Gamboa, the gem where (almost) no one talks about

(This article is also available in Dutch)

‘I don’t want to be here,’ I look at Denis sadly. My hangover and lack of sleep come through for a moment. We have just returned from San Blas and we are a lot of priceless memories richer. We slept in a wooden bungalow on a small, tropical island. And now suddenly we are in a super-sized lobby with receptionists dressed as Indiana Jones. The contrast really couldn’t be greater.

NO, DON’T STOP READING NOW!

What I didn’t know then, is that Gamboa would also be a highlight of our Panama trip.

In this travel blog, I will tell you all about my experience in the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve. Are you also planning to stay here? At the end, I give some valuable tips to make your stay in Gamboa as pleasant as possible.

Why Gamboa?

Back to the beginning for a moment. How did we get to Gamboa? Because you almost don’t find this place in travel blogs and itineraries. Gamboa is a half-hour drive from Panama City, and is often only mentioned as a day trip.

Gamboa is a tiny village near the Soberania rainforest. This is one of the best places in Panama to spot wildlife. You can also do all sorts of things here, I’ll tell you more about that later.

But why do so few people stay here? You have to take that ‘tiny village’ quite literally. There is so little that it is not ideal to stay there, even in the few flats for rent. For instance, there are barely any restaurants and shops to be found.

That’s why you’re soon pointed to the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, a luxury hotel surrounded by rainforest. A stay there is quite expensive by Panamanian standards, and the bars and restaurants are not the cheapest either. Expect to pay at least €130 per night. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a perfect start or end to your trip!

So what’s so special about it? So this hotel is in the middle of the rainforest, which means you’ll see lots of wild life, even on the property. And waking up to the sound of and view of the jungle should not be underestimated!

Do you love nature? Then you’re going to love this hotel. I’ll tell you all about it! And also how to cut costs a bit.

Big, yet so small

We took a hotel room overlooking the river. ‘If you do it, do it right’, with that motto I managed to convince Denis to take the more expensive room. #yolo

I lay myself in the hammock on the balcony and look at the rainforest. I begin to realize why I wanted to come here. How wonderful it is to hear the jungle sounds again. Time to get ‘zen’ again.

We explore the hotel and find out that it is massive. We normally don’t book those big resorts, we’re more of the smaller accommodations.

It also feels a bit dated, this hotel could really use a major refurbishment. But somewhere that also has something. Somehow, the smells remind me of childhood memories in Blijdorp (a zoo), funny. Fortunately, we are not in a zoo, as I prefer to see animals living in freedom.

Only a small part of the hotel turns out to be occupied. It is nice and quiet, despite being in the high season. I am beginning to think that it is so expensive here because they don’t get it full, but have sky-high costs in the meantime. In the past four weeks we have been in Panama, I have often been surprised that there are so few tourists. I don’t mind at all, even at the pool it is nice and quiet.

As soon as we walk into ‘the garden’, we realize how gigantic this terrain is. It just seems infinite. We emerge onto a rusty playground, right by the water. Would this still belong to the hotel or not? As we head towards it, we see local children playing. I think they belong to the indigenous Embera tribe; we have previously visited a village that must be close to here.

I took two beers from the bar. These cost $5 each with 7% VAT added. We have already resigned ourselves to the fact that we will spend a lot of money here. We sit down by the water and enjoy the view of the rainforest and the Chagres River.

And then I hear the sound of howler monkeys! How I have missed this sound!!! Is there anyone who understands this? Ever since we were in Nowhere in Bocas del Toro at the beginning of the trip, I have loved the screeching of howler monkeys. Feel free to call me crazy. But f*ck, how glad I am that we are here. I love the jungle! – this statement I have repeated many times in Panama.

The hotel may be big, but actually it is so small, when you realize how infinite the rainforest is. In Panama City, I felt small because of the skyscrapers, here I feel small because of the immense nature.

The night safari

A stay at the hotel includes a free night safari. I am not necessarily eager to enter the tourist safari train, but we do it anyway. The guide in his Indiana Jones attire seems hugely passionate, and he soon lights us up.

