Quick Trips

Houseboating in the wilds of the Canal Zone

I stood on the deck of the houseboat with a boa constrictor draped around my neck. Her tongue rapaciously darting in and out, the snake slithered down my arm. Then, unexpectedly, she turned to look at me, and her head began maneuvering back towards my face.

“Hurry up with the picture!” I croaked, beginning to panic. A couple of quick shutter clicks and Captain Carl relieved me of my reptilian friend.

I hadn’t had an inkling that the serpent had slept aboard the houseboat last night with the three of us — my husband, son and me — anchored in a remote cove in the wilds of Panama’s Canal Zone.

“Aw, Candy won’t hurt you,” Carl said, assuring me about the submissiveness of his pet boa. I smiled, but was not placated. That’s what he’d said last night, too, when we were canoeing in the darkness, and he’d bailed halfway over the side of the dugout, only to come up out of the water with a baby spectacled caiman in his hand.

“He’s not gonna hurt you. You can pet him. Trust me.”

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Sure … an infant croc grunting for his mother, smiling for us with dozens of sharp teeth on display.

We did, however, run our fingers over his scaly tail and on the soft underside of his belly, and live to tell about it. We even snickered when our capitán gently tossed him back into the murky waterway. For a second, the little caiman had lingered there, bobbing like a fisherman’s plumb, before diving below the surface.

So I decided to put some faith in Captain Carl, with his grizzled beard and ponytail, and let him hand over the snake to her next potential victim — my 10-year-old son, Nicolas.

A few more snapshots, then we loaded up our gear, left the harmonious cadence of the rainforest and headed back to the boat ramp at the Gamboa public dock.

Less than 20 minutes later, we were back in the throes of civilization — downtown Panama City. With its glitzy high rises, hustle-and-bustle, and the braying of music from the diablos rojos, those garishly-painted buses that cruise the congested capital’s streets, it was the perfect base camp for our two weeks of vacation. Our overnight houseboating exploits were merely the first stop in an action-packed fortnight of adventure.

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And what an adventure it had been so far — 24 hours of non-stop activity and sometimes, heart-palpitating excitement. Plunging through narrow waterways lined with palm fronds to discover another hidden inlet, our launch had cut a swath through the thick foliage enveloping both sides of the channel. It had dumped us out in a tree-enshrouded enclave, where we hiked through pristine wilderness to the base of a small waterfall. We were completely secluded from the outside world.

Amid the steaming humidity that clung to every branch and vine in the tropical forest, the unexpected chill of the cascade was invigorating. Naturally, Nicolas had to be the first to brave the torrents; he pressed his shoulders against the smooth rock and let the pounding cataract buffet his upper body.

Back at our “safari hotel” — equipped with kayaks, kitchen, dining area and a small souvenir shop in addition to sleeping quarters — we had dined by the glow of tiki torch lamps. A pair of bats had descended out of the darkness and swooped across the lake. We had fallen asleep to the rhythmic swaying of the houseboat and the nighttime lullaby of droning insects, chirping crickets, and the muffled whine of monkeys, high up in the treetops.

At morning’s light, a faint mist lay across the lake like a blanket, cloaking the surface of Gatún. Despite the early hour, the forest was already awake, abuzz with the melodious song of beetles and grasshoppers, atwitter with the raucous calls of puff birds, tanagers and toucans.

Our local Panamanian guide was already waiting to take us on the fishing trip of a lifetime. Not many people can say they’ve fished in the Panama Canal. Even fewer have the opportunity to bait a hook and throw out a line downriver from a supertanker, slowing cruising from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Fewer still get to brag that they caught 75 sargentos (peacock bass) in a little over an hour and a half.

There had been a sultry breeze as we motored across Lago Gatún, searching for that perfect haven of yellowish-green and black sargentos.

“We fish here,” our guide told us after he caught a peacock bass within seconds of throwing out his line.

From that moment on, he could barely keep up. He’d put a minnow on my husband’s hook, and before he could work his way to the back of the dinghy to bait Nicolas’ and my hooks, Gustavo would have already snagged a fish.

For nearly two hours, the three of us pulled in sargentos, one right after the other. Nicolas beamed from ear to ear as he posed for the camera — a genuine Kodak moment — with his rod and reel and the largest specimen of the morning.

He even managed to snare a puffer. The Panamanian guide expertly cut the line and the blowfish splatted back into the moss-colored water.

I joked, “Now, this is my kind of fishing.” Even as I snickered, the ripple from a distant cruise ship forging the canal gently rocked our motorboat.

We returned to our floating hotel with an ice chest brimming with sargentos.

While we waited for our day’s catch to be filleted (for an unheard-of $6 tip), we jumped into kayaks and paddled the short distance to Monkey Island, Captain Carl’s own private island of tamarin monkeys. I lobbed a bite-sized chunk of banana onto a protruding section of tree trunk. Almost instantly, a fluffy primate edged toward the fruit, inquisitive and hungry, but wary. We laughed at the cute little creatures, with their black faces and claws, mottled brown fur and voluminous mane and poufed head crest of white. They were truly the jesters of the jungle.

We wound up our paddling expedition back at the houseboat, where Captain Carl had asked us if we all wanted candy. What a silly question — who turns down an offer of candy? Of course, that’s when he introduced us to Candy, the 4-foot boa constrictor that had also been snuggling overnight in a container in an obscure corner of our buoyant hotel.

We had already met the other creatures of his menagerie: two baby crocodiles, a couple of talkative parrots, several good-sized iguanas in cages and my personal favorite, the Keel-billed toucan, who delighted us with his breakfast of grapes.

The $400 price tag for one night’s stay with a nighttime canoe trip followed by the morning’s fishing trip had been worth every penny.

I packed up my belongings and my family, and we piled into the Captain’s dinghy, the Gatún Explorer, one last time. The launch zigzagged at a steady throttle through the sluiceway — past the dredging cranes sitting idle alongside the shoreline, past a heron contemplating a fish dinner at the water’s edge. The loud trill of a scarlet bay wren, wafting across the Canal Zone on a breath of hot air, bid us adios — the wilds of Panama singing “good-bye.”

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