By Joy Rothke
Special to The Tico Times
Weekly Edition: Vol. VIII, No. 71 – San José, Costa Rica, June 20 – June 26, 2003
Glowing adjectives are bandied about with abandon when it comes to hotels and resorts. Every place, the PR mavens insist, is unique, incomparable – one-of-a-kind!!
The truth is most places fail the definition of unique.
The Canopy Tower in Gamboa, Panama is unique. This former military radar station, a remnant of the U.S.’ long presence in the former Canal Zone, has been transformed by its visionary owner, Raul Arias de Para, a banker-turned-conservationist, into a premier destination for birders and nature lovers from around the world.
Its location, smack in the middle of 50,000+ acre Soberania National Park, and high above the tree canopy, offers guests an unparalleled view of the avifauna of Panama, as well as panoramic views of the canal.
Topped by a 30-foot geotangent dome (a variation on the geodesic dome) the Canopy Tower was a hulking, drab, windowless, all-steel structure. On the surface, it appeared an unlikely home for rebirth as a hotel. With a single toilet, it had been home to a series of U.S. Air Force radar technicians, who used the tower to monitor suspected drug smugglers.
The tower was closed in 1995, part of the turnover of the canal to the Panamanians. In 1996, the U.S.-educated Arias, scion of an influential Panamanian political family (he is the grandson of Don Tomás Arias, one of the founders of the Republic of Panama) got permission to turn it into an eco-lodge, after a year of complex negotiations.
A century of U.S. presence protected Soberania from deforestation and development. In addition to the abundant bird life, jaguars; sloths; marmosets; howler, white-faced, capuchin and night monkeys; kinkajou; ocelots; jaguarundi; nine-banded armadillo and a wide variety of butterflies call this home.
The entrance gate retains its old signs, warning “This is a U.S. Military Defense Site. It is illegal for persons not possessing a valid U.S.-issued identification document to enter,” but the Canopy Tower is painted toucan-inspired shades of bright yellow and aquamarine.
Each of the tower’s five levels provides a different view of the surrounding rainforest. The roof, with its wide observation tower above the treeline, is an incomparable spot to watch the canopy’s bird and animal life, as well as views of ships gliding through the Panama Canal, and in the distance, the skyline of Panama City.
The top floor contains the main dining area, and is completely surrounded by panoramic windows. A collection of hammocks, comfortable overstuffed sofas and chairs, an extensive natural history library and the all-glass, 360-degree vistas make this the prime area for relaxing, pre-dinner cocktails, and schmoozing about birds.
The floors below house 12 double rooms, furnished in teak from a plantation owned by Arias. There is no air conditioning (the noise can scare birds away), but it’s relatively cool in the canopy, and the rooms have ceiling fans. Birders can check out the lower levels of the forest canopy from the mezzanine windows. The ground floor houses environmental exhibits and the check-in desk.
Whether you’re an ornithologist, a lifelong birder or an utter novice birder like me, the enormous number of species in and around Soberania makes the Canopy Tower a birding mecca. Panama has 936 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – and about 300 are viewable in the area around the Canopy Tower.
As the land bridge between North and South America, Panama is home to wildlife species from both continents. The Pipeline Road alongside the canal has set the world record for the annual Christmas 24-hour Audubon bird count, recording 954 species.
Our day began early at the tower, as guests gathered on the observation deck to watch the sun rise over the rainforest and see the first birds of the morning. In the cool morning air you can hear, and sometimes see, monkeys scampering across the branches, and the songs and calls of dozens of bird species. Coffee and tea are served, and we watched dawn break over the park, peering through the spotting scope at a particularly intriguing bird.
After breakfast, guests are transported to birding areas in the park in the “Birdmobile” and “Forestmobile,” modified Toyota 4 x 4 pickups that can carry up to 10 birders. The Tower’s staff birding guides, Carlos and José, are both bilingual and experienced birders. They’re expert at spotting area birds, and carry high-powered spotting scopes.
Afternoons include more birding, relaxing on the observation deck or lounging in a hammock in the library. Evenings are low-key, and most guests turn in early. The tower also offers night tours in the Birdmobile, where you have a good chance of seeing a Spectacled Owl – just one of the 50+ species I saw in two days of birding
Arias’ sister, Cuquita Arias de Calvo, is a well-known Panamanian cookbook author and star of a TV cooking show. She trained the Canopy Tower chefs and designed the menus, which emphasize local fresh fruits and vegetables – as well as deliciously rich desserts. Most guests keep their binoculars close during meals, and it’s not unusual for table conversation to stop as we leap up to glimpse an elusive species.
The staff can arrange many other local guided tours, as well as longer bird-watching trips to Colûn, the other end of the Panama Canal. The Tower’s proximity to Panama City (about 40-45 minutes by car), make it an ideal base for non-birding expeditions, including canal tours, visits to Panama City and shopping for electronics and handicrafts.
Canopy Tower is open year-round. When you visit depends on your budget and your birding interests. Late February to early May is the spring migration season, and is the best time to see warblers and migratory Neotropical birds in breeding plumage.
Rainy season budget packages are available from May to September, when many resident birds start to nest. The forest is lush and green in June, July and August. September through mid-October is a prime time to see Panama’s dramatic hawk migrations.
All-inclusive packages include: entrance fee to Soberanía National Park; lodging based on double occupancy; all meals, taxes, Rainforestmobile transportation up Semaphore Hill Road, and two introductory guided walks. Rates US $110-$200/day depending on season and room type.
For more information, call (507) 264-5720 or 800-854-2597 (U.S.), fax (507) 612-9176 e-mail: please use our easy contact form or see www.canopytower.com.
U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport to enter Panama. No visa is required; you will have to purchase a tourist card for $5 when you enter. No vaccinations are required, and the tap water is potable. Panama uses U.S. currency (they call it Balboas). COPA, TACA and LACSA offer non-stop flights from San José to Panama City. TICABus (221-8954) offers direct service from Coca-Cola to Panama City’s Albrook Bus Station. Tracopa (222-2666) offers service from Coca-Cola to David, Panama, where you can connect to the Panama City bus.
Copyright © The Tico Times 2003
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