We drive through Goethals Boulevard. There lies a village that is virtually deserted. In this village lived mostly white Americans, and it was in use between 1933 and 1943, serving the Panama Canal. Walking around here during the day gives a nice urbex atmosphere.

Anyway, back to the night safari. Against all odds, our guide spots wildlife, just along the road. An agouti, a snake, sloth, …. And then we stop at the resort’s security gate. The guide shines his lamp at the water and we see turtles. The security then throws a piece of chicken into the water and then the caimans show themselves. Normally, the caimans also eat the turtles, the guide explains, but since they get chicken here, they live together. Actually, I am against feeding wild animals, but here I understand. I would also make sure these critters are not hungry if I worked here…. Imagine… I find them quite scary, luckily they are far away.

Call me crazy, but I have a ‘Panama wildlife checklist’. I am not normally like this, but Panama triggers me in a way I did not know before. Toucans, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to tick off yet. Other people saw them in Boquete and Bocas del Toro, but not me. I ask the guide if you can see toucans here. Lots of them, he says. ‘Try around 7am in the hotel car park,’ he says.

We sit down in the Monkey Bar, a bar with a super nice view, and order some food. The food is fine, the service is very slow. I’m not going to sugar coat it, the staff don’t seem very motivated. Anyway, I had already read that in the reviews and was prepared for it.

Early in the evening, the bar is almost empty. Not very strange with these prices and slow service. So we leave too, to our hotel room. On our balcony, we enjoy the sound of the jungle. And the rum we brought ourselves.

The Pipeline Trail in Gamboa

The sunrise is beautiful. The photos above I took on my way to the breakfast buffet, just inside the hotel. Can you imagine the smile on my face? Views like these just make me insanely happy.

Punctually, at 7 o’clock, I take a lap around the hotel car park. Alas, no toucans.

Today we are going to hike The Pipeline Trail. We go to reception and ask for transport. Apparently there is a time slot on it, after two hours we are picked up again. I don’t like that, I don’t want to be tied to a time slot, so we draw our own plan. We get a phone number to rent bikes, but we decide to just walk to the Chino in the village.

30 minutes and a lot of sweat later, we are at the Chinese shop with a rickety mountain bike in hand. Gears that barely work, and I think there’s a small knock in the wheel. One of those moments when you appreciate what you have at home. Kudos to my primal Dutch bike with 3 gears.

It took a while, but we took off! We cycle along the Canal, big ships pass by. The scenery is amazing. It’s warm too, fortunately the cycling provides a nice breeze.

And then we come to a road that is really not made for cycling. The cobblestones in Ghent are nothing like it. Nice and adventurous this way. When we reach the trail sign, we put the bikes down. No lock. But according to the Chino, they don’t steal here. Let’s hope so.

There is a cabin where you have to register, but there is no one in sight. Vamos.

We walk super slow, lurking in every tree. We actually wanted to be there around 9 o’clock, because you have a better chance of seeing wildlife in the morning, but by now it’s almost noon. Luckily, we still see quite a bit.

Agoutis, a white-nosed bear and a whole group of capuchin monkeys. And as we walk along a stream, Denis suddenly spots a spectacled caiman. Very special to see like this, and fortunately from a distance.

On the way, we meet people who have spotted sloths and toucans, but unfortunately we don’t see them. We hear howler monkeys, but we can’t find them either. How I would love to see howler monkeys again, I find them fascinating.

We also see blue morpho butterflies for the very first time. How beautiful and big they are. I think they are as big as my hand. Capturing them on camera is no easy feat, as they are superfast and don’t stay still for even a nanosecond.

Despite the road being flat and easy to walk on, we are wet in sweat after a few hours. We could stay here for a very long time, but we decide to head back. Off to our broke bikes!

