A former radar station protecting the Panama Canal - now The Canopy Tower hotel, Panama

Formerly a radar station used to protect the Panama Canal, the tower was converted into a hotel in 1995

Once a remote radar station that was built to guard the Panama Canal, the Canopy Tower is now a spectacular hotel conversion, just 30 minutes drive north of the capital, but surrounded by the pristine rainforest of the Soberania National Park.

First impressions are that the structure is a bit more rudimentary close up than the dreamy aerial shots make it look - so the ground floor reception is quite Spartan, with exposed pipes and girders, a few posters, plus unsurprisingly there isn't a lift.

The dining room is comfy and cosy, with 360 degree views of the jungle canopy

Each of the 12 room are very simply furnished, but they all have large windows overlooking the jungle, and no sooner had my backpack landed on the bed, I was suddenly overtaken by the total thrill of being in such an unusual place.

The dining area cum library is gloriously cluttered and has a wooden floor and 360-degree views above the canopy. The feeling is intimate and cosy - certainly nothing flash, and strewn with red and yellow striped fold-out director's chairs - but the simplicity is more than compensated for in the tremendous atmosphere, corking location, and the knowledgeable and friendly staff.

Toucans and three-toed sloths can be easily spotted from the rooms, the dining area, and the roof terrace

There is free coffee and juices throughout the day, an honesty bar, and hearty buffets at meals times. When I stayed the food was under the guidance of the owner's sister, who's a Panamanian celebrity chef. The salads were very inventive, the chicken in pesto and garlic super, and the Tiramisu - though unconventional in its consistency, was about the best I have ever had.

Tea and biscuits are served at dawn on the large roof terrace by the geodesic dome. The thick mist and was surprisingly chilly so early in the morning, but it burned off gradually to reveal terrific views out over the rolling hills of the national park.

I was probably the only person there who wasn't into bird watching and armed with binoculars and birding books, but even with little patience and no binocs, I saw parrots, toucans and monkeys, and the super surreal sight of ship superstructures cleaving the jungle as they glided along the canal.

Superstructures cleave through the jungle a couple of miles distant, and the simple decor of the rooms

A group of senior citizen twitchers from Houston persuaded me to go on the night drive, which I had imagined would be a tad on the dull and pointless side, but thanks to the affable expertise of Carlos the local guide, who literally charmed an owl down from the trees with his calls and was full of interesting information, I was very glad to have made the effort.

The highlight for me though was seeing four sloths hanging in the trees as though someone had thrown wet brown blanket over the branches.


Fitting the Canopy Tower into a holiday: any trip to Panama should include a visit to the canal - either a quick call at the Milaflores Locks 13 kilometres northeast of Panama City, or a ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic  on the 1855-built Panama Canal Railway. But the Canopy Tower is a super way of combining a relaxing hotel with some wildlife watching, and the sight of large ships seemingly gliding through the jungle.  


Getting there: despite being located in the Soberania National Park, the hotel is only about a 90-minute drive from the centre of Panama City, or an hour from Panama City's Tocumen Airport. 


When to visit the Canopy Tower: January-March is the high season, owing to lots of sun, little rain. March-May is the Spring migration, ideal for spotting warblers, raptors, and lots of fresh plumage. The rainy season is May-August is the rainy season, with heavy showers most afternoons, and reduced price room rates. Then September-early November sees the impressive 'fall migration' with hundreds of thousands of raptors overflying the tower on their way south.  


More info: see the hotel's site at Canopy Tower, and for more on Panama in general there's Visit Panama


Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.