Family Hotel Review: Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Positioned in the backwaters of the Panama Canal this megaresort offers heaps of family-friendly rainforest adventures as well as wide views of the undisturbed Chagres river and surrounding rainforest.
Best for: Experiencing the jungle in air-conditioned comfort, kids of all ages.
Why You’ll Love It
My first visit to Gamboa Rainforest Resort was to attend a friend’s birthday party, a lavish ‘champagne brunch’ which the hotel hosts every Sunday. I didn’t see much of the hotel beyond its buffet bar but its panoramic views of the undisturbed Chagres river and surrounding Soberania National Forest were enough to warrant a return visit, this time for a family weekend getaway.
Located just 30 minutes drive from Panama City, this vast 340 acre resort marks the spot where the Chagres – the only river in the world to drain into two oceans – joins the Panama Canal. With so much to see in this area, the hotel’s main pull (besides its rainforest views) is the wide selection of activities it has on offer. My only reservation, which applies to all resorts, is that they have to cater to the masses and this does tend to mean that the overall experience can feel a little impersonal and detached from its surroundings.
If you want to experience the jungle a la Bear Grylls, this is not the place for you. If you prefer to experience the jungle at an arm’s length and in air-conditioned comfort, with an in-house Sensory Spa by Clarins, you’ll get along just fine here.
Why The Kids Will Love It
What the resort may lack in personality it makes up for in activities. The hotel offers a wide selection of child-friendly excursions including boat trips up the Panama Canal, nature walks in the jungle, night safaris, a ride in an Aerial Tram above the rainforest canopy, fishing trips, bicycle rides, tours to the indigenous villages of the Embera, a butterfly farm, a snake exhibit and more.
The Aerial Tram was undoubtedly the highlight for us. At the end of the line we were guided along a short jungle path to the foot of a ten-storey Observation Tower. The spiral ramp made it an effortless climb, even for our 5-year-old, and from the top we were rewarded with a Toucan’s eye view of the Corte Culebra (the curviest section of the Panama Canal).
Back at the hotel the large freeform pool with cascading water feature makes for an inviting dip after a morning in the jungle. A circular wading pool for little kids sits at the far end of the main pool and a well-stocked pool bar is open for most of the day.
After an early dinner we joined a handful of other guests on the Night Safari and bounced our way across the hotel grounds in a shuttle bus-cum-tractor, scanning the inky black landscape for twinkling eyes. Jasmine, our eager eagled-eyed guide, clung to the bonnet whilst single-handedly sweeping a flashlight across the hotel’s lawns, bushes and treetops. The children likened this adventure to one of Harry Potter’s escapades in the Forbidden Forest and had a ball scaring themselves and each other with what they thought might be lurking out there in the darkness. We didn’t see any unicorns or centaurs but were successful in finding a sloth, a caimen crocodile and a handful of Capybaras – the world’s largest rodents, and, as Jasmine pointed out to the children, animals that ‘eat their own poop’. ‘Eeewwwww’ came the resounding response.
All the 166 rooms are spacious and comfortable with all the usual amenities expected in a high-end resort hotel. Each room has a private balcony with a double hammock from where you can soak up the idyllic views. The bathrooms are spacious and include shower cubicles.
The rooms and suites are divided between the following categories:
Garden View & Deluxe River View Rooms: Either two double beds or one King bed (max capacity is 2 adults, 2 children)
Junior Suites: A duplex room with King bed and bathroom on the ground floor and two twin beds and smaller bathroom on the upper level. The two storeys are connected by a spiral staircase.
Themed Suites: The Bali Suite, Romance Suite and Safari Suite are all available. For more information, please contact the hotel directly.
One bedroom suite: This Suite comes with living/dining area
Trivoli Master Suite: The palatial penthouse suite! (for more information, please contact the hotel directly)
Best Rooms for Families:
The Junior Suite was, in my 7-year-old’s own words, “The. Best. Room. Ever!” Both her and her brother loved the concept of accessing their own loft-like space via a spiral staircase. The railing at the top is a safe height but there is no stair gate, which may pose problems if travelling with younger kids. If you prefer to be on one level, the Garden View / Deluxe River View rooms are a good option but the views are not as impressive.
The resort houses three restaurants: The Corotu and Chagres River View in the main building and Los Lagartos in the hotel’s own marina, overlooking the Chagres. The latter was closed during our stay.
