Caravan trip to panama, trip advisor review by Leib Lurie 2013-1-24
Caravan has been around for 20 plus years, but is a newcomer to Panama, this is only their third year in the country. They are well known for trips to the US west and Costa Rica, with a reputation for low cost tours. After a few early web promoted logistic fumbles, I'm pleased to report that they have gotten it right. Overall 4 stars out of 5!
This year, they will take more than 60,000 people on their single itinerary- an 8 day tour (including travel days) to see the country. The value is very good, we paid less than $1400 per person for doubles, (january is high season), and $1600 for my daughter as a single. They all but insist on $99 to add trip insurance; which covers a lot for the cost.
Airfare is NOT included, they recommend you book your own. I found Caravan hard to reach, no email contact published! and limited Chicago time hours. Although we received a great pre-trip packet, they lost our return flight email. I'm web savvy, but evidently their typical travelers are not.
The tour includes airport transfers and all upscale accommodations (four nights at all inclusive resorts) and all meals from arrival through departure morning; fully guided tour with many side excursions and a few shows thrown in. The only extra costs were the standard tour director and bus driver tips ($12-15 per day pp total recommended).
Our driver was a master at negotiating traffic and tight spaces, and always ready with sanitizer (a nice touch) and bottles of iced water.
Our guide, Bernard, is a Panama native, who knows the country, it's culture, background, history, the canal, and logistics very well. His English was excellent, and he was more than accommodating, although the group size of 44 is much larger than we are comfortable with. Such size all but mandates ubiquitous buffet feeding at most hotels. At age 58, traveling with my wife, daughter, son and his girlfriend, we were much younger than average, which skews 70 plus. But we made some great new friends!
Our favorite tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel has a 16 person group size, offers Panama over 14 days, and costing almost three times as much, with a number of meals on your own. Caravan tips daily tour guides, whereas OAT usually suggests an extra $5 a day for theirs, and OAT offers several added cost side trips. Caravan included everything. We were impressed.
The highlight for us was the time in and around the canal. A half-transit from Pacific to Lake Gatun on 100 year old wooden yacht originally built for JP Morgan, with an enthusiastic guide was well done. The canal is truly a marvel of engineering.
We had a private dining room in the canal discovery center - with third floor private deck view of the locks- practically eye level with several huge ship's superstructure as they entered the locks. Another view at the Colon side was equally spectacular from shaded deck with dedicated guide describing the action. We saw an illustrative 3D film, and another featuring historian David McCollough, author of the epic tome, "Path Between The Seas", which is well worth the read before coming down. The only gripe was that we heard much of the same information three or four times.
But Panama is much more than the canal. A trip to a private zoo, situated on the wind swept hill in the caldera cone of 2500 foot (dormant) volcano highlighted the breadth of native wildlife. A night tour at our rainforest resort found Capaberas foraging, a tour of the orchid nursery and butterfly house was equally educational. On a jungle cruise on lake Gatun we saw four kinds of monkeys up close and personal, as well as a crocodile and many birds.
We liked a trip to a native Indian village, where a small group of Emberra showed costumes, family life, crafts, dancing and music.
Although we had several shopping opportunities for native crafts; they were short, low key, affordable, and we didn't feel pressured or pushed. (Unlike many tours, nor were they the fake markets built by the cruise ship lines in other Caribbean stops!).
The pace was easy and relaxing, with plenty of afternoon free time for swimming, spa treatments or walking beaches. The Wyndam beach resort had free liquor and a huge swim up bar and many secluded lounging areas in the compound. sailing, kayaking, horseback riding and zip line tours were available for a fee). It also had four restaurants adding variety and fun.
The logistics of the trip were flawless. Airport transfers, Check-ins, check-outs, luggage, meals, tours, etc. we're all fast, smooth and seamless. We never had to wait, nor felt rushed. The rooms were great. Marriott courtyard in Panama adjoined a huge mall with 400 stores from a grocery ($7.00 rum) to Prada. All hotels had great free wifi, although one was free only in lobby. Skype worked well.
Flights... Copa aIrline is the most common to get to Panama, a Star Alliance (united, us air) partner, their reservations mesh well. 3 hrs to Orlando, 5 to Chicago. But... Their carry-on limit is 10 kilos (22 lbs) we normally take just an overhead sized bag- but it weighs 30lbs. No hassle coming down, but we needed to check (no charge) going home. Also, if you need special meal, the United airlines system can't help you. Call Copa direct - 48 hours in advance.
From the Panama Marriott Courtyard, it's Just a five minute walk to Crossfit PTY, an excellent bilingual 6am workout with my daughter under tutelage of co-owner Adrienne was fantastic, although my friends back home questioned my sanity for doing so on vacation. We stayed there the first two and the last night. The rainforest resort featured a hammock on balcony overlooking river valley, and enjoyed two nights at pacific resort with music, magic and a contortionist show, but they were eclipsed by the sunrise over the Pacific (yes you read that right).
The final evening featured a world renowned Panamanian dance troupe for private show. What great energy and exquisite hand embroidered dresses.
A surprisingly diverse, vibrant, historic country with lots to offer, and a terrific value trip on which to enjoy it.
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Caravan trip to panama, trip advisor review by Leib Lurie 2013-1-24