Planning this Panama trip in the months prior had brought me to a seriously elevated level of vacation planning. I researched everything from restaurants and sight seeing activities to island hopping to some of the remote outer islands and snorkeling in open water with dolphins. This should let you know that I prefer to be a more active traveler; while I won’t turn down a spa day, the real joy for me is in the exploration & physical immersion into culture that allows me to feel connected with where I am visiting.
Trusting the suggestion of my friend and supremely talented Pastry Chef, Ben Kallenbach (go check him and his awesome wife out on their home page Baked & Tempered), who had been in Panama earlier in 2014, I had gone ahead and booked us a day outing that would take us via waterway, into the real jungles of Panama for what was touted as an “authentic & unforgettable experience”. I was also promised monkeys and sloths, so naturally I bounded out of bed at the crack of dawn as if I was 6 years old and this was Christmas morning.
The Jungle Land team really made everything hassle free for us; we booked and paid for our package online weeks prior and the tour included transportation to and from the hotel with the times pre-arranged and confirmed via email just before our trip. When travelling overseas, paying attention to the details with organizing and time management will really help you to enjoy your trip with as few inconveniences as possible.
Pro Tip: Plan, book and pay for as many of your “must do” activities ahead of time. Nothing can put a damper on a vacation like finding out that restaurant you wanted to eat at is closed because of the time of year or that guided trail hike is booked out during your stay. Also, not having to pay for an activity directly before or after, allows you to fully enjoy your experience without any unexpected last minute costs or again, finding out the rates are different than what you may have seen online. In fact, many tour and excursion companies will give decent discounts for booking online and ahead of time so it’s definitely worth looking into whenever possible. As always, check travel sites and blogs to make sure you’re using a reputable company that will reimburse or credit you if they have to cancel for any reason.
After a quick stop at a drug store to stock up on Dramamine for my chronic, totally out of control motion sickness, we were on our way! As we set off leaving Panama City and transitioning quickly into the deep green foliage and gentle rains that would lead us into Gamboa, I was distinctly struck by the dichotomy that seemed to be painfully obvious with life here.
Glancing through the window on my right, I was taken by the massively impressive skyline of metropolitan Panama, filled with skyscrapers that boasted names like Hilton, Trump Tower & the Waldorf Astoria.
While out the window to my left was row after row of low income housing; the rooms stacked on top of one another, tiny balconies displaying clothes lines with faded garments blowing listlessly in the breeze that slipped in between the seemingly endless stacks of concrete structures.
I wondered what it must be like to wake up in one of those cramped rooms and gaze out the window everyday at a luxurious life so close and yet ultimately so beyond anything you would probably ever experience yourself.
The city slipped away and we were overtaken by lush trees and grasses, the soft rain continuing to fall as we drove the winding roadway through the Gamboa forest and to the river bank where we would be departing from by boat. Our Captain, Carl Davis fancied himself a bit of a joker and the boat ride was filled with a laughter infused history lesson about the massive drilling machinery along the canals and the impact on their surrounding environment, economy and the Panama Canal itself.
We stopped in an overgrown inlet, our Captain passing around a bag of raw, in shell peanuts for each of us to take a few and as the boat slowed, we were encouraged to look up as the trees came alive with the rustling chatter from a family of capuchin monkeys, eager to collect their anticipated treat. Before I could truly process what was happening, they had descended onto our boat and were discussing their plan of attack amongst themselves.
Crafty little things, the male ended up distracting us by boarding the boat directly and taking the peanuts from as many hands as he could get to without really stopping. He moved through the crowd with a well practiced ease, chattering busily as he did his job & raising his tone a bit when someone tried to hold on to their peanut to get a better picture of him. He swatted at their hand in admonishment and brisquely turned his back. Shelling the peanuts absentmindedly with his teeth, he simultaneously chewed, swallowed and spat the shells out as he moved. When he seemed satisfied with his collection, he quickly jumped to the side of the boat and disappeared onto the roof. Thinking this the end of our monkey play, imagine our delight when we are then greeted by not one other capuchin, but a momma and her baby! As I’m sure she anticipated, our “ooohs and aaahhs” turned into us shelling out more peanuts for the two and momma unobtrusively made her way along the outskirts of the boat, eating under the watchful eye of her partner as he waited for her to re-join him in the trees. Well played with the tag-team little monkeys, well played.
We pushed off, our path became a bit more difficult to traverse as we ventured deeper into the jungle and the previously wide open water-ways were replaced by plant congested river with floating foliage so thick, we passed birds that seemed to be walking on the rivers surface as they foraged for bugs amongst the leaves. For 10 minutes as we made our way through, the only signs of us going in any known direction, were the random iron markers protruding from the murky river and adorned with a plastic bottle so you could see them.
Then quite suddenly, the river opened up again and we were heading towards the 3 storied house boat from where Captain Carl & his operation was based. We had arrived at the floating lodge and the next leg of our Jungle Land Panama adventure.