Oh, by the way, don’t be alarmed by the sign below. Yes, jaguars, ocelots and pumas live in Soberania National Park. But you will very rarely spot them here. Again, the park is huge. Still, even though you might have a 0.0001% chance of spotting one, I wouldn’t carry meat or such in my bag 😉

We buy all sorts of things from the Chino. Snacks to go as lunch, a bottle of wine, beer, soft drinks to go with the rum, and crisps. We have a fridge in the hotel room, which is ideal. Even a freezer compartment where we can make ice cubes. This way we can save some money and have a drink at a nicer place than the bar.

In the heat, we walk back with our heavy shopping. Could they really not sell that beer at the hotel at normal prices?

Off to the pool. We chill and think about what to do tomorrow. We decide to go kayaking and arrange kayaks for the next day via Whatsapp.

A crocodile!

Sunset. Denis throws his drone into the air and I wander around with the camera. Such a magical place becomes even more special with this light.

When the sun is just about down, I head back to Denis. There is a man standing, looking at his screen. I ask what’s going on, and then I see something moving on Denis’ drone controller. A CROCODILE!!! And it’s a big one!! Unfortunately, it is already dusk, so the images are quite dark. But how cool is this! And crazy. The man guesses that the crocodile is about 5 metres long. Wuuuut! He lives nearby and says there are more crocodiles in the water.

I forward the video to the man and watch it again myself. Damn, we are going kayaking tomorrow. I don’t dare any more. I Google around and after seeing some crocodile videos, I just want to cancel the kayaking trip. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem.

We go for plan B. The jungle cable car!

Under the spell of toucans

There I am again. Punctually at 7 am on the hotel car park, for ‘luck’ you sometimes have to make an effort. I make 2 laps and just as I’m about to give up, I suddenly see it!!! A TOUCAN!!!

I point my camera at it, curse that I don’t have a longer lens, and take a picture. Quickly switch to video, aim back, and away. Alas, no video. But my day can’t go wrong already. Never thought I would like birds so much. Panama, what are you doing with me?

Oh, by the way, in case you didn’t already know. Soberania National Park was once said to be listed in the Guiness Book of Records because the most bird species were counted here in a single day. There were almost 400, but a total of 525 bird species are said to live here. You get the picture, it is a Valhalla for bird watchers here. Occasionally, then, we see people passing by with serious lenses. Such a moment that I hide my 180mm lens with shame, #jealous.

 

The jungle cable car

By little train, we are taken to the jungle cable car. Or aerial tram, whatever you want to call it, I call it jungle cable car.

There are six of us in a carriage. The ride is beautiful. We don’t see any wildlife, but it is lovely to float like this among the greenery. Jungle, how beautiful you are. It’s like my lungs are getting a detox treatment.

Once at the top, we go up the observation tower. Here we have a nice 360° view. We see ships passing through the Channel, it remains a separate contrast. We enjoy our view and are almost the last to leave.

When we are downstairs, someone points to a porcupine anxiously clinging to a grid. Poor animal, hopefully it will stay quiet here for a while now.

Back to the cable car. We are lucky, there are not many people left, so the two of us get to ride in a carriage. This is so fun!

We get off. The woman who arranges everything at the cable car sees my camera and immediately asks if we have seen the porcupine and if it is visibly injured. Apparently, other people have already alerted her.

I show my photos and hear her shouting over the intercom that they should go and help the animal. I am relieved. This is an organization that cares about animals.

We are taken back to the hotel, we have the little train to ourselves. Kind of chill like this, being the last.

When we arrive at our hotel room, a French woman gestures for us to be very quiet. She points to toucans. SO COOL! I’ve never seen this kind of toucan before! And it’s not just one, we see five of them! They are really mega cute!!! And they are just sitting in front of our hotel room, how special this.

We take another walk close to the hotel, on the trail ‘La Laguna’. A 1.5-kilometre trail, so super short. We see a woodpecker tapping in a tree, lots of butterflies and pretty, colourful birds. We cast another glance at the little pool where we saw caimans during the night safari, but don’t see them.

In the evening, we decide to have the dinner buffet at the hotel. This costs $30 per person + 7%. It is the most expensive meal of the whole trip, and sadly also the last. Fortunately, it was tasty; we also overindulged.

