Friday, August 16, 2013

Jungleland Panama: Day One

At the end of our five weeks in Panama this winter, we wanted to spend a few days relaxing and making some extra special memories. I really wanted to get up close and personal with the jungle and rainforest wildlife. There were many packaged tours offered, but the one that captured our imagination and offered a unique experience was Jungleland Panama. We hesitated to spend the money, as we tend to travel on a shoestring, but decided to take the plunge and go for it. It ended up being a highlight of our time in Panama, and we would wholeheartedly recommend it and do it again if given the chance. We sandwiched our overnight Jungleland adventure with two nights at the Radisson Summit Hotel in Gamboa, a lovely hotel with great customer service, an extravagant breakfast buffet, swimming pools, a butterfly habitat, and last, but most definitely not least, air conditioning. This was the view from our window at the hotel, looking out over the rainforest canopy toward Panama City in the distance. 
Our Jungleland adventure started at the dock in nearby Gamboa, where we met Captain Carl and boarded his boat along with several other people. Carl was everything you might expect: a bit rough around the edges and a wealth of information about the history of the canal the local flora and fauna. He had a number of jokes he told, and we were fairly certain they'd been delivered in exactly the same dry tone about a thousand other times. When asked a question, we were never exactly sure if he were giving a serious answer or not. Regardless of his quirkiness, he led an informative and entertaining tour as we crossed the canal alongside huge barges as well as smaller boats. We even spotted a brave iguana swimming along the middle of the canal, his spiny little head just above the water. 

The Panama Canal is currently undergoing a large expansion project that will allow much larger ships to pass through. Captain Carl told us a lot about the project and explained how the work is being done. He told us we were witnessing history in the making! This is a barge that uses explosives to dredge the bottom as they deepen and widen the canal. Other barges carry rubble away. As you can see in the pictures, the water was very murky in this part of the canal. 
We saw several huge cargo ships in transit through the canal. We had previously visited the Miraflores Locks and learned a lot about the history of the canal, so it was fun to actually be in it.

Raphael was so excited to see monkeys in the wild. Well, we all were, but I think he was especially looking forward to it. This is a white throated capuchin, a New World monkey native to Central and northern South America. This is the type of monkey that typically accompanied an organ grinder!
At another island we saw a little family of howler monkeys; a mama, daddy, and baby all scampering along and playing. Carl gave out peanuts so that we could feed the monkeys, a practice that I don't really approve of, but it was fun to see them so close. In another place we saw a troop of spider monkeys in the trees above us. Carl told us a lot about the differences between species, their behaviors and groupings, diet, etc. It was so neat to see them in their natural habitat. If I were a monkey, this is where I'd want to live! 
After we left the main part of the canal, we headed into Lake Gatun. When the canal was built, a river was dammed to create a huge lake that now makes up a long stretch of the canal. If you imagine water flooding a hilly area, you can picture how there are lots of little coves and fingers to the lake. You can also see here, away from the dredging, how the waters are a beautiful green instead of brown. The huge trees hanging over the water are mangoes. Sigh... all those lovely mangoes with no one but the birds and monkeys and maybe a hungry boatman to eat them up. Yes, I would definitely live here if I were a monkey. 
And here it is.... Jungleland Panama! It is apparently the only floating house on Lake Gatun, tucked away in a peaceful little cove, surrounded by lush rainforest, far from the noise and lights of civilization. It was designed and built by Carl, with lots of attention to detail. The adjoining boat used to give tours but is now the dining room! There were lots of open spaces and hammocks available to relax and enjoy the stillness. We were welcomed aboard and given options of how we wanted to spend our afternoon. 
There were some tamarin monkeys frisking about nearby. Poppy is quite certain she needs to own one as a pet someday. Apparently there is a black market for them and they can fetch about $10,000. So yeah, if it was legal and affordable.... I'd buy her one. 
The houseboat was home to several different animals, many of which had been rescued. Look at my brave girl holding a young caiman! 
While some people chose to go out fishing for the afternoon, we jumped into kayaks and paddled our way through a narrow waterway into the jungle. In places, there was hardly enough room to maneuver through, and I imagine it's a constant battle of man versus plants to keep it open! Peregrine and I worked together, or attempted to work together (haha!)  to paddle the kilometer or so up to a little waterfall and swimming hole. It was so beautiful and peaceful, sunlight streaming through dense canopy, bouncing off the water, its brilliance reflected in an iridescent flash of a blue morhpo's wings. Pure magic. 

