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Panama’s Soberanía National Park, Bird Dorks, And The Man Who Had Nothing

A short journey into the rainforest.

Birders in Soberanía National Park
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GAMBOA, Panama- Gamboa is located at the end of the road, right on the continental divide, along the banks of the Chagres River near the point where it feeds into the man-made Gatun Lake, which is the primary water source and thoroughfare of the Panama Canal. In other words, it is at the crossroads of continents, waterways, and development — a place where species from north and south converge in the middle and bespectacled dorks with binoculars and ultra-long telephoto lenses come to gawk at birds, monkeys, and anything else that flies, creeps, or slithers.

In other words, if you want to look at some wildlife in Panama, come here.

I was originally in Gamboa to get a taste of Canal Zone history. The town was once the site of a booming transplanted American community who brought all aspects of small town Americana with them. For 57 years there were American schools and American churches and American little league … and then one day it was gone.

Gamboa probably would have went the way of many other Canal Zone towns and gotten eaten up by the surrounding forest if it wasn’t for the canal’s dredging division remaining there.

As it’s located at the end of the road, Gamboa is literally the place where development ends and the forest begins. It is also where the ecosystems of North and South America converge and is considered a vital biological corridor where crocodiles and iguanas, monkeys and hundreds of species of birds gather and do their respective things.

For this reason, the 20,000 hectare Soberania National Park was created here in 1980 and later on the Smithsonian established a tropical research institute … and now troops of college kids with big rubber boots are tramping through the forest taking samples of microbes and bugs and rescuing amphibians.

I walked through the town of Gamboa along a narrow paved road that petered out into a gravel path and then turned onto an old access corridor called Pipeline Road. It’s basically a hiking trail today, and is widely considered to be one of the best birding trails in all of Central America — and is therefore intermittently speckled with khaki clad birdwatchers checking boxes off their lists.

While I wasn’t really equipped or inclined to do any birdwatching, I did enjoy the walk. Howler monkeys bounded between crackling limbs hooting at me and birds squawked from the canopy above. The hot sun shone down through the leaves in speckles … creating a nice shady walk of the kind that would have been literally impossible to report any hardships about. I leisurely made my way up a slightly inclined hill and simply dug how ideal everything was …

I then came to a fork in the road with a visitors center in the middle and figured I’d take a break, eat some Greek yogurt and fruit that I had packed in, and figure out where to go next.

As I walked by the front of the visitor’s center, which was actually kind of like a hot dog vendor stand made of plank board, I was welcomed by a young dude chilling behind some stacks of maps and brochures.

“Would you like me to tell you about the park?”

“Sure.”

He then broke out a map and showed me this loop trail that went into the forest, stopped at a lookout tower, and then swung by the banks of Gatun Lake. It seemed cool and I said that I was interested.

“Ok, for foreigners it costs $30 to enter.”

I couldn’t hold back a laugh. “So, what you’re telling me is that it costs $30 per person to walk down a trail and climb up a ladder?”

Traveling in Panama is relatively affordable, but tourism is incredibly — no, ridiculously — expensive. It’s almost as if the prices for tourist activities here are determined by a group of cronies sitting around the national tourism office chugging beers and one-upping each other as to how much the stupid foreigners would be willing to pay …

$15 to go to the Panama Canal museum, $17 to go look at the canal, and, apparently, $30 to stroll through the woods.

I decided to stick to the free Pipeline Road.

I really couldn’t imagine things looking much different on the paid trail a few hundred meters away.

Soberanía National Park

The nice thing about a good hike is that there’s often very little to write about. There’s nobody to talk to, nothing to negotiate the price of; you’re just walking and thinking easy thoughts. Every once in a while your meditations are broken by a jumping monkey or a screeching bird.

The birders on this section of the trail were out in force. I know from experience that these are serious folk.

I traveled with a birder for a while in the Peruvian Amazon over 20 years ago. The guy traveled with nothing but a change of clothes, a wide brim adventurer hat, and a pair of binoculars. He had a long white beard and only wore Indian hippy garb. His mission was birds — not capturing them, not eating them, not even studying them … just looking at them. Our guides got it about as much as I did.

How long can you just stand there looking at the same bird? Will it change a different color or something if you wait long enough? I don’t get it. But I don’t have to …

“What’s the point of it?” I asked him one day, wondering why he was so adamant about looking at something for no other reason than being able to say that he looked at it.

“It’s good to know the things that you see in life,” he replied.

This guy was in his 50s and had been traveling for decades. He didn’t carry a camera. He didn’t keep a diary. He didn’t have a wife. He didn’t have kids. He didn’t have a home. He never even had a career — he just picked apples or something for a few months a year in France. All he had was a little notebook full of lists of all the birds around the world that he looked at.

I was young and just starting my traveled then and this guy has a major influence on me. He had nothing — truly nothing. I wanted to have nothing too.

But there was something about that notebook that seemed to manifest the time of his life — a measurement of accomplishment, a collection which made what he did with his days, weeks, and years seem worthwhile.

He’s probably dead now. I wonder what he thought on his death bed when he realized that the only thing he had in life was a list of bird names.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary, Wildlife

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

16 comments… add one

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  • No Longer Stuck In Melbourne May 21, 2024, 1:01 pm

    >>> I wonder what he thought on his death bed when he realized that the only thing he had in life was a list of bird names.

