Thursday, April 4, 2013

Gamboa and Pipeline Road

Purple Gallinule
On our last outing, we took a trip to Panama City.  Today, we are driving 45 minutes outside of the urban world into a birder's paradise.  This is where it all began for me as a birder.  Gamboa and the Pipeline Road.
If you're like most birders, you probably have a partner or spouse who doesn't mind the birds but doesn't want their entire vacation centered around them. But maybe you're one of the lucky ones:) The forgotten town of Gamboa offers birders some of the world's best birding with major attractions like the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, Pipeline Road, and of course the surrounding areas of Soberanía National Park.
Panama Canal
 It's a quick drive from Panama City.  At first I was skeptical because this wildlife haven was so close to an urban area. But it turns out that it's just far enough away from the city to escape the traffic. Plus a big bridge keeps the city sprawl contained to one side.  We actually made Gamboa our headquarters outside of the capital. It's quite easy to arrange a taxi between the airport and Gamboa.  Many times you can do this with your hotel or Bed and Breakfast.   However, let's go back to the non-birding spouse issue:) A birder can secretly bird while visiting the nearby Panama Canal or while sipping on a mojito in a humid rainstorm.
Old signs from the past.  Apparently humans were muscular super human types!
What's even more interesting about Gamboa is that it seems to be a center of operation for the widely present Smithsonian Institute.  While we were there, we saw more agouti(below) than we did humans.  Gamboa was a city built for the Panama Canal by the US government for her canal workers.  But when the US pulled out and turned the canal over to Panama back in the late 90's, the city turned into a ghost town.  Today, many of those homes are undergoing renovations and  purchased by people who have fallen in love with the quiet charm of Gamboa.  The Panama Canal cannot function without the rain forest and therefore, Soberanía National Park thrives along the canal....and with it, some of the most amazing creatures you'll ever see.
Birders from all over the world flock to this location.  It is here in this town that I began my life as a birder.  Although at the time, I wouldn't have guessed this would have happened to me. It was better to say I was a photographer than a birder.  In my next post, I'll write more about this change but for now, Gamboa had piqued my interest.  It was the perfect mix of wildlife and history.
The lighthouse full of bats!
 We stayed at a great bed and breakfast in an old historic Canal home.  In fact, we loved the experience so much, we returned back to Gamboa to end our trip. It wasn't planned, but there was something magical about this sleepy little town that called us back one last time. And we were so glad we did!  If you go in summer(May-September), you'll find that Panama is one of the MOST humid places on this planet.  For a desert rat, it was miserable, but because the wildlife was so amazing, it made the experience bearable.  I had to bring a camelback to survive the extreme changes.  And I sweat. And sweat some more. I had body parts that I didn't know could sweat. Many times, our bodies have to transition into the climate changes.  It can take days, weeks or months.  It just depends on the person. Prepare ahead of time and keep yourself hydrated.
 So we began our walk on the infamous Pipeline Road.  There were birders galore.  Families everywhere teaching their kids the art of birding.  Retired people enjoying the wild beauty.  Backpackers hiking the dirt road along the park.  In fact, a lot of this town benefits from the birding/wildlife crowd.  There is the Canopy Tower that will allow you to see...drum roll....above the canopy of the rain forest.  It's expensive, but it's also a pretty incredible building.  I cannot afford such things so I headed to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center off of Pipeline Road to climb the free tower there.  Of course there is a fee to enter this area but it's much less expensive than the tower.  However, if you're an intense birder with a mission, you may consider paying the extra money for the views.
Long-billed Hermit Hummingbird
 The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center had my heart pumping.  There were hummingbirds galore.  I don't know anyone who can turn away from a hummingbird.....including our non-birding spouses.  There are so many that it's quite the spectacle. For birders, it's heaven but ID hell later on:)
 By this time, I've sweated 50 gallons.  My camera has moisture build up around the lens.  But I don't care.
Anderida Longwing (Heliconius hecale anderida)
 If you're a talker on the road, you will get evil stares from everyone.  I had to remind one of my chatty friends to keep the volume down.  We were getting the looks from the birder crowd.  It's one of our most sacred codes, isn't it?  So again, it's good for non-birding friends to know before entering holy grounds.
 All along the way, you'll be treated to some of the most spectacular things.
Violet-bellied Hummingbird
 There are benches provided for optimal birding along river.
Snail Kite
 There is a tower that will lift you above the canopy.
 There are strange birds which include many vultures, hawks, kites, tanagers, parrots....and even Toucans.  I heard a story that the majestic Harpy Eagle was spotted there once!  It blew my mind away.
Wattled Jacana
 While most of the birds are colorful, it is tricky to spot many of them because A. they are so high up into the canopy and B. they surprisingly blend well into their surroundings.
Crimson-backed Tanager
 A birder could easily spend a week in this area.  For a non-birder.....maybe two days.  But the ultra expensive Gamboa Rainforest Resort may snag you in for a couple more overpriced adventures and drinks. I'd lie if I said we didn't go:) The cold drinks hit the spot after a humid day hiking.  Plus the views are out of this world.  And don't get me started on the pool! If you're on a budget, steer clear of this money trap. But it is nice:)
 We had an incredible stay at Ivan's Bed and Breakfast.  Pack some food with you.  This bed and breakfast is not really kid friendly or college party material because the owners do live there and ask that you respect the noise levels.  In fact, at the time, Ivan's parents were living with him. He is a birder as are many of his guests. All I can tell you is that we really enjoyed our stay.  Ivan was a wonderful host and very knowledgeable about the area.  We began our journey at his place and came back for the last several days.  It was a memorable experience. He also has A/C!  Ivan predicted I would become a birder within the year.  I denied it all.  No way!!!  Those people were weird!  I was so naive and wrong about it all.  The birding community has transformed me in ways I yet do not understand.  But it has been the most wonderful thing that has happened to me in a long time.  Positive.  Uplifting. Adventurous. Educational. And of course, the people, places and birds make it all so worthwhile!
Among friends with Ivan at his Bed and Breakfast
 I teach Spanish and travel all over the place.  Some of you are asking right now(I assume since you are reading an English post:), how much Spanish should one know?  A little bit is fine, but honestly, most of the people speak English in this country and they use the American dollar.  Safety factor?  In Gamboa, it's very safe to travel.  Of course, common sense is important, but I felt very safe walking around this town and national park. This is an excellent place to meet birders from all around the world and just....bird! Not all places in Panama are safe to bird, but I'll cover that in the next post.
Eurybia Butterfly
For now, I leave you with a video from the historic town of Gamboa. And of course, you can always catch the latest happenings around Arizona at Las Aventuras.  Our next stop will be the magical island of Coiba Island.  Happy Birding!!!


