The Gamboa Rainforest Resort Offers Adventure Served Up With Sybaritic Touches Like A Full-Service Spa.
“Look down there, to your right…see him,” my helicopter pilot coolly comments as we zip 100 feet above an isolated finger of Panama’s vast Gatun Lake. Appearing the same cafe latte brown as the rest of the lake, the 10-foot crocodile is impossible to miss.
“Now’s not the best time to land I guess,” I reply into my headset as I stare down at the mammoth reptile, now submerging like some primeval submarine.
“Not unless you want to miss lunch and end up on the main course,” the pilot chuckles as he swoops the craft north back towards home base. About twenty minutes later, after more sightings that include giant, gentle manatees, flocks of parrots and the tumbled down ruins of an old Spanish fort, we touch down lightly at the serene and stately Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Situated in the heart of the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, forty minutes and several blood pressure points away from the skyscrapers of Panama City, it could hardly be said I am roughing it here. As plush as it is lush, a wood paneled library, a full-service spa and two-level suites complete with balcony, hammock and epic rainforest views make Gamboa the sybarite’s solution to the adventure conundrum: How to get one’s Teva’s muddy yet still have access to an arsenal of amenities. Some of the guests who have enjoyed the eclectic appeal here include Pierce Brosnan, Jimmy Carter, Prince Hitachi of Japan and Queen Sophia of Spain.
I awaken my first morning here shortly after dawn. As the warming sun forces a heavy mist to retreat to the rainforest across a lazy, green river, the tallest things I see from my balcony are the giant cuipo trees and royal palms. The resort’s ideal location is also revealed — where the Chagres River feeds into the famed Panama Canal at its midpoint. Although the resort’s 340 acres are practically an adventure in themselves, featuring hiking trails, an aerial rainforest tram, serpentarium, orchid farm and reptile and fish exhibits, I have something else in mind this day. Just across the river from the resort lies my personal quest, the Las Cruces Trail. Steeped in history, the trail isn’t some day-trippers diversion, but a living relic dating back to the days of conquistadors, buccaneers and runaway slaves. Beginning in the 16th Century, it was used by the Spanish to transport gold and silver looted in South America back to their king — and by English pirates seeking to relieve the Conquistadors of their glittery burden.
Now, just minutes after crossing the river, I am at the foot of the same trail, the perfect place to star in a personal Indiana Jones sequel. Tumbled down steps from a long-abandoned Spanish settlement provide an eerie welcome to a riot of tropical growth concealing a secret world within. Thankfully, I have a guide from the resort who knows the snaking trail and dutifully points out the native plants, birds and animals that call this wild place home.
There are the soaring cuipos, the tallest trees in the forest, palms of every description, strangler figs that choke the life out of host trees, cruceros with their bright red flowers and echoing everywhere, an avian open-mike session of raucous birds. Stealthy parrots, toucans in the highest branches and the trogon — the forest’s diva draped in crimson red and blue — all sing their parts in a steady, primal soundtrack.
Making my way silently down a wet carpet of fallen leaves, I suddenly become transfixed by what looks like an electric blue light flicking on-and-off ten yards ahead. Appearing like an apparition out of “Fantasia,” it’s the giant blue morpho butterfly. The size of my hand, it dances across the trail before becoming lost in a tangle of vines and trees.
A few minutes later, my guide stops. There is a look of deep concentration in his eyes. I’ve seen this look before in guides — we’re lost. A living being like the creatures it shelters, the forest is constantly changing. A huge tree has crashed to the forest floor and obscured the old trail, changing the surrounding growth as well. He scans the forest while our small group takes a water break and waits. Just then, a small, citrus-orange tree frog decides to come along for the ride, and hitchhikes on my pant leg. Considered good luck, I take the frog’s visit as propitious. Sure enough, it isn’t long before our guide shouts out from behind the heavy undergrowth. He’s found the trail and we’re underway. Buy that frog a fly!
Hours later, as dusk settles, I have assumed “the position” back at the resort — a horizontal zen state perfected over the last few days with the help of my hammock and a cold Balboa beer. In the distance, the slightest hint of staccato squawking wells up from across the river. It gets louder and without looking, I am able to identify the species — parrots, Amazons most likely. Eco-friendly Gamboa is definitely growing on me; I wonder if my guide could use an assistant.
Rates for Gamboa Rainforest Resort start at $105; book here.