Two seas, two species of mischievous Panama monkeys, two types of lazy sloths, two ferry transits across the Panama Canal, two excellent guides… and all in one day. Far and away, the highlight of our family visit to Panama City was the “ocean to ocean” tour with Panama Day Trips to visit Monkey Island, Panama.
But the tour covered so much more than just the monkeys of Gatun! We got to experience the Panamanian rainforest, learn about real-life pirates of the Caribbean and see one of the greatest engineering feats in the world on one of the most fascinating Panama tours around. In our opinion, it’s one of the best things to do in Panama City. Read on to find out why.
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The complicated history of “Monkey Island” in Panama City
Most “Monkey Island Panama” tour operators refer to the area as a single island. In reality, today there is a series of small monkey islands that you’ll see on this tour. While monkeys have always been indigenous in this area and were previously completely wild, the expansion of the Panama Canal in Gamboa forced the relocation of some monkey populations to a large island for their own protection. Habitat encroachment is a huge challenge in Panama and its neighbors, and it’s nice to see the conservationists had a hand in keeping the monkey populations safe.
However, having one large island with multiple different monkey populations didn’t work out well! More recently, the monkeys were separated and each species was placed on its own small island (now and then, the monkey groups have to be split further if there are challenges to the group dynamics from within). While the monkeys no longer fight with each other, the small islands don’t offers of the the same nutritive plant species that formed the core of the monkeys’ diets before the Canal expansion project began and the islands are separated from each other by predator-filled water.
Of course, the monkeys are smart. As a result, these half-wild monkeys rely on passing fishermen and tour groups to supplement their diets with appropriate foods. We’ve heard rumors that some local fishermen share their own snacks – like Doritos and donuts – with the monkeys.
Fortunately, our amazing tour guides John and Jerin are wildlife lovers who bring fresh fruits like banana and grapes for the monkeys. If you don’t believe how much they love wildlife, follow their Instagram to check out all of their cute sloth rescue pictures! Jaron is an American who moved to Panama 12 years ago to be with his (now) wife, while John is a Venezuelan raised partially in Miami who moved to Panama for business school three years ago. They’re extremely smart guys who clearly love what they do, and speak both English and Spanish fluently. We’ve never done that kind of group tour before, usually preferring independent travel, but our experience with Panama Day Trips has changed our minds – they were great with the kids and added so much depth and context to our experience.
There are many travelers who only choose to participate in ethical, non-exploitative animal encounters. The Panama monkeys of Lake Gatún represent a complicated intersection between conservation and societal progress. We felt that our visit to see them, which we’ll show you below, was a healthy combination of education and conservation rather than exploitation – thanks in large part to John’s excellent explanation of the history of Monkey Island. It was also a meaningful way for our children to see up-close how habitat encroachment by humans can impact an area’s native species.
Panama Day Trips: How to visit the Monkey Islands in Panama
Jerin and John of Panama Day Trips specialize in small group tours leaving from Panama City. They have an air conditioned van that can accommodate 15(?) guests, and they picked us up at our hotel promptly at 7:30. If you’re traveling with small children, be advised that thevan only has lap belts (as with all tour vans in Panama); we’re traveling for the year, so we only have a Bubblebum for Jacob and a Ride Safer travel vest for Shoshana and those both require a lap-shoulder seat belt. If your child is younger, I’d recommend bringing a travel car seat, which can easily be installed with a lap-only seat belt.
We were glad to have booked a tour for the weekend – the first step of the tour is to get out of the city, and we’ve heard that can take over an hour on a weekday morning. Book your Monkey Island tour for a weekend if possible. We sailed out of the city and within 20 minutes of leaving our hotel, we were driving along the border between the Canal Zone and the rainforest!
Soon we entered the Gamboa rainforest, where the guys expertly pointed out the surrounding trees. We made a few stops to take in the wildlife, including watching mama and baby three-toed sloths napping in the treetops and listening to hiding howler monkeys complaining loudly about our van’s engine noise. Our guides brought several high-quality binoculars for everyone to use and even taught us the trick for taking pictures through the eyepiece.
After about an hour of driving we arrived at the shores of Lake Gatún, the huge man-made body of water that was the key to the Panama Canal’s successful construction in 1913. The Lake is dammed on both sides, by the Miraflores and Gatun/Agua Clara locks. Our group boarded the small, covered motorboat and everyone donned life jackets; fortunately, Jaron has a young son whose outgrown life jacket he keeps in the van, so there was even a child size one for 3yo Shoshana.
We motored out on the lake for about half an hour before slowing down when we reached a series of mangrove-clad small islands. As we approached one of the islands, John told us to relax and hold on tight to the grapes he had given out. Before long, a whole family of adorable capuchin monkeys had jumped aboard!
