Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 3)

I’ve taken you to Panama City and through the Panama Canal … now it’s time to venture into the jungle! Our destination: the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River.

Eric and I paid close attention to reviews and recommendations about traveling into the rainforest area. Although malaria and Dengue fever are no longer so common, it’s still possible to contract them from mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes were guaranteed. We bought Bugs-Away insect repellant clothing from Ex Officio, sprayed other clothing with Sawyer permethrin spray, and slathered on the 30% DEET (opting for possible neurological damage over malaria). We were nothing if not prepared.

The unassuming entrance to Gamboa …

Entrance sign to Gamboa

… did nothing to prepare us for the stunning tropical beauty of this resort.

view from Gamboa lobby

Gamboa pool and main building

Gamboa pool

Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Photo – Gamboa Rainforest Resort

A room like this really says, “Welcome to the jungle.”

room in Gamboa resort

How about this blue-and-green view from our balcony? I tried the hammock, but my bad back said, “uh … nope … help.”

Gamboa balcony with hammock

Pool view from our balcony

The following morning we boarded small boats for a cruise on Gatun Lake. Stepping out of the bus, I felt like someone had thrown a hot, wet, wool blanket over me. The heat was suffocating, especially when wearing a life-preserver … but once the boats got underway the breeze was great. We passed under this 100-year-old bridge over the mouth of the Chagres River, which we’d crossed the day before. A little rickety, but still serviceable.

Gatun Lake cruise and Chagres Bridge

For part of the trip, our tiny boat was out in the shipping lanes with the big boys. Add this to our canal cruise, and we cruised a total of about two-thirds of the Panama Canal.

Ship in Panama Canal

In the quiet reaches of the lake, we felt like we were on the Disneyland Jungle Cruise. What, no hippos?

VIew from the boat

We pulled up close to this small island. The foliage was so thick, it seemed impenetrable. Can you imagine hacking a path through this jungle? Just before you caught yellow fever and died?

thick foliage on jungle island

Gatun Lake cruise boat

In mere seconds, capuchin monkeys appeared. They obviously know that these boats full of sweating gawkers bring treats. A couple of them were all over the boat. I don’t trust monkeys—they’re skittery and are known to bite (we were warned not to interact with them)—but these guys sure were cute, and they clearly delighted everyone.

Capuchin monkey

Another island offered up tiny Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys, and a surprise visitor: a white-nosed coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon).

Geoffroy's tamarin monkey


The next day the same boats transported us a short distance upriver to an Embera Indian village, one of several in the area. This particular village makes a good living off of resort visitors, thus helping to support their greater community. (About 80,000 Embera live in Panama and Colombia. Many have integrated into cities.)

Embera huts

When the tourists come calling, the villagers dress in traditional garb … but one gets the impression they dispense with some of that when no one is around. The kids get their primary education locally, but those who want to graduate high school have to commute four hours round trip by boat and bus to Panama City (and of course, they wear western clothing for that). Some go on to college in Mexico or the US and return to their tribe to work in conservation (their villages are in a national park). Many Embera are bilingual, speaking their native language and Spanish.

Embera tribe

We were treated to dancing and explanations of Embera crafts and customs, then we were free to wander part of the village, get temporary “tattoos” of a plant-based concoction with natural insect-repellant properties, and purchase some souvenirs made by the local families. Eric’s favorite story is how the tattoo painter copied an image from a tourist’s cell phone, and when the display timed out, she knew exactly what to do to get it back. They may live a simple, traditional tribal life, but they know what’s up.

woman painting a desing on leg

The Embera excel at carving wood and tagua nuts (also called vegetable ivory), and weaving colorful baskets from palm fiber. Tagua nuts are soft when first opened, but cure into an extremely hard and smooth substance that takes colored dye beautifully. I purchased a little iguana and a small woven plate for the kitchen wall, and Eric bought a tagua tortuga, which now hangs from my car’s mirror. (Next to them is an uncarved tagua nut.)

tagua nut carvings

palm basket

Later, we had lunch on a deck over the Chagres River, where we had a great view of more wildlife. Can you pick out the two birds in the center of this photo?

two birds

I couldn’t get a clear shot of this turtle. It was about a foot long, swimming with several buddies.


Can an iguana be handsome? This one was!


How many iguanas can you find in this photo?

find the iguanas

Hint: There are four! Click the photo to enlarge.

4 iguanas

I thought I could cover the rest of our trip in this post, but it’s getting too long. Next time, I’ll take you out to the beach for some R&R. Then, maybe I’ll get back to blogging about our bungalow projects. (Click the iguana to see detail.)

iguana carved from tagua nut



8 thoughts on “Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 3)

  1. Karen B.

    What a wonderful experience. I loved the monkeys although I’m with you, they aren’t trustworthy. 🙂
    I can’t imagine handling the oppressive heat and humidity but it sounds like you guys did well. Is there a winter in Panama, and if so when is it? That would be when I would like to visit.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Yeah, that’s when I would visit, too! Except, there is no winter–it’s too close to the Equator. They have two seasons: wet and not as wet. Oct-Nov are the wettest. I struggled horribly with the heat, but I don’t want to dwell on that!

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks, Jessica! Actually, the monkey photos were Eric’s. Most of my shots showed branches with no monkey in sight! (He has a much fancier camera.)

  2. Jo

    Love the Tagus nut fobs — they’re so fun. Your trip turned out to be a diverse time away. Great read. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music


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