The Gamboa Rainforest Resort (tel. 314-5000, US toll-free 877/800-1690, wwwgamboaresort.com, starts at US$198 s/d, including breakfast), which opened in 2000, is a peculiar mixture of an ecotourism resort, luxury spa, and theme park.
Spread over its 137 hectares are a slice of tropical forest with an aerial tram running through the canopy, a full-service spa, a 107-room hotel, an entire neighborhood of one- and two-bedroom “historic apartments” converted from old Canal Zone housing, a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, three restaurants, traditionally dressed Emberá selling handicrafts at a pseudo-“model village,” an orchid nursery, a snake house, an amphibian exhibit, several aquariums, a butterfly house, a marina, and on and on.
The location couldn’t be better: The resort was built right on the banks of the Chagres, one of Panama’s most important rivers, and it is only a stroll away from Lago Gatún , where one can watch ships transiting the Panama Canal . It’s bordered by Parque Nacional Soberanía , the major trails of which are just a few kilometers away, as is the Canopy Tower .
There are two basic kinds of accommodations. Those in the main building start at US$275 d for a room with a balcony, air-conditioning, minibar, safe, cable TV, iron and ironing board, coffeemaker, and so on. Room quality is on a par with what one would find at a midlevel business hotel in the United States.
The price for the one-bedroom “historic apartments” is a comparative bargain at US$198 s/d. Whereas the rooms in the hotel are generic, these have character. They consist of renovated wooden buildings dating from the 1930s that actually housed Panama Canal employees and their families in the old Canal Zone days. The renovation was done in simple, cheerful good taste, from the rattan furniture to the historic canal clippings and sketches on the walls.
All have sitting rooms and kitchenettes with microwaves, mini-fridges, and coffeemakers. They don’t have a view of the river, but they’re surrounded by trees. Why these are the “budget” accommodations is one of those mysteries of life in Panama. However, these old wooden houses are hard to maintain, so be sure yours looks okay.
All kinds of multiday packages are available that combine stays with golfing, bird-watching, spa treatments, ecotours, and so on. The resort’s activities center rents mountain bikes, kayaks, pedal boats, and other gear.
The food at the resort is hit or miss. Of the three restaurants, Restaurante Los Lagartos (tel. 276-6812, 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) is the best option because of its terrific location. It’s down the hill from the main hotel, built onto an attractive, open-walled wooden terrace that juts into the Río Chagres  near where it empties into Lago Gatún . From their tables diners can sometimes see turtles, caimans, and the odd iguana sunbathing on the same log, peacock bass and tilapia nosing about in the shallows, and little blue herons and jacanas hunting for food among the floating vegetation. Even here the food tends to be mediocre, but the show put on by nature is exceptional.
The spa at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is also open to nonguests and offers a wide assortment of treatments and packages at U.S. prices, varying from manicures and massages to a full day of pampering.