Monkey island tour Panama City – wild monkeys and Wounaan tribe
I was picked up at 8.30 am like the last one of the group by Jeff, a Canadian guide of my age working for Barefoot Panama, and chatting we drove from Panama City next to the City of Knowledge – Ciudad de Saber up to the Chagres river where the Monkey Island tour starts.
On the way we stopped to get some food and then not until we reached the place where we were going to take a boat. As everywhere else around Panama, and especially close to Panama City, there was construction going on next to the embarkation but at least we could use their Toi Toi toilets :D
The boat transported us to Gatun lake through the Panama Canal where it is obligatory to wear a life jacket. The river water is a bit muddy right now because of all the digging in the new canal extension.
”The Chagres river was an important river both historically and nowadays. In the past it served for trading and transporting gold from Peru up to the Atlantic coast to ship it to Spain. In the present, the Chagres river provides drinking water supplies for Panama City and also the hydroeletric supply.” explained us Jeff.
When riding the boat we could peacefully enjoy from the shade some ships passing around, observe the canal works and then also some wildlife. We spotted a lot of snail kite birds trying to catch a snail when flying around; a snowy egret, and also a hawk and some smaller birds.
For certain time I even took off my shoes, sat in a comfortable position and meditated for a while concentrating on the breeze making my hair messy.
Crossing a part of the Panama Canal, we made our way to the right to the rainforest, still on the boat.
If you had any doubts about the name of the island and the tour itself, the Monkey island is called so because it is easy to spot different kinds of monkeys over there.
First when we got to the more quiet hidden bays, we pulled over to observe Capuchin monkeys known for their white face and a sort of dark capuchin hat on the head. We spent some time over there feeding them bananas and peanuts. I had no idea the monkeys loved peanuts so much they started jumping on our boat all around us trying to steal some peanuts and then jump back to the tree.
Sometimes, I find the Capuchin monkeys a bit aggressive but these were just quick when getting the food from us and then back to the trees.
But I learned one more thing. I had no idea why Jeff bought lemons before the tour until he cut a lemon in half and handed it to the monkeys. They started squeezing it and washing their hair with it! Two monkeys even began to clean each other, can you believe it?! Hilarious!
After a great laugh at the cleaning habits of the capuchin monkeys, we were ready to get to know other kind of monkeys, this time much smaller ones – Tamarin monkeys more of a squirrel size.
Jeff, and then my fellow travelers on the tour fed the monkeys with bananas, they were slower and more scared to come closer to us and take the food. We saw 3 monkeys there and I learned they live in this place but sometimes when it is too hot they are hidden in the jungle and don’t come over to the water. I guess we were lucky! Thank you, clouds for making it pleasant enough for the Tamarin monkeys to say hi to us.
Once we served snacks to Tamarin monkeys, we continued on the boat. Just a minute after I washed my hands in the river from the boat, we also spotted a crocodile but as soon as he saw us, he disappeared with ease in the river.
Leaving, third kind of monkeys, the most noisy ones – black Howler monkeys hid up there in the trees. They were a bit more difficult to spot and take photos of as they didn’t seem very sociable. One of them did shout back to Jeff’s funny howling but together with a close-up of their white balls, that was pretty much all we could get from the Howler monkeys at the Monkey island.
The Monkey Island tour is not only great for boat lovers and monkey-seekers, but also for those interested in life of the native tribes.
Then we made our way back through the Canal around the dock where we boarded the boat to a native village close by. Passing around the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on our left hand, we slowly rode around an Embera village where all the resort guests go for a visit, and made our way a little further to a quiet Wounaan village, home of 8 families – 40 people altogether.
There were some similarities already at first sight between the Wounaan and the Embera tribe I visited on the Embera Village Tour the other day, but surprisingly I found a few differences too.
One of the main differences was that we were not greeted with a native music when walking into the village as it was the case with the Embera Puru tribe. We found just a few men in the Wounaan village as many of them leave to work at the canal while women stay in to make handicrafts every day. It’s mostly the men playing the musical instruments and singing which is why we were greeted with smiling kids from a house instead of the welcome music I expected.
The other huge difference in my opinion was that I found the Wounaan less happy and more shy than the Embera tribe I personally visited. But it might be just my observation. However, one difference visible at first sight already was that the majority of the Wounaan women do wear a beaded bra/top while the Embera women are always topless.
Anyway, we sat down on the benches inside the rancho and Armadio (if I got his name right) – one of the local men – gave us some insight about the life, habits, history and artwork of Wounaan tribe.
Most of the habits, houses, artwork and the way of living were extremely similar to those of the Embera tribe so check out my article about Embera Village Tour.
Later on, it was time for a little walk in the jungle exploring some local medicinal plants. Everyone used a bug spray as the mosquitos were pretty annoying, but I personally did not as I didn’t have an organic one with no chemicals with me and that’s the only one I put on my skin. I did get 4 big bites in that short time though.
A very short skinny native, yet very peaceful man guided us through the jungle explaining us the basic knowledge of the local plants. First, we saw a jagua tree which fruit is used for drawing tattoos.
Then walking, a strangled royal palm tree used for the house roofs. Also a super spiky black palm, wide and tall barrigón water tree that is full of potable water (in case you found yourself stuck in the jungle this is the tree to look for to drink from.)
There’s another tree you could drink water from – vine – but watch out for bitter reddish fluid coming out of it as in that case it is the poisonous kind of vine, not the potable one (yes, there’s two similar ones). But if it doesn’t taste bitter and it’s kind of transparent, then you are safe to drink water from the vine once you cut it.
In the jungle in between all the plants there were also two little tagua palms used for Indian artwork, and two tall thin cocobolo trees used to make different kind of souvenirs. Two incredibly beautiful blue morpho butterflies flew around us when hiking and their vivid colour just got stuck on my mind.
The most interesting things to see there in the jungle were all the ants, leaf ants, their anthills and paths, and as well a so called candle tree with long yellow candle-looking fruit which is poisonous inside for both animals and humans. You can touch it though but not eat it.
After the hike, we had some time to buy souvenirs made by the local Wounaan people and then head back on the boat to our car.
As it was lunch time, we could choose from 2 places to have lunch at and one of them was Radisson Summit Hotel & Golf with nice views of the surrounding area which is where we stopped. I ordered a grilled vegetable sandwich as all the salads were with meat, fish or cheese (come on people, there are vegetarians and vegans on this planet too and we need to eat as well). Not my favorite meal option but it was the best I could get at the restaurant. At least before the meal I talked to my dad and my little brother after a few days on Viber which made me feel better about the food :)
Then, with full stomachs, Jeff took us safely back to our hotels in Panama City.
For more information about Monkey Island tour, please check out Barefoot Panama website. Many thanks to Kevin for taking me around and giving me so much information about Panama City.