A Storied Past

The Canopy Tower wasn’t always one of the best birding destinations in the world. The structure destined to become the Canopy Tower was constructed by the United States military ca. 1963, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a radar tower. Its primary purpose was to facilitate the defense of the Panama Canal, a vital economic and military thoroughfare under the control of the US, in case of a potential Soviet attack. By 1969, the site was jointly used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to control air traffic in the area, and by the Panama Canal Commission (PCC) as a communications tower.

In September of 1988, with the Cold War on the wane, the radar tower received a new assignment when it was activated as Site One in the Caribbean Basin Radar Network (CBRN). This network was used by the United States government to detect airplanes suspected of transporting illegal drugs from South America. The tower played this role until June of 1995 when it was closed and left vacant waiting for better days.

In November of 1996, the radar tower, occupying a fenced-in area of approximately 1300 square meters, and the surrounding Semaphore Hill site, consisting of 35 hectares of rainforest within the 35,000 hectares of Soberanía National Park, were transferred from the US to Panama in compliance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

In August of 1997, the government of Panama signed a long-term contract with Raúl Arias de Para to transform the tower into a center for rainforest observation and ecotourism in Panama.

In January of 1999, the Canopy Tower was inaugurated and the rest, as they say, is history.


Raúl’s Story

For years I have been fascinated by the rainforests surrounding the Panama Canal. They contain an incredibly rich fauna, exuberant flora and some truly spectacular vistas. Furthermore, parts of these well-conserved forests are only minutes from Panama City. However, as a businessman interested in ecotourism, I could not do anything about it because these lands were part of the Canal Zone or under US military control and, consequently, off-limits for commercial development.

With the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977, this began to change, but the Noriega years slowed everything down and caused a backward leap in the Panamanian economy. Who would want to come to Panama with such an unsavory character in power? After the US invasion of 1989–1990, I worked with the new government putting the country back on track, and it wasn’t until 1995 that I was ready to start realizing my dream.

Back then I did not have a clear concept in my mind about what exactly I wanted to do, but I knew the areas around the Canal were unsurpassed in the whole world for ecotourism potential. Where else can you see 380 species of birds in a 24-hour period (a world record)? Where else can you see huge passenger ships navigate through a lush tropical forest? Where else can you see the Panama Canal, a true wonder of engineering and human ingenuity? Only in Panama, of course.

Consequently, in August of 1995, I met for the first time with Dr. Nicolas Ardito Barletta, the recently appointed Director General of the Autoridad de la Region Interoceanica (ARI), the agency of the Panamanian Government in charge of allocating the real estate being transferred to Panama by the United States in compliance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. I received enthusiastic support from Dr. Barletta, which was essential to my finally realizing my dream, some two years and countless meetings later.

First I began to explore the area around Gamboa, specifically Pipeline Road, which is renowned worldwide as a superb birding area. Being a birdwatcher myself, I naturally looked for sites in which I could also practice this peaceful and challenging hobby. After several weekends of exploration in which Mantled Howlers, White-faced Capuchins and Titis (Geoffroy’s Tamarins) were my frequent companions, not to mention toucans, trogons, gato solos (coatis) and neques (agoutis), I came across indications of a spot where the US Army many years ago had had some type of installation. The site and a road leading to it appeared on maps and in aerial photos taken 20 years ago, but more recent pictures showed only trees and more trees where the installation had been. Obviously, nature had taken over the area, making it even more interesting.

Having found the “ideal” place for an ecolodge, I approached ARI with the results of my investigations. ARI then had to contact the Panama Canal Commission because the chosen site was within the operating area of the Canal. After several weeks and several letters and memos back and forth, it was found that the site was under still under the control of the US Army, specifically, the US Tropic Test Center. So the ARI had to approach the Army for permission to inspect the site. Again, several weeks passed and several notes and memos were sent to the US Embassy (Treaty Administration), which in turn contacted the Southern Command, which in turn contacted the US Tropic Test Center. Finally, the word arrived: “NO! We need this place”— although it had been abandoned for years.

Back to square one! Undaunted by this setback, I began the search again. This time I explored the area past Gamboa near where the US Air Force had a small landing strip, right next to the Canal. I wanted a spot that could be reached by car and this ruled out the many beautiful islands and coves of Gatun Lake. Again, I spent several weekends walking the area and once even got lost for about two hours, but I found a beautiful spot with a small lake and a spectacular vista of the Canal. This was IT, fantastic!

I approached the ARI once more with the “ideal” spot in the bag and the process began again. Letters, memos, aerial pictures, maps, meetings, you name it…I complied with every request and met with whomever had anything to do with this approval, even remotely, but to no avail. The spot was too close to the Canal and the Commission was not too keen on the idea. I was told to look for another site because it would not be approved.

