Vacation Guide: Soberania National Park

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. 

Summit Zoo

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.

When you first walk in, you are greeted with trees and walking trails, not animal cages.

When you first walk in, you are greeted with trees and walking trails, not animal cages.

You will find a lot of different areas that have tall bamboo shoots

You will find a lot of different areas that have tall bamboo shoots

There will usually be little enclaves you can walk around in.

There will usually be little enclaves you can walk around in.

All of the walking paths are very scenic.

All of the walking paths are very scenic.

Expect to do a lot of walking when you're at the zoo.

Expect to do a lot of walking when you’re at the zoo.

You'll find some pretty flowers as well.

You’ll find some pretty flowers as well.

There are also some fruit trees (this fruit is marañon curazao.) My wife says you can eat these just like an apple.

There are also some fruit trees (this fruit is marañon curazao.) My wife says you can eat these just like an apple.

There is also pond with a a really nice stone bridge.

There is also pond with a a really nice stone bridge.

It's definitely a great bridge to take some pictures on.

It’s definitely a great bridge to take some pictures on.

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.

The eagle was definitely my favorite animal at the zoo.

The eagle was definitely my favorite animal at the zoo.

He's so cool he deserves two pictures.

He’s so cool he deserves two pictures.

His wing span is about 6.5 feet.

His wing span reaches about 6.5 feet.

The jaguar was one of our favorite animals at the zoo as well.

The jaguar was one of our favorite animals at the zoo as well.

There were a number of different types of monkeys at the zoo. This guy was our favorite.

There were a number of different types of monkeys at the zoo. This guy was our favorite.

This guy is called a Tapir. It's an animal local to the jungles in Central and South America.

This guy is called a Tapir. It’s an animal local to the jungles in Central and South America.

The toucan was also beautiful.

The toucan was also beautiful.

Outside of the cages, you could also see some colorful birds flying around.

Outside of the cages, you could also see some colorful birds flying around.

I had never seen birds nests like these before, but my wife says these are sacs that protect the eggs.

I had never seen birds nests like these before, but my wife says these are sacs that protect the eggs.

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.

You'll see a lot of families around the park.

You’ll see a lot of families around the park.

This little girl had the right idea to get around by car.

This little girl had the right idea to get around by car.

There are small playgrounds around the park for kids to play at

There are small playgrounds around the park for kids to play at.

This guy even brought his own hammock. You go dude.

This guy even brought his own hammock. You go dude.

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.

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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.

Right when you enter, you immediately feel like you're in the middle the rain forest.

Right when you enter, you immediately feel like you’re in the middle the rain forest.

There were tons of dense trees along the trail.

There were tons of dense trees along the trail.

The tree cover made it a much more temperate and enjoyable climate than the zoo.

The tree cover made it a much more temperate and enjoyable climate than the zoo.

There were little streams/ponds all along the trail

There were little streams/ponds all along the trail

There are little wooden bridges that you use to cross the streams.

There are little wooden bridges that you use to cross the streams.

The highlight of this section of the park was the waterfall.

The highlight of this section of the park was the waterfall.

While it's not the biggest waterfall you'll see, it still is beautiful.

While it’s not the biggest waterfall you’ll see, it still is beautiful.

Even though Panama has a ton of waterfalls, this is the first one my wife had ever been to in person.

Even though Panama has a ton of waterfalls, this is the first one my wife had ever been to in person.

Needless to say, she was definitely excited.

Needless to say, she was definitely excited.

There were sitting and picnic areas by the waterfall.

There were sitting and picnic areas by the waterfall.

There was a lot more area to hike around the water fall that we didn't have time to check out.

There was a lot more area to hike around the water fall that we didn’t have time to check out.

Next time we'll spend a longer day here and report back on what we find.

Next time we’ll spend a longer day here and report back on what we find.

One word of warning, watch out for the massive ants!

One word of warning, watch out for the massive ants!

These suckers were everywhere, and will seriously ruin your day if you're not careful.

These suckers were everywhere, and will seriously ruin your day if you’re not careful.

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.

The road through Saberania National Park goes on for miles, and is scenic the whole way through.

The road through Soberania National Park goes on for miles, and is scenic the whole way through.

There are a lot of great views of ships transiting the Panama Canal as you drive to Gamboa.

There are a lot of great views of ships transiting the Panama Canal as you drive to Gamboa.

There are a lot of places you can pull over on the side of the road to get good pictures of the ship.

There are a lot of places you can pull over on the side of the road to get good pictures of the ship.

This is the road that leads up to the Gamboa Rain Forest Resort.

This is the road that leads up to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

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.

Los Lagartos is an covered outdoor restaurant with a view of a lagoon and the canal.

Los Lagartos is an covered outdoor restaurant with a view of a lagoon and the canal.

The restaurant does have some nice views.

The restaurant does have some nice views.

There was a crocodile hanging out right by the restaurant.

There was a crocodile hanging out right by the restaurant.

We were also able to catch some cool views of ships passing through the canal

We were also able to catch some cool views of ships passing through the canal.

While I thought the views were pretty, I don't think they made up for the cost of the meal.

While I thought the views were pretty, I don’t think they made up for the cost of the meal.

$26 per person for this buffet? Yikes.

$26 per person for this buffet? Yikes.

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.

The view from the hotel's atrium looking out to the hotel grounds.

The view from the hotel’s atrium looking out to the hotel grounds.

The pool did look like nice place to lay out.

The pool did look like nice place to lay out.

But this fake waterfall was not nearly as cool as the real one at Soberania.

But this fake waterfall was not nearly as cool as the real one at Soberania.

There was also some cool flora around, but nothing that we couldn't see at the park.

There was also some cool flora around, but nothing that we couldn’t see at the park.

The rooms all appeared to have balconies with hammocks overlooking the pool, which seemed nice.

The rooms all appeared to have balconies with hammocks overlooking the pool, which seemed nice.

Conclusion

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. 

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6 Comments

    • Thanks for sharing Bob! Great pics! My wife and I are going to El Valle for her birthday in a few weekends, and the zoo is on our list of things to check out.

  1. Whoever supports the zoo in el valle by paying and entering is partly-responsible for the mistreatment of the poor animals there. Its more likeba jail than a zoo!

  2. love the photos I have been to these places many times. you have done a great job with the photos. just wanted to maybe point out however that the fruit tree.marañon curazao has a lot of acid which has sent some people to the hospital with burned lips and mouth from all the acid it has. this is a wonderful fruit and many do eat it right from the tree but it is best made into juice . thanks again for the great photos.

  3. I wonder if you know that Summit Gardens was built and maintained by the
    Canal Zone Government for many, many years. And that Soberania National Park is what we called the Forest Preserve – so you can thank the Americans for all the natural beauty that is there today. The Forest Preserve, hopefully, will be expanded as it contributes to the rainfall needed to operate the Panama Canal – no rain, no Gatun Lake, no lock operation possible!

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