By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Luis Eduardo Guillén
We meet at eight o´clock in the parking lot of Albrook Mall, one of the most popular shopping malls in Panama, but we are not here to shop, fortunately. We are here to take the tour bus to Gamboa, a little town on the banks of the Panama Canal that is filled with peace, history, and nature, away from the city. The plan for that rain-threatening Thursday morning was to take in the sites on a Segway, a relatively new method of transportation currently used for tourist purposes all over the world. Segways are now available in Panama thanks to Panama Marine Adventures.
During the half hour drive to our destination, the guide informs us about general aspects of the tour and also shows a compulsory pre-tour video about the Segway, including safety information, which is very important for those who have never ridden one before (as in my case).
The Segway Personal Transporters, Segway PT, or simply Segway, is a light, electric, gyroscopic vehicle, with computer-controlled balance, invented in the United States in 2001. The computer and the motor, located at the base, help keep the Segway upright and the user directs it by shifting in the direction he or she is heading (forward, backward, right, or left). It runs on electricity so it is silent and eco-friendly. It can reach speeds of up to 12.5 miles per hour and can be electronically programed.
Our first activity upon arrival in Gamboa was a nuts and bolts training session on the Segway and a practice drive before starting the tour. We learned how to get on and off without falling over, how to turn, go forward and back, and very importantly, how to stop. Initially it is a bit scary to juggle all of the information from the video and the newly acquired skill of driving while balancing, but the fear quickly fades. The individual instructions given by Octavio Ríos, our guide for the day, were clear to every member of the group. And little by little, as we gain confidence, the Segway turns out to be quite user friendly.
For safety reasons, there are a maximum of eight people on each tour. The guide leads the tour with a wireless microphone and audio-phone system, to maintain a constant flow of communication; this is also how he points out all the attractions along the way. As long as you pay attention and avoid getting over-confident, it is quite easy and fun.
The visit begins with a trip around the town to get a sense of its history. Gamboa –which gets its name from a tree in the quince family– was one of the permanent municipalities in the former Canal Zone (Panamanian territory that belonged to the United States from 1903 to 1999). But do not let the word “municipality” fool you; it is a peaceful, humid, warm little township with wooden houses that exemplify Canal Era architecture, reminding us of its origins. The town was founded in 1911 for the Panama Canal construction workers and their families. Since 1936 it has been the operations base for the Dredging Division of the Interoceanic Highway.
Though it is relatively close to the Pacific coast and the Panamanian capital, Gamboa is in the Colon province and its basin is on the Atlantic side. It is on a bend of the Chagres River, right at the point where it feeds Gatun Lake. The only access is via an old iron and wood bridge across the river. Without a doubt, its location is one of its attractions because, though accessible, it is far from the noise and urban congestion of the city, meaning it is surrounded by water and a beautiful natural landscape. And there is also the awesome fact that it is on the banks of the canal. This is a small, un-crowded township, so you can easily stroll through the quiet streets where an important part of history of Panama occurred.
The entrance to the famous Pipeline Road is In Gamboa. It goes through the Soberanía National Park, one of the best sites in the tropics for bird watching because of the great number of species that live there. The park gets its name from an oil duct, built by the U.S Army during WW II to transport fuel to the Atlantic side of the Canal, that runs underneath.
This was the second destination on the trip and the most adventurous (also my favorite). The dirt and pebble path, flanked by thick vegetation, was not a problem for the Segways, because we covered the tour on an X2 model that has traction wheels that make for smooth all terrain travel. And there in the heart of the forest, we enjoyed watching the local flora and fauna. We had the opportunity to see a three-clawed sloth and a gray peak toucan and listen to the howling monkeys. We also learned how to distinguish trees like the quince, the fig, the guarumo, and the naked indian thanks to the commentaries and descriptions of our guide.
Halfway through the tour it started to rain, but we put on our raincoats and continued as though nothing had happened. And thus, hooded and moving on, I imagined our group in that famous scene from the Return of the Jedi, the one about the chase in the forest on the flying speed bikes. You have no idea how exciting it all was with this make believe situation happening in my brain. That was the best part of the trip, hands down. A bit later we bumped into a small pajarera snake, known in Panama as bejuquilla, as it slithered smugly through the dirt and had no qualms posing for a photo.
The whole Pipeline Road is a 12.4 miles stretch but we covered a little over two miles and took a turn toward the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. The Discover Center is an ecotourism and environmental education Project managed by the Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann Foundation with the goal of conserving birds through sustainable environmental projects. This was the third and last leg of the tour and we did it on foot because of the nature of the area; we parked the Segways at the entrance and went in.
We took a moment to relax a bit, stretch our legs, and freshen up at the Visitor´s Center. All the trails start at the Visitor’s Center and it also serves as a tourist information center. There are provisions like drinks, food, equipment, and souvenirs available, but the center itself is quite an interesting attraction. It is an open, 1500 square foot facility built with 70% recycled material from old Canal Zone structures. It is energetically self-sustaining because it uses solar panels and gathers water on the roof that is then used for the bathrooms. The site is magical as a picnic area because of its wonderful landscape and the fact that you can see up to thirteen different species of hummingbirds come to drink water from the water dispensers.
We move on toward the observation deck. It is a short walk on which we delight in watching the birds of the brushwood like the jumping bird, the antwren, and the trogons. We had the opportunity to see a small momoto bird perched on a branch. On the Discovery Center’s web page (www.pipelineroad.org) there is a list of the 239 winged species that inhabit the area, as well as descriptions of the trails and observation decks. We continued some 656 feet up to the imposing 104-foot high watchtower, climbing a spiral stairs with 174 steps and resting platforms every twenty-six feet. And once we reached the sky, we sat on the terrace benches to enjoy the incredible thick canopy of the forest. The silence broken only by the singing of the birds made this wonderful natural show much more powerful.
Starting our return trip, we soon reached downtown Gamboa and the spot where we had agreed to meet the bus driver. We were in no hurry to get back to the city and we felt like experts on the Segways; we were quite happy after this tour that combines history, nature, and the all-terrain adventure. It is priceless.
Besides Gamboa, Panama Marine Adventures offers two other tours on Segway: on of the Panama City Casco Antiguo (Old Quarters) and another to Ancon Hill, the highest point in the Panamanian capital city.
Visitors must be at least ten years old to ride the Segways. They can accommodate riders weighing 88 to 247 pounds.
For more information visit www.pmatours.net