So we were up at the lovely hour of 6:30 a.m. for an early breakfast before heading out on our excursion on Gatun Lake. Now we had three options: a three mile uphill climb on Barro Corrado Island; a trip to the Rainforest Discovery Center, which included a trip on a pananga boat and 1 ½ mile hike; or a trip around the islands in a zodiac. I opted for door #2. So after breakfast, we donned our life jackets and jumped aboard the panga boat around 7:45 a.m. for a tour around the islands before heading to Rainforest Discovery Center near Gamboa on Gatun Lake.
The weather was perfect as our boat driver pushed the boat into full gear and directed us to the first of a number of islands we would pass. As we approached the island, our guide Gabe, used a laser pointer to show us the first sighting of the day, a marmoset monkey. The little guy was so small and elusive that it was impossible to catch a picture of him, but at least we saw a monkey.
As we moved on, our boat driver spotted a snail kite hanging out on the branch of a tree looking for … you guessed it, apple snails. Now the interesting factoid about this bird is that it did not nest in Panama until the construction of the Panama Canal, the formation of Gatun Lake and the introduction of the apple snails. Now the birds are seen everywhere. And despite how common it now is to see the bird, it sill did not diminish how incredible this majestic bird looked sitting on the branch of a tree. Gorgeous.
After taking in the snail kite, we took a bit of a right turn and immediately spotted two birds in a tree. One was hard to see, but the other was immediately identifiable from its unique profile … a toucan. And I managed to get a simply perfect picture of the little fella. (Reminded me of being in Iguazu Falls in Brazil when at first I could not get a picture of the bird only to have a toucan peck at my window for almost an hour. Good times!)
We were almost done looking for birds and animals when we spotted a crocodile sunning itself on the riverbank. Ugh. Not a fan of anything with scales that can eat you whole. Anyway, we were told it was a juvenile (based on its size) and that it would not go after humans. Yeh. Sure. I for one will stay away from crocs as well as its cousins, the alligator and the caiman. Just no.
Anyway after the island hopping, we went past the continental divide and under a bridge to reached the Panama Rain Forest Discovery Centre nature reserve at the edge of Soberania National Park. Our driver pulled the panga into a berth at the dock and all 17 of us piled out and jumped on a bus for a ride through the tiny town of Gamboa (population 400) to the nature reserve. The first stop was at a little building where a number of hummingbird feeders had been placed and were being put to good use by the numerous hummingbirds flitting around, feeding and zipping off.
We saw numerous species of hummingbird including a number of white necked Jacobi and rusty margin fly catchers to name a few It was awesome to see them buzzing around, taking a sip from the feeder and then flitting off. I could have spent hours taking in the hummingbirds, but we also were going to do some hiking on the trails to see what we could track down.
We split up into 3 groups and our group was the last out. Unfortunately, as it turned out, we did not see much of anything. We hiked though the very humid rain forest and strained to spot something, but luck was not with us. And to make matters worse, the two groups in front of us each spotted a sloth!! Good for them. Sad for us.
Anyway, the highlights of our 1 ½ mile trek was watching a snail kite swoop in and grab a small bird in its tallons and fly off (Yikes) and as well as climbing the 130’ observation tower. The tower had 150 steps straight up, but the view at the top over the canopy of trees was worth it. We did not spot any animals up at the top, but it really didn’t matter. It was simply lovely to gaze out over the top of the rain forest canopy.
After the hike up the tower (which only 4 of us in our group did), we climbed back down, reversed course and were back at the buses around noon for the trip back to the dock and the boat ride back to our ship. Unfortunately, there was no stopping at islands this time, but the breeze generated by the speed of the boat and the occasional splash of water made it worth it as I was very hot from the hike and climb in the rainforest.
Once back on board the ship, we had lunch and then proceeded to wait for the local pilot captain to come on board so we could continue our transit of the Panama Canal. (FYI – Gatun Lake is part of the crossing through the Panama Canal. When traveling east to west, you go through the three Gatun locks, then Gatun Lake, one lock at Pedro Miguel and then two locks at Mira Flores.
So while we waited fro the local pilot to come aboard, the staff gave a talk about the next day’s activities and we watched a film on the history of the Panama Canal.
Around 4:00 p.m. we were told that we would start moving towards Pedro Miguel lock around 6:00 p.m., but in the mean time, the staff served beverages and apps for a little happy hour. I ended up hanging out at the front of the ship with my binoculars hoping to spot some wildlife on the shores of the islands we were passing until it was time to go to dinner. (No wildlife spotted.)
Dinner was a buffet focusing on Panamanian foods (stuffed tortillas, chicken and sweet potato tamales with hot sauce, pulled pork with hot sauce, salad and rice. The food was really, really good.
And just as we were finishing up dinner, we entered another holding pattern in front of the Pedro Miguel lock with a couple cargo containers in front of us.
By 8:30 we began moving towards the lock and a massive Liberian flagged container ship already in the lock. I went outside to watch the dance, which included guys in a zodiac bringing lines to either side of the boat. The lines were hooked up to the locomotives which would pull us through the lock.
Around 9:00 p.m., the locomotives started their engines and with 2 short whistle blasts we began the VERY slow pull toward the container ship and the lock. As it turned out, the lock was big enough for both the container ship and our vessel so we were going to be in the lock with the container ship.
Once we were pulled into position, I went to the back of our ship and watched as the gates were closed behind us and water drained from the lock to lower us to the level of the water in front of us outside the lock. It was incredible how fast the water was displaced and before we knew it, we were looking up at the water line outside the lock.
When we reached the level of the water in front of our ship, the cargo container moved out of the lock followed by our ship. We eventually were pulled out of the locks by the two locomotives and into Mira Flores Lake and the half hour trip towards the last two locks known as the Mirabelle locks.
By now it was after 10:00 so I decided not to stay up to watch the show. However, from my state room, I could see when we entered the first of the two Mirabelle locks. The dance was beginning all over again. It was a pretty awesome site.
Tomorrow we stop at La Isla Iguana for some hiking and snorkeling. The Panama Canal is done.