Houseboating on the Panama Canal

Floating Through the Backwater of the Panama Cana

A slight torrid breeze swept across the surface of Lago Gatun, barely enough to ripple the waters of the lake. Iridescent dragonflies skittered in circles near the outgrowth of thick vegetation along the shore...trolling for mosquitoes. Birds chattered loudly in the canopy of the surrounding rainforest. Rat-a-tat-tat, a Crimson-Crested woodpecker thrummed his beak against the bark of an unsuspecting tree, like a ferocious drill bit. Rat-a-tat-tat...the yammering began anew. Across the slough, a mantled howler monkey barked, followed by a rustling in the treetops. The sounds of the Panamanian jungle at play.

Our New Book

Cruising Amongst the Bulrushes to our Floating Hotel

We floated next to the bank, out of the path of a freighter, and laughed as the humongous waves from the wake of his ship tossed our dinghy about while Captain Carl maneuvered the Gatun Explorer alongside a patch of swaying cattails. He pointed in the air, toward an outcropping of trees...toward a Keel-billed tucan. As the dory edged closer, the toucan took flight. Brilliantly colored beak and sleek black plumes floated on a breath of wind, before disappearing into the bush.

Suddenly, the skiff eased into an opening amongst the bulrushes. Palm fronds scraped across the faded paint on the side of the scull as we entered the narrow channel. But then the waterway widened and the wilderness folded back; the 'Explorer' surged ahead.

Camping in the Jungle - Panamanian Style

And there it was...a houseboat anchored out in the middle of nowhere, in the deepest backwaters of the Panama Canal. It would be our hotel for the night and an off-the-beaten-path lodging experience second to none. It wasn't the lap of luxury, but the mattresses were comfortable, the meals were authentically Panamanian, and the atmosphere was top-notch.

Dining by torchlight...entertained by a stray bat zipping around the lamp...listening to the ramblings of the jungle bedding down for the night...I felt like I was on a camping excursion in the middle of the rainforest. Without the discomfort of a sleeping bag, a pit toilet and a mosquito net. I fell asleep to the soothing melody of the katydids and the gentle lapping of Gatun's lake water against the side of the houseboat.

A Fish Tale for Posterity

Morning came just past the crack of dawn. The song of a grackle, drawn-out and shrill, lilted in the sultry breeze. And, more importantly, the call of the sargento (peacock bass). My husband, son and I slathered on the sunscreen and headed for the launch--it was time for fishing. Though not a fisherman by nature, I had to admit...that was the single best fishing experience of my life.

Our guide, a local from the town, baited our hooks with minnows. By time we cast our lines and tugged a time or two on the rod, we had snagged another 'keeper'. Seventy-five in all, in the span of less than two hours. After that, what could have been better than guzzling a refreshing drink, reel in hand, watching a pair of cargo ships plying the waters of Gatun? The mega tankers cruised slowly through the Canal Zone, belching black smoke from their stacks -- perhaps mindful of a trio of pescadores (anglers) and their trusted guide hauling in a boatload of sargentos, secured to a lone cluster of scraggly, half-submerged trees.

The time came to crank up the motor and set a course back to the houseboat. A white ibis, patrolling for crayfish at the water's edge, stared as we skimmed across the surface of the lake. Stared...and then went back to feeding, unperturbed. The jungle played out its daily rituals of food foraging with nary a glance in our direction...or even a hiccup in the routine.

Bidding Good-bye to the Rainforest, Full of Nature's Treasures

Only a quick 40 minutes from the rat-race of la Ciudad de Panama (Panama City we were in an untouched, almost primeval, inlet of the lake...bounded on all sides--north, south, east and west--by the lush vegetation of the Panamanian rainforest. Ferns, palms, and flowering heliconias...herons, plovers, and terns...the diversity of flora and avifauna was breathtaking.

We fired up our rental car and drove across the rather rickety, single lane bridge to check out our next retreat, the luxurious Gamboa Rainforest Lodge. Straddling the border of the Soberania National Park, the hotel and its manicured gardens offered exclusive 'nature walks' at daybreak along the Pipeline Road, for birding 'extraordinaire'. Searching for the rare quetzal and listening for the screech of a yellow-headed caracara falcon...that would simply have to wait for another day. Right now, I wanted to dart back to the refuel with another bowl of sancocho (traditional soup), empanadas (meat pies) and crispy fried plantains.

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Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her son.

Updated: August 23, 2016

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