The goal: a 1-week winter escape during Easter week, accessible and affordable from NL, Canada, for a middle-age woman travelling alone, who speaks no Spanish.
The solution: a Sunwing charter to Panama (connection through Toronto), 5 nights at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, 2 nights at Crowne Plaza, Panama City.
It was the beginning of the rainy season (April 3-10). Apparently the rain on Easter Sunday was the first for the year, and it rained on three other days, sometimes quite heavily, but never for over an hour. Since I wasn’t on a beach vacation, and was lucky enough not to get caught in a Panama City downpour, it didn’t really bother me.
However, the accompanying humidity was oppressive. Nothing seemed to really dry in Gamboa, and walking in Panama City guaranteed that sweat was literally dripping from my chin. Oh well, it’s not as if I expected to look soigné in 32oC.
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort (GRR from now on) lived up to my expectations. The location is its attraction: at the junction of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal, only 30 minutes from Panama City, and surrounded by jungle. It’s rated 3.5 on Trip Advisor, and the overall comments are correct, IMO: the buffet food is ok, but neither special nor varied; the rooms are somewhat tired, the pool is very nice, and the wildlife viewing opportunities are great. Since I wasn’t expecting (or paying for) luxury, I was happy.
The Crowne Plaza in Panama City actually exceeded my hopes. It’s not a family holiday hotel (I’ve seen hot tubs larger than the “pool”), but the concierge found an English-speaking driver for a private city tour, the location is in a safe area near shopping and main routes, the breakfast buffet was great, and the rooms were very nicely appointed.
I’m no foodie, but the resort food was so-so by even my standards (the “Mexican” and “Oriental” nights were … well… there were nachos and egg rolls….!) The fresh fruit and desserts were good. I was there on an all-inclusive plan; the $24 buffet price would not have been a good deal for a casual visitor.
Both nights in Panama City, I ate at restaurants around Via Argentina, a local concentration of eateries near my hotel.
Café Pomodoro, a popular Italian restaurant, provided mediocre salad and tasty gorgonzola pasta with a glass of wine for about $20.
Monolo’s is a family-style Panamanian restaurant near the Veneto Casino, where my lack of Spanish led to an order of “pavo con su salsa”—and my amazement and hilarity at the arrival of roast turkey and gravy, exactly as my mother would have served it!
As far as my limited survey of menus went, Panamanian cooking seems to have acquired a permanent American touch, while sushi and Chinese restaurants are very common.
GAMBOA: AROUND THE RESORT
The GRR has a central building with an attractive 3-storey lobby and two wings of rooms. It also owns a row of apartments which were originally 1930s American Canal housing. The grounds must cover several hectares, but it’s a fairly small hotel, and most guests seem to be families or wildlife enthusiasts. There are many overnight visitors doing a country tour: Panama City, Gamboa, Bocas.
I was there at the end of the main tourist season, as the rains were about to begin. The hotel was less than half full, I had the pool to myself on a couple of mornings, and the disco was only open once that I saw. Canadians seemed to be the majority, with a significant British group. There were a number of Panamanian families during the Easter weekend.
There is a trolley that runs around the resort, and eliminates the need to walk to the exhibit area, the marina, or Los Lagartos (riverside, with great views)restaurant. It’s very handy when you don’t feel like trudging uphill in the heat.
Walking trails: I saw agouti and capybara at different times, and many birds and butterflies.
I found it annoying that guests had to arrange with one of the guides in order to view the exhibits, which are about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The orchid nursery was an exception—it’s open-air, and a glowing aqua honeycreeper was a lovely addition. There are some labeled fish tanks, a small reptile house, and a butterfly house. I enjoyed seeing the python in the exhibit, since I certainly didn’t hope to see one in the wild. A shrub on this road is a hummingbird magnet—great photo op!
I did the free 45-minute kayak tour. The kayaks are open, with no back support (young people won’t care, but this 50+ woman sure knew it when she got out). However, it was definitely worth the discomfort for the “bragging rights” of watching a cargo ship while paddling along the edge of the Panama Canal.
The night trolley drives around the edge of the resort (it covers a large area) for about 30 minutes, while the guide shines a large floodlight in search of wildlife. We saw a capybara family and a crocodile.
1. Panama Canal Partial Transit: arranged through Sunwing ($90), which delivered us to the tour boat, a double-decker with a cramped lunch area below, and fairly comfortable seating for about 50 on the open but shaded upper deck. The on-board commentary pointed out some of the visible Panama City sites, and gave a fair introduction to the Canal’s history and workings. The locks are an amazing sight, especially with the large tankers going through when we reached the Cut. A bonus was the tie-up and conversation with a catamaran en route from NZ to Maryland, complete with owners, children, crew of 3, and cat.
2. Embera Indian Village: arranged through GRR ($50).Apparently the Gamboa resort owner persuaded this village to relocate closer to town! It’s obviously a stage-managed performance rather than a visit, but it was still very interesting. It included a walk through the rainforest, with commentary on the uses for various trees and plants. There were 4-5 houses and around 20 people; a young woman was introduced as the chief (apparently the only female chief in central Panama), and she explained that selling crafts and tourist visits are their main cash income. The children all attend school and learn Spanish in a nearby town (reached via river boats), yet both she and the resort guide said that 90% of the Embera still live in traditional villages. Some of the woven baskets for sale were beautiful, and less expensive than in the City stores.