We belch out during the night safari. This time it drives a little differently. We don’t see the caimans, but we do see a capybara. Nice!

La Chunga

The time has come. Tonight we are back on the plane, back to winter. The alarm goes off at 6:00, we decided to make the most of our last few hours. Sleep we will do on den kite.

We head back to the water, by now it really has become our spot. You can still see the mist hanging between the trees, an extraordinary sight. I take some photos and Denis throws up the drone again. Would he see the crocodile again? Alas, no crocodile. We go for breakfast.

Can I ever get enough of this beautiful nature? Come on, one last walk.

We do a bit of the La Chunga trail, which starts not far from our spot by the water. We see capuchin monkeys and my wish comes true, we also see a group of howler monkeys. One even almost pissed on my camera. Almost (video here).

Turning right at a junction, we walk along the water. We realize that we are now really close to the indigenous Embera village we visited from Panama City.

Eventually, the path seems to stop and there are some boats. I check the app Maps.me and see that there is another road leading to the Embera village, probably the normal route from La Chunga. For a moment, I’m really bummed. There is not enough time left to hike all the way there, we have to check out soon. If only I had checked the app earlier, it seemed super fun to go to the village again. Though I have no idea if people would appreciate it.

Next to the hotel, we suddenly see toucans, again the ones with rainbow beaks. I go after them to film, but they keep slipping away. And then there’s a blue morpho butterfly! I don’t get to film that one either. But damn, how nice nature is! Can’t we stay here?

After packing everything up, we dump our backpacks at reception. We put ourselves by the pool and decide those dollars must be up. Balboas and cocktails! We enjoy every second of it.

And then it’s over. We shower and at the appointed time the taxi picks us up.

Gamboa, what a great ending to this trip you are.

Tips for your stay at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve

That was it, my personal experience at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Does it sound to you like, I want an experience like that too? Then I have some more tips for you.

Book the resort

You can book the resort via this link. Then you have a choice of different packages and rooms. We took the room with a river view, and we found it worth the extra cost. It is really enjoyable from the balcony.

We took the option with breakfast because you don’t have your own or shared kitchen (you do have a mini fridge), and there are few alternatives in the area. The breakfast buffet is quite extensive and well worth its money.

You can also opt for an all-inclusive option. That seems especially interesting if you think you’ll spend whole days at the hotel. We settled for snacks from the Chinese shop during lunch (see tip below) and were usually not at the hotel during lunchtime.

How long to stay in Gamboa?

We stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve for three nights. And we could have stayed there much longer!

But in terms of price/quality, we thought 3 nights was perfect. We had time to relax and explore the area. If we had stayed shorter, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the area as much.

So two nights is really a must, but preferably three.

Transport to and from the resort

Basically, you have three options between Gamboa and Panama City.

There would be a collectivo (shared minibus) going from Panama City to the village of Gamboa. That’s about 1.3 kilometres from the hotel, which you then have to cover on foot. I think the collectivos leave in front of the Chinese shop in Gamboa, and in all likelihood in Panama City it leaves from Albrook. But you better check again 😉

The second option is a rental car. You can easily rent a car in Panama City. This is the most ideal situation as it makes you less dependent on the hotel and also makes it easier to reach the trails that are a bit further away. But it is more expensive, of course.

The last option is a taxi, and we used that ourselves. On the way there, we took an Uber from Panama City, which cost about €20. But there are no Ubers in Gamboa, and since we needed to get to the airport, we wanted to be sure of transport. The hotel ask $60 to the airport. I finally arranged it myself through this taxi service via GetYourGuide and was only €40. Twice as expensive as the Uber, but guaranteed that we got out on time. I can really recommend this taxi firm. You can take the same taxi service if you need to go to Panama City, or arrange a taxi through the hotel.

Don't have an Uber yet?

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The cost of food and drink at Gamboa Rainforest Reserve

Wondering what a stay in the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve costs in total? Apart from costs on the accommodation itself and any excursions, you still need to eat and drink. To give you an idea of the prices, I show the prices below.

