From the minute Captain Carl heaves our baggage into his little covered Explorer boat from the pick-up point at the Gamboa public dock, we know our jungle adventure has begun. We cruise leisurely across Gatun Lake…only the occasional sight of dredging cranes and powerful excavation equipment reminds us we're still in the Canal Zone. A pall of late afternoon fog settles onto the greenery along the coastline and shimmers of mirrored light dance across the surface as our launch glides across the water. We set off with Inside Panama Tours to find our houseboat so we can begin to explore the Panama Canal Zone.

Our Floating Hotel in the Panama Canal Zone

Soon after boarding the little boat, we begin to serpentine this way and that through a series of narrow channels of overgrowth. Ferns scrape lightly against the side of our dinghy and palm fronds rustle in the evening's tropical breeze. This is the real Panamá. Pristine…savage…untouched by the proliferation of civilization.

Panama Canal Zone

Captain Carl's Jungle Explorer takes us to explore the Panama Canal Zone. Photo courtesy Gatun Explorer

The humid air is heavy but scented with the fragrance of heliconias, which grow wild in the rainforest. Suddenly, the boat breaks out of the underbrush, into a clearing in a charming little cove. There it is, looming large against a backdrop of fading orange-and-golden light from sunset's approach—a floating houseboat somewhere in the backwaters of the Panama Canal. Our hotel for the night.

We listen carefully, for the sounds of the jungle surrounding us. Growling Howler monkeys, hidden in the treetops of the canopy, bark loudly, with deep guttural sounds guaranteed to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks. Crickets chirp and insects hum. A grunting baby croc calls to its mother. Save the nocturnal calls of its furry and feathered inhabitants, the forest is quiet. The absence of traffic and the solitude further enamor us to the safari lifestyle.

While we get settled in, Carl whips up a fabulous dinner and we eat by the light of tiki torches. A bat encroaches upon the faint glow, snatches its insect prey, and skitters away, its wings almost luminous in the moonbeams.

As the day fades into night, it’s time to gear up—life jackets and paddles—and head for the canoes. Now, I love canoeing, but there's something ominous and foreboding about canoeing in the darkness. You lose your bearings; the wobbly sensation from the slightest movement conjures images of falling into the black water and plunging to your death. But none of that… Captain Carl allays our fears.

Inside the oversized canoe, he traipses from bow to stern, in search of creatures of the night. My husband, as instructed, mans the spotlight. My son, Nicolas, and I, we don't see anything in the dark. But Captain Carl does. His eyes dart to the tiniest glint of red, near the reeds along the bank. In a heartbeat, he's run barefooted to the front of the dugout—a real-life Tarzan—and bailed halfway out of the boat, into the murky water. He clambers back onboard, clutching a squirming baby caiman, jaws gaping wide to display its tiny, yet still dangerously-sharp rows of teeth. The nighttime safari trip…let's just say it's not for the faint of heart.

Back at our buoyant hotel, we go to bed, lulled into dreamland by the lilt of the water lapping against the side of the houseboat and the gentle hush of the jungle going to sleep. Morning arrives almost too early, but another fabulous meal by the Captain puts us in the mood for fishing.

Exploring the Panama Canal by Day

With an expert local Panamanian guide, we shoot across Gatun in search of a fishing hole. After two minutes without a catch, our guide says, “Reel up your line, we’ll go somewhere else.” We secure our poles and head to the next sweet spot. And sweet it is…seventy peacock bass in less than 2 hours! A minnow on the line and a cast into the water nets another fish on the hook. As we haul in the last of the day’s trophy catch, in the distance, a mega tanker passes slowly in the 51-mile stretch between the Atlantic and Pacific shores. The ship barely creates a discernible wake for us as it passes.

Panama Canal Zone

The author fishing in the Panama Canal Zone. Photo by Vickie Lillo

While our guide cleans fish back at the houseboat, we don swimsuits and hop into waiting kayaks. We’re heading to Monkey Island, a private bank only yards from the houseboat, where capuchins and fuzzy tamarins roam free. A nibble on the proffered banana and the playful primates scamper back up the tree—curious, but not tame.

Panama Canal Zone

Captain Carl with monkeys in the Panama Canal Zone. Photo courtesy Gatun Explorer

As we wait to head back toward the city, we interact with the other critters in Captain Carl's care: the feisty pair of caged iguanas, his trained parakeet, and my favorite, the domesticated Keel-billed toucan who entertains us with his breakfast of grapes. “Does everybody like candy?” Carl unexpectedly asks. Within minutes, he comes back with Candy, who just happens to be his pet boa constrictor that, unbeknownst to us, also slept on the houseboat last night. We all elect to endure the photo op. So, for about 30 daring seconds, each of us takes our turn with the snake wrapped around our neck and draped down our arm. With Candy tucked safely back in her box, we take one last look at the simple solitude of the Panamanian jungle and set a course for the boat dock.

Panama Canal Zone

The author with Candy the boa constrictor in the Panama Canal Zone. Photo by Vickie Lillo

When You Go to the Panama Canal Zone

Exploring the Panama Canal Zone, with a night on the houseboat, is a great way to get into nature and experience the ecology of the zone not seen by the passing freighters and cruise ships. To book your tour with Inside Panama Tours, located in Panama City, call toll free at 866.581.2752 or visit online. For more ideas on traveling in Central America see these articles by Wander writers.


Panama Canal Zone

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