Buffet meals are served in the main restaurant, The Chagres River View, and while the views are undoubtedly spectacular, the food is average (with the exception of Sunday brunch which is good). Hot plates offer the usual resort options such as rice, pasta, chicken and vegetables – all cooked in bulk.
Dinners follow a theme and when we were there it was Spanish. Again, not the best I’ve had but certainly not the worst!
An a la carte menu is also available for both lunch and dinner but we chose the buffet as it was quicker.
A kid’s menu is available with the usual (unhealthy) options such as hotdogs, burgers and chicken nuggets. The menu doubles up as an activity sheet, which always gets a big thumb’s up in my book.
Activities for Parents:
Aerial Tram Tour: Glide over the tree-tops in this swiss-engineered cable car. This guided tour includes access to an Observation Tower, the top of which offers magnificent views of the Chagres River, the Panama Canal, the Embera Indigenous Village and the town of Gamboa. Closed Mondays.
Gatun Lake Expedition: This boat trip travels up the Panama Canal and then into the maze of its backwaters. We spotted numerous birds, Capuchin monkeys and learnt a new fact – you can hear Howler monkeys from 3 miles (5km) away! I don’t know how far away they were from us but they were definitely loud. We also saw a crocodile and a sloth. Crank up the adventure and take this tour in the dark on the Night Safari Boat ride. Lifejackets are available in all sizes, including some for kids. However, it is worth bringing your own if you have them as the thick neck pads are not at all comfortable.
Guided bird-watching in Pipeline Road: Panama offers some of the best bird watching in the world. We didn’t go on a dedicated bird watching tour ourselves but these can be arranged at the time of booking.
Guided Fishing in the Panama Canal: A friend of mine took her father on this tour and said it was one of the best day’s fishing he’s had. Given that the tours are 3 or 6 hours this is perhaps less suited to little kids.
Chunga-Chagres Nature Walk: Stroll through the jungle on this guided tour to the shores of the Chagres River and return by boat.
Kayaking the Panama Canal. ‘When I kayaked up the Panama Canal…’ A great line to casually drop into dinner conversation!
Activities for the Kids:
Nature Walks: Bring your bird book and binoculars, this is the place to explore jungle life! Take a tour of the hotel’s own ‘ecological exhibits’ including an impressive collection of colourful butterflies, a small aquarium, an orchid farm and – my kids’ favourite – a snake house!
Bicycles: Explore the extensive grounds and surrounding area on bike.
Night Bus Safari: Look out for sets of glowing eyes in the darkness, especially those belonging to a Capybara.
Village Visit: Visit an Embera Indigenous Village on the banks of the Chagres River and learn how they paint their bodies with a back dye made from berries that is also thought to repel insects.
Swimming Pool: Splash about in the pool, take a stroll through the grounds, have a game of table tennis or take it easy in a hammock with your Kindle or iPod.
Souvenir Shop: Their Birds in Panama leaflet is a well worth getting, as are their beautiful hand-woven baskets, if their price tags don’t put you off!
Air conditioning, Private balcony with hammock, Flatscreen TV with cable channels, Minibar, Coffeemaker, Work desk & chair, Couch, Plush bathrobe (suites), 24-hour room service, Magnetic key lock, Safe, Hairdryer, Two-bedroom Suites, Travel Desk, WiFi Internet (at extra cost).
Rates vary considerably. For an exact quote based on your family’s requirements, please contact the hotel directly.
When to go:
Panama has a tropical maritime climate with two distinct seasons: the dry, ‘summer’ season (mid December to April) – considered the best time to visit, and the rainy, ‘winter’ season (May to December). Rainfall tends to come in short, heavy downpours and builds momentum as the rainy season progresses. Temperatures remain fairly constant all year round with an average temperature of around 27C (with the exception of the Chiriqui highlands which is much colder 16C). Humidity is high all year round.
If you are unable to visit during the dry season, keep in mind that the early months (Apr-July) are characterised by sudden, heavy thunderstorms in the afternoon that are short in duration, and can happen every few days. Often, the skies are sunny in the morning or afternoon.
For up-to-date information on weather in Panama, go to www.accuweather.com.
Location & Travel:
Gamboa Rainforest Resort is located in Gamboa, Panama, approximately one hour from Tocumen International Airport and 30 minutes from Panama City.
Gamboa Rainforest Retreat – Video Clips
Family Guide to Panama
For more information on family travel in Panama see my guide to Panama with Kids.
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