It’s a gateway to world-famous birding trails, the tropical rainforest of Parque Nacional Soberanía, the powerful Río Chagres, botanical gardens and a zoo, and the huge, artificially-made Lago Gatún. That lake is at the heart of the canal and contains Barro Colorado Island, one of the world’s foremost natural laboratories for the study of tropical nature.
Though Emberá and Wounaan people still live up the Río Chagres, Gamboa is the headquarters of the canal’s engineering and dredging divisions and has a modern infrastructure.
Gamboa today has few services, accommodations, or places to eat, but Panama City is less than a 45-minute drive away. There are, however, two impressive eco-resorts in the area, Gamboa Rainforest Resort and Canopy Tower.
Note: Lago Alajuela (formerly Madden Lake) is a second artificial lake northeast of Gamboa that supplies water for the canal. Some people like to visit its impressive Madden Dam, but because of several instances of tourist muggings, I recommend avoiding it. Those who like dams should visit the even more impressive and easily accessible Gatún Dam, on the Caribbean side of the isthmus.
Getting to Gamboa
The end of the road in Gamboa is about a 45-minute drive from Panama City. Taxis charge around US$20 one-way. Buses leave from the SACA bus section of the Gran Terminal de Transportes in Albrook. Gamboa-bound buses take passengers within reasonable walking distance of every attraction in the area except the Camino de Cruces.
They’re not close to each other, though, so it’s not feasible to walk from one attraction to the next. Buses to and from Gamboa stop at designated bus stops along Gaillard Highway about every half hour during daylight hours, but this can be a time-consuming way to visit the various spots. Those who can afford it should consider hiring a taxi for a half-day or full-day tour.
Those driving from Panama City should head west on Gaillard Highway. Just past Pedro Miguel the road summits a small hill and then crosses under a narrow underpass, a railroad bridge with “1929” carved into it. The ANAM office that sells hiking and camping permits is at the fork. Straight leads into Madden Forest, a part of Parque Nacional Soberanía. Here’s where you’ll find the Camino de Cruces (Las Cruces Trail).
A left turn at the fork keeps you on Gaillard Highway and leads to Summit Botanical Gardens, Plantation Road, the Canopy Tower, and Sendero El Charco, in that order. Cross the one-lane bridge (caution—be sure to stop if the red light is on) into the town of Gamboa, where the road ends. An immediate right turn leads up to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Staying straight leads to the Isla Barro Colorado launch and Pipeline Road.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition