Back when I was doing Panama turn-around trips (10 days round trip Florida, Southern Caribbean, through Gatun Locks, anchor in Gatun Lake for the day and take tours, return through Gatun Locks and off to Cartagena) one of my favorite tours was Captain Carl’s Jungle Safari along the banks of Gatun Lake ending up for lunch and fun at Carl’s floating home on Gatun Lake. Carl got tired of doing all the work and giving most of the money to the cruise line and tour operator, so now you pretty much have to book direct on his website JunglelandPanama.com. It’s a great Panama experience as I was reminded by this article, written by Margot Thomas, that appeared on NEWSROOM PANAMA.
It’s been six years since my first waterborne “jungle safari ” on Lake Gatun, visiting Panama’s only floating lodge, and traveling down a tree shrouded tunnel to a hidden beach before picnicking on the edge of the jungle.
It was a memorable experience that I have frequently revisited and, like an old fairy story well told, the journey never palls.
Each voyage provides new experiences, different wild life a fresh camera angle, a varied menu, and some freshly dug nugget of information from the encyclopedic running commentary of the irrepressible “Captain Carl” Davis.
Carl operates one of the most satisfying back to nature trips in the region. Over the years I have recommended his Jungle Land Explore adventure to scores of visors from Canada, the US and Europe and never a report of failed expectations
Carl’s journey to creating his waterborne exploration business began when, as a young marine he did his jungle training at Fort Sherman, near Colon’s San Lorenzo Fort..
After leaving the service he entered the tourism industry, first as a crew member on cruise ships, and later creating tours for passengers in the Caribbean, until he finally sailed back to Panama with the first part of his houseboat, later enlarged with a second floating home, constructed in the US and towed to Lake Gatun to form a lodge. Since my first visit it has added two floors and additional recreational space.
Carl’s water safaris last six and a half hours including the lunch break and your opportunity to explore the hidden beach and waterfall, kayak or go fishing
The start point is the public wharf a short distance past the El Renacer prison [most recent home of ex-dictator Manuel Noriega] on the road from Panama City to the Gamboa Resort.
For those new to Panama, the route is an enthralling introduction to tropical vegetation and you have some 30 minutes of driving to wonder at the hardiness of the 49’ers trekking across the Isthmus on their way to getting a ship to the goldfields of California.
At the wharf you board your jungle tour craft, and from the moment you set sail on Lake Gatun, created during the building of the Canal, you get a non- stop presentation in ecotourism, history, and the progress of the current widening.
Carl has a hard to beat knowledge of the 1200 varieties of trees that surround the lake and the canal, identifying them by name, detailing the fruit they provide and which wild life lives or feeds there.
There is the expected stop at Monkey Island where the inhabitants, recognizing the floating supermarket are on the canopy before the craft stops, hands ready to collect the proffered peanuts.
Soon after the lodge comes into sight, but first a stop at an adjacent small island occupied by only four Rufus napped Tamarin Monkeys, a tiny breed but with big appetites for their favorite bananas They take small slices from your hand with demonstrably more courtesy than their larger Monkey Island cousins.
At the lodge . Carl moves to the upper deck and loads the barbecue while his staff get to the work in the kitchen, preparing local dishes.
Over lunch Carl demonstrates his knowledge of the original canal construction, and the building of the railroad linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
We also get to meet some of his fellow boarders including a lively toucan who takes Carl’s finger in his beak and plays tug or a six years-old boa constrictor draped around the host’s neck, a large iguana who looks ready to nip like a crocodile, and a lemurin night monkey who happily curls up on an available shoulder, and like a new born in diapers sometimes leaves a small warm pool to mark his arrival.
After lunch it’s time for the adventurous to climb into a kayak or canoe, or for others a powered cayuco.
This is where the journey become truly jungle as you are hidden from the sun moving slowly under canopies of tropical shrubbery, towards a hidden waterfall where Carl has constructed a mini beach giving visitors the opportunity to swim in a crystal clear pool at the foot of the falls..
Back at the houseboat a quick visit to the small but well stocked souvenir shop before heading for the public wharf, and a drive back to city life, only 30 minutes away. Hard to believe.