Monkey Business in Panama – Central America

The motorboat hadn’t been running two minutes before the driver cut the motor. Almost everyone on the small boat stood up. I looked at the towering trees; the boat’s dozen or so other passengers reached for their camera. They all seemed to be looking down, not up.

Straight ahead, about 100 feet away through Panama’s haze of humidity, a 10-foot-long crocodile was showing his pearly whites. He was still as a stone. So was I. No one said the trip to Monkey Island included crocodiles. It was bad enough that I was afraid of monkeys.

Our boat zoomed in to get a closer look. The croc wanted a closer look too. He splashed into the water; I immediately let out a scream. Everyone on the boat erupted in laughter. I was genuinely frightened, yet thrilled. I had never seen a crocodile before – at least not in a natural habitat. Our ride was off to an interesting start.


The boat meandered around tiny islands of lush green as we entered Gatun Lake on our way to Monkey Island, so named for its inhabitants. There we passed massive tankers and container ships hauling cargo through the connecting Panama Canal, the eighth wonder of the world. Our little boat rocked side to side as we rode the choppy waves left in the larger boats’ wake. I anxiously twirled a strand of my hair as we sought out more animals.


Zooming past acres of pristine rainforest, we saw swooping exotic birds, howler monkeys, large green iguana resting on rocks, turtles and a three-toed sloth (The sloth sleeps 17 hours a day so it was no surprise it was slumbering in a tree above). We also saw two more crocodiles – this time, at a more comfortable distance. Jazmine, our bilingual host, warned us not to touch any animals. She needn’t worry about me.

After a 30-minute ride, we arrived at our destination, a small, verdant island without a clearing. Because Monkey Island didn’t have a dock, we stayed in the boat.

We immediately spotted several white-faced capuchin monkeys high in the trees. Jazmine had to work a little to get their attention. After a lot of whistling, calling and noises that sounded like kisses, she finally got the monkeys to come alive by pulling out a bunch of bananas. Several of them swung down and jumped on the boat, grabbing bananas from her hand; they acted as if they hadn’t had a meal in days.

I’m hideously afraid of monkeys, so it was slightly unsettling to sit while a couple of them had their run of the boat. But how could I go to Panama and not see monkeys? I finally mustered up the courage to put a piece of banana into my outstretched hand. It didn’t take long for a capuchin to come and snatch it away. He also took the stash of papaya out of my tote bag for good measure.

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