We were expecting to fly down to Panama City on the night that Nemo, the massive snowstorm that hit the U.S. northeast, dumped a load of snow and closed down airports along the Eastern seaboard. We made it out the following day, missing a day on the Caribbean coast. After a late arrival, we spent the night in a mediocre hotel that is redeemed only by its location on the Panama Canal with magnificent views of one of the architectural wonders of the world. We were picked up the next morning for a scenic 3 hour drive and 1 hour boat ride to the Coral Lodge in the San Blas region. Coral Lodge consists of 7 thatched-roof bungalows over the water, a dive shack and main building that includes the office and the restaurant. It seemed ideal, except that the property was in the process of being transferred to new owners and the previous owners had let the place deteriorate. It was still peaceful and relaxing, but not exactly the experience we had anticipated. An excursion to Kuna Yala to learn more about the Kuna culture was also disappointing. It was not the best season for diving, but we did snorkel. The coral was in a sorry state, however, the highlight of our excursion was a pair of squid who allowed us to watch them at close range while they successfully hunted and consumed small fish, behavior that we have not previously witnessed.
From Coral Lodge, we transferred to Canopy Tower in Soberania National Park. The lodge is housed in a converted U.S. military radar tower atop a hill with wide-ranging views over the rainforest and as distant as Panama City. The dirt trail that leads from the main road to the Tower is one of the premiere bird and mammal viewing locations in the country and we discovered astonishing wildlife along this road, and in all of the other areas, that we explored during our 7 days at the lodge. We usually arose very early for a morning excursion, returned to the lodge for lunch, took a second excursion in the afternoon after siesta and on 3 nights ventured out after dinner to view nocturnal animals. We also enjoyed a full day excursion to the Caribbean coast (different area than where we stayed previously) that included a visit to the San Lorenzo Fort, situated where the Chagres River empties into the sea. A rowdy group of sailors dressed in pirate garb were celebrating on the grounds of the fort, which afforded us the opportunity to appreciate a performance of traditional dancing by a local troupe. Birds are the specialty of the Canopy Tower, and we saw an amazing variety of them, but we were also fortunate enough to see a lot of fascinating critters and animal behavior. We also took time out to visit the Miraflores Locks of the Canal.
After Canopy Tower, we spent a couple of nights at their other property, Canopy Lodge, in the Valle de Anton, located in a cloud forest in the caldera of a long-extinct volcano. This is an incredibly scenic location with a very different climate and environment, but we saw a wide variety of birds and an impressive waterfall named El Macho during our hikes around the area. The lodge wasn’t as good for mammals, but it was a birder’s dream location and a very comfortable and attractive property.
Here is a short, and far from complete, list of birds and animals that we encountered in both locations:
- · Mantled Howler Monkeys, Geoffrey’s Tamarins and White-Faced Capuchins.
- · Northern Tamandua – a medium sized anteater. I was thrilled to see one in the wild, especially since we had a very close and prolonged view.
- · Rothschild’s porcupine – we found one munching on membrillo fruit in a tree one night. Very different from the African porcupines that we’ve seen, it has short quills and a cute porcine snout. Even our guide was impressed with this find and pulled out his camera to record it.
- · Nine-banded armadillo – we were surprised at how large and tank-like they are. We found one rooting around for food during a night drive
- · Capybaras – the largest rodent in the world, though the Panama species is smaller than their Brazilian cousins. They look like humongous guinea pigs.
- · Agouti – large rodents that are smaller than capybara, but still impressive.
- · Three-toed sloths – adorable fuzzballs with intimidating claws. The males have distinctive markings on their backs. Normally found high in trees, we had the extremely good fortune to find one at about eye-level climbing on a vine on the Canopy Tower road and watched him for more than a half hour as he slowly climbed the vine.
- · Hoffman’s two-toed sloth – the 2-toed has a more prominent snout than the 3-toed and is more active at night.
- · Kinkajou – in the raccoon family, this is an adorable mammal who forages in the trees at night and resembles a long cat. We saw two of them but they were tough to photo in the dark.
- · Olinda – also a raccoon relative that looks more like a weasel. Nocturnal and extremely shy.
- · Coati – yet another raccoon relative that actually looks something like a raccoon but with a longer snout.
- · Keel-billed and Chestnut Mandible Toucans
- · A whole variety of gorgeous colorful Tanagers
- · Handsome Mot-Mots with their distinctive trailing tail feather including the rare Tody Mot-Mot
- · Snail Kites hunting and eating snails
- · Tiny Hawk – not only a rare sighting but we actually saw it hunting other birds, eventually capturing and consuming a small manikin
- · 2 Spectacled Owls – one at night and one during the day
- · A pair of Mottled Owls
- · Great Potoo
- · Common Paurauque hunkering down by the roadside at night
- · A majestic Roadside Hawk and Common Hawk
- · Osprey
- · Black-capped Ant Pitta – this is apparently a birder’s holy grail and we saw 3 of them
- · Orange-Chinned, Blue Headed and Red Lored Parrots
- · Purple Gallinule male and female with chicks
- · Boat-billed Heron with 2 fuzzy chicks
- · A tiny Vine Snake consuming a green lizard that looked way too big for it, but he managed to swallow the whole thing
- · Iguanas
- · Spectacled Cayman – a small relative of the alligator
- · Tent-making Bats, Lesser White-lined Bats, False Vampire Bats
- · So many hummingbirds that we cannot name them all
- · 3 Kingfisher species
- · Red-capped, Crimson-Crested, and Lineated Woodpeckers that reminded us of Woody Woodpecker as well as a bunch of wood creepers.
- · Squirrel cuckoo
- · Red-capped Manikin
- · Much much more!!
After the lodge, we returned to Panama City and stayed in a fabulous boutique hotel in Casco Viejo, a UNESCO world heritage site. Canal House has only 3 suites, a lovely lounge and dining room and exceptionally helpful staff. We stayed in the Miraflores Suite, which we can very highly recommend. We took the advice of travelers we met during our trip and had lunch at Tantalo, a modern restaurant in a hip hotel, and dinner at Mostaza, a traditional restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining. Both were packed with locals and a smattering of tourists and offered excellent food at reasonable prices with congenial service. We had a nice stroll around Casco Viejo admiring the architecture and atmosphere. It was very hot in the daytime, a departure from the cooler climate at the lodges.