They had a keen awareness of the location of each and every grape, jumping from bench to bench to pry them out of our hands. It’s amazing to see how smart those little guys are. Once they had their fill, we moved over to another small island to visit a family of Geoffrey’s white-faced tamarin monkeys. They feasted on bananas, and were aggressive about looking for more. One of them even tried to stow away on our boat as we were leaving, but our guides made sure to navigate back closer to the island so he could leap back to his friends.
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If you’re really just interested in the wildlife component of this tour, Panama Day Trips gives you the option to book this portion as a half-day monkey island tour from Panama City. You’ll miss out on the rest of the great stops below, but if you’re pressed for time or money it could be a good option.
Another piece of Panamanian history: Fort San Lorenzo
The Spanish conquistadors first reached Panama’s shores in 1501 and established a permanent settlement on the Pacific coast (now Panama City) in 1519. While the Pacific coast was largely immune from the regional thread of piracy, the entire Caribbean was a contested trophy for the European colonial powers of the time thanks to its central location and wealth of natural resources. To protect its land and its resources, in 1671 Spain constructed Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres river where it spills into the sea in the Colon region.
The fort’s history is the stuff of legends. It’s the place where Captain Morgan (of rum fame) and his band of welsh “privateers” attacked in 1670 and set up their own camp. Upon being disrespected by the royal Governor of Panama, Captain Morgan exacted revenge by ransacking Panama City! You can read more about the sordid history of piracy in Panama here.
Today, much of the fort’s structure is still in tact and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see the barracks where soldiers slept, the fake moat that was used to confuse attacking troops the land side, and the steep hidden drop-off on the other side that ensnared enemies coming from the sea. All-in-all it was an interesting, if often overlooked, piece of Panama’s history to see; John’s narration of the site’s history truly made it come alive. In addition to the fascinating stories, we were treated to sweeping Caribbean views as we took shade under a huge tree for the included picnic lunch. In addition to the familiar PB&J or turkey sandwiches, we feasted on plantain chips and Panamanian beer – a great opportunity to try truly local specialties!
Panama today: Visiting the Agua Clara locks
The final stop on our tour was the Agua Clara locks complex. The new enormous locks were completed in 2016 to accommodate the ever-growing New Panamax cargo ships seeking to transit through the canal. To watch a ship transit through any of the Panama Canal’s locks is truly a wonder!
Speaking of Miraflores… If you’re trying to decide which locks to visit along the Panama Canal, each has its own features. We visited Miraflores and Agua Clara on consecutive days at roughly the same time in the afternoon. Both have limited activity around mid-day when the direction of transit through the canal reverses, and both have large viewing decks for watching the mechanism in action. There are similar movies shown at the two complexes, though the one at Agua Clara focuses more heavily on the expansion project – both are available in English frequently.
We found that Miraflores was much more crowded than Agua Clara, thanks largely to its proximity to Panama City – our Uber cost only around $10! Miraflores is much more developed, with a huge visitors center offering exhibits about the canal and several levels of viewing areas outside. The top deck, accessible only by elevator from the first floor inside, is the place to be for the best views. We watched numerous ships go through and it was truly amazing.
Pro tip: Uber in Panama is amazing. Use it! Not only is it cheaper than a taxi, but the cars are much nicer. We mistakenly took a taxi van from the airport to our hotel and it was horrible – no suspension on the bumpy road, only lap seat belts so no way to keep the kids safe, and hands extended for tips at every step of the way. That was our first and last taxi ride in Panama City. We took Uber everywhere for the rest of the week and nearly all of the drivers and cars were great – even Uber SUV was sometimes just an extra $1-2.
Agua Clara is extremely sleepy by comparison. Unfortunately we didn’t see any ships transit during our visit (and we would have had to stay another hour before one was scheduled to come through), but it was interesting to compare the facilities with Miraflores. The viewing deck is much smaller and only one level, but it was nearly empty apart from our tour group! Agua Clara is in Colon, on the Caribbean side of Panama, and not casually accessible to those staying in Panama City. Thankfully for families, there’s even a small play structure right behind the viewing deck! If you want to get up close and personal with the Panama Canal, Agua Clara is a great choice and you’ll have an opportunity to visit with Panama Day Trips.
Details about Panama Canal tours with Panama Day Trips
Panama Day Trips provides a picnic lunch, bottled water, binoculars and all admission fees for your day out. Pickup is at 7am and we returned to our hotel around 4pm; it’s a long day, but so worthwhile. Prices are $130 per adult and $80 per child age 6-12; kids 3-5 go FREE! We paid for this tour out of our own pockets and truly believe it’s a must-see — one of the best things to do in Panama on your vacation!