Not long ago, bobbing in a kayak on an inlet of the Panama Canal, I noticed a striking juxtaposition: A tiny "Jesus" lizard scampered across the water's surface, while a massive container ship, in the center of the Canal, steadily nosed its way south toward the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps fleeing a predator, the basilisk lizard, shimmery green with a plume atop its head, was as beautiful as it was strange. But before I could fully ponder its Christ-like ability -- how does it not sink? -- the lizard disappeared into the verdant tangle of riverbank vegetation. Meanwhile, it was impossible not to gawk for a moment at the passing ship. Its size alone was imposing: Panamax vessels, the largest that can fit in the Canal, are as long as 291m (956 ft.) and can be 58m (190 ft.) tall. They tower over the royal palms and balsa trees found here in central Panama. Across the stern of this ship was what I guessed to be Russian lettering, a reminder that the Canal -- a feat of engineering made no less impressive by the passage of nearly a century -- remains a crucial artery in today's globalized world.
Both the natural and human-made marvels that coexist in Panama are a considerable draw for travelers to Central America's isthmus nation. And the Gamboa Rainforest Resort (tel. 877/800-1690 from the U.S., or 314-5000; www.gamboaresort.com), located long the banks of the Canal and the Chagres River, is a popular spot from which to take in some of the highlights: Among the offerings are nocturnal riverboat excursions, sport fishing on Lake Gat&uactue;n, and world-class birding along Pipeline Road, not to mention tours of nearby Panama City (25 min. away) and a visit to the Canal's Miraflores Locks. A sprawling, 140-hectare (340-acre) complex in Soberanía National Park, Gamboa is part eco-lodge, part destination resort, though its primary appeal is the array of options it offers travelers. During my kayak excursion, Gamboa's naturalist guides pointed out howler monkeys cavorting through the forest canopy, their shrill calls filling the air; white-faced capuchin monkeys; and blue morpho butterflies, whose wings shone iridescent in the tropical sun. The guides also talked about the workings and history of the Canal: the 40-odd ships that pass through every day, each taking some 9 hours to traverse the 80km (50-mile) waterway; and the 25,000 laborers who died -- mostly from malaria and yellow fever -- during the building of the Canal in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Indeed, the Canal's history is part of the fabric of Gamboa, built where Canal VIPs once lived; their renovated former quarters, 1930s-era villa apartments, are available to guests -- a decent choice for families -- though accommodations within the main hotel are plusher and have fantastic views of the Chagres River (doubles start at $263). Plus, each room in the main hotel has a private balcony fitted with a hammock -- a good place to relax and watch the brilliant flashes of lightning during an evening thunderstorm (an impressive, and common, occurrence here). Perhaps the resort's most popular spot to relax is its tri-level cascading pool, which features a swim-up bar; though for my money, Gamboa's best public area is its library -- all Tiffany lamps, old maps, and, of course, plenty of books.
Containing everything from a full-service spa to a serpentarium (yes, with live snakes), from a marina to an orchid nursery, Gamboa has enough to keep even the most active guests occupied. Think you've done it all before? Check out the 18-car aerial tram, built in 2000, that soars through 1.2km (more than a half-mile) of secondary rainforest. Accompanied by a guide, you'll learn the difference between an oil palm and a black palm. And if you're lucky, as I was, you'll spot a chestnut mandible toucan -- surely one of the world's most beautiful birds. Note that tours aren't included in the price of your room; most range from about $10 (for a 1-hr. tour of the flora and fauna exhibits) to $45 (for a 3-hr. visit to an Emberá Indian village).
The resort's upscale Restaurante El Corot&uactue; features international cuisine, while Los Lagartos is all about tropical ambience (think fresh grouper sandwich and a Soberana beer while you watch the Canal traffic). But for the best dining in the country, you have to head to Manolo Caracol, in Panama City's Casco Viejo (tel. 228-4640; www.manolocaracol.net). For less than $20, you're served a dozen courses of whatever Manolo, the Spanish-born chef, prepares that day -- perhaps tangy shrimp ceviche, marinated octopus, or succulent pork loin. There are excellent wines available, and local art hangs on the white-stucco walls.
For information on planning your trip to Panama, as well as insider tips on the best accommodations, restaurants, and sights throughout the country, pick up a copy of Frommer's Panama.
Note: This trip was sponsored by the Gamboa Rainforest Resort at the Panama Canal.
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