One of the day tour options from Panama City is to visit what is called Monkey Island on Lake Gatun. Although it is referred to as a single island, it is really several islands, each with different monkey varieties. When the river was dammed to create the lake, one of the inadvertent things was that some animals were trapped as the waters rose and what were hilltops within the rainforest became small islands. Since these smaller monkeys can’t swim from island to island, they would have perished were it not for the fact that soldiers were stationed on the islands as lookouts and guards.
One of the first things that you learn as an ecotourist is that you never feed the animals as it disrupts their natural instincts and can create an imbalance. Since the lake was created in the early 1900’s, there was no sense of our impact on wildlife and the soldiers didn’t think twice about feeding the monkeys on these islands. Without that food, those monkeys would not have survived and now they have become completely dependent upon getting food from humans. These days, the monkeys are reliant upon the tours that bring tourists to the island and give them food to entice them to interact with the people on the boat. The monkeys are cute and adorable, so you can see where there might be some temptation for people to catch them and sell them as pets, but the tour guides and people of the area are extremely protective of them and are always on the watch to ensure that no one is smuggling one of the monkeys.
In order to get to the islands, you obviously need to get there by boat and tour groups come throughout the day to take a motorized boat out to the islands. If you want to have the best experience, starting your day earlier in the day is definitely recommended as the more that the boats visit the islands and feed the monkeys, the fuller that they get and the less interested they become in coming down from the trees to get a treat. Some of the monkeys were given small pieces of banana and they are willing to come into the boats and sit on shoulders and even a head in order to eat some banana. For some of the larger monkeys, you hold a grape in your hand with your fingers lightly gripping the grape and the monkeys will gently open your hand to get their treat. If you hold the grapes low on your lap, you will spend even more time with the monkey than if you just extend your hand.
Although the monkeys are reliant on people to get their food, they are not domesticated and are still wild animals. It is important that you don’t make any sudden movements, jump, scream, or even laugh dramatically. Any of those things can be construed as a threat by the monkeys and they will lash out to protect themselves. We were warned by our guides that if we weren’t able to remain calm, they would have to back the boat away from the island for our safety and the safety of the monkeys. Fortunately our group did as told and since we were the first boat of the day, we had excellent interactions with the monkeys.
We did Monkey Island as part of a longer tour, visiting other sites after seeing the monkeys. It is certainly a highlight for anyone visiting Panama City and is worth getting out of the city to see. We saw other monkeys in the rainforest, but being able to get as close to them as you do on the islands makes for a very special memory.