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The Best Perch in Panama: Canopy Tower Eco-Lodge

By John Mitchell

When avid bird-watcher Raúl Arias de Para came across an abandoned radar tower in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, it was love at first sight. For a year, he had been combing the pristine rainforests bordering the Panama Canal for a suitable ecolodge site. As luck would have it, he found it, and it included the overgrown metal radar tower.

Built by the United States during the 1960’s for communications and air-traffic control, the tower was later used by the US military to track down drug smugglers’ aircraft. Under the terms of the treaties that would turn over the Panama Canal to local control, the tower was handed over to Panama in 1995. And then it was forgotten.

Raúl Arias de Para, a prominent businessman and conservationist, spent many months seeking permission to turn the tower into an ecolodge. It took him another two years to renovate the corroded building. His dream finally came true in January 1999 with the opening of the Canopy Tower Ecolodge and Nature Observatory in Soberania National Park, a 55,000-acre wilderness reserve bordering the Panama Canal.

At 5:30 am, Raúl picked me up at my hotel in Panama City and we drove through dark streets to the highway out of town. In no time, we were surrounded by virgin rainforest. Just past Pedro Miguel Locks, we turned onto a narrow road that winds through the jungle to Raúl’s labor of love. As I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by the drone of tropical insects and roars of howler monkeys echoing eerily through the canopy.

The bright blue and yellow Canopy Tower looms atop 900-foot-high Semaphore Hill like a rocket sitting on its launch pad. An exhibit called "Parting of the Green Curtain" occupies the cylindrical structure’s ground floor. This permanent display, donated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, uses pictures, artifacts, and text to introduce visitors to the diversity of Panama’s rainforest and to trace the history of biological research in the Tropics.

Metal stairs lead to the tower’s second level, which harbors six comfortable, two-person bedrooms decorated with tropical plants and colorful molas made by Panama’s Kuna Indians. Each room has large windows opening into the canopy, so that overnight guests need only roll over in their beds to watch the forest come to life. The next floor has a large common area with hammocks, easy chairs, and a well-stocked reading nook.

After breakfast overlooking the treetops, we climbed to the tower’s rooftop observation deck built around a 30-foot-tall yellow geo-tangent dome, similar to Buckminster Fuller’s famous geodesic dome. Raúl set up his powerful telescope, and soon brought some of the jungle’s exotic inhabitants into focus. Over 250 species of birds have been spotted so far, along with four types of monkeys, jungle cats, and many other endangered creatures.

It was only mid-morning, but the sun was already high in the sky and birds of prey were riding the thermals. Raúl left me alone to enjoy the view. Sitting back in my deck chair with a cool drink in hand, I watched hawks glide effortlessly above an undulating sea of green and thought to myself that this might just be the best perch in Panama.

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