One of the best places to visit in Panama is the Gamboa rainforest along the Panama Canal. There are many Gamboa tours offered from Panama City, as well as through the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, but the best tour in Gamboa is one that gets you close to the amazing biodiversity that this area is known for.
During our visit to the Gamboa rainforest, we checked out several boat tour options. Hands down, 9 North Panama Safaris was the best. If you love animals, serene nature and photography, you have to take one of their boat safaris along the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
All About Panama Canal Tours
There are a variety of Panama Canal tours offered from Panama City as well as from different operators in the Gamboa region. If you are like me, you may not fully understand what it means to take a Panama Canal Tour. There are tours of the Panama Canal locks and then there are tours of the canal itself that can be anything from a 12 hour full locks tour to a kayaking tour or just a visit to “Monkey Island” or the Embera Tribe community.
When booking a tour of the Panama Canal, you will find yourself at the Gatun Lake area one way or another, whether you arrive from Panama City or one of the hotels in the area. However, it must be noted that many of the tours in the Panama Canal actually mean that you cruise down the canal leading into and out of Gatun Lake focusing your visit on the flora and fauna of the area.
During our time in Panama we actually did two different Panama Canal tours – one through our hotel and one through 9 North Panama Safari with the latter being much more what we had hoped to experience. This tour ended up being one of our favorite things to do, maybe even beating the Panama Canal which we visited twice! A tour with 9 North Panama Safari should be on the top of any traveler’s list of things to do in the country.
What To Expect on Gamboa Tours with 9 North Panama
Even if you aren’t a photography buff, you can take this Gamboa rainforest tour out into the canal and Gatun Lake to be one with nature. It is an experience you won’t get with other tour operators as most operators zoom in and out again with very little time to actually spend on the waterways surrounding the canal. However, 9 North offers 3 and 4 hour tours that give guests a real opportunity to soak up the nature around them.
As a bonus, 9 North Panama Safaris have a self-designed boat equipped with four top of the line Canon Mark 7d cameras with beautiful Sigma zoom lenses on a custom built gimbal setup. The chair and camera swivel so you never miss the shot regardless of where you are sitting. If you aren’t into doing the photo tour, the cameras are removed, but you are still left with awesome swivel chairs that allow you to see everything around you no matter where you are sitting.
Note, tours with 9 North Panama are all private tours, so you will not be competing for space with other tourists. That said, tours do book up quickly, so if you want to do this, make sure to make arrangements as early as you can.
Here is a quick view of what our day looked like with 9 North Panama Safaris.
Our Day Out in the Gamboa Rainforest
Being the first boat out on the water is important in that many of the other tours feed the monkeys making them full by mid morning sending them deeper into the little islands to relax. 9 North knows this, so they organize their tours bright and early so that they are the first people out on the water each day providing their guests the ultimate experience.
Morning on the River Charges and the Panama Canal is beautiful. It is so calm and serene watching the massive ships cruise past. It was the perfect opportunity to get an up close view of the hulking machines that ply this river daily. My Panama Canal obsessed son was in heaven being so close to massive tankers he had been watching go through the locks the day before.
As we set off on our adventure, we are introduced to our boat captain Johnny. He is from the area and knows these waters well. Before we leave the dock he has already spotted an iguana high up in the treetops. It’s fascinating to me how some guides can see these animals who blend into the surroundings so well. Johnny was one of the best we had experienced in our time in Panama.
The animal sightings continued as Johnny quickly slowed the boat and turned us around as we sped along the canal. He spotted a caiman in the shores of the canal, more iguana and snail kites. It was mesmerizing to see the caiman on the shores one minute and then disappear as the swells of a slow moving tanker covered his spot. When the water disappeared, he was gone.
Continuing on our journey, we delved deeper into Gatun Lake exploring the many islands that call this area home. Our first stop is to “Monkey Island” filled with tamarind monkeys and one juvenile capuchin that was dropped here by someone. S/he seems to be happy enough looking for food and spying out the boats that come to visit. This little monkey has the cutest face and is always up to something moving all around.
We stayed here for some time, watching the monkeys, while also keeping our eyes on a snail kite hovering above. We had hoped to see him grab his prey in front of us, but we didn’t have that luck today.
Moving on, we looked for and found a baby crocodile along the water’s edge. Again, how the boat captain can see these tiny camouflaged creatures is beyond me. It really is impressive!
The beauty of this tour is that it is a private tour which allows you to make this nature journey what you wish it to be. If you want to focus on birds, that’s what you will do. If you want to focus on seeing as many of the jungle animals as possible, that’s what you can do. We opted for a mix of whatever was out there. At the end, we saw so much more than even imaginable. It was breathtaking.
Being on the water, listening to the jungle come alive with the roars of the howler monkeys while pretending to be wildlife photographers was a day we will never forget.
Three hours came and went so quickly. Both myself and my 8 year old son were so sad to see the end to our Gamboa tours. However, we could not have asked for a more perfect last day in the country.
Where to Stay, Cost & More
Ideally, to do the 9 North Panama Gamboa tours you would need to stay near Gamboa itself. There are two major hotels here that would allow you the opportunity to do this tour easily, The Gamboa Rainforest Resort and the Radisson Summit Resort. However, they do have customers that come from Panama City for the early morning tours since it is only about a 30-45 minute drive.
During our visit, we stayed at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort which made the tour very convenient. It is also a great spot to relax and rejuvenate before heading back to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
The prices for the 9 North Panama Gamboa tours are quite reasonable considering what you get. For a 3 hour tour, with drinks and snacks, expert guidance on using the cameras and a nature guide who has an amazing ability to spot wildlife cost from $95 per person depending on the tour you choose. They do have a 2 hour non-photography tour that is $55 per person which is quite a better deal than the group tours offered through the hotel which also charge that for what really amounts to less than 1 hour in nature.
On the morning tour we took, 9 North Panama Safaris provided a thermos of water, hot tea and/or coffee and light snacks for each tour. If you wish to bring other snacks, feel free however we found this was more than enough. We were also too busy shooting photos to take much time to notice our growling tummies!
Once you are finished with your tour, you will be given a SD card with all of your photos. This was the best gift we could have left the country with. Additionally, 9 North Panama sends across a short video showcasing your day out (see the video above). This was a really great surprise and a great memory to take home with us.
Lastly, one of the best things about doing a Gamboa tour with 9 North Panama is spending time with the owner and his partner. They are an absolute joy to chat to and provide great instruction on the cameras as well as information about the local flora and fauna in the Gamboa rainforest region.
This is not a sponsored post. We just LOVED the tour so much we wanted to share it all with you. Have you ever done a photography tour? I highly recommend doing one as it was the highlight of our trip to Panama.
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