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trip report from panama city and gamboa, panama, june 12-17, 2003

2003-06-18 - 10:09 p.m.

all photos � 2003 by Roger Williams, all rights reserved

panama city, panama from the holiday inn at banking center This page tells the story of my trip to Panama City, Panama, and the Gamboa Resort Hotel in the Soberania National Park. If you would like helpful suggestions on visiting Panama, click right here. I have two birds lists, one for the entire trip from June 13 through the morning of June 17, 2003 and a list of species seen on the magical morning of June 16 at Gamboa Resort.

June 12, 2003

We left on time, which is always a notable event when you're dealing with airlines. The New Orleans to Miami leg was quite turbulent, but I took a motion sickness pill and really didn't experience any dizziness. old cathedral with our hotel behind it The woman behind us on the leg from Miami to Panama City coughed the entire flight, which caused the plane to be held up on the ground at Panama City while she was checked for SARS. Our driver was waiting to whisk us into town. We had a beautiful night view of the large ships on the Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal, and the city itself.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn, which was in the banking area of town. I'm afraid it had Holiday Inn food at Holiday Inn prices, but it was late, and we were happy to enjoy our complimentary Cuba Libres before heading for bed.

June 13, 2003

The breakfast buffet was more impressive than the dinner. I enjoyed a freshly cooked omelet from the omelet station. We then decided to stroll over in the direction of the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is the only park containing a tropical rainforest in a major Central American city. It was hot, humid, and raining, but the birds were active, and we quickly observed Amazons flying low overheard and an adult Yellow-Headed Caracara sitting on top of a store. The park was fenced, and it wasn't immediately obvious where a person could walk in, so we ended up hopping into a cab that stopped for us and having the driver take us to the ranger station. He didn't speak English, but he had a bilingual passenger who was happy to help. The cost was "uno cincuentas" (I think I have that right) which turned out to be $1.50.

path through parque natural metropolitano in panama city, panama

We took one of the nearby paths that circled through a heavily forested area and around behind a nursery. Here we had our first encounters with some birds we would see regularly, like Keel-Billed Toucan, Orange-Chinned Parakeet, the spectacular and omni-present Crimson-Backed Tanager, and several of the flycatcher species. We saw our only White-Shouldered and White-Lined Tanagers here, as well as our only Mangrove Black-Hawk.

ship seen on canal while driving to gamboa resort -- each of 
those rectangles is a train car -- i'm serious, this is a big boat

In early afternoon, our driver picked us up to take us to Gamboa. He stopped and showed us a Sloth that was eating as it hung upside-down from a tree -- the only Sloth we would see that actually appeared to be awake when we were observing it. He also showed us two very large iguanas, one of the more colorful type, one of the green type. As we entered the resort in Gamboa, we observed a mystery raptor, which appeared to be a big-eyed young bird not pictured in our guide. (Later, we would learn that it was a young Yellow-Headed Caracara.) We also saw some large non-iguana type lizards that our driver called water dragons.

The resort was impressive -- a true luxury hotel with huge rooms, room safes, mini bar, fridge and coffee maker, the obligatory telephone by the toilet, a porch with a hammock on it, and much more. I could look out the glass door onto the patio and see two Muscovy Ducks drop by. Just walking around the grounds, I quickly met my first Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, Red-Crowned Woodpecker, and Thick-Billed Euphonia. There was even free internet service in the lobby.

our front door was carved from mahogany by prisoners, according to 
our bellman, which is wrong on so many levels in the politically incorrect sense
 that i won't even try to 
analyze it further In late afternoon, suspecting that it would rain, BF and I reported to the bar, where we could enjoy some (admittedly resort-priced) cocktails while watching the rain pound down. For dinner, we went down to the restaurant overlooking the Chagres River, where we both had some very good seafood dishes.

It was full dark, except for the full moon, at 7:30, when I joined a complimentary night tour being offered by the resort. The guide was not a birder, and I wasn't able to figure out which species of nightjar we were seeing, but I enjoyed seeing them, as well as the Common Pauraques. They would sit right out on the road, as did huge frogs bigger than a man's balled-up fist. One very special sighting was a capybara family with the baby carefully kept herded between the two adults for protection. We also saw the glowing eyes of a caiman.

June 14, 2003

Having tumbled into bed at an early hour, I woke at 5:30 in the morning and heard the beginnings of the dawn chorus. We strolled around the grounds, before and after the buffet breakfast, enjoying such birds as the talkative and abundant Orange-Chinned Parakeets (Brotogeris), Streaked Flycatcher, and a nice-looking Black-Headed Tody-Flycatcher adult feeding some demanding fledglings. We thrilled to our first Blue-Chested Hummingbird when its colors flashed in the sunlight.

aerial tram over the rainforest Our trip included an aerial tram that took us to the top of a mountain, where we then climbed a tower so that we could look down on the trees of the rain forest. We spotted a large troop of Keel-Billed Toucans playing in the trees, as well as a quiet Common Black-Hawk which seemed to be contemplating the valley. A pair of Blue Dacnis was another spectacular find. We also toured the small exhibit area, which included a building where beautiful tropical butterflies were being raised and another building where we could get close-up looks to compare caimans (rather rounded noses) with crocodiles (long skinny noses).