A dinner buffet at Gamboa Rainforest Reserve costs $30 per person. It is an extensive buffet where you are allowed unlimited bites. Not a culinary masterpiece, but tasty and diverse.

At the Monkey Bar, you pay:

  • $5 for a beer
  • $2.50 for soft drinks or a small bottle of water
  • $8 – $12 for a cocktail
  • $ 9 – $ 15 for a main course (ceviche, burgers, salad, pizza, …)

Added to all prices is an additional 7% VAT.

 

Save money at the Chino

‘Chinos’ are small supermarkets in Panama, similar to our convenience stores – operated by Chinese people. There is one Chino in Gamboa, you can find it here. The facade says ‘Gamboa Store’, you can’t see it on Google Maps, but you can with Streetview.

In this little shop you can buy all sorts of things. We bought water, alcohol and snacks to pass as lunch here. Do bear in mind that you also have to walk 20 minutes back to the resort, as there are hardly any taxis here. Of course, you can also just bring food & drinks from Panama City!

By the way, the Chino also rents bikes for $6 + $4 an hour. These are mountain bikes that are not in the best condition, but that makes it extra adventurous 😉 Through the hotel you can also rent bikes, I don’t know what the price is there – if it’s not much higher, I’d opt for that, you’ll save time.

 

Alternative restaurants in Gamboa

Besides the Monkey Bar and the buffet restaurant at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, you have the following options nearby:

  • Don Caiman, here you have great views of the Chagres River. The restaurant belongs to the resort and is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. TIP: Even though it’s closed, do take a walk via the restaurant to the hotel for a nice stroll!
  • Next to the Chino is a fonda where you can buy cheap, local food. Unfortunately, the opening hours on Google Maps are not correct, when we wanted to eat there, it just closed. This is the location.
  • Next to the Chinese shop, there is also a Chinese restaurant.
  • There is a pizzeria further down the village, but bear in mind that it is closed Monday to Wednesday.

 

What can you do in Gamboa?

There is much more to do in and around Gamboa than we did. Since staying longer at the hotel is also very expensive, we had already done a 3-in-1 excursion from Panama City. By boat, we traversed the Panama Canal, went to Monkey Island and visited the Embera tribe. This is all in and around Gamboa, so you can also do these excursions from the hotel.

Here is a list of activities in Gamboa:

  • Rainforest Discovery Centre
    This centre with observation tower is next to The Pipeline Trail. We have heard good stories about this place!
  • Hikes near the resort
    Download the app Maps.me on which you can see the hiking trails. Some are: La Laguna, Mataralo, La Chunga, …
  • Night safari by boat
    Book these at least 2 days in advance through the hotel.
  • Sloth shelter
    This is an organization that takes in injured sloths. You can arrange a visit, along with the butterfly garden, through the hotel. It is closed on Mondays.
  • Kayaking
    If you still dare, after our crocodile story 😉 You can also book this through the hotel, at least a day in advance.
  • Monkey Island where you can see capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys and tamarins.
    Book this tour at least 2 days in advance through the hotel.
  • Jungle cable car
    You can book the aerial tram on site through the hotel. It is closed on Mondays.
  • Zipline
    You can book this through the hotel or via Tree Trek.
  • Visit an Embera village
    The best way to do this is via an excursion booked at least 2 days in advance through the hotel.
  • Chagres river boat trip
    Book it at least 2 days in advance through the hotel.
  • Butterfly and frog garden
    You can book this on site through the hotel.
  • Bird watcher? Then you can even hire someone to show you the best spots.

Hope you got something out of this article! Staying in Gamboa Rainforest Reserve may not be cheap, but it is very special. It is really lovely to escape to this beautiful place for a few days. Our only criticism is that the hotel could use an overhaul and the staff didn’t always seem very motivated, but they do were friendly. It really was priceless to be in nature like this. There is super much to do around the resort and the wildlife here is fantastic!

We thought it was worth every euro, hopefully you will have the same experience!