By Margarita de los Ríos
Photos: Demian Colman
There’s a fantasy lake in Panama, a 168 square mile water mirror surrounded by forest, inhabited by wildlife, and silent, except for the cacophonous lament of the howler monkeys and the onrush of birdsong from some 564 species of birds.
Whether you board a boat at the Gamboa public dock, travel at top speed on the train that crosses the lake from north to south, or fly over its waters on the La Granja’s zip line at the northern tip, you’ll enjoy the watercolor views along the forest banks. Palm trees in front, bushes further back, branches and vines tangled in between, and majestic trees all along the horizon create the thousands of masterpieces that parade by, one after another, delighting the eye and spirit.
The boat sets off from the exact point where the waters of the Chagres River flow into this man-made lake built in the early 20th century. And here the magic begins; it’s impossible to tell if the river contributes its waters or steals those of the lake to feed the flow that continues twenty miles further north, to the other side of the country and into the Caribbean Sea. In truth, the Chagres River flows into both ends.
The sun is radiant because the dry season has just begun. The lake has already received eight months of the manna that is the rasion d’etre of this enormous artificial dam and the force that moves the national economy: rain. Blessed rain, which in the middle of this tropical forest falls in abundance, intermittently but constantly.
The lake was built to contain the rain and provide enough water to operate the canal, which flows 85 feet above sea level, allowing ships to cross from one side of the isthmus to the other.
The lake is therefore the beating heart of an incomparable geographic landmark: the place where humankind reunited the seas that were separated three million years earlier, when the land emerged from ocean.
The Panama Canal was built thanks to a number of engineering feats: the Culebra Cut mountain range was split in two to allow water to flow through; the locks were constructed on either end to lift boats up to lake level and lower them back down to the sea; and the dam was built to dominate the river with 600 cubic feet of water and fourteen gates. In 1913, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegraph from Washington D.C. activating the charge that destroyed the dike holding back the waters of the Chagres River used to fill Gatún Lake.
Nowhere else in the world could this have been possible; only here were there just fifty miles between one ocean and another, just one mountain range to cross, and a lot of rain all year round to maintain the level of the lake.
But Panama is much more than a commercial canal. Three million years ago, when the seas separated, the land was pushed together to create an incredible bridge of life across which countless species crossed from north and south. The plants pushed the limits of their territories from one side the isthmus to another, finding fertile ground in which to settle, and the animals that crossed the bridge provoked phenomenal consequences as yet unmeasured by science. In truth, like a huge Noah’s Ark, this small country filled with traces of all forms of life became one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions.
From a boat on the lake one can feel the biodiversity pulsating. Huge lizards live below, occasionally raising their snouts out into the sunlight. The iguanas move among the thickets, past the monkeys –white-headed capuchins, marmosets, spiders, or howlers– lifting their noses, curious, when the boat approaches their territories. The tropical forest that surrounds the lake, constituting what is known as the Panama Canal watershed, is home to 2,650 species of flora, 159 different mammals, 98 different reptiles, and 65 amphibian species: one third of the biodiversity in Panama, which is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.
Visitors can approach the lake from several important landmarks. Coming from Panama City, the first landmark is the town of Gamboa, 18 miles from the capital. The public dock is here, as well as the Hotel Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which offers daily excursions to the lake. You can also set off from here to Barro Colorado Island, the most studied tropical forest on the planet, with a laboratory set up over one hundred years ago by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The island forest, having seen a minimum of human intervention, displays its unique dynamics to the scientists from around the world who come just to observe and take notes.
Thanks to this research we now know, for example, that leaf-cutter ants take down more than 15% of all the leaves produced in the forest to fertilize the fungi they grow as food in their underground nests; fig wasps will travel up to eight miles to pollinate fig fruits; and the wild cashew (Anacardium excelsum) pumps about 14 gallons of water out of the ground and into its leaves every day. Much of what is known about the natural world has been observed here on this small island, which is part of the Barro Colorado Natural Monument. The Institute offers guided visits to this living laboratory.
On the other side of the watershed –the Caribbean side– visitors can approach the lake from the Hotel Meliá Panamá Colón, which sits on a peninsula facing the wilder region. The Meliá Panama is famous for operating in what was once the School of the Americas, which served as a controversial training ground for Latin American military personnel and acted as a symbol of the U.S. presence in Panama during the nearly one hundred years that the northern country administered the canal. When the canal and surrounding areas were returned to Panamanian control, what was once a symbol of U.S. presence became an engine of tourism development.
Also in Colón, visitors can try a variety of extreme sports and other activities at La Granja. You can get an aerial view from the zip line, visit the butterfly garden, and tour the region’s typical farm animals.
At the end of the tour, visitors are treated to a fabulous view of the lake at the exact point where it meets the new locks of the extended channel, known as Agua Clara. There is also a magnificent tour of the new Panama Canal, an unparalleled view of Gatún Lake, and a wonderful place to have lunch.
To visit Gatún Lake:
Gamboa Rainforest Resort: Located eighteen miles outside the city in the middle of the tropical forest, the resort offers excursions and extreme adventures.
Meliá Panama Canal: In the Colón Province, just minutes from the Colon Free Zone along a road through the jungle.
Barro Colorado Island: Visitors can book a visit to the island through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) at www.stri.si.edu.
La Granja: This recreation and extreme sports center offers another perspective on the lake.
Agua Clara Locks: The newly remodeled Panama Canal features a visitor center on the Caribbean side where visitors can learn about the new locks.