3. Bird-watching tour: arranged through GRR ($35). Absolutely great! Supposedly a minimum of 6 was required, but only 3 of us showed up, and our 3 hours in Soberania National Park gave this complete non-birder (unless siskins at my feeder count!) a chance to see antbirds, antshrikes, blue dacris, trogons, antwrens, puffbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, doves, tanagers, swallows, dozens of blue morpho butterflies, THREE varieties of toucans, AND some howler monkeys. The guide spoke good English and was both knowledgeable and pleasant. The Pipeline Road is easy walking, and only 5 minutes from the resort.
There are a number of other tours available: an aerial tram tour, a boat trip to Monkey Island, a City/Shopping tour, a river ecotour, and a fishing trip.
I attended Easter service at the Gamboa Union Church, which was actually the most authentic cultural experience of the week: bilingual service, with a congregation of English-speaking expatriates, local Panamanian canal workers, Smithsonian Research Station workers, Embera Indians, tourists, and one Kuna Indian family.
Gamboa is a tiny town, with a large number of abandoned buildings dating from the American Panama Canal Authority, and most of the present population living in converted American housing. It’s only 15 minutes walk from the GRR.
I took a taxi to the Summit Park about 15 minutes drive away (and paid an extravagant price of $30 return for the taxi at the resort—but park admission was only $1). I wanted to see the harpy eagle exhibit, which is very interesting: only one of these endanged national symbols is actually present, but the display includes an amazing video of it hunting and raising chicks, and I also enjoyed the parrots and other birds. However, the spaces for some of the animals on display, especially the jaguar and monkeys, seemed pitifully cramped. There’s a plant nursery which sells to the public, and everyone but me seemed to be Panamanian—certainly the school field trips were.
Having read that many of Panama City’s slums are unsafe for visitors, and that the historic city (Casco Viejo) is surrounded by such slums, I asked the hotel concierge about a tour. I was told that a city tour with one of the recognized companies would cost $90 (same as the price from Gamboa), but that an English-speaking driver with the VIP Panama limo service could provide a private tour for $50. So I had my first ever “private tour”. The “” are because the guide, although reasonably fluent in English, was not really a guide—he knew the basic sites, but preferred luxury high-rises to historic ruins, and his historical knowledge was quite limited. However, I had done a fair bit of research, and had no difficulty telling him where I wanted to go. He was cheerful and friendly, and quite willing to discuss Panamanian life from politics to health care.
Some of the luxury apartments are quite remarkable—showy architecture seems to be quite popular here, and the Panamanian government advertises the availability of residence visas for anyone with an adequate income. However, some of them actually overlook shantytowns, and middle-class neighbourhoods seemed scarce in the city (there were several on the way to the airport, though).
The ruins of Panama Viejo, the original colonial city, are extensive but very “ruined”. The pirate Henry Morgan did a thorough job of sacking the place. What remains is now carefully preserved, with bilingual signage and great views from the remaining church tower.
A couple of km away is the 17th-century city which was built after Morgan sailed away (Casco Viejo). It’s a fascinating spot; I spent nearly two hours there with the guide, and returned the next morning (via taxi) for another hour. The main attractions are the Cathedral and its square, the Presidential Palace (plenty of police, but it’s amazingly close to private houses), the Golden Altar (said to have survived Morgan’s looting, and rebuilt in St. Joseph’s Church), and the views from the waterfront promenade, where native vendors display their wares.
There’s a Canal Museum, many restaurants and craft stores, lovely restored streetscapes, and startling contrasts with unrestored and abandoned buildings.
Amador Causeway, a man-made peninsula with waterside bars, marinas, and great views of the city, juts out near the entrance to the Canal.
Traffic in Panama City is heavy and loud. The local buses are brightly decorated “school buses” called Red Devils, and their driving is certainly demonic. Taxis are cheap and plentiful. My nonexistent Spanish (Crowne Plaza hotel? Cuánto?) got me to the malls and to Casco Viejo with no problems.
Shopping is understandably popular: There are three large air-conditioned malls with many English-speaking clerks, the currency is the US dollar, and prices are slightly below American levels. Multiplaza (which I didn’t visit) is apparently a lavish Tiffany’s-type place. Multicentro is three floors, somewhat upscale but not very busy when I visited. Albrook Mall is a huge, crowded, middle-class mecca, with Panamanian department stores and American fast food outlets. I got some good deals on clothing there.
My week was busy (perfect for someone who thinks more than 24 hours beside a pool is misery) and interesting. The wildlife and plants were as exotic and plentiful as I had hoped, and the heat was a marvelous contrast for me.
According to others on the Sunwing charter, Playa Bonita Resort (less than 40 minutes from the city) and Breezes resort (2 hours away) seem to be up to the standards of international AI resorts. However, I would never travel that far just for a beach; I wanted something different, and I was quite satisfied with my holiday break.
If you want a look, some of my pictures are here:
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