GAMBOA, Panama – Built on the former grounds of the century-old tropical residence and weekend country club for executives of the Panama Canal Company, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is an exotic, family friendly destination that makes a great vacation spot for curious kids and adults alike.
Located 30 minutes from the shimmering, cosmopolitan commercial hub of Panama City, Gamboa combines the first-world pampering and world-class cuisine of today’s Panama with the rustic, rainforest setting of how Panama must have looked 100 years ago.
The main facilities are housed in a massive yet elegant five-story building with floorto- ceiling windows overlooking the shore of the Chagres River, one of Panama’s most important bodies of water. The building itself almost feels like a cruise ship, with its enormous lobby windows, open-air passageways leading to hotel rooms, and multiple levels of restaurants, spas, bars, pools, media rooms, a library and even a disco.
But unlike a cruise ship, the main attraction is not the hotel itself, rather the nature that surrounds them. With a number of tours and activities scheduled throughout the day, guests here are encouraged to get out and about as much as possible and explore the tropical surroundings.
“The kids loved the butterfly farm, where they could actually pet the butterflies,” said John Niedzialek, who recently visited Gamboa with his wife and two young daughters, who were playing in the pool as he as his wife read books on deck chairs. “We’re going to visit MonkeyIsland after lunch. And I’m hoping to do some fishing on Lake Gatun.”
Niedzialek, who was born in the former Canal Zone and now lives in the Dominican Republic, said he remembers coming to Gamboa as a kid when it was still a country club complete with a golf course, which has since been reclaimed by Mother Nature. The old country club was spruced up, remodeled and unveiled in 2000 as Gamboa Rainforest Resort. “They’ve done a good job with the place,” Niedzialek said.
One of the main natural attractions at the resort is the Río Chagres, which feeds Lake Gatún and provides the main source of water for the Panama Canal. Gamboa offers several different kayak and motor boat tours of the river and the lake, where guests can spot crocodiles, birds and other wildlife.
One of the most popular tours – and one that makes conservationists cringe – is a visit to MonkeyIsland, where tourists can see whiteface monkeys and sloths that live on a small island in the middle of Lake Gatún.
Meanwhile, a boat tour of the jungle banks along the Chagres River offers a great chance to see exotic tropical birds and other wetland wildlife, as well as wave to Embera fishermen who live simply in a
traditional indigenous community along the riverbank.
Back at the resort, tourists can explore the spacious, 137-hectare grounds of gardens and nature trails on bicycle, stand-up motorized scooters, or simply by walking along the trails. Guests can also pass through the deserted streets among the hundred-year- old wooden residences and eco-stations built for the former U.S. canal executives – a strange tropical ghost town feel that’s reminiscent of the Dharma Project from the TV show LOST.
Or guests can beat the heat by jumping in the oversized pool, complete with swim-up bar, basketball hoop and volleyball net.
The resort also has Panama’s only canopy-top cable car ride that traverses 1.2 kilometers of treetops, giving guests a true birds’ eye view of the land.
At night, guests are encouraged to take the nighttime wildlife tour of the resort grounds in an open-back safari truck with a spotlight to illuminate unsuspecting animals that come out to play when the sun goes down.
The resort also has excellent gourmet food served on the third-floor restaurant, which has an outdoor balcony dining option – a great place to enjoy a fresh fish dinner while watching the moonlight dance upon the ChagresRiver.
For a country known for its urban attractions and Caribbean islands, Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a unique and comfortable jungle adventure located in between the city and the beaches – further proof that, short of alpine skiing, Panama offers tourists a complete vacation package.
For more information, rates and directions, visit www.gamboaresort.com.