owl or caligo butterfly that just emerged from the cocoon We had lunch on the deck of the restaurant overlooking the marina. The grouper I ordered was my best meal of the trip. We noticed that a couple of crocodiles, some caimans, and a large number of giant water turtles had gathered and, while we were the first to arrive for lunch, we quickly figured out that these creatures expected to be fed. However, I was hesitant to drop any food and draw these fierce animals closer, for there were two separate families loitering under the deck -- two proud Purple Gallinules with three very recently hatched fluffy black chicks, and two very loud Common Moorhens with three slightly more advanced (by a day or two) black chicks of their own. Eventually, a graduation party arrived, and the kids began throwing bread with abandon off the dock to the various large reptiles. When I saw that the Moorhens and Gallinules were actually crowding in to get their share, I realized that they must be expert at evading their predators, and I joined in with throwing bread. What a thrill to watch a loving Purple Gallinule parent carefully place a piece of dinner roll in a fluffy baby's bill!

We didn't get the drenching rain of the previous day, and we could not resist putting in some time around the pool. The water was refreshing, and the crowds very light, because it was the Panamanian "winter," or rainy season, and I alternately dipped in the pool, did some aquatic aerobics, and emerged to sip a very pleasant Malibu Rum with Coke. Heck, I may have even sipped two.

In late afternoon, I got a burst of energy and left BF in the bar overlooking the river while I wandered around on a private bird-finding tour. Sometimes I need time to myself, to figure things out at my own (slow) pace. I checked the powder puff trees in the parking lot every time I passed and was rewarded with lots more Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, a wonderful male Blue-Chested Hummingbird, and a Southern Beardless Tyrannulet who tickled me by erecting his head feathers into a funny little crest. Further down the street, I encountered my first Buff-Throated (sometimes called Cocoa) Woodcreeper of the trip and, most excitingly, several close-up looks at Gray-Headed Chachalacas.

June 15, 2003

I'd ordered a trip to Pipeline Road for Sunday morning but, when we arrived at the appointed time, we discovered that it had been cancelled through some mistake. I'm not sure what happened, but I have an idea that I was supposed to actually pay for the trip in advance, and I didn't realize that. I thought if I gave the room number, they would put it on my credit card. Fortunately, the fates were with us, for our guide from the previous day offered to go ahead and take us on the trip, and we ended up being only eight minutes late in getting on the road.

birders are exempt from obeying no trespassing signs -- i think 
this is the one we violated to see the tiger heron I'd already started birding in the parking lot, enjoying a dawn chorus dominated by large numbers of Red Lored Amazons flying over, but with many other notable birds like my first Black-headed Saltator. On the way to Pipeline Road, a short distance from the park, we stopped to check a tree which contained, among other birds, a nice close-up look at a Red Lored Amazon. We also checked some ponds, where we encountered a wonderful Rufescent Tiger Heron to knock your socks off.

It was a warm, muggy day -- raining at times -- and the light could be challenging, but we walked for about two and a half hours and saw many exciting new birds. The ideal situation would be to backpack into this area and explore the road for several days. Just our small taste of Pipeline Road was enough to get the juices pumping, as we encountered such striking species as Blue-Crowned Motmot, Broad-Billed Motmot, Slaty Tailed Trogon, Black-Tailed Trogon, and, perhaps my personal favorite, a very bold White-Vented Plumeteer. (Don't you love the names of the hummingbirds? Plumeteer. That is a new word as well as a new bird for me.)

view of the rain from our hotel room at gamboa resort We got back just in time to catch the last of the breakfast buffet.

Since I was still cranked up with the excitement, I decided to take another private afternoon walk, this time walking behind the hotel and along the river past the marina and almost to the guard station near the canal. I practiced on some of the confusing flycatchers, taking my time and checking each point of identification, which was actually not difficult to do when I took my time, as the flycatchers as a group tended to be very bold and comfortable with being near an observer. Near the marina itself, I spotted a sleeping sloth and made a note to bring the BF back to see it.

hot lips flower Then, a little ways past the restaurant, I spotted a troop of monkeys. Several of them faded back into the trees, but three of them played like children on a branch overhanging the road. Of course, I did not have a guide to the mammals, so I scribbled down their field marks, thinking to myself as I described the bright color on the nape that, "If that color were on a bird, we'd call it rufous." Later, I'd use the resort's internet service to google the primates of Panama, and I learned that the animals I'd seen were called Rufous-Naped Tamarins. Absolutely wild.

But this special afternoon walk wasn't over yet, for when I headed back, I observed a large family group of Chachalacas with at least three adults and nine half-grown young birds. I really felt a little guilty that I hadn't nagged the BF to come along, but who would honestly expect to see this number of birds and other animals in the middle of the day?

Then, somehow, it was back to the BF and the pool -- and those naughty Malibu Rum and Cokes. As I exercised in the pool in a shaded corner, with cigar plants tumbling over the sides of the waterfall, a Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird actually came and fed from the flowers right over my head. Just another moment of magic in a luxury rainforest resort.

