Travelers to the Canal Zone have two options: Visit on day excursions and lodge in Panama City, where you'll be closer to shops and services; or base yourself at one of the resorts or hostels and take part in their in-house tours. (If they don't offer the tour themselves, they can book an outside tour for you.)
Tour Operators -- It makes sense to hire a guide or join a day tour. Transportation, a bilingual nature guide, equipment (if necessary), and often lunch are included in the price, and it may be cheaper and more efficient than trying to see all the area's attractions on your own.
Soberania National Park
Soberanía National Park comprises 19,425 hectares (48,000 acres) of undulating, pristine tropical rainforest on the eastern shore of the Panama Canal. It is undoubtedly Panama's most important national park in terms of tourism and economics: Not only is Soberanía one of the most accessible, species-rich parks in the Americas, it is also part of the watershed that provides hundreds of millions of gallons of water to keep the Panama Canal in operation and the cogs of international commerce greased and moving. The park is just 40 minutes from Panama City, but it feels worlds away.
Wildlife from North and South America, including migratory birds, meets here in Soberanía, creating a diverse natural wonderland. The park has 105 species of mammals and a staggering number of bird species -- 525 at last count. There are jaguars, yes, and collared peccaries and night monkeys, too, but you're more likely to catch sight of a coatimundi, three-toed sloth, or diminutive tamarin monkey. Bring binoculars even if you're not an avid birder.
There are several ways to see the park. ANAM, the park ranger service, has several excellent hiking trails for day excursions that range from easy to difficult; there are a full-scale resort, a birder's ecolodge, a recreational park and zoo, and the Pipeline Road, a site revered for its abundant diversity of birds. Soberanía National Park is open daily from 6am to 5pm, and costs $3 (£1.50) per person to enter (free for kids under 12). Paying is tricky; they ask that you stop at the ranger station to pay because there isn't anyone to collect money at the trail head -- but it's unlikely that every visitor does this. Play it safe, though, and stop to pay; the pass permits you to use any trails within the space of a day.
The park can be accessed by rental vehicle or taxi, or by joining a tour. If you take a taxi, plan a time for the driver to pick you up or have the driver wait. For more information, call the park's office at tel. 232-4192; the website, www.anam.gob.pa, has limited park info in Spanish. The park office is open from 7am to 7pm daily, but if no one is inside, check around out back.
Engineers understood that the only feasible way to build the Panama Canal was to employ a system of locks to lift ships up and over higher altitudes on the isthmus, and central to this was the creation of Gatún Lake. The lake was formed in 1913 with the completion of the Gatún Dam, which staunched the powerful Chagres River -- a tremendous feat considering that Gatún Dam and Gatún Lake were the largest earth dam and largest man-made lake of their time. The lake flooded roughly 425 sq. km (164 sq. miles), an area slightly larger than Detroit, creating islands out of hilltops and submerging entire forests and villages.
The thick rainforest that cloaks the shoreline provides water for Gatún Lake, which in turn provides water for the canal locks, and therefore the Canal Authority is keen to keep deforestation at bay. This is good news for eco-travelers -- wildlife sightings are common. Ships traverse 38km (24 miles) across the lake from the Gatún Locks to the Gaillard Cut, and travelers can take part in this experience with a partial canal transit, or take part in a jungle cruise on the lake. There is also fishing, or you can visit Barro Colorado Island. Getting on the lake provides a more intimate view of the canal than a visit to the Miraflores Locks does.
Jungle Cruises -- Half-day jungle cruises in Lake Gatún are mini-adventures that are as fun for kids as for adults, and they are dependable ways to catch sight of monkeys such as white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, and Geoffrey's tamarins up-close and in their natural habitat. Expect also to see sloths, crocodiles, caimans, turtles, and even capybaras, the world's largest rodents. The boat ride also allows passengers to get unusually close to monster tankers and ships transiting the canal. The Gamboa Resort offers a jungle cruise as part of their in-house excursions; others leave from the Gamboa pier and provide land transportation to and from Panama City. Guides provide passengers with an entertaining account of the history of the canal, the mechanisms that operate the canal, and fun anecdotes, while ducking in and out of island passageways searching for birds and wildlife. Ancon Expeditions has the best guides and service, not to mention the most experience in the area. Their Panama Canal Boat Rainforest Adventure leaves early from Panama City and returns in the late afternoon; the cost is $110 (£55) adults, $65 (£33) kids 12 and under, which includes lunch and all transportation. Advantage Panama also offers a rainforest land and water tour including a stroll through Soberania National Park before boarding their aquatic vessel. The tour lasts about 6 hours, includes drinks and snacks, and costs $87 (£44).
Jungle Land Explorers, part of Panama City Tours (tel. 260-8205; www.gatúnexplorer.com), offers an interesting motorboat tour of Gatún Lake and a stop at their anchored, double-decker Gatún Explorer houseboat, where guests have lunch and kick back in the middle of the jungle; kayaking and fishing are also options. They have a library with educational videos and books, too. The tour leaves from La Represa dock on the west side of the canal; however, round-trip transportation from Panama City is included, leaving at 8am and returning at 4:30pm. Note that the Gatún Explorer works with cruise ship excursionists, and therefore they offer their jungle cruise on Sundays only, whereas Ancon and Advantage Panama can usually plan something any day of the week.