    Oh, harsh! But I laughed my ass off 🙂

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    • VBJ May 26, 2024, 5:57 pm

      Good to see that you’re no longer stuck in Melbourne! Where are you now?

      Haha, yes, you know, I really used to look up to that guy and he was a major influence on how I ended up living for a good decade. But you go through life and eventually you realize that there are perhaps better things in life than having nothing.

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      • No Longer Stuck In Melbourne May 27, 2024, 2:05 am

        I finally got out at the start of 2023, and made it back to Thailand. It was great to get back, but after a year-and-a-half, I was getting a bit stale, so I’m right now on my way to S.America to hang out for a bit. Fly into Argentina, then probably Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru. Always wanted to get up to Central America, but probably not this trip.

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      • VBJ May 29, 2024, 7:45 am

        Sweet, man! Happy to hear about this. Yes, Thailand is a good place to stay for a while but it’s kind of like listening to your favorite album endlessly on repeat. Sure, it’s cool and all, but sometimes you just get to the point where you realize that it’s always the same and that you just want to listen to something else.

        That sounds like a good trip through South America. I really want to head to Paraguay right now …

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      • No Longer Stuck In Melbourne May 30, 2024, 9:00 am

        >>> Thailand is a good place to stay for a while but it’s kind of like listening to your favorite album endlessly on repeat.

        Yes, it’s very easy to get stuck there, life is so nice and comfortable. I have to occasionally force myself to get off my ass and do something.

        >>> I really want to head to Paraguay right now

        I just got in Buenos Aires now, and will probably head up to Asuncion in a week or so. I play a lot of music, so if I can hook into the scene there, I’ll stay for a bit, otherwise I’ll toddle on up to Sucre, Bolivia. Ditto for that, then I’ll head off to Cusco, where I know there’s stuff happening.

        Let me know if you’re anywhere along this route, I’d definitely like to buy you a beer, or ten… 🙂

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      • VBJ May 30, 2024, 10:20 am

        That sounds excellent, man. Let me know how the music goes — that’s a good way to integrate and make friends. Looking forward to those ten beers!

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  • Rob May 21, 2024, 9:47 pm

    The bird guy had his path through life, it was his life and it sounds like he did what he wanted. Not what I’ve done with my life but we all have our own paths…

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    • VBJ May 26, 2024, 6:00 pm

      He definitely did. I remember asking him once if he had a wife or significant other or someone like that. He responded that he “hasn’t yet found someone going his way yet.”

      I took that statement at face value when he said it but now I realize that there’s a lot in if if you seek to unpack it.

      We’re all looking for people going our way … unfortunately, they don’t really exist.

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      • No Longer Stuck In Melbourne May 27, 2024, 2:06 am

        >>> We’re all looking for people going our way … unfortunately, they don’t really exist.

        Maybe, but you can find people who are going in roughly the same direction, and then figure out the journey together. It sounds like you’ve done that, but yah, I haven’t found anyone yet :-/

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      • VBJ May 29, 2024, 7:52 am

        Yes, the figuring out the journey together part is what’s difficult 🤣 Travelers sometimes become overtly obverse to anything that challenges them … and they run away … or tend to get stuck on their paths chasing windmills.

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      • Jack May 30, 2024, 3:00 pm

        Golly! I don’t know if it is a good thing or not, but it can describe me. . When a challenge comes up, sometimes I choose to dig in, but most of the time I just look for the exit since it’s so much easier to do. I’m lucky to be married to a wife who will happily take the exit with me.

        Maybe that’s because the exit has always brought us to better things…eventually.

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      • VBJ June 3, 2024, 1:08 pm

        Yes, having a wife and kids is perhaps the best proof of all that you know when to hold em and when to fold em. Sometimes it’s best to stay put and bash it out. Sometimes it’s best to run.

        Those who always run seem to have a deep seeded fear of failure or of not being the person they want to think they are. That doesn’t seem to be you. Not at all!

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      • Jack May 30, 2024, 2:57 pm

        Maybe he took the Fleetwood Mac song too much to heart? You can go your own way. 🙂

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      • VBJ June 3, 2024, 1:04 pm

        I think he may have. Perhaps literally!

        He was such an influence on me though … such an influence. He was living proof that the lifestyle that I imagined — minus the birds — was possible.

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      • No Longer Stuck In Melbourne June 3, 2024, 4:20 pm

        >>> He was such an influence on me though … such an influence.

        We all have to figure out what our purpose is, and as I lie on my death-bed, I will be hoping that I made a difference. Maybe someone was inspired to play music because they saw me perform, or took a leap of faith and took some chances because they saw me pack up my shit yet again and head off into the great unknown, or learned some important lesson from me.

        So even though he only had a list of bird names, which one might not think to be much worthwhile, he had a massive influence on you, and how you lived your life, even if you ended up changing your mind about him later. If it had’ve been me, I would’ve been OK with that…

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      • VBJ June 4, 2024, 1:25 pm

        Right on. I guess that is one of the prime criteria of measuring a life well lived. Maybe the reason why we write and make films and create art in the first place.

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