Gamboa Rainforest Resort
First Impressions of Gamboa, Panama
On the road into the small town of Gamboa for a stay at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, you experience quite a transformation from your arrival at the modern Tocumen Airport just 45 minutes before. There’s a drive down a two lane highway through dense rainforest before you emerge on the banks of the Chagres River. There, you wait your turn to cross a one-lane Panama Canal era iron and wood bridge to enter the town of Gamboa.
Like Stepping Back in Time
While I did feel that my sense of place and time had shifted in a short time, it still didn’t prepare me for the moment I walked into the lobby of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort (GRR) and looked out the floor to ceiling windows.
Even though I had already been in the rainforests of Central America for three weeks, that view of the river and jungle gave me the most potent sense of being in a scene caught in my imagination probably from a dozen jungle movies I had viewed at some time. To me, the trees and river I was viewing looked more like a mural painted on the wall than the actual place I was now inhabiting.
Within 24 hours, I told Diane, “I want to own this place.” Not once in my life, had I ever been an aspiring hotelier, but this place somehow captured my imagination for what a destination in the rainforest could be.
The rooms at this resort are quite nice. The beds are comfortable and the bathrooms are a good size. Each room has a balcony with a hammock (I have heard that the hotel is in the middle of a major remodel, so there may be nicer amenities soon.) The hotel tries to capture that turn of the 20th century colonial jungle feel.
Gamboa was originally a small settlement for Panama Canal builders from the U.S. and the historic houses are just outside the hotel grounds. In fact, the hotel also owns some or many of the historic Canal Zone homes which can be rented for large parties or for people who just want to get away from the main hotel.
Food at Gamboa Rainforest Resort
When I say the resort is the only place in town to get food, it is literally true. There is no other place to buy anything in Gamboa—not a convenience store, not a vending machine—nothing! There are three restaurants which are part of the hotel. It’s not that the food is terrible, I just kept thinking about what it could be. Breakfast, which is included in your lodging fee, is served daily and includes a buffet. They have all the usual breakfast fare and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Lunch and dinner, either buffet or from a menu are served in this same dining room which is downstairs in the main building.
There are two other restaurants, El Corotu (serving Panamanian fare in the main building) and Los Lagartos (in a separate building on the river.) Los Lagartos was closed during the time we stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, and El Corotu (dinner only) in the lobby appeared to be quite expensive for the food that was offered. Perhaps the 2017 renovation will make it into an all-inclusive destination.
An Amazing Turn of the Century Library
This resort also boasts a library. It is accessed from the stairs going up in the lobby. Make sure you visit. There’s something about being in a room with dark wood, ornate spiraling iron ladders, and old books that gives me a thrill. It’s so unexpected here! In my imagined ownership of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, this room becomes the resource center for those who want to fill their heads with knowledge of rainforest flora and fauna. During your stay, pick up a book, relax in one of the leather chairs, and soak in the ambience.
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort Pool
The pool area is expansive and the water is refreshing. Those who spend time in tropical countries know having cool refreshing breaks are lifesaving. The thing is that the pool, like many other things at Gamboa Rainforest Resort just misses the mark. There are little cracks in the cement all around the pool. The plantings in the pool area don’t look good or are non-existent. Everything just seems a little worse for wear and the venue isn’t utilized to its maximum potential. Nonetheless, it is wonderful to have this cool oasis in the heat and humidity of Panama.
Jungle Exploration Activities
Gamboa Rainforest Resort’s biggest plus is the number of activities that they have available for people of all ages. There is the Aerial Tram which we loved, and is free for guests. A sloth was resting in a tree just 4 feet from our tram seats!
There is a tower to climb to get an even better view of the rainforest. If you are interested in the canal, there’s a boat tour than includes the canal and Lake Gatun. In addition, you can partake in a tour of a nearby indigenous village.
Also, the hotel has its own amazing exhibits with species from the surrounding habitats. These include a butterfly garden, an orchid garden, an amphibian habitat, and a reptile house (sadly closed when we were there.)
Tour of the Rainforest at Night
Another experience that was included in the price of our stay was a nighttime nature tour. This experience didn’t yield much in the way of wildlife sighting, but had a lot of other excitement. About 15 of us piled into an open sided African safari-type vehicle with slippery bench seats. There was a driver and a “guide” present. The guide stood behind the cab with a large handheld spotlight.
Taking off at about 40 miles per hour, the guide would whip her light from road to tree and yell in passing, “There’s an agouti!” “See the rabbit?” (What Panamanians call a rabbit is actually a paca, relative of agoutis and guinea pigs.) The truck never slowed down and you could never see the sight, but you did get to know the other passengers on an intimate basis lurching from side to side on the seats as the truck careened around town. It was a hoot!
My Gamboa Rainforest Resort Dream
As I said before, I’ve never had any desire to own a large hotel or even a small one. This place captured me. Here are some of my ideas for the place. (Hotel owners, please feel free to run with these.)
Make GRR the Premier science-based rainforest destination in the world. Heck, the Smithsonian Tropical Rainforest Institute is right there in Lake Gatun. The scientific community and bird lovers, forest lovers and others could be the center of this business.
Bring in the best chefs from Panama City, extend the restaurant hours and make it a food and drink destination.
Provide state of the art technology for meeting rooms and the library. Meetings and classes on the rainforest could be held there year round.
Emphasize the view. Increase seating, cocktail service, and food to areas with the breathtaking view of the Chagres.
Increase the nature and wildlife rescue emphasis. There is already a good foundation with the evening programs presented by the Asociacion Panamericana para la Conservacion.
Use the beautiful pool area to its fullest. Put in a full service bar and outdoor eating venue. Provide great snacks and fun around the pool at a price.