Learn About the Rainforest with the Smithsonian Institute
The Barro Colorado Nature Monument is home to one of the most important -- and oldest -- biological research stations in the world, administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). It contains more than 5,261 hectares (13,000 acres) of land, including five surrounding mainland peninsulas, but the spotlight is on Barro Colorado Island in Gatún Lake, a short boat ride away from Gamboa. The forested island is the largest in the lake, and it was once a hill called West Hill that became a 16-sq.-km (6-sq.-mile) island after the surrounding area was flooded during the creation of Gatún Lake. The island is essentially a capsule of biodiversity that provides an opportunity for scientists to monitor population changes and test diversity theories about the rainforest without having their studies encroached upon by loggers, developers, poachers, or farmers. Each year, between 200 and 400 international scientists visit Barro Colorado, making this one of the most well-studied forests in the world. Scientists have so far discovered 1,200 plants, 120 mammals, and innumerable insects on the island, but really the chances of your spotting wildlife here are the same as at any rainforest in Panama (but count on seeing howler monkeys at Barro Colorado).
What's unique here is that the average layman can visit the island and see what's going on in the world of tropical science. It's an outstanding tour -- part boat ride, part hike, part learning experience -- and the price includes a delicious buffet lunch and access to the visitor center and Espavé bookstore. The only downside to the tour is that it is expensive ($70/£35 adults, $40/£20 students) and nonrefundable -- don't even think about showing up late for the boat ride or you'll be left behind. Reservations should be made more than 2 weeks in advance, but you can always call and see if there is a last-minute cancellation. If you're short on time or not up to giving tropical rainforests more than a cursory glance, this is probably not the best tour for you.
The tour leaves at 7:15am on weekdays and 8am on weekends from STRI's dock located just past the turnoff to the Gamboa Resort (heading left at the fork and onto a gravel road). The boat ride to the island takes 45 minutes. Once there, a guided tour takes visitors on a 2- to 3-hour hike along a sometimes steep trail through forest, ending at the visitor center for lunch, followed by a Q and A session. At 3:40pm on weekdays and 2:30pm on weekends (you can see that a weekday tour is longer), the boat takes visitors back to the pier. They do not provide transportation to/from the pier, so you'll need a taxi ($15-$20/£7.50-£10 each way from Panama City), or a bus to Gamboa. Bring proper walking shoes, bug repellent, your passport, and your confirmation letter from STRI, and wear long pants, not shorts. Complete information is available from STRI (tel. 202/633-4014 in the U.S., or 212-8000 in Panama; www.stri.org). You can reserve and pay by credit card on their site.
Rio Chagres & Embera Villages
The Chagres River flows from the San Blas Cordillera down into Gatún Lake near Gamboa -- on the other side of the lake, the river is blocked by the Gatún Dam, which created its namesake lake. Travelers visit this river for two reasons: cultural tours of Emberá Indian villages, or intermediate-level white-water rafting. Along the way, the jungle-draped riverbanks teem with birds, animals, and fluttering butterflies, providing an exciting sense of adventure without an investment of a lot of time or money.
Embera Indians Village Tour -- Emberá Indians are native to the Darién Province, but many groups have resettled here on the banks of the Chagres River. For the most part, they continue to live life much as they have for centuries, traveling by dugout canoe, wearing nothing more than a skirt or sheath, and sleeping under thatched-roof huts. To earn income, the Emberá villages Parara Puru, Emberá Puru, and Emberá Drua, which are close to the mouth of the Chagres River, have opened to tourism, allowing visitors to share in their culture and see how they live. In the true sense, the villages are not pristine examples of Emberá life, but the chance to travel by dugout canoe, interact with this fascinating culture and, yes, buy a few of their intricately woven baskets and other handicrafts is an informative and delightful experience. For a few bucks, you can have an Emberá hand paint a traditional "tattoo" with jagua vegetable dye on a part of your body (kids love this), but keep in mind that it takes 10 to 14 days for the stain to go away! Part of the tour includes a typical Emberá lunch and watching a folkloric dance show; like most folkloric shows, these are demonstrations of rituals long gone, but the music and dancing are still entertaining. Bring your swimsuit because tours include a walk to a cascade for a dip in cool water. All Panamanian tour operators offer this Emberá trip, though prices vary. Ancon Expeditions charges $130 (£65) for this half day trip, while Advantage Panama charges $81 (£42)..
Summit Gardens Park & Zoo
There's a lot of wildlife in the jungles of Panama, but almost all species shy from the public and are close to impossible to spot in their natural environment. If you're in Panama for the first time, or if you don't have much time here, Summit Gardens Park & Zoo is a good introduction to the flora and fauna native to the country. For kids, there are a lot of wide, grassy areas on which to run around, and enough animals on view to delight all ages. It isn't a fancy, state-of-the-art zoo by U.S. standards, however Summit recently hired a new director to refocus and revamp the zoo and gardens and to create a cohesive exhibition that illustrates biodiveristy using animals, birds, and reptile displays.
The zoo has a wonderful display of "showcase" wildlife, including tapirs, white-faced capuchins and spider monkeys, ocelots, a jaguar, puma, collared peccaries, and more, some of which have been rescued from unscrupulous wildlife poachers (the young tapir "Lucia" was saved during a sting operation that nabbed two Panamanians trying to sell her on the Internet). But without a doubt the harpy eagle takes center stage here with its own interpretive center. The harpy is Panama's national bird and the largest eagle in the world, about half the size of an average human -- it really is worth a visit just to see the size of this regal bird.
Summit began as a botanical garden in 1923, created by the U.S. in an effort to reproduce and distribute tropical plants from around the world. It is now home to the world's leading collection of palms, among other exotic species. Because Panama City has few green spaces for a picnic or a chance to let the kids run free, Summit is popular with families on weekends. The grassy picnic area and park are free, or you can pay $8 (£4) for a covered eating area and barbecue pit. The zoo costs $1 (£0.50) for adults and teens, kids 12 and under get in free, and it's open daily from 9am to 5pm. Call tel. 232-4854 for more information, or check out their site at www.summitpanama.org.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.