  1. some fantastic photographs; what a great place. The best of both worlds it seems, how creative to bird while sipping on a mojito in a humid rainstorm! Top marks.

    1. Oh....and those mojitos hit the right spot after a hot day. By the time we'd get back, there would be a rainstorm and we would just smile at all the wonderful finds from the day:)

  2. Beside the heat and humidity the Panama rainforest must have been an amazing place to visit. Great shots of the beautiful birds and other creatures Chris. Thanks for sharing your wonderful adventure!

    1. Thanks Pam. It was a blast. Panama blew me away with all the wonderful flora and fauna!

  3. Wonderful photos, and I enjoyed the video too.

    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the video:)

  4. great capture of the hummingbirds

    1. There's nothing quite like a Charm of them:)

  5. Great post, Chris! Excellent highlights of some great things & places to see! My heart would definitely be pounding too if I saw all those Hummingbirds! The Snail Kite shot is stunning! Looking forward to your next post:)

    1. I can only imagine what Florida will bring one day. Hopefully soon. I couldn't believe how close I could get to the Snail Kite! What a beautiful bird!

  6. Chris, what an amazing post! Well done and well told! Keep up the good writing and the good birding! Love it!

    1. Thanks Kathie for your words and support:)

  7. Sounds like you had a fabulous adventure in Gamboa. I really knew nothing of the area so your post was especially interesting. I think I would travel there just to see all the beautiful hummingbirds. Stunning photographs, fantastic post!

    1. Hope you get to go someday and check these places out Julie. They are really something to see:)

  8. Chris, I really enjoyed reading your post. You described almost exactly the same birding trip my husband and I had last year in Panama. We spent the last third of our trip in Gamboa and actually stayed in the same neighborhood where you stayed. We were at the Canopy B&B (owned by the same folks who run Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge). In fact, I remember laughing at the "muscle man playing soccer in the road" sign too! I love Pipeline Road, Rainforest Discover Center, the tower, and even visited Canopy Tower. One find, though, which my husband and I HIGHLY recommend is the Radisson Hotel and Golf, though the website says it's Panama City it's not. It's very close to Gamboa. It's on 160 acres of rainforest, the rooms have floor to ceiling windows and we saw the great hawk migration happen right outside our window! The all (well, not ALL, but several hundred did) rest in the rainforest outside our room and at 9:00 a.m. the next morning they all rose out of the forest. It was like magic! I recommend this place because it has TWO POOLS, which we found we needed after birding the very hot mornings. We checked out of our B&B early and spent our last night at this hotel. It was nice. (Plus, they have an ATM, which you can't find anywhere in Gamboa.)

    Anyway, thanks for taking me down memory lane with your post.

    -Lisa (

  9. Hi Lisa,

    Very exciting!!! I want to go back again and visit. I didn't know anything back then about birding and now with all this info in my head, I could blow my bird lists out of the rain forest:) I'm going to be writing on Coiba next which is where I spent most of my money because it was harder to get to but the birding was excellent as well. Glad you had fun. Memory lane is one of my favorite places to dwell when I'm stuck in traffic or in the middle of a difficult work week:) This summer I'm returning to Guatemala and look forward to the birding there! Central America is a hot bed for so many wonderful hummingbirds and critters. PS. Thanks for the tips. Good to know! Birding from your a/c'd hotel room is my kind of birding:) Swimming pools are a necessity down there!