“Alex! Get over here, now! The toucan has landed!” Anders hissed at me before slinking back to his lookout, binoculars pressed to his face. No, we weren’t rehearsing for our stage debut in the roles of secret service agents (though, I will say that if someone made a Broadway show out of Scandal, I’d be there on opening night.) We were birding.
We were perched in the open air lobby of the Canopy Lodge of El Valle, a member of Canopy Family — a group of four lodgings and one zipline that lead the pack for ecotourism and birding in Panama. Yup, birding. While I’ve never really thought of myself as much of a fowl fan, our hummingbird hunting in Mindo suggested otherwise. So when Canopy Lodge invited us to come stay for a night, we figured why not? It would, at the very least, break up what would otherwise be a ten-hour, three-bus journey between Panama and our next major destination of Santa Catalina.
We caught a direct mini-bus from Panama City into the dusty mountain town center of El Valle, where we waved down a passing pickup truck to drop us at the lodge. In the distance loomed the jagged ridge of the volcanic crater El Valle is settled into, while on every street corner signs pointed to nearby waterfalls, hot springs, and hiking routes. It was easy to see why El Valle is a popular getaway for Panama City residents in need of a little fresh air.
We arrived at Canopy Lodge just in time for lunch — perfect timing since, due to the remoteness of the lodge, all meals are included. Over a beautiful buffet-style meal we got to know our fellow guests, who hailed from Brazil, the UK and Canada, and were primarily in Panama due to a certain aviary obsession. Above all else, I love people with a passion — and birders have it in spades. While I couldn’t relate to their search for the keel-billed ramphastos sulfuratus, I started to understand it when I replaced those rare birds with creatures like whale shark or manta ray.
After lunch we checked into our room, a minimalist-chic hideaway featuring locally sourced crafts and natural materials native to the area. It was a nice complement to the laid back vibe of the lodge.
But with far too little time to explore, we didn’t spend long in the room. We quickly laced up our shoes and made our way to privately maintained zipline, trails and waterfall a short hike from the lodge. While typically there is an entrance fee into Canopy Adventure, as hotel guests we were waved right in. We chose to forgo the zipline considering how fresh our last zip-based thrills were, and simply enjoy clamoring along the lush paths and jiggling suspension bridges.
We didn’t linger too long at the waterfall — there were feathered friends to be spotted, after all. Back at the lodge, we joined the birding brigade in the lookout deck, from which there were prime time views of the banana-enhanced feeders. The hardcore among the group looked on at us with pity when they realized we had no binoculars, though I assured them the view through my zoom lens was a pretty decent one.
When our birding mentors assured us that the toucans always showed up at 5pm on the dot, we took that as a free license to explore the lodge’s all natural swimming pool. Fed by the nearby Guayabo River, the water was, to put it mildly, chilly. Naturally, Anders was the first to take the plunge.
As you can see, I took his exhibition of grace and athleticism and really showed him how it’s done. You know, like, super duper elegantly.
Ahem. So maybe rope swinging isn’t one of my top skills. And, unfortunately for our friends back at the lodge, I’m pretty sure Anders laughed loudly enough to startle birds in the adjacent seven or so counties.
But then we discovered a rope swing with a bit more oomph — one that originated from the tree house arcing above the pool. This time, I pulled out all the stops. I acquired stops just so I could pull them out.
Boom! Of course, Anders had to go and top me once again, but I think we can all agree
that he’s a total show off that he’s the better rope swinger and I am a really good sport about it.
Anyway, after calling it a tie and warming back up, we made our way back to the observation deck. My attention span wasn’t made for birding, so I soon found myself migrating towards the wifi area. Which brings us back to our opening scene — Anders rushing to alert me to the presence of the toucan we’d been waiting for, me flinging my laptop to the side to see it.
Was our time in El Valle short? Indeed. Far too short. But we’d managed to spot the beautiful bird we’d been crossing our fingers for, a find we toasted to over dinner with our new birding buddies. If only for one night — and, well, I don’t think I’d last for much more — we were in the club.
Note: While we greatly enjoyed our time in El Valle, it actually made our transit to Santa Catalina longer and more difficult — not exactly the pit stop we expected! Public transportation in Panama is kind of a mess, and so while Google Maps estimated the driving time between El Valle to Santa Catalina to be four hours, it took us from sun up to sun down — and four different buses — to make it. This lodge is certainly best visited via car or other private transportation.
Are you a birder? If not, would you play one for a day?
Many thanks to Canopy Lodge for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.