It's Noriega's nightmare: I'm standing atop a former U.S. Air Force tower 30 minutes outside Panama City, high above the Panamanian jungle at 10:30 on a warm, windy night. The individuals around me look as if they've just stumbled out of bed (or a Redmond O'Hanlon tale). One wears boxers only. Another, a sarong and binoculars. They're jumping up and down, wild-eyed, whispering, pointing, then admonishing one another not to point. But it isn't enemy planes they've spotted. Not even drug traffickers. No, they're whooping it up in honor of the mottled wood owl.
Nearby stands Raúl Arias de Para, the soft-spoken Panamanian banker-turned-conservationist who has recently transformed this old radar tower, two miles from the Canal, into a B&B for birders. It is an eco-lodge exemplar, and Arias de Para has just roused his bird-crazed guests for a bit of postprandial owling. I'm no birder, but it is pretty thrilling at the top of the Canopy Tower, as the lodge is called, eye-to-eye with the treetops.
The Canopy Tower stands in the biologically rich rain forest of the former Panama Canal Zone, off-limits until recently. But on New Year's Eve, after nearly a century of U.S. rule, the Canal is being turned over to Panama. Expectations are high that the transfer will nudge Central America's wealthiest nation into the tourism spotlight. On the verge of the big moment, though, the country still feels like a secret—especially compared with its neighbor Costa Rica. When word spreads of Panama's unparalleled birding, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing, ecotourism evangelists such as Arias de Para plan to be ready.
Arias de Para's pet project feels like an incredibly cool five-story tree house for grown-ups. Originally a windowless garrison packed with radar equipment, it's now an outrageous aquamarine-and-yellow beacon. Inside, a metal staircase leads to six small bedrooms that fan out, flower-petal-style, from a central third-floor landing. Mine has teak-framed twin beds with mosquito-net canopies, a white-tiled bath with a marble floor, and, most notably, a six-by-eight-foot window that opens onto the upper branches of the cecropias and acacias.
Guests come for the amazing birding and to take guided walks in the rain forest. At dawn, coffee is served on the observation deck, where early birders set up their spotting scopes and watch toucans that could have flown straight off the Froot Loops box, or cotingas so blue they look electric. My tower-mates may be intent on spotting as many birds as possible, but I find the rooftop, with its nifty wooden deck chairs around the radar dome, an excellent place to loll—and, come evening, to watch streams of silvery mist float over the Canal. My other favorite place is the fourth-floor lounge, a breezy 12-sided space with a dining room, a library of field guides, and windows open to the forest. Here, you can pour yourself a tamarind cocktail, choose one of the four hammocks ringing the room, and attempt to read—though as Armand Reclus, the French explorer who arrived in Panama in 1876, put it, "Hammocks, my friends, are more dangerous than the elements."
In the evenings, candles are lit on granite-topped dining tables, and guests shed their hiking boots for bare feet. We eat wonderful white-sea-bass ceviche, sweet plantains,bollos(fresh corn tamales). All the recipes are supplied by Arias de Para's sister, Cuquita Arias de Calvo, the Martha Stewart of Panama, who has her own television show and cookbook. Talk drifts from the epic construction of the Panama Canal to the obsessive behavior of bird-watchers. Someone shouts, "Black and white owl!" and conversation halts mid-sentence as we all grab the binoculars beside our bread plates.
Rooms at the Canopy Tower can be booked directly (011-507/264-5720, fax 800/854-2597; www.canopytower.com) or through Wildland Adventures (800/345-4453, fax 206/363-6615; www.wildland.com). Rates are $290 per night, double ($200 single), including meals and guides.