Beyond the Zone

The Canal Zone

Sep 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Stone's throw away: a pair of feathered Zonies; and Panama City's neon jungle.

Close to congested Panama City and punctuated by less than picturesque military facilities, the Zone might not be your first choice when dreaming up a getaway. But come anyway: first, to take an obligatory tour on the Canal, the region's most popular tourist attraction ($75 for a half-day; 507-228-4348). Stay a day or two to explore oddities like Barro Colorado, an island created when the Canal's main reservoir was flooded; it's the site of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute. (Limited tours are available; call 507-227-6022 for information.)
The best place to bunk is the new Rainforest Canopy Tower, located on a hilltop overlooking 54,600-acre Soberanía National Park. Owner Raúl Arias de Para, the 52-year-old scion of one of Panama's revolutionary founders, has meticulously transformed a windowless steel cylinder into an airy six-bedroom lodge with teak paneling and a canary-yellow and aquamarine paint job inspired by toucan colors.

The Tower affords unparalleled views of the surrounding forest—more than 250 bird species have been spotted from the deck—but you'll want to climb down occasionally to explore on foot. It's worth hiring a guide for at least part of your wanderings to point out well-hidden wildlife and navigate overgrown trails. A reformed poacher named Segundo Jimenez leads Tower guests on twice-daily hikes to nearby sites, including the 400-year-old Las Cruces Trail, once used to transport Inca gold to Caribbean ports.
Or call Hernán Araúz, who's generally acknowledged to be Panama's most swashbuckling guide. Son of an anthropologist and a cartographer, 38-year-old Araúz looks more than the part: beard, barrel chest, army fatigues, and an ever-present Colt revolver. ("To ward off the white-lipped peccaries," he explains. "They are very aggressive.") In flawless English, he'll regale you with tales of his dozen Darien crossings—including one about his encounter with a tribe known for getting drunk on the fermented contents of monkeys' stomachs.
Araúz, who works for the tourism branch of Ancon, Panama's top private conservation group, can take you anywhere in the country, schedule permitting. Nearby trips include a 45-minute drive north to Fort Sherman, a 32,000-acre, densely jungled former U.S. military base that's home to sixteenth-century Fort San Lorenzo. Even closer is Pipeline Road, a nine-mile-long, Canal-paralleling track that's surrounded by one of the world's most renowned birding meccas: In the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, this area consistently ranks among the top three spots in the Americas. During a hike here last winter, Araúz pointed out not only a slaty-tailed trogon, toucans, and black-cheeked woodpeckers, but also a nest of tiny arboreal ants, a handful of which he crushed and rubbed into his arm. "Mosquito repellent," he declared.

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