Right outside of Panama City is a gem that few ExPats know about: Soberania National Park. About a 20-25 minute drive from the center of Panama City (where we live), Soberania National Park has all of the nature you miss living in the city. My wife and I took a day trip there on Sunday with some friends, and visited the park, the Summit Zoo (which is located inside the park) and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We finished the day feeling super impressed with the park and the zoo, but not as much by the Rainforest Resort (at least for a day trip). This guide is going to be mostly picture heavy, with my yapping at a minimum. A big thank you to my wife Suzanne, who along with some taken by me, took the pictures for this blog (We retain all copyright on images posted here. Images may be used for non-commercial use with credit and linkback.) I have also included a map of our trip here, for anyone who would like to take the same journey from the city.
I had heard for a while that there was a zoo in Panama, and this weekend finally had the opportunity to check it out. The zoo is close to where you enter the park, and hard to miss. It is located where you see the first parking lot with a lot of cars. There is also a bus stop conveniently located right at the entrance of the zoo, so if you do not have a car, it should be easy to get there by bus from the terminal. The zoo is open daily until 4pm. The price is a steal at $5 for tourists and $2 for residents/citizens. The first thing you’ll notice about the zoo is that it’s more of a botanical gardens than a zoo. The place is absolutely massive, and while there are some animals, they are spread out, and you are more likely to spend time checking out the flora than you would the fauna.
The focus on the scenery doesn’t mean that the park didn’t have some cool animals as well. I am sure we didn’t see all of them, but of the ones we saw, our favorites were the eagle, jaguar, and monkey. Some visitors to the zoo have remarked that the animals seemed sad/confined, but I didn’t see it that way. People can argue over the morality of zoos and keeping animals in confinement, but the animals at Summit didn’t seem to have any less space or be any less happy than their counterparts at American zoos.
While we don’t have kids, the zoo is clearly set up for families. I forget the price for kids, but it was cheaper, even for tourists. We saw a lot of kids around the park. It’s a great place for families to play, or to relax and have a picnic. Next time we come, we will bring a cooler and blanket to have a picnic for ourselves.
Overall, the zoo ranked an A+ for us. Going into it, I wasn’t looking that forward to this portion of our trip, but I was definitely wrong. You can easily spend a full day here. We spent a couple of hours and felt like there was a lot left to see. You will get hot though, so make sure to bring enough water. They did have some food and water available for purchase from little stands, as well as people who went around with carts selling popsicles. Here are some more pictures from the zoo.
Soberania National Park
After the zoo, we decided to venture to other areas of the park. The park is so massive, that we were only able to see a fraction of the park during our trip. We will be sure to be back many times, and write about other cool areas we didn’t see. For example, there is a canopy tower that is supposed to have great views, but it requires a reservation. The next area in the park we visited was called Sendero El Charco (the pond trail). The cost for area was $5 for visitors and $3 for residents. There was no one to collect the money at the gate, so even though prices were listed, we thought it was free. But a guy came later and found us by the water fall to collect our money. We were unclear if our ticket got us access to anywhere else in the park, or if we had to pay for other areas. From what the ticket collector explained to us, it would get us access to one other area, but we weren’t sure which one.
After we had finished our time in Sendero El Charco, we headed towards the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. You can get to Gamboa by continuing to drive straight through the park. It’s about another 10 minutes until you reach Gamboa. The ride along the way is very scenic, so you don’t even need to get out of the car to see some good sites. The road also runs alongside the Panama Canal, so you can see great views of the boats as they are travelling through the canal, preparing to head to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Our last stop of the day was getting a late lunch at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. This was what I had been looking most excited to all day, and I have to be honest, I ended up being pretty let down. Maybe it was because of how beautiful everything we had seen earlier in the day was, but I didn’t really get the hype. We ate lunch at Los Largatos, where we were charged an outrageous $26 per person (it was the only option available) for a very basic and average lunch buffet. It should have really cost no more than $12-$13 dollars. I hear that the main restaurant at the hotel offers a very nice $40 a person champagne Sunday brunch, but we didn’t try it. Los Largatos had a pretty view, but it was nothing we couldn’t get at the park.
Afterwards, we toured the grounds for a little bit, and while pretty, they also didn’t offer anything that we couldn’t have seen better in the park. I have also heard they have good tours, but that’s more money out of your pocket for an already expensive experience if you decide to eat there. This review is simply about taking a day trip to the resort, not staying there overnight. I can see how staying there would be pretty, especially if you are coming from outside of Panama. But for a day trip, I don’t think it’s worth the cost of eating lunch.
Overall the day went great. Summit Zoo and Sendero El Charco at Soberania National Park were home runs. I had no idea we had such beauty right outside of Panama City. The Gamboa Rainforest Resort was less successful. While beautiful in its own right, and potentially good for overnight stays, I do not feel it offers day trippers from the city a good value or anything that the park doesn’t offer. However, I feel pretty blessed in this life to have this be my complaints.
Next time we visit for the day, we will skip the resort, and pack our own lunch and make a picnic out of it. However, if we can get an affordable deal, we may try out the Gamboa Rainforest Resort to give you our full review.