelling community, the emberá. Given that dugouts have been ferrying tourists here for some years, anyone expecting a unique white man meets Indian type experience will be sadly disappointed. However these indigenous indians do live off the rainforest just as they always have and, whether or not they carry mobile phones, an afternoon spent eyeing the beads wound round their shins, exploring their village, learning something about rainforest plants, being painted with jagua dye, swimming in the river and just being in this remote spot is both fascinating and unsettling. And amazingly, despite the easy access, the emberá’s mundo – from culture to short, striking looks – remains distinct and uncompromised. “We held off taking groups there for five years” say ecotour operators, Ancon Expeditions, “but they talked us round. The fact is if they weren’t doing what they’re doing, they’d be spinning pizza dough in Panama City.”
Ancon Expeditions: Tel (507) 269-9415; anconexpeditions.com
By air: Darien National Park & World Biosphere Reserve
Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be wafted along in a storm, this flight actually takes an hour, but given that the last 15 minutes flying over what appears to be broccoli makes all the difference between landing in one of the world’s most remote spots, and landing at a grass airstrip next to a field station in one of the world’s most remote spots, it’s extra time well-spent. The Darien, sparsely inhabited by wounaan and emberá indians and criss-crossed by brown rivers is shared between Colombia and Panama (where it covers 1.3 million acres) and is largely, to all intents and purposes, impenetrable jungle. Impossible to envisage when surrounded by green silence, up until the early 20th century, the site of the field station, Cana, was a major gold mine, operated by the British and employing a staggering 18,000 at its peak. Mine, housing, farms and the 30km of railway built to it from the nearest passable road have all been swallowed up by the fecund undergrowth, although a rubbish dump full of whisky bottles, an engine and a chimney remain as incontrovertible evidence. Blue and gold, red and green, great green, and chestnut-fronted macaws are the big bird attractions here along with large mammals (jaguar and tapir prints often spotted), the novelty of black nights and hikes to the Pirre mountain cloud forest. Ancon manage the field station and run 5 day / 4 night visits for very small groups in the company of a top naturalist guide.
Ancon Expeditions: Tel (507) 269-9415; anconexpeditions.com
By car, on foot: Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) Soberania National Park.
More birds were spotted over a 24-hour period along Pipeline Road than anywhere else in the world 19 times in a row, according to the Audubon Association, although how their twitchers spotted anything after 6.30pm when it’s pitch black here in the forest flanking the Panama Canal is a mystery. A jalopy-ride away from Gamboa Rainforest Resort and the old canal workers’ village of Gamboa itself, this 17km road was constructed during the war for maintaining pipes laid to carry oil from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts should the canal be bombed. The road lies inside the 55,000 acre Soberania park boundaries and now serves as a wide, flat hiking trail slicing a nice cross section through the undergrowth and making bird – and mammal – watching about as easy as it gets in the wild. An early trek catches capuchin monkeys feasting on figs, howler monkeys calling across the canopy, an agouti trotting off into the bushes, oropendolas weaving their hanging basket nests, chattering parrots, violaceous trogons, a purple-throated fruit crow, chestnut-mandibled toucans and all sorts of other whirring, flashing, squawking things. Escorted tours, feasible either from Gamboa Resort or agencies in Panama City, are useful if you want to tick things off your birds of Panama list, identify all 1200 plant species and get the spiel, but wandering alone, watching the morning sun slant through the trunks, listening to the eerie metallic song of the Great Tinamou is a top treat.
Soberania National Park: 45-minute drive. Follow signs to Gamboa, take the one-lane bridge into the town, and a left fork after about 3km onto a gravel track for 2km until the ranger booth and Parque Nacional Soberania sigh (entrance $3.50). Daily 3hr tours from Gamboa Rainforest Resort at 6.34am, $35. Tel (507) 314 9000, gamboaresort.com
By ferry: Isla Taboga
If you were a wealthy Panamanian working in the city, you’d take this 12-mile, 45-minute crossing from the Amador Causeway most Saturdays, past yachts and the Bridge of the Americas, past freight ships queuing to enter the Panama Canal, leaping dolphins and dive-bombing pelicans to this, the island of flowers, fling open the shutters of your beach house and gaze out with smug satisfaction, thinking – with complete justification – how very lucky you were. Panama’s own tropical Sark comprises a picturesque town: San Pedro home to the second oldest church in the Americas, a deep bay, three mountain peaks covered in mango and tamarind trees and 8 miles of coast. Its small population is swelled by weekend visitors from Panama City visible across the bay, but on weekdays it reverts to its steamy, dreamy best. The ferry timetable allows for 7 hours on Taboga, sufficient for wandering wistfully between white shell-stuccoed cottages, a $2 tour in the back of the island’s pick-up truck, lunch – the catch of the day usually pargo, robalo or octopus -at the three-table, a bit of kayaking and a long swim off the sandbar. There are a handful of rental cottages and small hotels for those with a night or two to spare, the loveliest being the Vereda Tropical near the jetty, painted hot Mexican pink and blue and bougainvillea-smothered with splendid views of flowers and ships.
Ferry: El Calypso from the Amador Causeway $10 return; Weekdays out 8.30am, return 4.30pm with additional sailings on Mon, Wed, Fri – out: 3.30pm, return 9.30am. Weekends / holidays: out: 8am, 10.30am, 4pm, return: 9am, 3pm, 5pm. Tel (507) 314 1730. Vereda Tropical: (507) 250 2154; veredatropicalhotel.com;
On foot: Parque Natural Metropolitano
Surely one of the few places in the world where you can simultaneously admire a city skyline, hear rush-hour traffic and actually believe a jaguar could burst from the undergrowth and wrestle you to the ground at any moment. Technically within the city limits (hence the name) this 265 hectare forest is an anomaly of wilderness, loud with the bustle of lizards and rodents and the squawking of parrots, and thick with life – perhaps not jaguars, but margays and jaguarundis, sloths and squirrel monkeys. Maps to several trails of varying length are available at the park office, the most surreal hike bring the 45-minute one that ends at the foot of an enormous yellow crane. Redundant after the previous construction boom, the crane was purloined by the Smithsonian Institute and repositioned in the depths of this forest to aid canopy exploration. Boffins were able to clamber into the cradle and be winched up 36 metres and swung around 360 degrees above the foliage startling birds off their perches. Now tourists have the privilege. It’s said 45 percent of life on earth lives in the canopies of trees, a fact you’ll be able to confirm or repudiate afterwards.
Open Mon-Fri: 8:00-4:30, Sat: 8:00-1:00pm (most easily accessed by hopping in a taxi and paying the bargain $1.25 city fare); Crane tours: Ancon Expeditions (507) 269-9415; anconexpeditions.com
SORREL DOWNER / THE TIMES