Back to square one again! I was about ready to quit then. I had been in this search for over a year and I was fed up with bureaucracy. I seriously considered dedicating my efforts to expanding my operations in El Valle de Antón where I had recently completed an ecoturist attraction called the Canopy Adventure. But dreams are worth pursuing, so I kept going.

This time, the support of a US employee of the Panama Canal Commission proved to be critical. Tom Duty, Manager of the Real Estate Management Division, said offhandedly at the end of a meeting in which site no. 2 had been turned down: “Raúl, have you ever been to Semaphore Hill? There is a USAF radar tower there and it reverts to Panama in November of this year, take a look at it, you might like it”. I had never even heard of the place…Semaphore Hill…it was not in Gamboa, its name brought to mind images of traffic and streetlights and, frankly, I was despondent, but I decided to take a look at it anyway.

“What the heck,” I thought! I have invested so much time and effort in this project I might as well take a look at this hill. And, after all, as we say in Spanish, “a la tercera va la vencida,” on the third try you win! And win I did!

Two weeks later I visited Semaphore Hill accompanied by Gladys Diaz, who is Tom Duty’s Deputy, several USAF and ARI personnel, and a couple of civilians from the Treaty Implementation Department of the Southern Command. Even though nobody brought the key and we couldn’t go inside the building, I immediately liked the place. I did not know what I was going to do with it but I liked it right away, it was indeed love at first sight!

Workers renovating Canopy Tower
Workers renovating Canopy Tower
Workers painting Canopy Tower
Workers renovating Canopy Tower


First, the one-mile paved road to the top of Semaphore Hill takes you through a beautiful, tall, semi-deciduous forest with plenty of mammals and birds. I remember that we heard howlers and saw several coatis and agoutis cross the road the day of our first visit. Second, it was only 30 minutes from Panama City. Third, I was told that from the top of the tower you could see the Panama Canal and the Culebra Cut, and fourth, the tower’s architecture was fascinating and unique.  It made me want to go in and see what was inside.

Eventually, I did go in and spent countless hours in the tower admiring the surrounding rainforest, watching monkeys only meters away, observing many species of birds (including birds that live in the canopy and are otherwise very hard to see) and seeing ships navigate through the Canal.

Slowly the project began to take shape. This was indeed an extraordinary place. It combined history, spectacular vistas of the Canal and the surrounding forest, and great birding and abundant wildlife. I felt I could transform this into a global attraction, a must-see-place for every visitor to Panama.

However, there was one little problem, one more obstacle to overcome. Semaphore Hill was inside Parque Nacional Soberania so INRENARE (the National Park Authority ) had to approve any project. Therefore, in addition to ARI, the PCC, the Southern Command and the USAF, I had now to negotiate with INRENARE! Furthermore, it was known that INRENARE did not look with kind eyes towards private enterprise operating within national parks. I took a deep breath, tightened my belt (me amarre los pantalones) and jumped in.

In reality my project did not entail building inside a national park, something which is “taboo” to park authorities. Rather, my project meant transforming an old military installation into a center for the observation and study of the rainforest. To complete my project I did not have to cut a single tree or use bulldozers or heavy machinery. I was simply proposing to remodel an existing military building and make it suitable for visitors interested in observing the rainforest and its inhabitants.

I am a firm believer in and practitioner of conservation so I sympathize with INRENARE’s efforts to protect our rapidly vanishing rainforests. I also believe that ecotourism, if done correctly, is a sustainable activity that can provide employment without damaging the natural resources on which it relies. Thank God, my arguments convinced the park authorities and they gave me the green light. A formal Environmental Impact Study concluded that potential negative impacts to the environment of the project were negligible. On the contrary, the project will have significant positive impacts, both because our presence in the area will help to control poachers and because the project itself will educate visitors about the need to support conservation efforts in Panama and around the world.

Consequently, on September 16th, 1997, more than two years after my first meeting with Dr. Ardito Barletta, I signed a concession contract with ARI and INRENARE which allows me to transform the radar tower into an ecotourist center.

I wish to thank everyone who had something to do with this project. The list is long and rather than forget one person I will not name anyone, but there are plenty of people in ARI, INRENARE, IPAT (the Panamanian Tourist Bureau), PCC, US Army Southern Command and the USAF who helped me along the way. A million thanks to all you guys, please come by the Canopy Tower anytime and have a cold one on me!

See Also

Raul’s Canopy Tower Update (The Isthmian, December 1997).
The Canopy Tower: Updates from Our First Year (February–May 1998).
The Ultimate Army Surplus (Travel+Leisure, December 1999).
Panama Plans to Turn Bases Into Hotels for Eco-Tourists (Wall Street Journal, 11 January 2000).
A Message from the Canopy Tower’s Past (January 2003).
Panama Rises (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2004).
The Colors of the Canopy Tower (August 2017).

Are You Ready

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