Peregrine eagerly climbed up the rocks to wait his turn to jump from the waterfall into the deep pool below. He stood there for a long time, working up the nerve to do it. Everyone cheered him on as he finally took the plunge. I'm so proud of my kids when they face a fear and overcome it!
I got to be alone on the paddle back, as some of the kids chose to ride in the motorized canoe. It was somehow a lot easier to paddle alone! Erik, who has more kayaking experience than I, gave me some pointers that really helped. 
I got to hold and feed the night monkey. Well, I guess holding isn't quite the same things as being climbed on. She was stinky, but it was fun!
The kids got to feed the toucan, and also a parrot. Both of them had been injured and couldn't live in the wild any longer. 
Poppy and Peregrine really enjoyed kayaking and took one of the kayaks out on the lake around the house. It was fun to watch them and allow them the independence and freedom to go off on their own. We did steer them clear of the shore. You know, where the crocodiles live. And yes, they wore life jackets. 
Sun set, and the air was alive with the sounds of the jungle.
After dark, we joined Adam and several others to do look for crocodiles and caimans. Adam works for Jungleland and we were glad he led our evening expedition, as he was passionate and super knowledgeable about these animals. Armed with a bright light, we swept the water's edge for the reflection of eyes. If we saw them, he would have someone hold the light steady on them. It's kind of like deer-in-the-headlights only it's caiman-in-the-spotlight. He then sped toward them and if it was a small caiman, he would reach his hand into the water and attempt to grab it. He missed several times, but the thrill of the "hunt" was pretty, well, thrilling. He shared a lot about their habits, and he actually has several he is raising, then will release into the wild once they are larger, which greatly improves their chance of survival. We never saw a crocodile, but he did catch this caiman, which he said was about three years old. It was an exciting evening out, to say the least! Raphael and Pearl both fell asleep, but the big kids will certainly remember hunting crocs by night on Lake Gatun!

Once we were back at Jungleland and getting settled into our cozy and comfortable room for the night, Poppy and I stole away up to the deck, where we lay down together and gazed at the stars, clear and bright, shining down on the jungle, alive with the sounds of the night. It was a special few moments with my precious girl, moments to tuck away and always remember.

Stay tuned for part two of our Jungleland adventure! 


  1. Rebeca, you're a wonderful writer! I really felt like I was right along with you guys. I love these traveling posts you do!

    The water caught my attention, as it isn't blue but green!! And such a beautiful jade green too!!

    No wonder why there are lots of different monkeys there, those mango trees are abundant and probably very yummy for them!

    I have to confess that I would never want to have a monkey perched on my shoulder! I wonder if, in your mind, you were a little unsettled??!!

    Anyway, thank you so much for continuing to share your trip!

    1. Thanks, Leanne!
      Yes, I did find the monkey a bit unsettling! I try to make myself do things that are uncomfortable though, partly because it's good for me but also a good example for my kids. We recently visited a suspension bridge that was quite long and high. I didn't care one bit for the feeling of that swaying bridge under my feet, and one of my kids was having a hard time with it. I told him I'd tell him a secret when we had crossed the bridge, and my secret was that I was scared too. But it was a good feeling to get across and conquer that fear together!

  2. Hello Rebecca,
    Thank you so much for writing this great post. I will be visiting Panama with my two children in March and was curious to know if Jungleland is really as good as it's Tripadvisor reviews. A blog post like yours was exactly what I was looking for.
    Ironically I live in Vancouver (are you here now?) and have a family travel blog called I hope you enjoy my hometown.

    1. Hi Tara,
      I'm so glad you found it helpful! It really was one of the most memorable things we did, and one we are still talking about.
      We spent five months near Vancouver while my husband was working on a contract job in Point Roberts and enjoyed exploring the area. We've just embarked on a two month road trip across the US.
      I hope you enjoy your trip to Panama! There is a lot to see and experience there.


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