Monkey Watch was one of the excursion options on our recent Panama Canal cruise. The tour left from the pier at Panama City, after we had transited the canal itself. Panama has a large harbor but it is not set up to accommodate cruise ships so we took one of the tenders to get to shore. 

One of the ship’s tenders ferrying people to the pier.

From there we took a bus that went up past the Milaflores and Pedro Miguel locks to the junction of the Chagres River with the Panama Canal. The Chagres used to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but when the canal was built, the mouth of the river was dammed to form the Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. The section of the Panama Canal from the lake to Gamboa is still considered part of the Chagres River. The boat launch was just the other side of the bridge that crosses the Chagres. 

The boat launch area for the Monkey watch tour.

There were enough people to fill several of the canopied boats. Our route took us under the bridge and onto the part of the river that is part of the canal route.

The Chagres River junction. The Chagres forks off to the right. Ahead is the part of the river that is also part of the canal.


One of the Monkey watch tour boats speeding along the river. The river has been widened here for ship traffic, and shored up with boulders.

We went downstream for a way to where the river widens into a group of islands actually known as the Monkey Islands. 

We were told by our guide that we would possibly see three different varieties of monkey and that proved to be the case. We followed another one of the tour boats towards the shore of one of the islands, pulled in close and encountered some Geoffroy’s Tamarins, also known as the Panamanian Tamarin. It is a very distinctive species with its bulldog-like face, white chest and brownish-red nape.

The distinctive Panamanian Tamarin monkey.

These particular monkeys ventured close to take some treats, even venturing onto the tour boats. Below is a video of some Tamarin monkeys on the boat.

We encountered Tamarins again later in our excursion but after this group, we headed on and came upon a very lively group of Capuchin monkeys. The Capuchins are even friendlier than the Tamarins. There were also a lot more of them.

A Capuchin monkey comes down from the trees.
And approaches our boat.
Have you got a treat for me?

I also shot a video of these delightful creatures. It’s a bit shaky as I try to follow their movements but it captures their liveliness well. 

The whole area around the Monkey Islands is verdant jungle. This is tropical rain forest and the rains, in fact, are one of the things that made the Panama Canal work. To move the ships up and down the locks uses up a considerable amount of water. Without constant replenishment, of the water, the canal could not operate. 

The lushness of the jungle is evident all around.


These lovely water plants are some of the flora of the area.

The third group of monkeys we saw are the howlers. The Howler monkey is so named because of its loud guttural howls which can be heard three miles away. They are said to be the loudest land animal. The howls are thought to relate to territoriality and mate-guarding.  The Howlers are a more reclusive species than the Capuchins or Tamarins. They did not venture down to the boats. They were often hard to spot, but we did see some that were clearly visible.

Two Howler monkeys in a tree. Howlers are quadrupedal, using all four limbs and sometimes their tail to navigate the trees.


A Howler monkey navigates the edge of a palm frond.

We enjoyed our jungle excursion. Along the way we got to see some of the activity of vessels navigating the Panama Canal as well as the wildlife. Below are some links of interest including an additional photo gallery of our visit.