At dinner the previous evening, I had observed that a nearby tree seemed to attract large numbers of Red Lored Amazons flying in for the evening. Therefore, we asked for a table on the deck outside, where we could relax with a local beer called Balboa and watch the show. The resort makes no attempt to capitalize on the comings and goings of the Red Lored Amazon, as some places do with the comings and goings of macaws, perhaps because they perceive these parrots as "common" birds. But, the truth is, parrot lovers from all over the world would get a kick out of watching these Amazons gather for the evening. We watched a tree fill up with birds, until one bird actually landed on another's back, which started a squabble, which resulted in several annoyed birds leaving the tree for more peaceful territory, which started a stampede out of the tree to the "better" neighborhood. We didn't see what happened at the new roost site, but it was probably a similar situation, for suddenly a flock of dozens of Amazons returned with much squawk and comment to the original roost across from the restaurant.

June 16, 2003

spider orchid growing in front of one of the villas I got a burst of energy and made a final frantic effort to bird the heck out of the resort before our driver arrived to pick us up at 1 P.M. In the end, I saw 51 species of birds in a few hours, including some new species like Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan and a couple (perhaps a pair?) of damp Yellow-Crowned Tyrannulets. This morning's birding was so spectacular that it has earned a diary page of its own, which can be found by clicking right here.

I'd entertained some notions of returning to the Parque Natural Metropolitano, but the truth is that we were hungry and overloaded upon our arrival back at the Holiday Inn in Panama City. I was still flabbergasted by the numbers of birds I'd seen, and I really needed to wash up and eat more than anything else. So we decided to putter around the banking section, and we soon came to a restaurant which I think was called Pomodora Cafe but it could just as well be Cafe Pomodora or something else entirely. Well, I did admit to being overwhelmed. It was a wonderful little Italian restaurant which had a Spanish/English menu and extremely friendly service, in addition to the delicious Italian food.

That extra little bit of surreality came when an elegantly attired Italian gentleman, escorted by his elegantly attired friends, which just happened to include an elegantly attired bodyguard who weighed, oh, say, 400 or 500 pounds, and looked like one of the bodyguards for Larry Holmes, if you have ever been in a casino and have seen the bodyguards for Larry Holmes, except a) this individual was even bigger than Larry Holmes' bodyguards who are bigger than Larry Holmes just to start with, b) he was much more expensively dressed, and c) he was Italian rather than black. It was enough to make you glance around for the film crew. I mean, we're talking the total cliche. Mr. High-Powered Money Launderer enjoying the friendly Panamanian banking climate with his entourage.

Mario Puzo would be proud to know that the legacy continues.

Or maybe we just saw what we expected to see, being in a supposed world money laundering capital and under the influence of some lunchtime Coronas and perhaps just a little too much heat and humidity. But it did make me ponder the influence of Hollywood on reality and vice versa. It was almost like these folks were deliberately wearing a costume to put forward an image, for whatever reason they might have to put forward such an image.

But, of course, I am being ridiculous. These gentlemen are not playing at being themselves. They are just being themselves. The experience of playing a part -- of pretending to be something I'm not just to play cards -- has permanently warped my brain. I can't help but ask: Why are they dressed that way? What message are they trying to send? Who is being played and why?

June 17, 2003

It was raining cats and dogs when we reported for the breakfast buffet, but I enjoyed another omelet from the omelet station and -- since it was going to be a long day flying home -- I gave myself permission to indulge in a little caffeine and I enjoyed an excellent cup of coffee. It was no longer raining, just hot and steamy, as we began to wander the nearby streets in search of the Pacific Ocean. There was no beach, just a seawall which was undergoing repairs, but we observed many interesting urban and shoreline species such as Magnificent Frigatebird (always a favorite of mine) and our first Saffron Finches.

The roads were excellent, although I felt the drivers used their horns to communicate more than I would like, something I always think in every city, since I'm a bit sensitive to noise. The sidewalks were OK, but somewhat iffy, with a fair number of "gringo traps," as they're called in The People's Guide to Mexico. The friendly nature of the people impressed itself on us once again, as drivers were constantly waving for us to go ahead and walk in front of them, and taxi drivers were constantly offering to stop and pick us up. The price of cabs is so cheap, and the taxis so abundant, that it would seem silly to rent a car to go anywhere in town, when you could have a driver just by stepping outside and looking around. It isn't really a walking city, I suppose, but neither is Mandeville, and I take my life in my hands and walk here, and we just wanted to take the time to see things from ground level, so we resisted these kind offers and continued to putter around on our own two feet.

pacific ocean at panama city, panama -- yes, i do think it is
weird that the pacific ocean here appears to be east of new orleans, 
very weird indeed Back at the hotel, we took a final dip in the pool, which was on the roof, allowing us to look at the sky and city as we enjoyed the deliciously cool water. Yet another benefit of visiting during the off-season: We had the entire pool completely to ourselves.

Then it was back to New Orleans, via Miami. Amazingly, out of the four legs of our journey, all four were on time. This trip was so smooth and so satisfying that I expect to wake up at any minute and find out I've dreamed the whole thing.

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